When it comes to flight, weight is everything.
The less weight you’re trying to get airborne the easier it is to start and maintain flight. Nature knows this, which is one of the reasons that birds have hollow bones.
When it comes to airplanes the same rules apply Wood, canvas, aluminium and now light composite materials all improve flight dynamics and improves energy efficiency.
Modern electric UAVs are only possible because battery energy density has reached the point where the power-to-weight ratio is practical. It’s still a long way off from the energy density of gas, but good enough for 30-minute missions.
Of course, we don’t just want these craft to fly. We want them to do things that are useful in flight. That’s what we call the payload of an aircraft. The spare capacity it has to carry objects that are not strictly needed for flight itself.
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In the case of camera drones that payload is obviously a camera, but people are coming up with new jobs for drones all the time.
Unfortunately most drones don’t have much power to spare for lifting anything but themselves.
The drones we’re looking at in this article are not like most drones. They’ve been built to push the limit between lift-capacity and electric drone design.
In order to operate a drone for any business purposes (to make money) in the United States you will need a license.
This is called a Remote Pilot Certificate.
The Prep Course by Drone Launch Academy is comprehensive and fairly priced.
They’re so confident they’ll give your money back as well as the $150 test fee if you should fail.
If you want a drone that can literally pull its own weight and more, these 8 large drones are the Best Heavy Lift Drones for Sale 2024.
What Matters in a Heavy Lift Drone?
When you’re shopping for a heavy lifting drone, everything centers around two main questions: what’s your payload and what do you need to do with it?
If you know exactly how much your payload will weigh then it’s easier to settle on a large drone that isn’t overkill for your use case. Alternatively you can get longer flight times if the drone is under-loaded.
There’s more to it than just weight however. It’s important to know how your payload will be attached to the drone itself. Can it work with the standard connection or do you need to make a custom solution, which itself can add weight to the payload.
Finally it really matters how long your drone can stay airborne with a particular payload weight. Make sure that it has enough endurance to manage what you want to throw at it.
Drone Payload Comparison
I’ve arranged the eight large drones in our shortlist from smallest payload to largest. To make things easy, here’s a table comparing the payload capacity of each.
|Heavy Lift Drone
|DJI Matrice 100
|DJI Matrice 600
|DJI Spreading Wings S900
|Freefly Systems Alta 6
|Freefly Systems Alta 8
|DJI Spreading Wings S1000+
Yes, all those numbers are in fact correct, I bet you’re curious for the details. So without further ado here are some of the biggest drones in the business.
With such a relatively small payload, does the Matrice 100 really count as a “heavy lift drone? Well, if you look at it in a proportional way then it’s one of the strongest drones here. It’s payload makes up a third of its weight, which certainly counts as a weightlifting feat for an electric drone.
The reason the payload is variable comes down to the optional second battery, which can extend flight time dramatically.
The Matrice 100 isn’t specifically a pro camera drone though, this is a developer’s drone meant to be modified for all sorts of experimental uses.
With both battery slots filled you can expect as much as 40 minutes of flight time, which is pretty great if your payload fits within the specs. If you want a camera drone, then you can mount a gimbal using the 10-pin or 8-pin ports.
This is a large flight platform designed for you to mess with, upgrade and otherwise innovate with it. An amazing power-to-weight ratio is only the start of the possibilities, but obviously this is not for customers who just want to buy large drone that is ready-to-fly.
While the DJI Matrice is not one of the truly heavy lifters on this list, its 6kg payload capacity certainly earns it a spot in this category. Add to that what it can do while carrying that load and in many ways it’s one of the best heavy lifting drones here.
The Matrice is a hexacopter, sporting six sizable rotors and motors. It’s a newer platform than DJI’s previous S900 and S1000+ heavy lifters. Clearly DJI has learned many lessons from those earlier products and overall the Matrice is more refined and better-specified.
