When I was considering drones that have a high payload capacity, I looked at rigs that can lift from seven up to 30 lbs.
These drones are suitable for lifting cameras to do professional photography and filmmaking, and they can carry many other components as well.
FAA rules state these drones must be registered. For ones that weigh less than 55 lbs. (including the weight they are carrying), registration is easily made on the FAA Drone Zone website.
A paper application is necessary to register any drones with a weight greater than 55 lbs.
All of the drones I reviewed are under the 55 lbs. limit so registration with the FAA is easy. You are required to mark your drone with its unique FAA registration number. As the owner, you are responsible for what that drone is seen doing by others. This also helps with recovery if your drone is lost or stolen.
Since most of the uses for heavy-lifting drones are for commercial purposes, most operators will need to obtain an FAA remote-pilot certificate. This is obtained by taking a test and paying a fee. The application process is on the FAA remote-pilot certificate webpage.
Hobby use does not require a pilot’s license; however, you cannot make money or receive any in-kind services for flying the drone if you want to take advantage of this hobby drone-flying exemption.
This article includes a buying guide to help you choose the best model for you, and my picks for the best drones for lifting heavy payloads in 2019.
Table of the Best Heavy Lift Drones
DJI Spreading Wings S900
Freefly Systems ALTA UAV
DJI Matrice 600
DJI Matrice 100
What is payload?
The payload is the amount of weight that the manufacturer of a heavy-lift drone says it can carry. Sometimes the manufacturer gives the total lift-off weight instead.
This is different than the payload because it includes the weight of the drone. If the manufacturer’s specifications only give the lift-off weight, then subtract the weight of the drone from that amount to get the payload weight.
If you try to exceed the payload by carrying something heavier than the limit, the drone may not be able to take off or it may not fly properly. This can be dangerous. The excessive weight may cause a drone to crash.
It is advisable to always to operate a drone with less than the maximum payload. Be aware that flying conditions, such as severe winds, also affect carrying ability.
In bad weather, the effective payload that a drone can carry safely may be far less than the maximum allowed by the manufacturer’s recommendations. Also, flight time is reduced by carrying a heavier payload because the drone uses more power faster to stay up in the air.
What can a drone carry?
Up to the maximum payload, a heavy-lifting drone can carry almost anything such as a camera, special equipment, a package, a pizza, a six-pack of beer, or your girlfriend’s really tiny, annoying, yappy Chihuahua dog (Please do NOT try this, I am joking!).
Because these drones are expensive, they are usually used to carry specialized sensing equipment, conduct aerial surveys, record high-definition video for feature films, and take high-resolution photographs.
It is very common to use them for promotions, at live events, and for commercial advertisements. They can take professional cameras aloft to get great shots from wonderful positions.
Public safety departments use them to take equipment and medical supplies for emergencies to heart attack victims, auto accidents, wildfires, and transport these items to inaccessible remote locations.
One company them to take snake anti-venom to villages in South America located in the Amazon jungle. These drones are terrific for getting heavier things to places that are hard to get to otherwise.
Key specs/features of heavy lift drones
These drones are built with modular features that allow the drone flyer to swap out the equipment as desired.
These drones can be outfitted with many types of professional cameras.
For example, GoPro has many cameras that drone flyers like to use with these drones. Another popular drone camera is a Zenmuse. If a camera fits on a Zenmuse gimbal it can be carried by most of these drones.
Manufacturers of professional drones, like the ones in this category, know that the pilots who buy these drones are usually very skilled at remote flying.
These are not the kind of drones that a person who is a beginner should try to fly without any previous experience. These drones are built for the flight characteristics that professionals need.
Some of these drones have the capability to work with programmable flight paths that can be set up in advance of flying so that the drone performs complex maneuvers on its flight path.
All of these drones work with controllers that meet commercial standards and can maintain connectivity for considerable distances up to one mile or more for the flight range.
Operators who prefer flying with a first-person view (FPV) can operate these drones using virtual reality (VR) headgear by buying the necessary optional accessories to achieve that capability.
The flight times for these drones that are the stronger ones in this class are up to 30 minutes on a single battery charge. Some of these drones are made to fly in inclement weather and have the power needed to be stable against high winds. Their motors are quite strong and some of them can fly very fast.
How much does a heavy-lift model cost compared to others?
