More uses and more experience helps select best drones for emergency response teams

Part Two of Two. Updated 5-2020.

Best drone for Emergency response team
Will this work for our emergency team?

As we updated our Part One article about Drones for Emergency Response Teams, we found that technology has advanced but the basic questions have remained the same. As you read this Advisory, be sure to check back to that first article for details on rules and regulations. Drones for Emergency Response Teams.

Here are those questions!

1-Will a drone be useful for our Emergency Response team?

If you have a very limited budget, and your group is just forming, a drone should not be first on your list of investments. I’d probably start with basic communications gear (walkie-talkies or HAM radios), safety equipment (lights, vests, gloves, tools) and first aid items.

If you’re past that level, though, adding a drone could significantly expand the reach and the effectiveness of your team.

Around the world, more and more drones are being used in emergency situations, often replacing helicopters. When they are suitable, drones are far less expensive, quicker to deploy, and often more flexible. Some recent examples of authorities using drones in emergency situations:

  1. Search and rescue operations (using infrared technology)
  2. Police pursuits in neighborhoods and on streets
  3. Delivery of emergency medical supplies and equipment
  4. Early detection of fires in the wild and in high rise buildings
  5. After-disaster assessment

In an emergency, one of our first tasks as CERT or neighborhood team volunteers is to assess the state of our neighborhood so we’ll be able to call in and/or point professionals to places and people who need help.

Imagine how much faster and more accurately you’d be able to cover your territory with the help of a flying camera – i.e., a drone!

So the answer to Question #1 is an unequivocal “Yes.”

Now we have to decide how to pick the best drones for emergency response team work. But before you make any assumptions, review the distinctions between hobbyist and “107” rules to be sure you know which category you fall into as a volunteer group.  ( You will want to get an official determination from your local city and/or state authorities.)

2-Do we have members of our group prepared to become the “experts” at flying the drone?

Do you have someone on your team with useful experience in flying, photography, wireless technology, etc? Will they be prepared to track regulations, manage data, maintain the equipment, train new members, etc.? Maybe you can bring more experience aboard?

Some CERT teams have many members who are certified HAM radio operators — someone in that group might be a great operator. Remember, each operator of the drone has to have a license unless you are operating as part of a recognized hobby group (not likely for an emergency team).

3-What features do we need in a drone?

A CERT team is looking for a workhorse drone, not a racer or drone for aerobatics. Specifically, the best drone for emergency support would need to be able to:

  • Fly in not-so-perfect weather. This requires a larger size and probably more weight.
  • Carry something to a designated location. This requires a stronger motor, a way to attach an item, and a GPS to get the drone to the right place. (Remember the 55 lbs. weight limit.)
  • Stay aloft long enough accomplish the task. As mentioned before, only the newest and most expensive models fly any longer than 25 minutes. (Weigh the drone down and it will have to work harder and will use up its battery faster.)
  • Take reasonable-quality still and/or video images and transmit them back to the operator.
  • Come out of the box nearly ready (for an amateur) to fly.

If you have the chance, check with other local commercial groups about the features they have determined are most useful.

4-What models will work best for our Emergency Response team?

It’s at this point that I’d start looking for more human assistance to help compare different models.

Can you reach out to your local fire department for assistance and support? At first contact your local fire department may NOT think a drone is a good idea! We’ve all heard the horror stories of California firefighters being unable to deploy helicopters or having to make emergency landings because of drones hovering over forest fires. (Obviously, this behavior is illegal, and carries a fine of up to $25,000.)

Still, bringing disaster response experts into your thinking and planning can only improve your relationship – and result in a stronger team all around. (In preparation, check out this article about how professionals are using drones. This is just one of many.

That said, here are the drones that look best for CERT or neighborhood groups. I hope our research will save you time and energy!

Stick with DJI.

Two years ago we recommended DJI Phantom 3. After much research, we’re sticking again with DJI, simply moving to the more recent models. (On Amazon newer models seem to run $300-400 more than older models.) Even though we’ve seen some complaints about customer service, the DJI drones get consistently high marks. And DJI seems to have a real commitment to the industry, unlike some of the new-on-the-market companies.

Whether you are looking for the high end, or the more accessible version, these machine have GPS navigation with auto takeoffs and auto landings. DJI provides the technology that connects the machine to your iOS or Android. The higher-end versions have a built-in database of “no-fly” zones. (You know that if you live near the White House, you may not be able to fly your drone at all.)

The earlier models have flight time of around 25 minuets; the latest model is up to 30 minutes.

Click on the images or the links below for full details.

Packaging and training: As you review these models, note that different sellers at Amazon may add features or package them separately for convenience: items like extra batteries, a carrying case, cleaning equipment, etc. These extras can cost anywhere from $100 to $800 more. Consider your team, who will be in charge of the item, etc., as you decide exactly which package looks best for you. Training videos on DJI models are available from the manufacturer and on YouTube.

And once again, please shop carefully, since prices at Amazon can change on a daily basis. And check to be sure you’re getting a true DJI product.

DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0/Version 2.0 Quadcopter

The Phantom 4 Professional 2.0 is the latest version of the DJI Phantom. Some of the highlights of this model:

It has colored lights so it’s legal for night flying. Its 4-directional obstacle sensing — includes infrared sensor — means you’ll experience fewer crashes. With a full charge, this model can fly for up to 30 minutes. And it has a top speed of 45 mph in “sport mode.”

The camera is what this drone is built for. It is professional quality: 1-inch 20-megapixel CMOS sensor.  More powerful video processing supports H.264 4K videos at 60fps or H.265 4K at 30fps. If you’re after high-quality video, and you know what you’re looking for, please click on the link above and scroll down on Amazon’s sales page to get all the details.

Other highlights worth looking at: the “TapFly” feature that allows the pilot to tap the screen or use control sticks to change direction. TapFly Free allows a pilot to set the direction of flight, allowing you to turn the Phantom 4 Pro or tilt the gimbal as required without changing the direction of flight. The Phantom 4 Pro also has an optional payload release system. This drone can probably carry up to 2 lbs or so without its flying being impacted.

And check out how the Phantom 4’s “Return to Home” feature works.  Pretty amazing stuff . . .!

DJI Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter 4K UHD Video Camera Drone

The Phantom 3 Professional was the earlier top of the line model. Again, it features a high-quality setup for videographers. with the ability to transmit signal as far as 5 km. under optimal conditions. The upgrade to Phantom 4 includes better camera/video capabilities, plus more automatic aids for the pilot.

DJI Phantom 3 Standard Quadcopter Drone with 2.7K HD Video Camera

The Phantom 3 Standard model is at the other end of the 3 model spectrum. It has less range (more like 1/2 mile), less camera (still, probably more than you can use), and is advertised as the best way to get started “with no prior experience.” This model is around half the cost of the Phantom 4 above.

Start your research with DJI. If you click on the images or links, you’ll be taken to Amazon, where we are Associates and may get a commission if you buy there. Don’t overlook the helpful reviews from Verified Purchasers.

Just a few more thoughts.

In general, it appears you get what you pay for in drones as in other tech gear. And, we have purposefully stayed away from the sexy models — smaller, quicker, high-techier – that true aficionados are likely to be all over. If you’re looking for a toy, or a gift, we put them in our Christmas lists from time to time!

For your Emergency Response Team, we’d stick with the tried and true.

Virginia and Joe
Your Emergency Plan Guide Team

P.S. If you missed Part One of this series about drones, check it out. It has the updated rules and regulations you need to know! Drones for Emergency Response Teams.