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Tablet Tips for Drone Pilots
I use an iPad Pro 11 with Wi-fi + Cellular as the heart of my portable office. It's a powerful little machine that allows me to do almost anything I can do using my office computers, from anywhere. If I wanted to, I could run both of my businesses on the iPad.
I used to use a laptop computer for my mobile office, and that's still a viable option. The iPad has several advantages over a laptop, however.
For one thing, the iPad is small, compact, and self-contained, especially with the optional Magic Keyboard and Apple Pencil. The keyboard folds in folio-style with the tablet attached, and the pencil magnetically sticks to the top of the tablet.
The Magic Keyboard's touchpad takes the place of a mouse, and the Apple Pencil can be used as a precision pointer as well as a writing tool. The way they all fit together make the iPad a complete, grab-and-go, portable computing device.
I also have a hard-shell sleeve case that protects the tablet and stores the charger and other doodads I might need. This is the sleeve that I personally use. I keep a USB-C SD card reader to transfer files from my drone to the iPad, a fast-charger and charging cable, and various adapters that I might need to transfer files to clients' devices, in the accessory compartment. That way when I have someplace to go, all I have to do is fold the tablet and slip it into the sleeve as I'm running out the door.
The second advantage to the iPad is that iPad apps tend to be a lot less expensive than comparable desktop software. It also comes with (or has available through the App Store) a generous selection of free apps from Apple themselves. That means that even though an iPad (especially one of the iPad Pro models) is a pricey piece of equipment, it costs a lot less to use in terms of software costs.
Drone-Specific Uses for an iPad
Using an iPad as a Drone Controller
The most obvious use that a drone pilot might have for an iPad is as an alternative to using a cell phone for the remote control. If I didn't have the dedicated Smart Controller for my Autel EVO II Pro 6K didn't exist, I probably would use an iPad or a drone tablet rather than a phone.
To the best of my knowledge, any drone app that will run on an iPhone will also run on an iPad. You will need a tablet mount such as those made by LifThor to mount the iPad to the drone's remote control, however, as well as a suitable cable to connect the controller to the tablet.
Using an iPad as a drone controller has several advantages, not the least of which is the bigger screen. At the time of this writing (in February of 2022), even the smallest iPad, the iPad Mini, has a bigger screen than the biggest iPhone, the iPhone 13 Pro Max (which I also own and occasionally use with my drone).
One thing to be aware of if you're thinking about using an iPad as a drone controller is that you need an iPad with Wi-Fi + Cellular for all of the controller's functions to work. WiFi-only iPads don't have GPS chips. You don't need to actually have a data plan for the GPS chip to work, but you do need an iPad with cellular data capability because they're the only iPads with GPS.
The downside of using an iPad to control your drone is that the screen may not be bright enough for use in bright sunlight unless you use a sun shade. If you have no other use for a tablet except as a drone controller, you may be better off with a specialized drone tablet like those made by TRIPLTEK. These rugged tablets have super-bright screens and are specially designed for use with drones.
Using an iPad to Edit Your Drone Video Footage
You can also use an iPad to edit your drone videos.
When I'm in my office using a desktop computer, my favorite video-editing software is DaVinci Resolve Studio. The combination of the software and the Blackmagic Design Speed Editor make editing a breeze.
When I'm away from the office, however, my favorite way to edit drone footage is by using the LumaFusion app on my iPad Pro.
LumaFusion is an extremely-powerful non-linear video-editing app that's loaded with functionality and renders professional-quality video. It's also easy and intuitive to use if you're familiar with NLE's in general.
If you don't have a computer (or if you simply prefer the iPad), or if you need to edit videos while on the road, I think LumaFusion is the best app out there for editing your drone videos. It has a generous feature set and renders the best-looking finished videos of any iPad video-editing app that I've tried.
Another thing I like about LumaFusion is that as of the time of this writing, the app only costs a one-time payment of USD $29.99. Professional-quality video editing software for desktop computers, on the other hand, typically costs hundreds of dollars or requires expensive monthly subscriptions. It's another example of how an expensive device can actually save you money.
Speaking of which, my iPad Pro, with its M1 processor, is more than powerful enough to edit and render professional-quality videos at 4K / 60. I don't know about the "regular" iPad, however, because I haven't tried it.
I believe the new iPad Air (2022) should also be able to edit drone videos, and at a much lower cost than the iPad Pro. Apple's promotional video shows a brief segment of the iPad Air being used to run LumaFusion. But again, I haven't tried it, so I can't speak from experience on that.
What it comes down to is that if video editing on the go is a big part of why you're considering an iPad, one of the iPad Pro models will deliver the best experience. If video editing will only be an occasional thing, then most likely the iPad Air (2022) will be powerful enough; and maybe the "regular" iPad or the iPad Mini will work.
