Flying drones is an exciting frontier for hobbyists, pilots, aviators, and photographers alike. From casual drones that come in at under $100 to professional video and racing drones that can cost well over $500, the sky is truly the limit. With various design and performance features to look out for and so many brands in the space, buying a new drone can get a little tricky. This guide will help outline the basic differences between drone types and everything one should know before they hit the sky.
The Basics of Drone Buying
Drones are remote-control (RC) multi-rotor flying devices that provide new ways of looking at the world by taking photos and videos from different perspectives. Many of today’s RC drones offer first-person viewing (FPV) in real time, putting users in the driver’s seat for an exciting joyride where they can explore the air with a pilot’s perspective.
Before it’s time to fly, it’s important to first consider three main things: Budget, experience, and intention. Each of these will vary between shoppers since, ultimately, the perfect drone is different for everyone. Here are some quick tips on what to think about before buying:
- Opting for a cheaper toy drone is a great way to learn the basics before investing in a higher quality device.
- Most drones on the market today will fall into two price categories – under $100 or over $500. Cheaper drones will have very basic features and controls while pricier ones can include high-definition camera equipment and autonomous flight modes.
- A majority of drones are fairly easy to repair following a crash, but the cost of parts can add up.
- Flight times for all types of drones is limited by battery life.
- Learn to stay within the drone’s signal range.
- If possible, use a simulator to get to know the drone better before flight.
Types of Drones
At the lower end of the drone spectrum are toy drones, like the Parrot Mambo and the Hobbico Dromidia Kodo. These simple and inexpensive drones come in at about $100 and are more focused on fun than features. Their controls are straightforward and easy to learn, and they can be accessed through a smartphone app or included remote control.
The flight times of beginner drones and drones for kids are also more limited – generally less than 10 minutes, or even fewer than five for the very cheap models. Designed to perform some tricks, like midair flips, spare parts are available at fairly low prices if anything goes awry. Some small drones also come with video cameras, though the quality captured tends to be poor. But don’t count them out too soon – getting a cheap drone is a fantastic way to learn to fly before upgrading to a more expensive model. They also won’t cost a fortune to fix or replace in the event of a crash.
Drones with cameras – like the DJI Mavic Mini, the Parrot Bebop 2, and the GDU Byrd – are specifically designed to capture images, and range in price from $500 to $1,500. Built to provide a steady platform for the lens, which can either be an add-on or built-in, these sophisticated flying machines are more focused on recording high-quality video and still images than performing midair tricks. Because the equipment needed makes them larger and heavier, video drones need to be registered with the FAA.
Video drones often come with gimbals, which is a system designed to pan and tilt the camera – and cushion it from the motors’ vibrations – to cancel out the drone’s motion and keep the lens steady. Gimbals can either come as an electronic system built into the camera, as seen in the Parrot Bebop 2, or as a physical system made of motors and gears, like in the Mavic Air. Either way, the gimbals allow users to direct the camera at whatever angle they like, to capture beautiful pans like those seen in nature documentaries.
Bigger drones need bigger batteries, which often translates to longer flight times. A fully charged battery typically lasts a video drone around 20 minutes, and they can usually be swapped for spares to extend the session. Like toy drones, video drones are also built to be repaired, and replacement parts are generally easily available. Parts are relatively inexpensive as well, with Mavic Air’s replacement rotor blades running about $20. The quality of video these drones capture can vary widely, from the Bebop 2’s decent but sometimes choppy HD video to the Mavic Air’s super-smooth panning shots. While the videos produced by cheaper models like the Bebop 2 will be good enough for most use cases, it’s worth investing in the more sophisticated DJI drones when quality’s the main focus.
From photographing special occasions to surveying construction sites, drones are being used for an ever-expanding range of purposes. In fact, dedicated drone film festivals have popped up in major cities like New York and Berlin to showcase the creative new ways amateur moviemakers are utilizing their flying machines. Not only that, but the more innovative drones – like the Mavic Air – have built-in autonomous flight tech to make journeys on their own. They can even use cameras to detect and avoid obstacles in the way of their flight path. These more advanced drones allow users to play with their device’s autonomy by letting them navigate a predefined course on their own via GPS. Autonomous flight does, however, come with some restrictions – these drones must be registered with the FAA and have to be kept in the pilot’s line of sight at all times. The pilot must also be able to take back control of the drone at any point.
