Drones are wonderful flying machines that can be used for various applications. The most common use case of camera drones is aerial photography, videography, FPV racing and leisure flying. However, a class of drones can be used for more specific tasks when equipped with specialised accessories.
There are drones with night vision & thermal cameras that are predominantly used for enterprise-level applications like search & rescue, power line inspections, wildlife monitoring and hunting.
In this article, we are going to discuss everything about thermal drones, what makes them special and how they are used in different industries.
Before we jump into details, here are the top 5 best drones with thermal cameras.
|Autel Evo II Dual||Yes||640×512||Check on Amazon|
|Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced||Yes||640×512||Check on Amazon|
|Matrice 300 + Zenmuse Camera||Yes||640×512||Check on DJI|
|Yuneec H520 + E10T Thermal camera||Yes||640×512||Check on Amazon|
|Parrot ANAFI Thermal||Yes||160×120||Check on Amazon|
How does a night vision & thermal camera work?
Before we go into the details of night vision or thermal drones, it is important to know how these drones are different from regular camera drones. Also, it is essential to understand that a night vision camera is different from a thermal camera but people use both interchangeably.
Night vision camera
Night vision telescopes are very popular among hunters. If you are an avid gamer, you might have seen them in first-person shooting games as well. They produce a light green overlay image that is instantly recognisable.
Night vision camera works on the same principle as the night vision telescope. It enhances very low light through a process called Optoelectronic or Digital Image Enhancement before projecting the image on the viewer screen. The resulting image is brighter and more vivid than the actual one and can highlight even the very low lit areas.
Although night vision goggles and binoculars are quite common in hunting, they haven’t found their way to commercial drones. The advanced normal cameras on drones perform quite well in low light conditions as well, and there is no practical application for a real night vision camera yet.
Thermal cameras are different from regular cameras and even from night vision cameras. They are infrared cameras that mean their sensor is tuned to detect light in the infrared (IR) region of the electromagnetic spectrum.
Regular cameras differentiate between different objects based on the color of light reflects from them while IR cameras differentiate between objects based on their surface temperature.
Every surface, no matter how cold it is, radiates heat. This heat radiation is usually in the Infrared range of the spectrum and is invisible to the human eye or even a normal camera.
IR cameras are however tuned to this exact IR range and can differentiate between the different amounts of IR radiation from different surfaces.
The hotter the surface, the more IR radiations it emits and the brighter it is shown in the IR camera. That’s why, with thermal cameras, you can even see in a pitch dark jungle or room.
The only limitation is the low resolution of thermal cameras. Since they work with the IR light output by bodies, it is very low to paint a high-resolution picture. So, with a thermal camera, you will only see a shadow of an object (see below image)
If you are looking for drones with night vision, you are looking for drones with these kinds of thermal cameras. They have a variety of applications (I have listed a few at the end of the article) and are becoming common in the enterprise and consumer-level drones.
Best night vision drones with thermal cameras
1. Autel Evo II dual
Autel Robotics is a US-based company making great products lately. If anyone can give DJI a run for its money, it’s Autel. Their Enterprise drone – the Autel EVO II Dual – comes with a great thermal camera perfect for any enterprise-level application.
The camera has a resolution of640×512 and can record thermogram videos @ 30 fps. It also has 16x zoom in capability so that you can monitor a situation from afar without putting your drone at risk (consider firefighting and similar applications).
It has a picture in picture mode that overlays the thermal images on normal camera images for better situational awareness. I haven’t seen any other software doing this so it’s a great addition.
The main camera is a powerful 8k video recorder suiting its critical job nature and the hefty price tag. Apart from camera and thermal features, the drone is equipped with all the bells and whistles you can expect in high-end drones.
It has 360-degree obstacle avoidance, 38 minutes of flight time, drone wind resistance level 8, object tracking and advanced flight planning. These advanced features make the Autel Evo 2 one of the best thermal imaging drones.
2. Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual
DJI thermal drones are quite the industry standard, and this is probably the most famous thermal drone in enterprise applications. The Mavic 2 Enterprise Advanced, aka M2EA, comes with a high resolution radiometric thermal sensor with a resolution of 640×512 with a refresh rate of 30Hz.