Using the standard battery and fully loaded the Matrice will fly for about 16 minutes. That’s actually not as good as the claimed figure on the S900, but with the larger battery model you’ll get up to 18 minutes.
With a minimal load the standard battery yields 35 minute of flight and the larger battery pushes that figure to 40 minutes. This is where the Matrice really outshines the S900 and S1000+, which didn’t see such dramatic gains from medium loads.
The Matrice also has redundant systems and generally lives up to a more futuristic vision of what drone tech should be. Built on the backs of the S-series machine I discuss below.
You can also see the full review of the Matrice 600 here.
The Spreading Wings S900 from DJI is a hexacopter, rather than the more popular octocopter configuration for heavy lift drones. Which makes it pretty impressive that this (relatively) compact professional drone has a total payload of almost 7kg.
That’s going to cover a lot of use cases and if your payload requirements fall under that upper limit then you should keep reading.
Let’s get one important fact out of the way first:
DJI says that the S900 can carry its maximum payload for 18 minutes before needing a recharge. That’s under idea circumstances of course and in real life I suspect the number is closer to fifteen minutes.
It’s not the longest mission time, but most professional film makers don’t need to shoot for longer than that. If you have a payload mission that requires more than 15 minutes you should move on.
Do remember that you should get better flight times with lighter loads, but it’s not easy to predict exactly how much time you’ll gain, but you can bargain on a few more minutes if you aren’t going to max out the capacity. It might be a good idea to do some digging on S900 forums to see what pilots with similar loads are getting.
Also, bear in mind that the S900 can be equipped with batteries of varying capacity, which obviously also affect endurance.
Apart from being a surprisingly strong drone, the machine itself is lightweight, weighing in at only 3.3 kg. It’s also excellent for pros who don’t have a big vehicle to cart the drone around in. The S900 is foldable into a compact shape and can transition from folded to flight-ready on about five minutes if you know what you’re doing.
The flight systems on this puppy were impressive when it launched and they’re still impressive today. Using an external power source DJI has shown the S900 hovering continuously for 72 hours. So you know there’s not going to be an overheating or other endurance-related failure in the 15 minutes the drone is airborne.
Unless you’re willing to modify this large drone heavily, the only type of payload it can carry are things that fit onto the gimbals end-effector.
If you’re looking to move into professional aerial photography then this is the bee’s-knees. It’s not exactly after buying all the additional equipment you need to camera part of it work, but it is at the lower end of the professional spectrum.
The Alta 6 is a lot like the Alta 8, just with six rotors instead of 8. This means the payload goes down by a few pounds, but still manages to provide enough lift for the majority of heavy lift applications.
Like the Alta 8, this is a superb folding drone with a unique top-and-bottom mounting system with quick release functionality.
These new-generation drones are much tougher, can stand up to more types of system failure and resist weather to a greater degree than ever before.
The rest of what there’s to say about the Alta 6 apply to the Alta 8 as well, so I’m not going to repeat them. Instead you can just read on for the bigger brother’s overview.
Freefly Alta 8
The Freefly Alta 8 is a monstrous machine to look at when unfolded. It’s bendy arms and jet-black paint job make it look more like a military attack machine than a camera drone.
The bendy arms are part of an ingenious folding design turns this huge drone into something quite portable. In fact, when folded the the Freefly Alta 8 is half its unfolded diameter, without becoming any taller. Pretty smart if you ask me.
Like the Matrice 600, the Alta 8 is one of the new generation of drones that are built to a much better standard of redundancy compared to what’s come before.
More impressively when it comes to the Alta 8, each unit is actually tested before leaving the factory. That pushes up the price, but at least you know your new drone is actually a flying machine and not just a potential flying machine.
As far as camera duties go, the freefly has a very impressive quick-release system that is definitely suited to professional use where you might want to swap out equipment frequently. Even better, there are mountings on both site of the drone, which means you can top-mount the camera.