The ones I reviewed in this category of lifting drones cost from $3,000 up to $15,000. All of them are in the range of $3,000 to $5,000 except one, which costs closer to $14,000.
Benefits of drones with a high payload
The first big benefit of owning a drone or drones from this category is that you will be considered a professional drone flyer and no longer just a hobby enthusiast. Advertising that you operate one of these drones is a great way to get some paid work.
If you are a creative type, you can make videos for YouTube to promote your services. If they get popular, you can monetize the web traffic and receive money from YouTube. You need to get a lot of views, like millions.
However, if you do get that popular, you can receive a portion of the advertising dollars that YouTube gets for people who watch ads along with your videos.
How to choose a heavy-lift drone
Buying a heavy-lift drone is an important purchase. Many drone flyers who buy one have other drones already.
A drone in this category serves a specific need. Take your time when making this decision and check out the videos that show them flying (I included links to my favorites in a section below).
If possible, reach out to someone who has one to get a real opinion of how it flies. Perhaps, if you are lucky, they will let you take it on a test flight that they supervise.
Here are the important considerations:
Types of Flying
If you have a distinct purpose for flying, this makes it easier to decide on a drone. Consider possible bad weather and how well the drone works with the equipment or things it needs to carry for you.
If you are not certain of how you will fly or there are multiple uses for the drone, you will want a drone that provides as much flexibility as possible so you can change what it carries easily.
You will need at least $3,000 to $4,000 to buy a drone in this category. Accessories can add up to $2,000 more.
Except for the highest priced drone that I reviewed, which needs closer to $15,000 for everything, if you have about $5,000 to spend you are in the correct ballpark as far as the necessary budget goes.
Some projects for flying heavy-lift drones have exact requirements. For example, we know of one luxury hotel in the San Francisco Bay Area that uses drones to deliver champagne and wine to the balconies of its guests.
The hotel needed a drone strong enough to carry the bottles and wanted it to be as quiet as possible, so as not to disturb the other guests. If your project has such specifics, then buy a drone that does what you need.
Drone pilots who operate a heavy-lift drone use professional-quality controllers for flying. Some prefer FPV flying using a VR headset. For complex or repetitive flights, having a programmable flight-path capability may be very useful.
The drone must be able to carry the payload and still fly well. A good rule of thumb is to have a capability of flying with twice the weight of what you want to carry.
For example, a drone with a payload capacity of 5 lbs. would not be a good choice to carry a wine bottle that weighs 4.9 lbs. For that drone-flying effort, it would be better to use a drone that can carry about 10 lbs.
Flight time may be one of the most important considerations, especially if the drone has to carry something to a remote location.
One way to extend the flight time is to carry along extra batteries; however, this reduces the payload that a drone can carry.
Safety for heavy-lifting drones has additional precautions than regular drones have.
Not only should you be concerned about the drone losing power, without warning, and falling out of the sky; you should also be concerned that it may accidentally drop its payload in the wrong place.
Safety parachutes that deploy automatically can help reduce serious accidents and injuries from these risks.
Most of the drones in this category are workhorses and designed to be customized for a particular purpose.
Besides buying just the drone, you are very likely to buy quite a few accessories. The cost of them can really add up. Plan your budget accordingly.
It is good to know the maintenance requirements for these drones, especially the cost of replacement parts.
Warranty and After-Purchase Care
The highest priced drone in this category that I reviewed is made in the USA with a strong warranty.
Customer service is excellent and even though this drone costs almost five times the cost of the other ones, it can be maintained and kept in perfect condition with the help of American technicians.
A common problem with drones from other countries is the lack of good after-purchase care in the United States. It may take considerable amounts of time to ship out a drone for repairs or to wait for spare parts to arrive.
Downtime can cause a business to lose a lot of money in missed opportunities. Many professional drone flyers have more than one drone for this exact reason. If one drone is out of service, the business can still continue to operate with the other one.
Expected Useful Life
An estimate needs to be made of the useful life for a drone in order to calculate the overall costs of owning it, maintaining it, and earning revenues by using it for its expected useful life.
Add up the purchase costs including the costs of all accessories. To this figure, add any cost for financing the purchase and for carrying insurance on the drone.
Estimate the maintenance costs and use a reasonable allocation for buying spare parts to make repairs. Total all of that up and then divide the total by the estimated useful life (in flight hours) to get a cost per hour of expected flying time. You now have the fixed costs.