It supports 16x zoom so that you can work in dangerous situations while keeping your drone away from hazardous areas. The thermal camera has a temperature sensitivity of 2 degrees and accurately paint a high-resolution thermogram.
, Unlike other thermal drones that only work the main camera or the infrared drone camera at a time, the M2EA can run both cameras simultaneously and put a side by side comparison on the screen (see the image above). This helps the pilot fly with better situational awareness by looking at the main camera feed.
The thermogram supports a spot meter to check individual heat points as well as area measurement to get a temperature gradient of a selected area.
Apart from the thermal capabilities, the M2EA has a half-inch CMOS sensor for the main camera that can shoot up to 48MP photos with 4x lossless zoom and 32x digital zoom. It also has an impressive flight time of 31 minutes.
3. Matrice 300 + Zenmuse Camera
Matrice 300 is DJI commercial drone platform that is unrivalled in its performance and reliability. It is a quadcopter design that can carry heavy payloads and has a flight time of 55 minutes on a single charge – probably the highest flight endurance in the commercial drone industry.
It has a maximum payload capacity of 2.7 kg and is thus able to carry sophisticated thermal cameras designed for high-performance operations.
For thermal surveys, this drone carries Zenmuse H20 series hybrid camera, the gold standard in the industry. It has a Radiometric Thermal sensor with 640×512 pixel resolution, a main 20MP camera with 23x hybrid optical zoom and an IR range finder that can tell you the exact distance of an object as far away as 1.2 km.
Matrice 300 is not for your everyday use. It is suitable for enterprise-level use only because of its very high price point. The Zenmuse H20 hybrid camera alone costs more than 11,000 USD. But be sure that at this price point, you are getting the best of the best in the industry.
4. Yuneec H520 with E10T Thermal camera
Yuneec H520 is an enterprise-level hexacopter that is different from traditional 4-rotor drones. The 6 motor assembly provides a fail-safe in case any of the motors fail during flight operations.
Yuneec H520 is a highly modular drone where operators can swap out different modules to suit mission objectives. One of the available modules is an E10T thermal camera, making this device a very reliable thermal imaging drone.
It has a FLIR® boson sensor that comes in two versions. The E10T/X has 320*256-pixels resolution and the E10Tv/X has a 640*512 resolution. Depending on your budget and application, you can opt for anyone.
Both the thermal image and normal image are streamed to the remote controller and you can either make an overlay or see it in picture-in-picture mode.
5. Parrot ANAFI Thermal
The Parrot ANAFI Thermal is a relatively affordable thermal drone that has a FLIR Lepton 3.5 microbolometer (radiometric sensor). Compared to the more advanced thermal drones, the Anafi sensor only has a resolution of 160×120 pixels.
This drone has a main camera with a CMOS 1/2.4″ lens that can shoot 21MP photos and 4K videos. The 4K videos can then be overlayed with the thermograms from the thermal camera to get a fusion.
The Anafi thermal is a small drone and only weighs 350 grams. It lacks a few basic features like obstacle avoidance but keeping its low price in mind, it is still a great thermal drone.
Can I retrofit my normal drone with thermal camera?
There are many off the shelf thermal cameras that you can fix on your DJI or any other drone to retrofit and convert it into a thermal scanner. Such cameras often have their special mounts or are compatible with most commercial drones.
FLIR is a gold standard in thermal imaging and makes great night vision cameras for drones and sUAS (small Unmanned Aerial Systems). Their products are versatile and work with a variety of commercial drones in the market. Their FLIR Vue Pro R can be used with a number of DJI and other drones that can carry a payload of up to150 grams.
Before you set off to retrofit your normal drone, just know that these thermal cameras are EXPENSIVE. A normal thermal camera can cost up to 5,000 USD. Some can go as high as 20,000 USD. If you are on a budget, you are better off buying a budget thermal drone like the Parrot Anafi Thermal.
Why are thermal drones so expensive?
