The best indoor drone for fire investigations

What’s the best indoor drone for fire investigations? That’s the latest in our “Ask Drone Girl” series. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

I am a member of a fire investigations task force. We were working through a problem involving best practices for collecting photo evidence inside of unstable fire buildings, and we thought a small drone for indoor use would be a good solution. There are concerns about signal loss, destruction of evidence, and battery life. Could you provide some guidance?

-Mike

The Elios 3 from Flyability might be the best indoor drone for fire inspections. Photo courtesy of Flyability.

Hey Mike,

This is a great question, and it is rather timely, as indoor drones just this year have become far more reliable and accessible. Depending on how advanced of equipment you’re seeking out, the best indoor drone for fire investigations might cost you less than $1,500.

As you noted, there are a few criteria that stand out when selecting an indoor drone. Among the biggest factors to consider are:

  1. Small size (must be agile to fit through doorways or other tight spaces)
  2. First person view (FPV) camera
  3. Sensors to meet your needs (this could be a basic camera that collects imagery, or might be more advanced with something like a thermal camera or other sensor.
  4. Long flight time (most indoor drones offer less than 10 minutes, which might not cut it)

We’ll break down the best indoor drones for fire investigations in greater detail later on, but of those on the market today, you really have two options. The good news is, they couldn’t be more different from each other. So once you define the parameters of what you need, the answer is clear. So with that, here are my two recommendations for the best indoor drone for fire investigations:

  • DJI Avata: best for most people
  • Flyability Elios 3: best if you want robust, enterprise applications

Both of these drones were specifically designed to fly indoors. On the physical side, they have some level of propeller guards (the Elios 3 has a full cage on all sides) which protect the drone should it hit a wall. Both offer more than 10 minutes of flight time, so you can get in and out of the building, while still leaving time to actually see what you intended to see inside. And both have cameras to not just capture data, but to allow for FPV flying to navigate even in areas you can’t physically see yourself — a situation you’d likely commonly encounter to avoid otherwise sending your own personnel through an unstable building.

The DJI Avata drone. Image courtesy of DJI.

With a starting price at less than $1,500, DJI Avata is ultra-accessible. You could likely walk into your local electronics retailer and buy one off the shelf today. Upon buying it off the shelf, you’ll have a drone that’s ready to fly once you’ve charged it up — and you don’t really need to be a pro to operate it either as it’s relatively easy to fly. It comes with FPV goggles (which are the VR-like goggles) that enable you to see what the drone is seeing, it can capture videos, and it can fly up to 18 minutes.

For the drone that is an ultra powerhouse, you’ll want the Flyability Elios 3 drone. Launched in May 2022, the Elios 3 is the world’s first collision-tolerant drone equipped with a LiDAR sensor for indoor 3D mapping. You’ll want this drone if you don’t need to simply see what’s inside those unstable buildings, but to truly understand it by way of mapping it and generating data that can reproduce 3D models. While the drone itself is pretty high-end, it’s not actually that difficult to fly. You’ll likely need just a day of training (and the training is critical almost entirely due to the fact that flying it incorrectly could be costly).

And what exactly does costly mean? Flyability doesn’t publicly share the prices of its drones, but you should expect it to be in the many, many thousands of dollars realm. Considering its predecessor, the Elios 2 Premium Package, was going for 39,000 Swiss Francs (more than $40,000), don’t expect the newer Elios 3 to be cheap.

Both drones are super different. One is low cost and accessible, while the other one unlocks opportunities for serious, enterprise use cases. Here’s a deeper dive into not just those two drones, but some key points you should know about flying drones indoors:

What you need to know about indoor drones

Particularly when flying drones indoors there are a few additional risks you need to be aware of that you wouldn’t necessarily encounter when flying drones outdoors?

Large drones can be challenging to fly indoors

It’s not just about the drone being too large to fit through doorways. Sometimes when large drones are confined to a small area, they can create their own ‘weather patterns’ that cause the drone to fly differently than expected.

Prop guards are important

When flying indoors, you’ll likely want some sort of indoor hull, like rotor or propeller guards. These are generally placed around the rotor spinning blades, and not only protect objects that the drone might hit (like walls or people) but also protects the propellers from breaking off (and thus causing the drone to crash) in the event they strike something.

