Camera Technology in Drones (Explained) – Droneblog

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Drone cameras help us ascend into the sky and experience new vantage points we could never achieve on our own two feet.

Have you ever stopped and wondered how the technology behind these cameras works?

Drone cameras feature image and video stabilization and high-res sensors. They work with other sensors like gyroscopes and accelerometers to keep the drone stable when filming and photographing.

You can use your remote controller or smartphone to control the drone, adjusting the focus, zoom, angle, and other parameters. It’s fascinating stuff!

This guide to drone camera technology will paint a detailed picture of how these cameras work, including all the nuances such as video bitrate and ND filters.

How does a drone camera work?

Drone cameras consist of many components, so let’s identify them first and then discuss how they work in tandem.

Gimbal

A drone gimbal provides support to the camera. When your drone ascends and glides through the sky, the gimbal lets the camera stay at a consistent angle. More importantly, the gimbal provides stability, lessening vibrations to ensure smooth footage.

The gimbal consists of motors and a camera mount, which assure vibration reduction and stability.

Some gimbals have a single axis, and others have several axes. A three-axis gimbal is the most common, but some advanced drones have a four-axis gimbal.

Using a three-axis gimbal as an example, it will adjust according to the pitch, roll, or yaw.

Pitch is a measure of the drone tilting up or down, with a cogwheel on your remote for setting it. The roll is the degree of tilt, and the yaw adjusts the gimbal to the right or left while keeping the drone from turning in any direction.

» MORE: What Is a Gimbal in Drones? (Explained for Beginners)

Sensors

A sensor is how you see the world through the drone camera. The size and quality of a sensor determine the image and video resolution. Larger sensors produce higher-resolution imagery that most pilots aspire toward.

A larger sensor produces better quality footage because it can receive more light, providing the full scope of the visual details of your surroundings.

Most sensors from major drone manufacturers like DJI are one inch. That might seem small compared to the full-frame sensor on a camera like the Canon 5D Mark IV Full Frame, but it’s plenty big for a drone.

For example, the DJI Mavic Air 2 has a half-inch sensor, so a model like the DJI Air 2S with a one-inch sensor has a clear advantage in the photography and videography departments.

Another difference between larger and mid-sized sensors is pixel size. Pixels absorb the light, convert it into an electric signal, and then into the signal that becomes your digital image. The larger the pixels, the more light they absorb. Your image will have more sharpness and detail, elevating your photography and videography game.

As larger sensors become more of a mainstay in drone technology, they will likely become more reasonably priced. However, as it stands now, drone cameras with larger sensors are costlier.

Lens

Drone cameras also have a lens, typically between 10 and 1,200 millimeters. Focal length is measured by glass curvature and sensor size. A long focal length reduces the resolution, which can come in handy for surveying and inspections but not necessarily for photography and videography. 

Stabilization

Not every drone has a gimbal. Lower-cost entry models will forego the gimbal to save on production expenses. Those drones must have some means of stabilization without a gimbal.

The main feature here is electronic image stabilization, abbreviated as EIS.

EIS reduces jittering in photos and videos that can make your footage look like a deleted scene from The Blair Witch Project. The technology uses a motion sensor to determine where the movement is coming from, then adjusts the video or image to reduce the shakiness.

Between a gimbal and EIS, the former provides more reliable stability. Lower-cost drones especially tend to suffer from shakiness or blurriness, even with EIS.

Putting it all together

Once you launch your drone, the remote controller and an accompanying app allow you to see your camera view. You can use your smartphone or the controller to adjust the camera while the drone is in flight, zooming in on specific targets, changing angles, or setting the focus.

Many drones have transmission systems that allow you to send your videos and photos as you take them. You can edit and post them on the go, even live-streaming in some instances.

What’s the size of a drone camera?

The size of a drone camera varies by manufacturer and model. However, as drone technology has continued to race forward at the speed of light, drone cameras have become more revolutionary.

Drone manufacturers have discovered how to size a camera so a drone weighs under the 250-gram threshold required for FAA drone registration.

Camera sensors are also extraordinary. I’ll look more into them later, but for now, here are some sizes of sensors included with the most cutting-edge drone cameras:

  • DJI Mini 3: 1/1.3 inches
  • Autel EVO Pro II: 1 inches
  • DJI Mini 3 Pro: 1/1.3 inches
  • DJI Mini 4: 1 1/.3 inches
  • DJI Mavic 3 Classic: 4/3 inches

Can you attach ND filters to drone cameras?

Let’s discuss ND filters. Known as neutral-density filters, these photography aids reduce the light and wavelength intensity. Some ND filters are gray, and others are translucent.

Although you might think that lessening the light that comes through will reduce detail and image fidelity, that’s not always the case. If anything, using an ND filter increases your control over some elements of photography, including the exposure time and aperture.

» MORE: Best ND Filters for DJI Avata

With that little lesson out of the way, can you use an ND filter for drone cameras? You sure can!

The world of ND filters is vast. They’re available in various strengths, which are assigned by number. For example, an ND64 filter is stronger than an ND4 filter.

That doesn’t necessarily mean you should grab the strongest ND filter. The appropriate type depends partially on the weather. For instance, you should choose an ND32 filter on a clear, sunny day.

You can also select a polarizing ND filter designed to lessen reflections and glare by preventing some light wavelengths from coming through. Polarizing ND filters are best when photographing metal, glass, or water.

For more recommendations on which type of ND filter to use for drone photography and videography, check out these posts:

Best ND Filters for DJI Mini 3

Best ND Filters for DJI FPV

Latency of a standard drone camera

Thus far, I’ve talked about features you want to find in a drone camera, like EIS and gimbals. Now, it’s time to discuss one you don’t: latency.