With the rise of drones came the rise of drone-based competitions – and drone racing might just be the most exciting of all. Racing drones are on the smaller side and designed specifically to offer pilots speed and agility. Users see through their drone’s lens via first-person-view headsets, navigating around a course and trying to beat other fliers. Most racing drones are adapted by hand to shed unnecessary weight or increase motor power. Cheaper models, like the Aerix Black Talon 2.0, start at about $115. Ready-to-fly drones on the higher end of the spectrum, such as the Uvify Draco, can run up to $700.
Drones can be an incredibly fun and fruitful new hobby, but they must be flown responsibly. Even a small toy drone can hurt someone if hit by it, and fingers can get injured if caught in the rotor blades. To fight this, some drones have built-in shields to protect the rotors, but even these aren’t foolproof. It’s best to fly any kind of drone, big or small, with proper care and caution. Here’s five quick tips for drone safety:
- Know the drone. Before the first flight, take the time to read through the instruction manual and get familiar with the controls.
- Check the drone before flight, looking for any damage to the motors or rotors that could fail in the air.
- Never fly near people or animals.
- Fly with caution, particularly when first using a drone or taking a new one for a spin. Always be sure to land before the drone’s battery runs outs.
- Fly with care. Drones can be noisy, annoying and even scary to those near their flight path. If someone asks to stop flying, be reasonable and courteous.
To learn more about drone safety, the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) is a fantastic resource on all things drone. The AMA can help connect drone enthusiasts with others in the area to share both beginner’s flying techniques, and more advanced tips and tricks. Remote-control flying clubs often meet regularly to discuss and fly drones together. But remember that with great power comes great responsibility. Make sure to update all software and firmware before any takeoff, and read the drone’s manual thoroughly before use. For FAA registration requirements and further information on drone safety, check the FAA website. Additional local jurisdiction requirements may apply, so it’s important to stay informed on the latest drone regulations for the area.
Drones & The Law
Recently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) introduced registration requirements for anyone flying a drone weighing over 250g recreationally. Most drones that fall under the toy category will not have to be registered, while those built for video, racing and autonomous flight likely do. Drone registration can be done via the FAA website – and separate, more stringent requirements are applied to professional drone fliers.
Once registered, the registration number must be displayed on the drone. This can be as simple as a sticker or shipping label placed under the battery, along with the owner’s name and number in case of theft or loss. The FAA also defines restrictions on where drones can be flown. They can’t be flown higher than 400 feet, in restricted airspaces, or over emergency areas, like traffic accidents or wildfires. They’re also banned from flying through national parks and cannot be flown within 5 miles of an airport without informing the air traffic controllers. Federal, state, and local regulations can vary, so check with the organizations directly if unsure.
Drone Accessories & Add-ons
Additional hardware can be added to drones that have ample lift from their propellers and motors. Lift specs can be found via the drone manufacturer’s website. In general, drones built to support external cameras are usually equipped to carry an additional half pound or more of weight above that of the drone on its own. Added weight increases stress on the motors and can affect flight time and stability.
The most popular and useful drone accessory is undoubtedly the spare battery. Drone batteries can provide between 5 and 25 minutes of power in the air per charge but can take an hour or longer to recharge. Fortunately, most drone batteries can simply be replaced with a freshly charged one when the power levels get low. To get the most airtime out of each flying session, users should invest in several spares.
The next most useful accessories for drones are spare propellers and parts. Because occasional mishaps and less-than-perfect landings are an inevitable part of flying drones, they were designed to survive crashes. The exterior components are made from sturdy materials – such as polypropylene foam and carbon fiber – that protect the more sensitive parts, like the CPUs, motors and transmitters. The parts that break the most easily, like the propellers, are the cheapest and easiest to repair or replace. New drones often have extra propellers included, and additional spares are usually available for purchase separately as well. Remember that drones need different propellers to spin clockwise and counterclockwise for stability, so it’s wise to get both kinds of spare propellers.
Depending on use cases, other drone add-ons that may be of interest include LED bands, propeller guards and extra landing gear. For photography drones in particular, various lens filters can be added to alter saturation levels, reduce glare, and more. Getting a quality bag or case specifically designed to carry a drone is an important investment as well. Drone bundles can often be found with a number of accessories. Drone cases should have a foam interior built to fit the device and its accessories and protect them from damage during transit.
Here are some featured Drone products.