The Parrot AR drone is an old-school model now, but its prop guard design is still relevant today. (Photo by FRANK PERRY/AFP via Getty Images)

Obstacle avoidance can be helpful, but it may not always work

Having an indoor positioning system or obstacle avoidance feature on your drone can be helpful to ensure the drone doesn’t crash. However, obstacle avoidance can sometimes prove to be completely useless in very tight spaces.

That’s because many drones with obstacle avoidance also have a minimum object detection range. It’s typically about 6 feet, meaning the drone absolutely will not fly closer than that distance. If you’re trying to fly into, say, a closet, that might not be possible. In fact, let’s say your drone offers 6 feet of detection on all sides, but the room is 12 feet across or smaller. It might not be able to operate in that room.

Most drones with obstacle avoidance enable you to turn it off so you can get into those tight spaces. But if you do, then realize that you’re flying sans the obstacle avoidance feature. That can increase crash risk.

Know your flight control settings for indoor flying

When flying indoors, you’ll likely need to disable GPS and other visual positioning systems. Sometimes, drones have preset configurations for flying indoors (you may often see this listed as ATTI mode). But if not, you can adjust the settings yourself. Check the user manual of your own setup so you can adjust your drone and flight controller accordingly.

Why do I recommend disabling GPS for indoor drone flights? While GPS is a useful technology in allowing drones to navigate and hover in place, realize that GPS just often does not perform well indoors as signal can easily get lost.

Instead, be prepared to be able to fly your drone without GPS-aided stabilization, which means you need to be a confident pilot.

Do you need any sort of certification or license to fly drones indoors?

The short answer: no.

The long answer: drones operated solely indoors are not regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). The FAA defines ‘indoors’ as a “covered structure that prevents access to the national airspace system.”

That said, if your drone flight starts outdoors and then heads indoors (e.g. a drone starting on the lawn outside and then flying into a house), then technically you do need a drone pilots license. That’s assuming your drone flight is for a commercial purpose as opposed to a hobby purpose.

Getting your drone pilot’s license is a requirement under the FAA’s Part 107, which states that anyone operating a drone commercially must hold a “remote pilot certificate with a small UAS rating.” In order to get that, you will need to pass an in-person written exam. Many people refer to this as the “Part 107 test. Learn more about getting your Part 107 drone pilot’s license here.

The best indoor drones for fire inspections

So with that, let’s dive into the best picks of indoor drones you might consider using with your fire team.

The best indoor drone for most teams: DJI Avata

Price: Starts at $629  (though that’s for just the standalone drone, so expect to pay $1,000+ for the controller and goggles)

Flight time: 18 minutes per battery

Camera? Yes; 1/1.7” CMOS sensor with 48 million effective pixels. Films at 4K/60fps and slow-motion footage at 2.7K/50/60/100/120fps.

The DJI Avata drone has high appeal as a cinematic drone that creates beautifully dizzying first person view footage. But while plenty of artists use it for photography and videography (after all, it’s considered the overall best indoor drone), this Cinewhoop-style FPV drone could have real enterprise use cases as well.

Released in summer 2022, the Avata was designed specifically with indoor drone flights in mind. It’s able to navigate tight spaces thanks to its compact size at just 180×180 mm in width and length. Plus, built-in propeller guards eliminate the risk of scratching walls or other items inside, should you crash.

The Avata has built-in propeller guards.

Avata’s (limited) power

While wind likely is a non-issue for you if you’re flying indoors, it does hold up in high winds given its Level 5 max wind resistance. That means it can fly in wind speeds ranging from 19 to 24 miles per hour (which is about the equivalent of winds that generate moderate waves at the beach). 

Note that the DJI Avata does not have obstacle avoidance sensors. The only sensors it has are downward vision and precise hovering sensors. If obstacle avoidance is critical (though see my notes above on why it may not be), you’ll need another drone. You might even perhaps consider my upgrade pick below.

The Avata is an FPV drone, meaning it is designed to be flown with FPV goggles as well as the DJI RC Motion 2. It is also compatible with the DJI FPV Remote Controller 2, which you can buy for less than $200.

Who is Avata best for?

