Drone Buying Guide: How To Choose The Right Drone For You
So you want to buy yourself a new drone, you’ve seen all those new drones for sale everywhere…you’ve seen that they are taking the world by storm and you want a piece of the fun for yourself. I don’t blame you! As a matter of fact, I salute you for this decision! 🙂 Owning and flying drones has been one of the most exciting things I’ve done for myself in the past few years.
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.
What is A Drone?
Drones are generally built for recreational purposes, but they’re also used for professional aerial photography and videography, to carry cargo, to inspect bridges and flare stacks and industrial chimney towers, to track wildlife, and in a number of other budding, drone-related fields.
First of all, we are going to take a look at what types of drones that are available. There are cheap drones, immensely expensive ones, and all of the prices in the middle. Here is a list of the main categories of a drone:
- Basic Camera
- Amateur Camera
- Advanced Camera Drone
- Racing and Stunt
- Professional Use
If you are looking at that list and feeling a little boggled at the options that you have already, then things are going to get worse, I am afraid. All of those categories have different styles and abilities of drones that you have available to you. However, let’s see if we can find the perfect drone type for you.
Features To Look For In A Drone
When it comes to buying a drone for the first time, a lot of people are extremely overwhelmed. They don’t know what to look for and what features are truly important for first-timers. Below I’ll list some of the features all of the best drones possess, and I’ll explain what they do and how useful they are.
- Flight time – Depending on your aircraft’s type and the size of its battery, the flight time could vary between 5 and 30 minutes. The most beginner drones have flight times of around 5-10 minutes, but their batteries are easy to swap (and much cheaper too). Many people get 3-4 extra batteries, so they simply swap them when they’re out of juice and continue the flight. However, when it comes to bigger and more expensive drones, their accessories become more expensive too. Depending on how serious you take your new hobby, you can get an additional battery (or more), and basically double your airtime. I’ve been in a couple of situations myself with my Phantom 3 when I could almost get the perfect shot that I was going for and then I run out of battery and I have to go home and charge it. This sucks, and since then I’ve learned my lesson and I never go out without a spare battery 🙂
- Camera – The camera is an extremely common drone accessory. With cheaper drones, it often comes as an add-on part, and it’s up to you if you want to install it or not. Leaving it on the desk helps squeezing a few more minutes of flight time out of your aircraft, due to its lower overall weight, so in case you don’t plan to record/take photos I advise you to leave it on the ground. However, when it comes to aerial photography/videography drones, the cameras are a must (duh). Some drones rely on their own attached-to-the-body cameras, while others are GoPro (or other action camera) ready. Depending on the manufacturer, there are numerous features which could be fine-tuned, such as the ISO, the shutter speed, the size of the photo/video and much more. Take it as a professional photo/video gear that’s flying in the air. You get plenty of freedom and you can record a mind-blowing footage.
- Headless mode – As we all know, every drone has a front side and a back side. When you and your drone are facing the same direction, pressing the left directional stick of your remote controller should fly your drone to the left. But when your drone turns around and its front is facing you, the controller and your drone front are in the opposite direction. Meaning pressing left will actually send the drone to your right, and vice versa. This could be very confusing, especially for the non-experienced flyers. I think it’s safe to say every drone flyer has experienced an unwanted change of direction (or crashes) because of this. But when Headless mode is activated, this problem is easily solved – as long as you turn on the mode when the remote and the front of the drone face the same direction, it will always go to the left when you press left and it will always go to the right when you press the right stick. This is great when you just want to have fun and don’t want to constantly observe the direction the drone is facing. My recommendation is to try to get used to piloting a drone without Headless mode, as this will help you in the future if you want to pilot bigger and better drones. However, taking the drone for a quick and fun flight in the park without thinking too much is a great option, which is definitely nice to have.