Latency is a measure of how much time it takes to capture a frame and display it. As you can imagine, latency can cause disruptions in the continuity of drone videos and make photography iffy, especially if you’re trying to capture something unique that’s there one second and gone the next.

Now that you understand the basics of latency, how much does a standard drone camera have? You should expect about 100 milliseconds. That’s about the standard rate, with a latency rating of under 100 milliseconds better and under 50 milliseconds best.

You might be able to improve the drone camera’s latency by tinkering with the brightness and resolution, but keep in mind that your adjustments will affect the quality of your photos or videos.

What is the bitrate in a drone video?

When shooting drone video, the footage will have a bitrate for encoding. Measured in megabits per second for video, bitrate dictates the video quality when streaming. A higher bitrate produces better quality but comes with the sacrifice of requiring more bandwidth.

A 1 Mbps bitrate is 7 megabytes, and an 8 Mbps bitrate is 40 megabytes.

The following table reveals the bitrate of popular drone models.

Drone Model Bitrate
DJI Spark 24 Mbps
DJI Mini SE 40 Mbps
DJI Mavic Mini 40 Mbps
Hubsan H1175 Zino Pro 60 Mbps
Xiaomi Fimi A3 60 Mbps
SwellPro Spry+ 64 Mbps
PowerVision PowerEgg X 75 Mbps
Skydio 2 100 Mbps
DJI Mavic Air 100 Mbps
Parrot Anafi 100 Mbps
DJI Mavic 2 Pro 100 Mbps
Autel EVO 100 Mbps
DJI FPV 120 Mbps
DJI Air 2S 150 Mbps
DJI Mavic 3 200 Mbps
Parrot Anafi AI 200 Mbps

What CMOS does a drone camera have?

CMOS is short for complementary metal oxide semiconductor. It’s a type of sensor used to generate the image your drone camera picks up.

The size of the CMOS sensor depends on the drone model. Here are the types and accompanying measurements:

  • 2/3-inch CMOS: 6.6 millimeters tall, 8.8 millimeters wide, 11 millimeters diagonally
  • ½-inch CMOS: 4.8 millimeters tall, 6.4 millimeters wide, 8 millimeters diagonally
  • 1/2.3-inch CMOS: 4.55 millimeters tall, 6.17 millimeters wide, 7.66 millimeters diagonally
  • 1/2.5-inch CMOS: 4.29 millimeters tall, 5.76 millimeters wide, 7.18 millimeters diagonally
  • 1/3-inch CMOS: 3.6 millimeters tall, 4.8 millimeters wide, 6 millimeters diagonally
  • 1/3.2-inch CMOS: 3.42 millimeters tall, 4.54 millimeters wide, 5.68 millimeters diagonally
  • ¼-inch CMOS: 2.7 millimeters tall, 3.6 millimeters wide, 4.5 millimeters diagonally

Drone camera filming resolution

Video resolution refers to how many pixels are in each frame. Like image resolution, a higher number denotes better quality, so you can create lifelike footage with your drone.

Quality and resolution have evolved with drone technology, with amazing resolution available. 4K is the standard, but even that’s been usurped by 5.2K and 6K resolution.

Whether your drone offers such a spectacular resolution depends on how much you paid for it. Even 4K isn’t universal across all drones. If you’re shopping around for a beginner-friendly, entry-level drone, it’s not uncommon to see 2.5K quality as the highest resolution.

This is a cost-saving measure. A low-res camera also suits the type of drone better. A beginner drone is for someone trying everything out. If you discover you like drone videography, you can always upgrade your drone to something more expensive with a higher resolution.

Drones with high video resolution are great, but do your wallet no favors. These are some of the costliest consumer drones on the market.

FPV drone camera with digital transmission (DJI)

DJI’s Digital FPV System for its FPV drones includes the DJI FPV Remote Controller, DJI FPV Goggles, DJI FPV Camera, and DJI FPV Air Unit Module.

Built for drone racing but suitable for other purposes, the Digital FPV System has a low-latency max video transmission range of 4 kilometers or 28 milliseconds. 

Its image quality, as perceived through the DJI FPV Goggles, is 120 frames per second in 720p quality. You can fly up to eight drones at once using the Digital FPV System.

That’s not all! The DJI FPV Air Unit will record video in 1080p at 60 fps. The transmission between the DJI FPV Air Unit and DJI FPV RC is 7 milliseconds, so it’s certainly low latency.

The end-to-end latency of 28 milliseconds the DJI HDL FPV Transmission boasts is top-of-the-line. Its video transmission is smooth, streamlined, and high-quality, especially compared to analog systems.

The anti-interference digital transmission has a two-way system for stronger communications and signal stability.

FPV drone camera with analog transmission

Analog video transmission is the lesser of the two, with an average latency of 23 to 35 milliseconds. That’s higher than in digital transmission systems, especially by DJI, but still suitable for FPV activities like racing and extreme sports.

Here’s some background info. Analog transmission uses a radio frequency band to transmit video, with various power settings and bandwidths available. However, the parameters are set by law, so you can’t explore to your heart’s content.

Most FPV drones will transmit using analog at a frequency of 5 gigahertz. The FPV antenna must be able to pick up the frequency for good reception during use. The antenna should always be angled away from the battery and frame of the drone and headset.

You can choose from several types of connectors, with UfL and MMCX two of the most popular because they’re lightweight. Some pilots make a pigtail, with one of the aforementioned connectors on one side and then an SMA connector attached to the other side.

SMA connectors are a good choice for hard-mounting, explaining why they’re used for these purposes.

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