Are drones safer than helicopters? [Insider tips]

Not long ago, the only way you could capture aerial footage in high definition was to use a helicopter carrying a large camera and camera operator. Drones have opened up the air to hobbyists and people without access to aeroplanes or helicopters. Although this new capability has opened up to everyone, there has been a lot of discussion about whether drones are safe. They may or may not be safer for some tasks than helicopters.

Drones are much safer than helicopters for tasks that require you to get close to infrastructure, objects and squeeze in other tight places. They are unmanned vehicles which means that you are not risking the pilot’s life should an accident occur.

If your task depends on lifting heavy objects, travelling a long distance, or operating in high winds, a helicopter may be safer than a drone.

It depends on the task you are doing

Whether or not a drone is safer than a helicopter for a given task very much depends on the task that you are performing.

Drones are much safer when having to inspect infrastructures such as power lines or bridges. They can get very close to the item you are investigating. The high manoeuvrability of a drone combined with its advanced flying software features means that almost anyone can fly a drone with a high level of safety and security.

Drones are not safer than a helicopter when operating in high winds.

In high winds, the drone moves much less stably through the air. This extra movement is due to the much lower power of each motor. Drones are not able to lift much extra weight unless they have been specifically designed to do so.

Also, drones are not safer than a helicopter if they need to travel long distances or carry a heavy payload. The extra distance provided by the combustion engines and the mechanical advantage of its size and engineering means it is much more capable of lifting and travelling over many kilometres.

Depending on the task you are performing, here are why drones may be a better fit for what you wish to achieve.

Why drones are safer than helicopters

For some tasks, drones are much safer than helicopters. Drones are easy to control due to the GPS positioning systems and auto hovering technology in many of the consumer-level drones currently available. The ease of control combined with the light and small form factor means moving quickly and easily.

Easier to control

In the early days of drone technology, the pilot would have to continuously manoeuvre the drones to stay in a fixed location whilst compensating for any environmental factors that are blowing it off course. The lightest of winds would quickly blow the drone off course.

This required incredible amounts of skill as the only connection to the drone was a visual connection.

They would have to look at the direction the drone is pointing and use the joysticks to compensate for any drifting. When the drone is pointing towards you, the left and right directions are reversed, and it becomes even harder to control the drone intuitively. It required a lot of practice and hours and hours of flying experience.

However, nowadays, drone manufacturers have created a technology that is accessible to the broader public. They want you to have as much fun as possible whilst flying your drone. That means they have incorporated a load of fancy flight automation which means that you can be flying your drone within a matter of minutes after opening the box.

drones are relatively easy to fly because they have:

If you want to know more about whether or not drone flying is easy, check out my other article – I go through everything you need to know about flying a drone safely and securely.

Is flying drones easy

Unmanned vehicle

The fact that a drone is an unmanned vehicle means that it is much safer than a helicopter in the event of an accident.

Manoeuvring large vehicles with people inside them can be very dangerous for some tasks.

Drones are much safer and effective than helicopters for inspections of electrified lines and power utilities. Helicopters have large downdraught and can easily move power lines and other free-moving objects in their flight path.

The unpredictable movement of objects in a helicopters downdraught means that objects can easily get in the way of the tail rotor during manoeuvring.

If anything were to happen, you would end up with a large incident. Drones have a limited risk because they are smaller, unmanned, and are less likely to cause damage even in the most extreme of accidents.

I am not familiar with any fatalities caused by drone flying or drone missions.

Limited speeds

Drones have a much lower top speed than a helicopter. The drone activity tends to be localised around the area of the pilot due to connection signal strength.

The average speed of a helicopter is around 160 mph up to 260 km/h. This top speed is approximately 140 knots. This top speed is affected by many things, including the helicopter’s size and what it is carrying.

The fastest drones on the market can achieve ground speeds of approximately 30 to 40 m/s or 70 mph. This speed is a massive 100 mph slower than the average speed of a helicopter.

This top speed for a drone is limited to racing drones and drones specifically designed for speed.

The DJI drone series, until only recently, contained camera drones and nothing else.

In 2020 DJI released its first racing drone, the DJI FPV, and it is DJI’s fastest drone by far. It is designed as a racing drone but carries some impressive camera hardware and can be controlled by a DJI motion controller.

Here are all of the vertical and grand speeds that can be achieved by each of the most popular and most recent DJI drone releases.

Mavic Mini 25 m/s16 m/s
Mavic Air4 m/s19 m/s
Mavic Air 24 m/s19 m/s
Mavic Air 2S6 m/s19 m/s
FPV10 m/s (no limit in M mode) 39 m/s
Phantom 4 V2.06 m/s20 m/s
Inspire 25 m/s26 m/s

You can see that the DJI FPV drone is much faster than any other drone type. Interestingly, it still carries a very high definition camera – 4K at 60 frames per second. So you can capture some amazing footage of your flight. The high frame rate is very important as you are travelling faster as it provides a nice smooth viewing experience for the audience of the video.

Much lighter weight

it doesn’t take much to notice that a drone is significantly smaller and lighter than a helicopter. The logistics of moving a drone from one location to another is relatively trivial. You can pack it up into your luggage and carried in a backpack to your flight mission destination.

On the other hand, a helicopter is very large and requires a whole amount of logistical planning to get it to where it needs to be.

