Shhh.. the Yuneec H520 is coming

At first it’s hard not to assume the new drone from Yuneec is pretty much the current model in a new shell. After all, this machine is a very visible shade of orange. That rather overwhelms any other differences on first inspection.

But then, it starts up.

This machine is quiet. Really quiet. It’s a small thing, but any professional UAV operator will know the public reaction to something sawing its way through the sky. Or the reaction on site when you turn up to work with what appears to be a very angry bee. These things may be a miracle of technology, but they make their presence felt in all the wrong ways.

Not that the H520 is a stealth machine. It has a job to do — hence the practical choice of orange for best visibility — and it’s not designed to fit in a toy box. The number 520 refers to the distance between opposite motors, the span in millimetres, which in old money is 20.5 inches. That’s a full inch and a half bigger than the current model that it resembles. When unfolded then, it has a real presence in the sky. But the sound is cleaner, quieter and a whole lot less intrusive than machines half its size. The first impression it gives is professional.

That continues as it calmly holds its position in front of you. The choice of six rotors mean that Yuneec drones have always been remarkably stable in flight, coping with strong winds that would carry other drones away. However, the new machine comes with larger motors and more accurate sensors that appear to pretty much eliminate all drift. There seems to be very little variation in height, which is a common problem with barometric sensors and the GPS hold is impressively solid. What’s more, this stability is achieved without downward facing cameras so the machine will stay put at 5 feet above the ground, 50 feet above the ground or (if you have permission) 500 feet above the ground.

Time to move. The Yuneec leans smoothly into motion and then stops on a dime when asked. It feels precise and accurate. This is an early version of the firmware, but it’s a step up on the previous model — which already had a good reputation for feel and control. Stick response is balanced and quick, with no jerkiness or twitching. It builds confidence. Certainly enough to turn off GPS (managed with a flick of a switch and just as easily restored), and the machine remains reassuringly under control.

Not that there’s much reason to switch GPS off. The older model limited its top speed with satellite positioning to around 30mph. The newer flight controller allows the H520 to reach nearly 45mph whilst still giving accurate position control. From full speed I’m told it can stop on the spot within just a few feet. Operators planning to use the machine to film fast moving sports will be very pleased with this performance.

Does this increased speed come at a cost? It appears not. Besides the motors and flight controller, the battery is new, with a higher capacity that delivers a genuine half hour flight time. No doubt extreme manoeuvres will reduce this, but busy demonstrations at recent shows have still seen over 28 minutes in the air. My flight with the machine didn’t last that long, but the battery level stayed impressively high (and current Typhoon owners will be glad to hear, shown in percentages).

What else has changed? The ST-16 controller has been given a makeover, (now called ST16S) with a swap-able battery pack and second full size USB port that should support mobile data connections in the field. The software is completely new, with highly configurable return to home and alerting, and an improved binding procedure (the aircraft can be bound without a camera now). Whereas the older software was general purpose and in places hid the technical details, this puts everything front and center, with information and control over many of the details of flight. The focus on professional users is very clear here and gives the system quite a different feel.

The early preview I flew didn’t include the new 1" sensor E90 camera that offers 4K video at 60fps. Reports are that the image quality is excellent (including 20MP stills), but as yet very little test footage has been seen. This camera is joined by the E50, a narrower view camera designed for inspection work. The 360 degree gimbal system has held a lot of promise for Yuneec, so it’s good news that they seem poised to capitalise on it for the new model. The more disappointing news is that messages are very mixed as to whether the E90 will work with the Typhoon H. As the possibility of future upgrades were a strong selling point of the older machine, there are likely to be some upset owners if Yuneec cannot deliver and are seen to be ‘forcing’ upgrades on loyal customers.

On this test machine though, the message is clear. This is a product aimed to solve problems in the field, to provide a one-stop solution for commercial users. This is a welcome change from the rather woolly marketing of the Typhoon H that straddles the ‘pro-sumer’ market and tries to be both a hobby machine and a more serious tool. Whilst the hobbyist owners may feel a little left behind for now, professional pilots should be pleased to see such sharp focus on delivering a sophisticated and robust machine that can be trusted to perform on command.

So the H520 isn’t the current Typhoon H in a new outfit. It’s a very different beast. For commercial operators and serious users, this is a clear evolution of the Yuneec platform. Drone technology is advancing very rapidly at the moment, and even six month old models are being improved on — so a year after the release of the original Typhoon, this is a welcome and very impressive update.

Thanks to Yuneec UK for letting me fly the H520.

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