Here's a quick demo video in 4K at 60fps that I edited using LumaFusion on my iPad Pro 11 (2021).
This is just a simple demo video. The app is able to do much, much more. (The PDF manual for the app is 373 pages long!)
If your video-editing needs are simple, you can also use iMovie, which is a free iOS / iPad app by Apple that you can download from the App Store. It's pretty limited in terms of functionality, but it does output quality video. And it's free.
Using an iPad to Edit Your Drone Photographs
The iPad can also be used to edit still photos taken with a drone.
My favorite photo-editing software for both my desktop computers and my iPad is Affinity Photo. It's a powerful, but affordable, professional-quality image editor.
I like Affinity Photo for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is because it's a one-time purchase, not a subscription. At the time of this writing, a perpetual license for the iPad version costs only USD $21.99. Adobe Photoshop, on the other hand, is only available as part of a Creative Cloud subscription that you'll have to pay every month -- forever. I don't like that.
In my own case, because I use Affinity Photo on both my desktop computers and my iPad, I also like the interoperability. Files that I edit on one machine can be further edited on another, if needed.
Being able to edit your drone photos on an iPad can be a huge advantage if you're a Part 107 pilot on a gig where the client needs the edited photos right away. You can copy the pictures to an SD card using an Micro SD card reader with the correct connection for your tablet; or if your tablet has a data connection, you can upload the pictures to iCloud or an image-sharing site, email them, or send them to the client by MMS.
If you don't want to buy a full-fledged, professional-quality image-editing app like Affinity Photo, the iPad's built-in Photos app also has a very decent photo editor. It's more than adequate for quick edits of the kind usually needed for missions like real estate pictures or insurance claims. For aerial stock photography, however, you'll probably want something more powerful like Affinity.
Using an iPad to Run Aviation Weather and Airspace Apps
Finally, an iPad with Wifi + Cellular can be used to run drone apps and aviation apps in general. B4UFLY, Airmap, UAV Forecast, ForeFlight, and every other aviation or drone app that's available for iOS that I know of will run fine on an iPad.
Any Web-based aviation apps will also work fine on an iPad that has GPS and a data connection. Just access the sites using the built-in Safari browser or a third-party browser downloaded from the App Store.
The same goes for flight education apps such as the Part 107 Made Easy course and accompanying study materials from Pilot Institute.
The catch is that apps or Web sites that require location data will only work properly on an iPad with WiFi + Cellular. All aviation apps that I know of require location information and a data connection; and only the iPads equipped with cellular have a GPS chip. You can tether the iPad to a phone for the data connection if you don't have a tablet data plan, but there's no getting around the need for the GPS chip.
Using an iPad to Run Credit Card Charges
I have my credit card processor's app installed on my iPad, and the Bluetooth chip reader paired to it. It makes it a lot easier to run credit card charges in the field. Because the tablet has the Magic Keyboard and the Apple Pencil, it's a lot more convenient to type out the invoice and have the customer sign for the charge than it would be using a phone; and because the tablet has its own mobile Internet connection, I don't have to connect it to WiFi as long as I have a cell signal.
Protecting Your iPad
A high-quality tablet suitable for a drone pilot's mission is a big investment that needs protection. You don't want to just throw an expensive device like a tablet in the trunk where it will be bounced around.
The best way to protect an iPad is with a hard shell sleeve case specifically designed for that iPad model. The Smatree A330B in the picture is my personal iPad carrying case, sitting on my own dusty glass desk.
Some of the things I like about this case are that it has a hard shell, interior padding, and sturdy metal (not plastic) clips to hold the strap on. It also has a second hard-shell compartment to hold and protect doodads like chargers, cables, and SD card readers that we might need in the field.
The other thing I like about this particular case is that my iPad with the Magic Keyboard and the Apple Pencil attached fit perfectly in the sleeve without being taken apart. So if I have to fly on short notice, all I have to do is fold the tablet, stash it in the sleeve, and go. I keep an extra charger, cable, SD card reader, and so forth in the accessory compartment.
What About Android Tablets?
The reason I haven't mentioned Android tablets is because I don't have one (other than the Smart Controller, which runs a custom Android OS). I assume there are apps corresponding to the ones I mentioned above for Android; but since they're not what I use, I can't comment intelligently on them.
About all I can say for sure is that if you want to run drone apps (or aviation apps in general) on an Android, make sure to buy one with GPS. Beyond that, I'm afraid you'll need to find someone who knows more about Android tablets than I do. If your drone's manufacturer has a forum, that may be a good place to start your research.
Revised May 20, 2023.