The lighter weight of a drone means that the potential collateral damage is much smaller in an accident.

Take a look at the accidents of small helicopters in the YouTube video below.

You can see that the collateral damage is very high and there is extreme damage caused to the helicopter as well as anything in the surrounding areas.

A drone in the same situation will not cause as much damage due to its very compact size and lightweight.

Less downdraft

Another very important aspect of why a drone is safer is the amount of downdraught caused by the propellers and rotors.

Drones are much safer than a helicopter due to the smaller amount of downdraught that is generated.

Any vehicle which has a rotor creates a downdraught. The larger the vehicle, the stronger the downdraught created.

I have only really noticed a downdraught when I have been flying directly overhead or flying directly over the surface of the water. My drone can only move light dust, pebbles, and grass. On the other hand, a helicopter can move much more heavy objects, which could cause them to be blown into the main rotor blades or the tail rotor.

Why drones are not safer than helicopters

There are plenty of situations when a drone is not safer to use than a helicopter. These situations are typically due to the power limitations of a drone. Any time you are using a drone and pushing it to the limits of its power or capability, you can expect a drone to become unsafe and not suitable for use.

Payload sizes

Several drones can carry things but…

The most popular on the market is the DJI Spreading wings and DJI Agras MG-1 that can carry up to 11 kgs each. But the maximum that a commercial drone can carry at the moment is 18kg. That feat is performed by the is the Freefly Systems ALTA 8.

Things will improve rapidly, and scientists and engineers are always pushing the limits of what is possible. Top Flight Technologies have developed a gas/electric hybrid that can carry and fly for more than two and a half hours! Other than that, the startup is quietly developing a 100-kilowatt hybrid drone that can lift 100 kilograms — enough to carry a human or two — for up to three hours.

It can be hard to know what a drone can lift in the wild vs what the manufacturer says. Here is a comparison of some of the most popular commercial drones and drones manufactured to lift heavy things! You’ll be surprised at exactly how much some of the smaller drones can lift!

DroneMaximum PayloadSource of information
DJI Matrice 600 Pro6 kgOfficial Website
Freefly Systems ALTA 812 kgOfficial Website
DJI Agras MG-110 kgOfficial Website
PD6B-AW-ARM20 kgOfficial Website
DJI Mavic Mini181 gYouTube experiment
DJI Mavic Air331 gYouTube experiment
DJI Mavic 2 Pro531 gYouTube experiment
DJI Phantom 31.1 kgYouTube Experiment
DJI Phantom 41.1 kgYouTube Experiment
DJI Spark65 gYouTube Experiment
VALKYRIE HEAVY PRO30 kgOfficial YouTube video

If you want to lift heavy loads is much more suitable to use a helicopter than a drone. They have much more power, and some drones can lift to 44,000 lbs.

Range capability

if you want to fly further than approximately 2 km, you should use a helicopter than a drone.

A drone’s range is limited by its battery life and technology connecting it to the remote control. A helicopter can fly for approximately 2.5 to 5 hours before they have to stop and refuel. This time typically translates to approximately 250 miles, which means they can fly a lot further than many people realise.

Drones are limited to direct line of sight to the grounded pilot, which means that the range capacity is much smaller than the technology allows.

If you want to transport heavy things over a large distance, helicopters are much safer to use.

Adverse weather

The drone wind resistance levels depend on the top speed of the drone and any top speed limitations the drone has. The top speed of many drones is limited by the grand speed rather than the relative speed of the wind. So, for example, if you are flying with a strong tailwind, the drone’s top speed will remain the same.

I have collated the top speeds and maximum wind resistances of the best drones currently available on the market in the table below. This table includes consumer-level drones as well as professional drones, which Hollywood films used to film their amazing footage.

DroneMaximum speedWind resistance
Mavic Mini13 m/s8 m/s
Mini 216 m/s10.5 m/s
Mavic Air 219m/s10.5 m/s
Mavic Pro Platinum18 m/s10 m/s *
Mavic Air19 m/s10.5
Parrot Anafi1514
DJI inspire2510
DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.02010
DJI Phantom 4 RTK3118*
DJI Matrice 300 RTX2315
Autel Evo 2 Pro2017 -20 m/s (Force 8)

*calculated 2/3 maximum speed

Anything above a force of seven wind (17 to 20 m/s) is far too fast for a drone to fly. However, this is for the top end of commercial and professional drones, and the general rule of thumb is that you shouldn’t fly your drone in winds greater than two-thirds of the maximum flight speed.

Helicopters can fly in strong winds, including crosswinds and tailwinds. If there is a particularly bad storm, the wind direction can change suddenly, making it dangerous to fly a helicopter.

Helicopters are much safer to fly in adverse weather than drones.

Summary

In this article, we have gone over everything you need to know about whether drones are safer than helicopters stop

There are plenty of considerations when deciding whether a helicopter is better than a drone for a particular task.

If you are pushing the limits of your drone to achieve an outcome, it is most likely that it is safer to use a helicopter in that instance. Drones are limited by the power they can put out through their motors and have reduced lifting capacity.

Suppose you want to capture up-close photos and videos of industrial infrastructure. In that case, a drone is much safer since it is unmanned, produces a small amount of downdraught and, in the event of an accident, will cause much less damage to the surrounding areas.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!