What kid doesn’t dream of being a pilot? I know I did. Of course, back than I was a thinking of flying airplanes. But, not everyone gets to be an airplane pilot, so those dreams would usually die off for most of us when we got older. What I didn’t realize back then, is how close to reality that dream actually was.
Today, anyone can become a pilot. Not necessarily an airplane pilot, but remote-controlled aircraft pilot, absolutely!
Demand has spawned competition in the market and competition has brought innovation and rapid progress. We now have drones that come with cameras, FPV goggles, gyroscopes, Wi-Fi, GPS and highly intelligent, adaptable software for automated flight, just to name a few potential features.
That might be a lot to take in, so before you run to the store, take a look at a few basic things to watch for that we’ve put together, before buying your first drone.
Purpose – why do you want a drone?
When buying a drone, it is very important to consider the reason why you’re buying it. There is no one-size-fits-all with drones. The best drone is the one that best serves your needs.
Aerial photography and video
Many drones come with cameras, some have them built-in, while others have a camera-ready mount, so you can mount a camera of your own. RTF drones with good cameras capable of recording commercial-level footage are usually in the mid-to-high price range. DJI’s Phantoms are probably the best as far as professional camera drones go.
Just for fun
If you’re just looking for a few minutes of fun, either for yourself or for your children, you should probably consider a toy drone. These are usually very cheap and don’t require FAA registration. They are not as easy to fly as more expensive drones but hey, that’s part of the fun. Consider Syma X5C or Hubsan X4 for cheap, entry-level drones.
Racing drones come with FPV camera and generally a lot faster and more agile than all other types of drones. These drones are also sturdier than most drones, often built using carbon fiber and similar durable materials. Racing drones are recommended only for experienced RC pilots.
Difficulty vs Price
Normally with consumer tech, the more something costs the more advanced it is and steeper the learning curve. Take cameras for example, a cheap camera is a basic point-and-shoot, while an expensive camera could be something like a DSLR which takes a lot of learning. It is not the same with drones, it’s actually the opposite. For example, a $1200 USD Phantom 4 is a lot easier to fly than say, a $30 USD Syma X5C. A professional drone is easier to fly than a toy drone? Sounds bizarre, but it’s not surprising considering all the expensive sensor and stabilization systems that go into advanced drones. This one of the reasons we recommend Phantom 3 SE in our Top 5 drones for beginners buying guide, it’s not overly expensive like the aforementioned Phantom 4, but it has all the goodies that makes your flying experience as smooth as possible.
DIY vs RTF vs ARF vs BNF
Quadcopters are the most common type of remote-controlled (RC) drones. A few years back, you’d have to be a die-hard do-it-yourself (DIY) drone enthusiast to get into the air. But today, you can get a ready-to-fly (RTF) drone for a price of a few pizzas! Here a few common acronyms used to describe different types of drones.
- DIY drones are those that you build yourself.
- RTF are drones that are ready to fly out-of-the-box.
- ARF stands for Almost Ready to Fly. This means buying a drone kit, containing most if not all parts for a drone to work, but you have to assemble it yourself. ARF packages may or may not include a remote controller.
- BNF stands for Bind and Fly. Meaning, you get a drone, but you don’t get a controller. You purchase a separate RC and bind it to your drone.
Unless you’re a DIY enthusiast and you really want to put together a drone yourself, there isn’t really much reason not to go for an RTF drone, at least until you get more familiar with the technology and different possibilities. That’s why any drone we mention in this article will be an RTF drone.
Where to fly & flight regulations
So, we already know everyone wants a drone and anyone can get one. It’s not hard to image than that millions of drones are already in the hands of amateurs, enthusiasts and professionals alike. That’s precisely the reason why flying has never been more dangerous and why countries why introducing more and more regulations on drone owners.
In urban centres, there is an increasing chance of crashing a drone against a landing airplane or a helicopter. That’s why airfields and similar areas are usually a no-fly zone. Then there’s also a matter of privacy. If you’re flying around in your neighbourhood, there’s a chance you’ll have a run-in with people accusing you of invading their privacy. So, before purchasing a drone, make sure you’ll have an appropriate place to fly it. Countryside and other remote locations are best.
In the US, the government requires you to register any non-toy drone with the FAA. You can do this online for a small fee. If you’re not from the US, you need to check regulations and laws regarding UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) in your country.
Features to look for
Do you want a camera on your drone? Do you want a built-in camera, or would you like a camera mount, so you can mount your own camera? These are options to consider.
These are mechanical camera stabilization systems that ensure your footage is smooth and stabilized. Look for 2-axis or 3-axis gimbals.
Do you want a dedicated remote controller for your drone or are you fine with using a touch screen on your phone or tablet to control the drone?
FPV (First Person View) is a feature that allows you to see what the drone camera sees, on your screen. This live video feed connection is established using Wi-Fi.
One of the biggest issues with drones is their limited battery power. Toy drones usually fly for 5-12 minutes on a single charge, while more expensive drones can do up to 30 minutes.
Flight range also varies greatly on the type of a drone you’re using. It can be anywhere between 70ft to a few miles.
This an important feature for beginner pilots. Basically, it means that when you turn left on your controller the drone will always turn left. Otherwise, it would depend on the direction the drone is facing, as your left is not always your drone’s left. With headless mode, you don’t have to worry about this.
Spare parts are extremely important with any drone. Most drones come will spare propellers, for example, but you might be interested in buying more of them in case they break. Buying extra batteries is another thing we recommend. Drones usually can’t fly for very long on a single charge, and it takes a lot longer to recharge the batteries.
I think that covers all the basics. Happy hunting and flying!