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Drone Buying Guide: Everything You Need to Know

Drone Quick Tips

So you've decided it's time to slip the surly bonds of Earth and fly. What's the best drone to help you touch the face of heaven? That depends on three things: budget, experience and what you want to do once you're up in the sky.

  • Buying a cheap toy drone is a great way to learn to fly without spending a fortune.
  • Most drones tend to fall in two price ranges: under $100 and $500 and up. Expect simplistic toys from cheaper drones. More expensive drones add such features as high-quality video and photography, and possibly autonomous flying modes.
  • Most drones can be easily repaired after a crash, but consider the cost of replacement parts.
  • All drones have limited flight times because of batteries: Make sure to bring the drone home before it runs out of charge.
  • All drones take longer to recharge than their flight times. Consider buying a spare battery.
  • Learn and stay within the signal range of the controller and drone.
  • Use a simulator (when available) to get more familiar with your drone.
  • Any drones that weigh more than 0.55 pounds need to be registered with the FAA.

MORE: Best Drones - Top Rated Quadcopters on the Market

Types of Drones

Modern drones, regardless of size and type, are complex devices that take most of the hard work out of flying. By computerizing the process of flight with gyroscopes that automatically keep them on the straight and level, drones make learning to fly much easier than their RC cousins. Some can even take off and land automatically, using sensors to detect the ground so they can touch down softly.

Most drones are quadcopters — helicopters with four rotor blades rotating in opposite directions that turn and move by varying the relative speed of the rotors. Some drones use more rotors (hexacopters have six), though, and some are fixed-wing models, more like aeroplanes.

The most common quadcopter drones range from tiny models like the 0.25 ounce Axis Drones Aerius to large drones that can fly themselves and capture 4K video like the DJI Inspire One. Between these two are a huge range of drones that offer different features. Here's how to pick the right drone to help you take flight into the wild blue yonder.

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Toy & Casual Drones

At the bottom end of this range, in terms of cost and size, are toy drones such as the Aerius ($50) and the Parrot Minidrones ($110). These simple, cheap drones usually cost less than a hundred dollars, and focus more on fun than fast flight. They offer straightforward controls through an included remote or a smartphone app.

Photo: AxisPhoto: AxisSmall drones offer limited flight times (usually less than 10 minutes). They can perform such tricks as midair somersaults. If these tricks go wrong, you can buy spare parts such as rotor blades and cases, usually at a fairly low cost. Some also include video cameras as a novelty, but the quality of the video they capture is usually poor.

Axis Vidius - Sample Video

Don't let the word toy fool you, though. A cheap drone such as the UDI U818A ($50) is a great way to learn to fly before you move on to bigger, faster and more expensive models. And, when you crash a toy drone, it won't cost you a fortune to fix or replace.

Video Drones

Such video drones as the Parrot Bebop 2, DJI Phantom 3 and the 3DR Solo focus more on capturing high-quality video than on doing midair tricks. Priced between $500 and $1,500, these are more sophisticated flying machines that provide a steady platform for the camera (either built-in or an add-on) to take video and still images. This sophistication means they are larger and heavier, and thus require FAA registration.

To keep this camera steady, video drones usually include a gimbal, a system that can pan and tilt the camera to compensate for the motion of the drone, and which cushions the camera from the vibration of the motors. This can be either a physical system of motors and gears (such as the gimbal on the DJI Phantom 3) or an electronic system built into the camera, such as the Parrot Bebop 2. Both types also allow you to point the camera in a direction that is not straight ahead, so you can take fancy video shots like the ones you see on nature documentaries.

Photo: DJIPhoto: DJIA bigger drone means a bigger battery, and this usually means a longer flight time: typically around 20 minutes from a fully charged battery. These batteries usually can be swapped out as well, so you can extend the flight-time fun.

Video drones are also built to be repairable, with replacement parts usually easily available. They can be more expensive, though: a set of replacement rotor blades for the Phantom 3 will cost you about $40.

MORE: How to Register Your Drone with the FAA

The video quality that these drones capture varies, ranging from the decent but sometimes blocky HD video of the Bebop 2 to the 4K resolution and butter-smooth pans of the DJI Phantom 3. If quality is your main focus, it's worth spending more on the more sophisticated models of the Phantom 3, but the video produced by cheaper models such as the Bebop 2 is good enough for most users.

Credit: Richard Baguley

These drones can have many uses, from photographing a wedding to inspecting a construction site and documenting a once-in-a-lifetime vacation. Amateur filmmakers are also finding new ways to make movies with them, and a number of drone film festivals have started in the past few years in such places as New York and Berlin.