The Alta has also been built to do something few other drones would dare: fly in bad weather. It’s not going to handle a tornado, but a little rain won’t hurt it whereas other big drones would be grounded immediately.
With a full 9kg payload you’ll get about nine minutes of flight, but half that nets you almost 20 minutes of flight with the 16Ah batteries. Unloaded or with very light loads you’re looking at about 30 minutes before needing a recharge. A very impressive machine overall.
The bigger, newer and stronger brother of the S900. This S1000+ takes the payload numbers from 6.8kg to a whopping 9.5kg. That’s almost enough to fly a bag of dog food around, if for some reason you want to start a drone-based dog food delivery service.
One of the main reasons the S1000+ has so much more capacity is that this is an octocopter. That means a full two extra rotors over and above what the S900 offers. The tradeoff of course is that this drone isn’t nearly as compact as the S900, but that’s to be expected.
It also does not have a flight time to match it’s smaller brother. At most you’ll get 15 minutes out of a fully-loaded S1000+. It does however sport exactly the same easy folding system that makes it as compact as possible.
One major advantage the S1000+ has over the S900 or just about any other drone that uses Zenmuse gimbals is its versatility. This is one of the only drones that will work with any Zenmuse gimbal. Which means if there’s a specific gimbal from Zenmuse that you must have, this is probably the platform that you want for it.
Like the S900, the S1000+ has been built for professional photography and videography.
This is not the sort of drone you want to use for non-camera applications, but it is one of the smoothest and most reliable platforms for professionals who want footage. Yes you could of course modify it, but unless you have so much money you don’t care about burning some of it I wouldn’t recommend it.
DJI Agras – Best AG Drone
Payload: 10 kg
The Agras is a major departure from DJI’s normal bevy of camera drones. The Agras is, as the name suggests, an agricultural drone.
Gone are the days of using expensive and dangerous manned aircraft to spray pesticides on crops. With this big drone you can keep the human out of danger and do your spraying at a lower altitude, minimizing how far the wind takes the chemicals.
The Agras has a 10 liter tank and carries a total of 10 kg when it comes to the payload.
When fully-loaded the Agras can stay aloft for 10 minutes. That might not sound like much, but you have to remember it only needs to stay aloft long enough to dump it’s cargo. It also flies relatively low, which means a large safety margin before touching down.
The Agras has made huge changes to the agricultural industry in the East, where manual foot-powered spraying has been the norm. According to DJI’s own marketing videos they’ve cut human labor down immensely thanks to this amazing crop sprayer drone.
Griff Aviation Guardian
Payload: 200 kg
The Griff Aviation Guardian is in an entirely different class compared to every other drone here. This monstrous machine has a payload capacity of 200 kg.
The kicker is that the Guardian isn’t even the strongest drone in the Griff fleet. At the end of 2016 the Griff 300 was announced, with a 300 kg payload capacity. The company plans to eventually release a drone with an 800 kg payload capacity.
The Guardian can fly for about 30 minutes, is water resistant and is designed to carry advanced optical systems for law enforcement and other safety observation duties.
The price? If you have to ask, and aren’t a government department, it’s probably too much.
It’s an eight-rotor design, but each set of four rotors are mounted vertically, which makes it look like two quad-copters glued together.
Even my fat butt would be no problem for this big industrial drone and that’s saying something!
Bigger, Stronger, Faster
It feels like yesterday when getting a drone to lift your ghetto duct tape camera rig off the ground was a major triumph. In the short years since then battery technology, more powerful motors and much smarter flight electronics have given rise (pun intended) to true bruisers.
These are also all electric, but as I mentioned in a previous article there are other power sources available as well. Such as gasoline or fuel cells. Already there are projects for autonomous people carriers that are basically passenger drones.
Here is a recent video of the Jetson ONE (an EVTOL. electric vertical take-off and landing aircraft). You do have to control this drone yourself, but it looks like a good time to me:
One day we’ll look back and laugh at how early drones struggled to lift a big camera. Watch this space!
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