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The best thermal drones in 2022

DJI Matrice 300RTK thermal drone being used by law enforcement officers
(Image credit: DJI)

Thermal imaging technology has gone from being the preserve of the military and covert services to just another day-to-day tool. The Predator-like ability to see heat is as useful for building inspectors and insulation engineers as it is for search-and-rescue services. There is even a growing interest among game hunters.

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While an infrared camera can see at night, that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re allowed to fly in the dark. You’ll need to check your local regulations and likely take an extended course in order to be able to operate between sunset and sunrise. Every drone on this list is also above 250g take-off-weight, so registration is required in most places. 

On the subject of regulations, it’s also worth knowing that DJI aircraft also incorporate a ‘Flysafe’ database. These areas restrict take-off and – even if you have aviation authority permission – you’ll also need to clear flight in these areas with DJI (via their app) which can take a few days.

Finally don’t forget that thermal photography is only part of the equation for most purposes; it’s worth thinking about the visual camera and its capabilities. For operations like search-and-rescue a good zoom range is very useful. Longer optical (as opposed to digital) is always better, too, though perhaps more significant if you’re looking to read a license plate, for example. 

We would also talk here at length about resolution and frame rate, but it seems that the current crop of drones has somewhat standardized. Similarly all these cameras offer ‘radiometric’ readings (remote temperature readings) so that’s not a capability question you need to log in advance. 

The best thermal drones in 2022

(Image credit: Autel)

1: Autel EVO II Dual 640T Enterprise

Thermal drone IR sensor and 8K video to boot

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 640 x 512 px
Visible camera resolution: 8K (7680 x 4320 px)
Flight time: 42 Min
Collision avoidance: Yes, Omnidirectional
Take-off weight: 1150-2000g
Size: 258 x 368 x 111mm
Diagonal: 397mm
Range: 8mi / 13km

Reasons to buy

+
Omnidirectional binocular sensors
+
Smart controller with 9-inch display
+
Ideal for low-cost 3D-mapping
+
Cost-effective in terms of flight time
+
FLIR thermal camera tech & display modes

Reasons to avoid

-
Spotlight drains over 10 min from hover time
-
RTK Module is an additional accessory
-
Slightly more costly than Mavic 2 Enterprise

In Autel orange, this aircraft looks ready for the work site, and it is well equipped too. The 640T Enterprise’s visible camera is the same 8K as its standard sibling, which means it also has 16x zoom (4 x lossless, depending on your output resolution). The IR camera also boasts FLIR’s well-known approach, and can be displayed into a crop of the wider visible spectrum on the generously-sized “Smart Controller.” It has a whopping 9-inch screen, HDMI-out, as well as the ability to initiate automated mapping. Even better, there is no Autel geofencing so no additional bureaucracy threatens. The drone also has a fixing point above the camera for the included accessories; a (very) loudspeaker, spotlight, or night-flight beacon (you might need a second beacon though as the spotlight will likely take priority at night). 

(Image credit: DJI)

2: DJI Matrice 30T

Quick to set up professional thermal drone

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 640 x 512 px
Visible Cameras Resolution: 8000 x 6000 (zoom) and 4000 x 3000 (wide)
Flight time: 41 Min
Collision avoidance: Yes, All directions
Take-off weight: 3998g
Size: 470 x 585 x 215mm
Diagonal: 668mm
Range: 9mi / 15km
Max speed: 82kph (51.5mph)

Reasons to buy

+
Omnidirectional binocular sensors
+
16x optical + 200x digital zoom (visual)
+
Includes laser range finder
+
Dual-remote capable
+
Operates in wide temperature range and IP55 rated

Reasons to avoid

-
Speaker and spotlight not included 
-
Dual battery systems are expensive to power
-
RC Plus controller heavy – get a lanyard 

The M30T is an incredibly powerful tool for all kinds of aerial work. The thermal camera is there, but for search and rescue or security monitoring the powerful zoom – backed up by AI subject tracking – means the M30T has some other tricks up its sleeve. There is also ‘super mode’ resolution for 1280x1024 thermal imaging and a laser range finder.

The drone also has a socket for third-party accessories which adds versatility – a speaker and spotlight is available – though the dual camera gimbal is fixed.

In search-and-rescue we’re sure the dual-controllers will be useful – the main fuselage has a 1080P forward-pointing camera for the pilot, while another user can direct the camera (within 180˚ pan and 165˚ tilt). All operators will also appreciate the 7-inch display and function buttons of the excellent RC Plus controller, as well as the quick-top-off mode on the charging station. 