- Return home function – The return home function does exactly what you think it does – it returns your drone to its home point with the press of a button. This feature works great in situations when you lose the aircraft from your sight, you lose control of it and you panic or simply want to return the drone where it took off. However, there’s a difference between the “Return Home” on a GPS-enabled expensive drone and a “Return Home” on a $50 toy drone.
Who Should Buy A Drone?
Well I’m not the one to tell you to get a drone, that’s completely up to you. But there’s something about videos like those two below that makes me want to go outside, fire up my drone and just spend hours with it – that is of course If I had unlimited flight time 🙂
Who wouldn’t want to have their own flying robot? But seriously, you should consider buying a drone if:
- You are a conventional RC hobbyist (helicopters, boats, cars, etc.)
- You are a photography / videography professional looking for a radical new perspective
- You have got a commercial interest in drone technology
Drone Buying Guide – Considerations
Now that you know about the majority of types of drones, you probably have a pretty good idea about what you want. However, there are still things that you need to consider when buying a new flying machine. As you have seen throughout this article, there are many different aspects that you need to think about, such as weight, power, and safety features. In this section, we will look at the following points that you need to check before spending your hard-earned money:
- Personal requirements
- Replacement parts
That list is only of the primary considerations that you need to think about. Although I have listed them in an order that we consider the best way to look for them, there are certainly some points that are more important than others. Therefore, if you wish to go between the sections, feel free.
The personal requirement is possibly the most crucial decision that you have to make. If you get this part wrong, it could land you with a drone that you do not use as much as you would like. On the other hand, if you pick a type of machine that you want straight away, it narrows it down quite a lot. Even though you have seen what each is good for, here is a quick reference:
- Toys. – A cheap present for someone when you think that they will enjoy flying but may crash it.
- Basic Camera. – Already have the bug for flying, but want something more controllable than a toy.
- Amateur Camera. – More features and stability than the basic variant, but more expensive.
- Advanced Camera Drone. – Do you want to get high-quality videos to show off holiday locations and dabble in the world of video making? Or perhaps you own a company that requires high altitude access.
- Racing and Stunt. – Not interested in making videos but want to fly fast and feel like you are in the cockpit.
- Professional Use. – Professional filmmakers and marketers, etc
While battery technology is advancing at a phenomenal rate, there still has to be a compromise. Everyone wants the best drone, with all of the features, and that will fly for hours before battery changes or charges. However, that is not possible. Unfortunately, there is, and always will be, a correlation between battery lift, drone weight, and motors. For example, to have a longer run time, you need a larger battery. A larger battery weighs more, thus needs larger motors to lift it. Larger motors take more power, and therefore, drain the battery quicker. Until there is a time where batteries are like this as standard, we will have to accept that no matter what, you have about 20-30 minutes of flying time between battery changes.
One of the things that you are likely to overlook is the fact of replacement parts. When you see that shiny, new drone sat in the store, at the very least, check that it has replacement rotors with it. Do as much research about the parts available for the model you are thinking of buying as you can. As I have said, you may get a set of replacement blades with the package. However, after they are broken and replaced, can you get more? What if the chassis cracks, can you find a replacement, or do you have to buy a whole new drone?
Drone Buying Guide – Safety
Even if you only fly drones as a hobby, or intend to, there are safety features that you need to consider, too. Some of those include, but are not limited to:
- Blade guards. – A simple guard around the blades is enough to take the brunt of an impact instead of your blades. Therefore reducing the requirement to change the more expensive rotors, and you may only need to change a cheap guard.
- Crash sensors. – Proximity sensors that guide your drone away from obstacles when you get too near them.
- Return to home features. – When your battery is nearly flat, they will return to you.
- Parachutes. – When everything fails, automatic chutes ensure a soft landing for your expensive new investment.
- Automatic “no-fly zones.” – DJI have incorporated GPS and no-fly zones. They stop you from going a certain height around airports and prevent you from flying into airports, or other military bases altogether. Pretty good if you do not want to land in serious trouble.
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.
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