Autonomous Drones

These drones have taken the next step in the evolution of our forthcoming robot overlords: autonomous flight. Priced at $900 and up, such drones as the 3DR Solo have enough built-in smarts to navigate on their own, flying autonomously over a predefined course using GPS.

Photo: 3DRPhoto: 3DRThese quadcopters share many characteristics with video drones, with a typical 20-minute battery life and a video camera that captures high-quality video. This allows them to do things like take time-lapse videos of construction or create 3D maps of areas from the video they capture.

Although they can often double as video drones, these models let you experiment with the idea of autonomy, of flying without direct control by a pilot. They also have to be registered with the FAA, and the FAA rules mean that the pilot has to keep the drone in sight and be able to take manual control at any time.

Racing Drones

The new sport of drone racing is beginning to catch on. The small drones used in racing start at $200 and are built for speed and maneuverability. Using first-person-view (FPV) video headsets, the operator sees what the drone sees, and guides it around a course, competing with other fliers for the fastest lap time. The controller and headset usually allow you to record the video, so you can savor your victory, or figure out where things went wrong after the race.

Drone Racing

Many of these drones are homemade, with the builders competing to shave weight off and add more motor power, as well as replacing parts after a crash. You can start with a cheap model such as the $140 Hubsan X4 FPV. This doesn't come with the video headset, though the remote does include a video screen, and it would work with a headset such as the $332 Fatshark Attitude.

If you are serious about racing, a ready-to-fly drone, such as the $349 Storm Type-A combined with a $399 Skyzone FPV video goggle will give the real racing experience.

MORE: In Your Face: Drone Racing Goes First Person

Using Your Drone

Once you have decided what type of drone is the one for you, it's time to get ready to fly. This involves understanding what a drone can — and can't — do. You'll want to get a feel for how the controls work.

Most drones use a two-control stick system, where one stick controls the climb and rotation of the drone, and the other controls the left-right and forward-back motion. Even those that use an app (such as the Parrot MiniDrones) present you with a couple of virtual sticks that simulate the real thing.

Try the Simulator

Photo: DJIPhoto: DJISome drones come with an incredibly useful feature: a simulator that allows you to practice flying so you can master the controls before your drone ever takes off. DJI offers this in the DJI Go app used to control its drones, and 3DR is adding a similar feature to its Solo drone in the near future. In this mode, you connect the controller and drone to your smartphone, then run the simulator software that creates a virtual drone. This means you can practice flying with the real controller, but without crashing and damaging the real drone. That makes it a great way to get familiar with the controls and get a feel for how your drone will operate before you start flying for real.

Taking Photos & Video

Many people fly drones to take photos and video, capturing them from angles that they could never reach themselves. A drone can effortlessly climb a cliff or a hill that you can't manage yourself, shooting both photos and video to capture the experience. To best capture this, a good video drone should shoot quality video at the highest resolution and frame rate.

Bebop 2 Controller / Credit: Richard BaguleyBebop 2 Controller / Credit: Richard BaguleyBasic video drones such as the $499 Parrot Bebop 2 shoot HD video at a resolution of 1920 x 1080 pixels at 30fps (frames per second). More sophisticated drones, such as the $599 DJI Phantom 3 Standard, up this by adding 60fps HD video (albeit at a lower 1280 x 720 resolution) to produce smoother, more natural-looking video.

The more expensive $799 Phantom 3 Advanced can shoot 60fps video at the higher 1920 x 1080 HD resolution, and the $999 Phantom 3 4K and $1,269 Phantom 3 Professional adds support for the new 4K video format, which captures 30fps at a resolution of 4096 x 2160. That’s perfect if you have a fancy new 4K TV that you want to show off. 

Battery Life: 10 to 20 minutes

All drones have one shared limitation: battery life. They have to carry the battery that drives the motors with them, so the flight time of drones is limited by the amount of energy this battery can store. The bigger the battery, the more energy, but also the heavier the battery is, the more weight the drone has to lift.

Small toy drones sport batteries that last only a few minutes: usually between 5 and 10. Most larger drones offer a slightly longer flight time, but which is still typically capped at about 20 to 25 minutes.

If you want to fly for longer, you'll need to land and swap out the battery with a fully charged one, which adds to the cost of the drone. Most toy drones have built-in batteries, which can't be swapped out: You have to plug the entire drone into the charger to recharge the battery, which often takes three or four times as long as the flight time. Most video and autonomous drones offer a feature that will try and return to where they took off from or safely land if the battery runs critically low, thus avoiding a potentially costly crash to earth.