(Image credit: DJI)

3: DJI Mavic 2 Enterprise Advance

The cheapest way into high-res thermal drones

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 640 x 512 px
Visible camera resolution: 48 Megapixel
Flight time: 31 Min
Collision avoidance: Yes, All directions
Take-off weight: 909-1100g
Size: 322 x 242 x 84mm
Diagonal: 354mm
Range: 8mi / 13km
Max speed: 72kph (44.7mph)

Reasons to buy

+
Omnidirectional binocular sensors
+
Easy to switch between or split-screen cameras
+
Loudspeaker, spotlight or beacon accessories included
+
Low-cost access to aerial thermal

Reasons to avoid

-
Digital zoom poor at 32x end
-
31-minute flight time is disappointing
-
Optional RTK accessory requires network

The Mavic 2 Enterprise offers a (relatively) modestly priced route to aerial thermal photography. It is built on a similar fuselage to the Mavic 2 optical camera models, with some changes to accommodate the included accessories – perhaps why Enterprise users haven’t yet been treated to the Mavic 3 airframe. The downside is the lower battery life compared to newer aircraft, but on the other hand the batteries are easily acquired, self-heating, and only one is required at once (better on the wallet). The DJI Smart Controller (the predecessor to the RC Pro) is included in the bundle, with its 5.5-inch 1000-nit display, making for a complete package that can get aloft quick. All-in-all this is an effective system, if thermal is your main requirement, the only issue we see is supply – DJI may prefer Enterprise users to pay nearly twice as much for the M30T!

(Image credit: DJI )

4: DJI Matrice 300RTK

High-res thermal drone with powerful optics

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 640 x 512 px
Visible camera resolution: 48MP (assuming H20T payload)
Flight time: 55min (realistically 45 with cameras)
Collision avoidance: Yes, All directions
Take-off weight: 9000g (of which 2700g payload)
Size: 810 x 670 x 430 mm (unfolded)
Diagonal: 895mm
Range: 9.3mi / 15km
Max speed: 83kph (51.5mph)

Reasons to buy

+
Omnidirectional binocular sensors
+
Built-in RTK for accuracy
+
Compatible with DJI Zenmuse interchangeable-lens cameras
+
Hot-swap batteries

Reasons to avoid

-
Drone requires accessories (at a cost)
-
Not the quickest to deploy
-
Batteries expensive, and you need two at a time

The 300RTK is a professional drone, with the flexibility (and deployment delays) that includes. The Drone accepts DJI’s detachable Zenmuse cameras which can – depending on your choice of lens – afford spectacular levels of optical zoom in the visual range. The triple can make home for gimbals on top or below for cameras, LIDAR, spotlights and other accessories making for ultimate flexibility. Don’t forget to budget for every component you want – you’ll probably go for DJI’s H20T for thermal, and the P1 gives amazing visual. Like the M30T, this machine has dual batteries – pro-grade redundancy isn’t cheap, but it does mean you can land and swap the batteries sequentially without powering down. Another pro feature is dual-control, which can be even better on this drone than the M30T as the camera can hang low and rotate further. 

(Image credit: FLIR)

5: FLIR Vue TZ20-R

Optional drone camera from the big name in thermal imaging

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 640 x 512 px @ 30Hz
Take-off weight: 640g
Size: 75x70x55mm

Reasons to buy

+
Many users familiar with FLIR tech
+
Can still be controlled via DJI app
+
Zooms to 18-degreed FOV plus digital zooming

Reasons to avoid

-
Requires DJI Matrice 300 or V2 Matrice 200 drone

While DJI offer their own H20T payload for the M300RTK, that drone (unlike the M30T) offers the option of payload choice. In other words there is a slot, literally, for the FLIR Vue TZ20-R Dual Thermal camera. Since FLIR are as close as it comes to an industry standard for thermal imaging, many will find the advantage of fitting one of their cameras, not least for the MSX technology, a proprietary system for merging visual and thermal imagery to boost the apparent resolution. The dual camera system effectively multiplies resolution four times, according to FLIR. The TZ-20R boasts the now-standard 640 x 512 resolution, but the 5x, 10x and 20x zoom and 95-degree field of view make for swift surveying. All this can still be controlled using the DJI Pilot app.

(Image credit: DJI)

6: DJI P4 Multispectral

The best thermal drone for farmers

Specifications

Thermal camera resolution: 2.1 megapixel per spectrum
Visible camera resolution: 2.1 megapixel
Flight time: 27min
Collision avoidance: Yes, forward
Take-off weight: 1487g
Diagonal: 350mm
Range: Approx 8 hectares (20 acres) per flight
Max speed: 58kph (36mph)

Reasons to buy

+
Potential to save farmers immense costs
+
Mobile RTK-base compatible
+
6-camera array effectively detects good plant growth
+
Automated mission planning

Reasons to avoid

-
Not suited to other tasks
-
Needs to be used in good light
-
Requires iPhone/iPad

The P4 Multispectral is designed for agriculture, featuring a 6-camera gimbal which combines different kinds of thermal and visual camera data. DJI call the result NDVI (Normalized Difference Vegetation Index), a clear graphical display of the progress of crops. Here near infrared is especially helpful in identifying chlorophyll – more such light and the plants are healthier. This, in turn, can help a farmer efficiently prioritize their efforts to keep things healthy without over-using treatment. DJI offer a specific app, GS PRO, for iOS operation. It might be built on an older Phantom airframe, without the battery life or collision detection of newer designs, but it looks good and the camera offers unique data (made useful by a spectral sunlight sensor so they can be fairly compared).

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