If you look at the price of thermal drones, you will see that they are very costly than the normal consumer drones. There are a few reasons for the higher pricing of enterprise-level thermal drones.
- The cost of a thermal camera is much higher than a normal camera. The reason is the costly material for the lens, which is usually made of rare earth elements like Germanium. Germanium is very rare, expensive to mine and process. This makes the camera very costly to make.
- Thermal cameras have a limited market compared to the more widely used consumers cameras. They are not produced in bulk. Bulk production is the reason for a decrease in prices for any consumer good. Since they are produced a few hundred or thousand units a year, the overheads make it very expensive.
- The thermal drones are primarily marketed to enterprise-level users. These are usually big companies, organisations, and government departments spending on high-quality products. Hence, the price is higher.
- Since thermal drones are used in serious applications, reliability is of utmost importance. If your normal photography drone fails mid-air, you will only lose the drone, but if a search and rescue drone fails mid-air, it can cost lives. The additional reliability and fail-safe mechanisms built into the drone makes it expensive.
Use of drones with thermal cameras
The applications for thermal drones are numerous. Government and agencies have been using thermal imaging for different purposes for a long time but the technology was only available to them due to its high cost.
Due to the advancement in consumer drone tech, thermal technology can now be found on smaller drones as well. Here are a few widely used applications of drones with night vision thermal cameras.
Search & rescue
Traditional search & rescue has been using Helicopters for a long time but with the advancement in consumer drone technology, organisations and governments are increasingly using drones for this purpose.
Compared to Helicopters, drones are very affordable, can be launched from anywhere and have higher areas access than helicopters.
Putting a thermal camera on a drone increases its effectiveness. It can now carry out search & rescue during nighttime and in areas where direct visual access is not available like a thick forest or a burning building covered in thick smoke.
thermal drones can also be used in law enforcement. With their unique ability to detect heat signatures, thermal drones can be used to see inside closed areas, chase fleeing suspects in dark areas and monitor illegal activities from far up without spooking the suspects. Watch this interesting demonstration of following a fleeing suspect with a thermal drone.
Thermal drones can also be used to monitor traffic flows and make better traffic plans in urban areas.
Contractors used to inspect roofs for proper insulation manually and it used to take a lot of time. You had to check every sq. inch of the roof for any thermal leaks.
With thermal drones, you can scan the entire area with your drone in a few minutes and instantly see where the thermal insulation is broken or damaged and the heat is leaking. Such areas will be highlighted in the thermogram very clearly and can be instantly identified and patched.
Recreational hunters use thermal drones to identify hogs and other games inside thick or bushy areas. Before going in for the kill, you can fly your drone above and see where the majority of the game is, how they are moving, and the population size.
Hogs are invasive animals that damage crops and livestock. They breed very fast, and if the population is not controlled through hunting and sometimes, in severe cases, through poisoning, they can damage the environment. Thermal cameras are excellent in monitoring their population, movement and hunting.
Wild life monitoring
Thermal drones are deployed by wildlife departments worldwide to monitor wildlife populations in far-flung and hard areas. Most wild animals blend in with their surroundings and are hard to identify via binoculars or normal cameras. Thermal cameras are a game-changer here.
Due to their thermal signature, it is very easy to count them in thermograms (images produced by a thermal camera).
Power line inspection
Long-running power transmission lines are very hard to inspect manually. Technicians used to do this by climbing each power pole or via helicopters but thermal drones have made this otherwise inundating task very easy.
When there is an electrical issue in the powerline, the lines develop hotspots. These hotspots are invisible to the naked eye, but a thermal camera mounted on a flying drone is very good at identifying these hotspots before they can cause line breakdowns.
Inspections can be scheduled automatically at set intervals. A drone will fly a predefined path along the lines and record a thermal video. The line technicians can analyse the video with special software to automatically identify trouble areas.
Chemical processing industries like Urea and other Petrochemicals use hot processes for manufacturing. Liquids flow through pipelines and tanks at different temperatures. When there is a problem in the line, a change in flow temperature can be a good indicator.
Thermal drones can instantly identify such problems as leaks or cracks and make inspection jobs very easy.