Add to this number, the variable costs for each hour’s use to operate the drone, such as the cost of the electricity for recharging the batteries and the cost of pilot labor. Then, you have the full cost per hour.
You can use this figure to give the boss at your company for budgeting purposes. If you work for clients on a per-job basis, add a profit amount per hour to this number and you can quote your hourly rates to fly this drone for them.
Here is a checklist to use to make sure you considered everything necessary to make a good choice between drones in this category:
- Types of Flying
- Project Characteristics
- Operator Mode(s)
- Flight Time
- Optional Accessories
- Warranty and After-Purchase Care
- Expected Useful Life
- Operational Expenses
Who are these drones best for?
This category of drones is suitable for professionals that use them as part of their job or provide professional drone-flying services to clients. These drones are not suitable for beginners.
Top Heavy Lift Drones - Reviews
1. DJI Spreading Wings S900 - Best Overall
The DJI Spreading Wings S900 is a workhorse drone that is made to lift professional cameras. It can be fitted with any Zenmuse Z15 gimbal. It is made from lightweight carbon fiber.
With a 6S 12000mAH battery (sold separately) it can fly up to 18 minutes carrying a full load of 18 lbs. of total take-off weight. It has a DJI A2 flight controller.
- Long flight time.
- Can be configured for customized needs.
- The landing gear rises after take-off for an unobstructed view to take 360-degree shots.
- After-purchase customer support may be lacking.
2. xFold Travel
The xFold Travel has a payload capacity of 21.8 lbs and comes with dual-operator controls.
This allows a hand-off to another person for an extended flying range. The propeller blades fold down for transporting.
It operates by using a DJI NAZA V2 flight control system that is compatible with all professional-grade flight controllers.
- Made in USA.
- A 12-month warranty service program is included.
- Modular x8 or x12 motors and propellers are available.
- Quite pricey.
The Freefly Systems ALTA UAV came out about three years ago with a suggested retail price of $11,995. Now, there are used/refurbished ones for sale online for around $4,000.
This drone sets up quickly and is ready to fly in about five minutes. An optional MōVI camera can be mounted on top or on the bottom giving a sky-view or a ground-view shot.
It comes with SYNAPSE programming that allows it to make complex flight patterns that are programmed by the operator. Flight time is up to 40 minutes.
- Made in the USA.
- Optimized for payloads of up to 15 lbs.
- Ultra-lightweight carbon fiber frame.
- Slightly older tech.
The DJI Matrice 600 is designed for professional aerial photographers and filmmakers.
It is also used for many commercial and industrial applications. It has a DJI A3 flight controller that works with a Lightbridge 2 transmitter. It uses intelligent batteries along with a power usage management system for maximum performance and quick setup.
It works with Zenmuse gimbals and cameras. It can lift up to 34 lbs. in total take-off weight. It weighs only 1.3 lbs. and flies up to 40 mph. With the optional use of six TB48S batteries, it can fly without a payload for up to 38 minutes.
With a payload of around 12 lbs. it can fly for up to 18 minutes.
- Dual-user controls.
- Can lift a payload of over 30 lbs.
- Long flight times are possible with optional batteries.
- When shipped, it comes as separate parts that require assembly.
The DJI Matrice 100 works with the Zenmuse x3 camera. It has a take-off capacity of 7.5 lbs.
Its flight time, with the camera attached and a one-pound payload, is up to 19 minutes when using one TB48D battery. Using two of these batteries, with no payload, extends the flight time up to 40 minutes.
It comes with a controller and two expansion bays, which allow you to attach components that you want to use. And the DJI Matrice 100 has a guidance system and two parallel UART ports to connect third-party components as you choose.
- Easy to customize for carrying special equipment.
- Long flight time.
- Universal power and communication ports.
- Camera and components need to be purchased separately.
My favorite of the heavy-lift drones is the DJI Spreading Wings S900 because it is excellent to use for professional filmmaking. It is strong, customizable, and a good value for the price.
The drone can carry plenty of weight and take off with 18 lbs. to fly for up to 18 minutes. It works with any Zenmuse Z15 gimbal. This allows it to carry many choices of Zenmuse cameras. And the retractable landing gear moves out of the way. This allows the drone to get a perfect shot with an unobstructed 360-degree view.