If a high-quality camera is important to you (which it may well be if you need more pixels to zoom in on specific areas, or the camera needs to perform well in low-light), then the Avata delivers. Here are some key specs:

  • 1/1.7” CMOS sensor
  • 48 million effective pixels
  • Films at 4K/60fps and slow-motion footage at 2.7K/50/60/100/120fps.
  • f/2.8 aperture
  • Ultra-wide-angle lens with a viewing angle of up to 155°
  • D-Cinelike color mode for a broader color palette that enables detailed chromatic adjustments

The standalone Avata goes for $629, though you should expect to spend more like $1,388 for the Pro-View Combo with DJI Goggles 2. You might also throw in the Fly More Kit for $279.

Related read: Porsche Museum let the DJI Avata fly around its multi-million dollar historic cars — and here’s what happened

The Elios 3 from Flyability. Photo courtesy of Flyability.

The best indoor inspection drone for advanced use cases: Flyability Elios 3

Price: Contact Flyability Sales (but expect to spend tens of thousands of dollars

Flight time: Up to 12 minutes (without a payload), 9.1 minutes (with a LiDAR payload), or 8.2 minutes (with a maximum payload)

Camera? Yes; 1/2.3” CMOS sensor with a fully unobstructed 180° field of view to a 4K camera, plus a thermal camera, and a distance sensor. 

The real reason you’d want this upgrade pick is not simply to see what’s inside the building. With this, you can make a full 3D map of it. The Elios 3’s key feature is a SLAM engine (that’s short for Simultaneous Localization and Mapping). Use SLAM to generate 3D models through a new software called Inspector 4.0. The Elios 3 drone has proven valuable for mapping areas that are out of reach or too dangerous for humans to enter, like sewers or caves. Exploring buildings damaged by fire might be a use case too.

The FlyAware SLAM Engine in action.

There’s also no safer drone to fly indoors. The Elios 3 relies on a combination of computer vision, LiDAR technology, and a powerful NVidia graphic engine to maintain centimeter accuracy when flying indoors, even if there is no GPS signal available. And it’s surrounded by a signature cage and is equipped with unique reversing motors. That unique design helps it recover from flipping upside-down without crashing. It also has a P-44 compliant design, which is a rating to show it can fly in rugged, harsh environments without concerns of water splashes or dust. Again, that’s something that might be critical if flying amidst ash.

Powerful payloads in steel and surveying

The Elios 3 drone is also a payload powerhouse, unlocking its use cases in niche enterprise operations.

In March 2024, Flyability launched an ultrasonic thickness measurement payload, create in partnership with ultrasonic testing (UT) technology company Cygnus Instruments. Use it to conduct spot thickness measurements of steel.

It also offers a Surveying Payload, launched in partnership with FARO Technologies. Launched in October 2023, the payload enables centimeter accurate LiDAR scans with the Elios 3. That should be of particular interest to those working in surveying, mining, and wastewater management. 

Who is Elios 3 best for?

While the Elios 3 is all-around a far more powerful drone than the Avata (and comes with a heftier price tag), there is one huge reason why the Avata is superior beyond accessibility and affordability. That’s battery life. The Avata offers 18 minutes of flight time, while this one offers up to 12 minutes. And that’s without a payload. Sure, 6 minutes might not seem like much. But when you consider the Avata entails 50% more flight time, that can be critical.

Picking the best indoor drone

Indoor drones have seen substantial improvements in their stabilization and control systems in recent years, now boasting sophisticated algorithms and onboard processors that enable them to maintain steady flight even in tight or cluttered spaces. As a result, the risk of unexpected crashes or unintended landings has been dramatically minimized. That only grants users greater confidence in operating these aerial machines indoors.

The Drone Girl, Sally French, flying the DJI Avata.

Furthermore, the integration of intelligent software has revolutionized indoor drone autonomy. These drones can now perform pre-programmed tasks with exceptional accuracy, eliminating the need for constant manual control. This increased autonomy significantly reduces the chances of human error during flights, making using indoor drone for fire inspections more reliable and less prone to accidents.

Of course, while battery technology is good, it’s still not great. Many indoor drones are capable of only a few minutes of flight time. My two picks offer at least 8 minutes (assuming the maximum payload).

The bottom line is: you have two real choices to make when it comes to the best indoor drone for fire inspections. Alas, they are so different that it should be an easy choice. For a drone that simply shows you what’s inside the building, the DJI Avata is your best bet. But for a more advanced use case that has ultra safe flight and can even map what’s inside, you’ll want the Flyability Elios 3.

What indoor drone do you recommend for fire investigations or similar use cases? Tell us in the comments, and happy flying!

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