Tethered Drone Systems vs. Traditional Drones: What is the Difference?
Drones have become an essential tool for many industries, including law enforcement, military, and commercial applications. With advances in technology, drones are more and more sophisticated and capable with longer flight times, improved imaging capabilities, and greater range. For example, over the past decade, tethered drone systems have emerged as key assets for aerial surveillance missions. But, what exactly is a drone tether? What is the difference between tethered drones and traditional drones? And what are the advantages and disadvantages of each?
Tethered drones are UAVs that are attached to a tether that provides power, data, or both from a tether station located on the ground, to the drone. Drone tethers can range in length from a few meters to a hundred meters or more. Traditional drones, on the other hand, are powered by onboard batteries and controlled through a radio or wifi link.
What are the main differences between tethered drone systems and traditional drones?
Flight Time: In theory, tethered drones have a virtually unlimited flight time. Indeed, they are powered by a continuous power source through the drone tether. In practice, tethered drones usually feature a flight time between 5 hours and 50+ hours due to component wear and environmental conditions. This makes them ideal for applications that require extended surveillance, monitoring, and data collection. Traditional drones, on the other hand, have a limited flight time. Their onboard batteries typically last between 20-50 minutes. Moreover, there is additional time on the ground to swap out the batteries.
Range: Tethered drones have a limited range due to the length of the drone tether. However, this range can be extended by leveraging powerful camera payloads with day and night zooming capabilities. Using multiple tethered drones is another option, connecting them to a central video monitoring system or battle management system. Traditional drones, on the other hand, have a greater range and can fly over long distances. Their short flight will be the main limiting factor. It reduces their perimeter of action and increases the possibility of losing the drone.
Data Communications: Tethered drone systems tend to solve data communication issues such as jamming or hacking. Indeed, they allow a direct power and data transmission by the tether which removes the need for AES 256-bit encryption. Some models also feature a “dark-RF” mode which allows them to be completely silent in terms of radio emissions. This is particularly helpful in the battlefield, where discretion is critical, and where RF jamming is frequent.
Mobility: Traditional drones are more mobile than tethered drones. They can be easily transported to different locations and launched from a variety of platforms. Tethered drone systems are more limited as they include not only the UAV, but also the drone tether (ground station), as well as a power source (usually a generator). However, they can also be integrated onto mobile platforms such as ground vehicles or vessels.
Ease of Use: Tethered drone systems are usually push-button systems, as their flight plan is simple. Existing products differ in their automation levels, as most advanced models also called “tethered drones by design”. For example, Elistair Orion 2 integrates a complete failsafe architecture allowing the operator to focus solely on its surveillance mission. In comparison, traditional drones require an in-depth piloting training to master basic maneuvering, emergency situations, remote data collection and sometimes complicated flight plans such as beyond visual line of sight missions.
Cost: Tethered drones are generally more expensive than traditional drones, due to their built for endurance design. Cost can differ between civilian and military specific applications. Commercially available drones can easily be converted into tethered drones at the additional cost of the tethering station. When assessing the cost of a drone mission one must also consider the cost of human resources needed, the cost of consumable items such as batteries, and the total lifespan of the system. When chosen for the right missions, the cost per hour of using tethered drones is often lower in the long run.
Examples of tethered drone systems applications
Tethered drone systems are becoming increasingly popular not only for military uses, but also for private and public safety due to their endurance and security features. Here are some of the key points:
Tactical Communications: A tethered drone can be integrated with communication payloads. The objective is thus to establish temporary communication links or extend tactical networks in areas where traditional methods of communication are not available or have a restrictive logistical footprint.
FOB Protection: Tethered drones can be used to provide real-time surveillance of the perimeter of a Forward Operating Base (FOB). This allows for early detection of any potential threats and giving troops a clear view of any approaching enemies. This type of system can be quickly deployed and then packed up to follow the FOB movements.
Border Protection: Tethered drone systems can be used to monitor areas around strategic crossing points or hard to reach areas. They can provide real-time surveillance of any suspicious activity and enabling authorities to respond quickly.
Traffic Monitoring: Tethered UAVs are able to provide continuous footage for traffic monitoring operations or data collection without the need to land and change batteries.
Events Monitoring: Tethered drones are useful for real-time observation of public events, allowing for early detection of potential security threats and more efficient coordination of teams on the ground. The drone tether is also safer when it comes to preventing fly-aways over people or in urban environments.
Industrial Sites Surveillance: Tethered drones can help prevent intrusions or incidents in sensitive industrial sites. They provide real-time surveillance with no time constraints. This is critical for monitoring the movement of equipment and personnel during sensitive maneuvers. They can also help coordinate safety operations and crisis mangement ensuring the security of everyone on site.
In parallel, traditional drones are commonly used for other types of applications where flexibility and deployment range are key, such as agriculture, media and entertainment, construction, land mapping, search and rescue or inspection.
To summarize, tethered drone and traditional drones have their own advantages and disadvantages, and both have unique applications. Tethered drone systems are ideal for extended surveillance, security overwatch missions such as border control, large event monitoring, perimeter surveillance. In comparison, traditional drones are more mobile and have a greater range allowing them to perform missions the sensor cannot capture from a distance. Understanding the differences between these two types of drones can help you choose the best drone for your specific application.
Photo credit: Sotirios PETROPOULOS Police Directorate of Orestiada, Greece
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