Speed & Range

Modern drones are capable of remarkable speeds: We have measured the speed of some drones at 35 miles per hour or more. However, flying a drone is like learning to ride a bike: you don’t just jump on and start riding as fast as you can.

Bikes come with training wheels, and drones are the same. Instead of training wheels, quadcopters use limited flight modes that restrict the speed at which the drone can climb and fly. These modes make it easier to learn to fly by giving you more time to react: For example, if your drone is heading toward a tree, a slower maximum speed gives you more time to pull back on the stick to slow it down. Once you are more confident, you can take off the training wheels and use the maximum speed.

Credit: Richard Baguley

The other limitation of many drones is the signal range of the controller and drone. To stay under your control, the two have to be able to communicate, but radio waves get weaker over distance. Most modern drones use the same 2.4- or 5-GHz Wi-Fi signals as your home wireless network, which can also be overwhelmed by other radio signals.

Typically, you should expect a Wi-Fi drone and controller to work out to 100 feet or so, but some models, such as the Bebop 2 and its Skycontroller remote, have larger antennas and more powerful transmitters that can extend your range.

What happens when you leave this range depends on the drone: some, like the Bebop 2, will try to hover in place and reacquire the signal. Others, such as the DJI Phantom and Yuneec q500, will notice the loss of signal and use GPS to try to return to where they took off to reacquire the signal.

Others (such as most cheap drones) will just keep going in the same direction they were heading. This can also happen if the signal is scrambled by other, stronger signals: the drone misinterprets another signal as being the controller and keeps going. Drone pilots call this a "flyaway": In the absence of any instructions to stop, the drone just keeps going and flies away until it hits something or runs out of power.

Safety & Drones


Drones can be dangerous things: even a toy drone can injure someone if it hits them, or a curious finger gets poked into a rotor blade. Some models come with shields that protect the rotors (and the things they bump into), but these are not foolproof. So caution is required when using any drone large or small. The five golden rules of safe drone use are:

  • Never fly above or near people or animals.
  • Learn about your drone. Before your first flight, take the time to learn the controls and how they work.
  • Always check your drone before you fly. Look for damaged rotors or motors that could fail in midflight and send it out of control.
  • Fly cautiously. Especially when learning or using a new drone, fly cautiously and carefully, and make sure you land before your drone runs out of juice. 
  • Be considerate. Drones can be noisy and scary. If someone asks you to stop, discuss it with them and be reasonable about where and when you fly.

Drones & The Law: Where Can You Fly?

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has recently introduced registration for drones: anyone flying a drone that weighs more than 250g (about 8.8 ounces) has to register with them. Most toy drones won't have to be registered, while most video, autonomous and racing drones will be. The process costs $5, and can be done through the FAA website.

Once you have registered, you have to put your registration number on your drone. This doesn't have to be anything fancy: I put my registration number on a shipping label under the battery, along with my name and phone number in case my drone gets lost.

The FAA also sets certain limits on where you can fly drones. You can't fly within 5 miles of an airport without letting the air traffic control tower know, in restricted airspace (such as around Washington, D.C.), above 400 feet, or in an emergency area, such as a wildfire or traffic accident. Drones are also banned from national parks and many state parks and wildlife areas by local and federal rules. There is a good map that collates all of these restricted areas here. If you aren't sure, check with the organization that runs the area.

MORE: What the FAA's Drone Rules Mean for You

Insurance

You might assume that your household insurance policy would cover a lost drone: after all, it covers your other possessions if you are in or out of the home. But you should check, as an increasing number of policies are starting to exclude drones.

Left to Right: Axis Aerius, Parrot Bebop 2, 3DR Solo, DJI Phantom 3Left to Right: Axis Aerius, Parrot Bebop 2, 3DR Solo, DJI Phantom 3Plus, many won't cover you for accidental damage or injury to other people if your drone crashes into them. For this, you may want to get a specific UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) policy that offers better coverage, especially for expensive drones. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA) includes insurance in their $75 annual membership fee, which covers up to $2.5 million of liability coverage.

If you are being paid to fly a drone or are flying it as part of your job, you'll need to look into professional insurance. That includes photographers who use drones to take photos or realtors who take aerial photos of properties for sale. For this kind of coverage, you'll need to consult an insurance broker. Professional uses of drones may also require a different type of registration. The FAA is currently working on revamping the current system.

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