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WingtraOne: The benefits of a high-quality fixed wing solution
Although quadcopters might be considered the coolest kids on the block in the drone world, many professional operators will be quick to sing the praises of a high-quality fixed wing solution. Both multi-rotors and fixed-wing craft have their own pros and cons depending on your specific use case, but when a company such as Wingtra boasts its WingtraOne model is capable of 14 times the aerial coverage than the DJI Phantom 4 RTK on a single flight, then that’s just one very good reason to pay attention.
Founded in 2016 as a spin-off Professor Roland Siegwart’s Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich in Switzerland, Wingtra has quickly made a name for itself in fields such as surveying, precision agriculture and large scale inspection projects. Part of that appeal might be the striking orange design of its WingtraOne craft; part of it might be the vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) system that enables it to operate in tighter conditions than your standard fixed wing. Certainly, the capacity to cover more than 100 hectares on a single flight with a ground sample distance down to 0.7cm/px can be a key factor for aerial photogrammetry or geospatial specialists.
In its own testing, Wingtra found the DJI Phantom 4 RTK could cover only 8 hectares under the same conditions, while its Swiss counterpart the senseFly eBee X covered some 64 hectares. Using the best of its payload options, the 42MB Sony RXIRII (unless you wanted its multispectral or thermal options, such as the MicaSense RedEdge-MX or FLIR Duo Pro R640), the WingtraOne was capable of covering 107 hectares on a single flight – and boasts a better visual quality for even more accurate results.
The Pros and Cons
Of course, there are plenty of reasons why the likes of the Phantom 4 RTK will have an edge over the WingtraOne. Fixed-wing designs are slaves to perpetual forward motion (though with VTOL systems developing, having more in terms of in-flight transitions between that forward flight and mid-air hovering is being worked on) and, though still impressively agile, they can’t compete with the mobility of a quadcopter that can quickly change direction and offer greater variation on the vertical plane as well as horizontal.
Similarly fixed wing models tend to have fixed cameras, in that it’s always facing in one direction, so you can’t swing the camera around 90 degrees mid-flight as you can on many multirotor models – though we should be clear that the likes of the WingtraOne are still open to interchangeable payloads that can be swapped out as quickly as the battery.
As part of their design, fixed wings are larger models – the WingtraOne has a wingspan of 125cm and weighs 3.7kg – and may well cost more than your standard consumer quadcopter. However, if you can survey up to 14 times as much ground in a single flight, then the return on investment doesn’t take too long to start adding up! Indeed, the design itself also becomes one of the WingtraOne’s big positives.
Fixed wings typically only require one motor, or in this case two motors, meaning they draw less power from the battery to fly, while the naturally aerodynamic design saves even more power once it’s up in the air. While your standard quad would be more than happy to offer a flight time close to 30 minutes, the WingtraOne boasts 55 minutes – and it’s no surprise to see most endurance records and long-distance flights involve fixed wing craft.
The WingtraOne also has a few advantages over its fellow fixed-wings. The VTOL system not only means it can take off and land in much tighter spaces than standard fixed-wings – which would require a large landing area to descend safely which could limit your options on exactly where you could operate – it also reduces the risk of damage from those ‘belly landings’. Even on a soft or smooth surface there’s the danger of picking up scratches or other damage to frame, while landing on a rough surface such as rock or gravel might be considered a no-no. If you’re having to replace parts or even buy a new model then that ROI drops – but with the fully automated VTOL system on the WingtraOne (which only requires a few square metres) that’s not an issue.
The Bigger Picture
Another key feature of the WingtraOne is its impressive ground sampling distance (GSD). Boasting an accuracy down to 0.7 cm/px, or an absolute accuracy of 1cm/px, this means that not only can the craft pick out a coin you’ve dropped on the floor, it can also tell you exactly where it is to within a centimetre. If you choose to add the optional post-processing kinematic (PPK) solution to the package, along with the aforementioned Sony RXIRII (or even the 20MB Sony QX1), then you’ve got one seriously accurate piece of visual technology at your disposal.
This opens up the drone to a wealth of high-level operations, including large scale inspections, farming and anywhere else where survey-grade accuracy is required, such as topography for 3D mapping or land management applications. Wingtra itself has reported its craft being used to map deserts in Africa, monitor wildlife off the Australian coast and provide detailed surveys of a 110-hectare vineyard in its native Switzerland. It’s also been used to provide volumetric measurements of a uranium mine and there’s no reason why it couldn’t be used to do a whole more.
The question of whether or not you need that degree of accuracy over the perfectly acceptable results you can get with a quadcopter may have a different answer depending on the nature of your business, or even from one project to the next. If you’re looking to inspect a single building, then the agility of the Phantom 4 and its ability to get up close and personal (within the law of course!) makes it a sound choice. If you’re looking to inspect a housing estate, or perhaps even an entire town, then the efficiency of the WingtraOne – whether flying manually or using its own WingtraPilot app to plan and fully automate your flights – comes into its own.
And, of course, all results can vary depending on your chosen altitude, where the accuracy drops the higher you fly, but the range increases. So if you need the best possible accuracy then you’d fly at a lower altitude but it would take more time to complete the entire survey. If speed is more important than that centimetre accuracy, then you can go up a little higher and scan the site much quicker. And, again, that requirement might differ from one project to the next – but certainly, the WingtraOne is capable of offering excellent results whatever your flight plans are.
A Professional Solution
In many ways, a model such as the WingtraOne is something that serious professionals working in areas involving surveying, mapping or general inspection work might consider. While the likes of the Phantom 4 RTK act as a great way for just about anyone to take their first steps into aerial mapping and photogrammetry, when you start to get serious about your business, in terms of needing the best possible results, then it pays to take a look at your fixed wing options – as well as those bigger quadcopter options such as DJI’s own M200 Series.
Where the likes of the WingtraOne come into their own is in those larger-scale operations. That doesn’t mean we’re only talking about scanning hectares of farmland, but anywhere where you need high-quality results from a drone that you can simply send up into the air and leave it to fly up and down in the most efficient manner. Not every job will be 14 times faster than a quadcopter, but even getting close to that figure will give immediate benefits to your workflow.
There’s a good case for many a business to include a fixed wing model as part of their fleet, alongside the more familiar quadcopter options. Having the ability to mix and match drones based on the job in hand can be crucial; so while the WingtraOne is delivering a high-quality and highly accurate overview of a construction site, another quadcopter pilot could be offering some close-up inspection work or further volumetrics of the same location on a somewhat smaller scale. As mentioned, there are pros and cons for using both multi-rotors and fixed-wing models, so having the right solution for the task in hand can make a big difference to your efficiency in the field and the quality of your data.
And finally, we should also point out that fixed wing models are also great fun to fly! We wouldn’t necessarily advise spending huge amounts of money if you’re just flying for fun, but even manual flights can be easy to get used to with minimal inputs required for those long, smooth flights – and in terms of getting that genuine ‘bird’s eye’ view with a set of FPV goggles it’s a feeling that can be hard to beat. Of course, if you can include that as part of your day job with the likes of the WingtraOne, then all the better!
We recently flew the WingtraOne over Ladybower Reservoir as part of a product demonstration for Severn Trent Water. Watch the video below to hear from Duncan Turner, Drone Team Lead, who talks about how drones are impacting their Surveying projects: