The Best iPad for UAV Pilots and Field Use?

Tablet computer chest pack in snow

I am a big fan of the iPad Air2 for both field and office use. I found it to be a huge upgrade over the iPad Air – mainly because it is much easier to view the display in sunlight. I wanted to find out if the iPad Pro 9.7” is enough of an upgrade to make it worthwhile to purchase over the iPad Air 2.

As a forester on Canada’s west coast I have found that when selecting a tablet for field use there are a 4 important considerations:

  1. Availability of ruggedized water resistant cases for the tablet
  2. Battery life – this is a challenge with all of the “consumer grade” tablets that do not have batteries that can be swapped out during the day
  3. Operation in the rain – I have tested Windows, Android and Apple tablets with water on the screen.  None of them are perfect but all work well enough with the exception of very heavy rain
  4. Viewing in sunlight – this is likely the most important.  If you cannot see the screen its difficult to get your work done

There are certainly other things that should be considered (i.e. processor speed, storage, RAM, Camera, GPS, etc.) However, there are many other reviews that cover these in great detail. I am going to focus on only the four listed above, as I believe these are mission critical for field users.

Rugged Cases

On Canada’s west (wet) coast protection from water damage is an absolute necessity. In this region Lifeproof cases have become the de facto standard for protecting tablets from the elements. I prefer the Lifeproof Nuud case as there is no cover on the screen.  This improves the ability to view the screen in full sunlight when compared to cases which have a plastic film over the screen such as the Lifeproof Fre’ case.  To help you make an informed choice regarding the best case for your needs I would suggest learning something about Ingress Protection (IP) ratings. Wikipedia has a great explanation of the IP ratings. Lifeproof will soon have a Nuud case available for the iPad Pro 9.7”.

Battery Life

Apple claims that all of their current iPads will run for about 9 hours.  However, if you don’t practice good power management none of them will last a full day in the field.  By far the biggest consumer of power is the screen.  Limit the time you have the screen on by tapping the power button to turn the screen off when you don’t need to view it.  Apps will continue to run with the screen off, which allows you to do things like recording a GPS track. Also, turn down screen brightness to dramatically extend your run time.  If you are not using cellular data, WiFi or Bluetooth then turn these off.

For field users the iPad Pro will have superior battery life because of the better screen technology. This makes it possible to efficiently work at lower screen brightness levels than the iPad Air 2 – more on this below.

Operation in the Rain

The iPad Pro Pencil is a great addition for field use, particularly in the rain. It does not use the same capacitive sensor that is used to detect your fingers.  Water droplets can activate this capacitive digitizer. Without the Pencil, and with water on the screen, performing precise annotations is significantly more difficult.  I found that the pencil worked very accurately even with water droplets running down the screen. However, I would need to have a very compelling reason to purchase the pencil as I suspect it will have a limited lifespan in wet weather.

Viewing in Sunlight

In full sunlight the iPad Pro is a clear winner. I placed the iPad Pro and iPad Air in the worst possible conditions (bright sunlight) and could see the difference immediately. I compared the two iPads with a photo taken of a garden and of a magazine cover.  The Air2 has the white bezel and the Pro has the black bezel in the photos below.

iPad Pro 9.7 versus iPad Air 2

iPad Air2 versus iPad Pro 9.7

The improved display technology available in the iPad Pro makes the additional cost worthwhile. Apple has made several incremental improvements that have made the screen significantly easier to view in full sunlight. If you want to learn the details of the technical wizardry Apple has incorporated into the iPad Pro please visit the Display Mate website for a very detailed explanation.


If you are in the market for a new iPad to use in the field look no further than the iPad Pro 9.7” equipped with a Lifeproof Nuud Case. The improved screen technology will make you more productive and significantly extend battery life by allowing the screen brightness to be reduced. I would not recommend the pencil unless you need to do a lot of precise annotations – it works great for this!

If you are on a budget get an iPad Air 2. It is still a terrific tablet for field users. For forestry fieldwork I will continue to use my Air 2. However, if I was regularly piloting a UAV I would be investing in an iPad Pro 9.7” because of the extended periods of time that imagery must be viewed.

Also, I would like to thank Staples Canada’s store in Duncan, British Columbia for making an iPad Pro and Pencil available for this review.

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