Buying a drone is equal parts exciting and confusing.
With so many models – and even more parts – simple research can easily explode into a full-blown quest to find the best drone for your intended purpose and budget. As such, it’s important that we take a look at some common beginner questions, and do our part to address each of them in a way that’s easy to understand without being overly jargon-heavy or further muddying the waters.
Drone or Quadcopter?
We should start with a bit of a lesson on nomenclature. Nearly every consumer-grade “drone” is actually a “quadcopter”; an aircraft with 4 sets of blades. This isn’t always the case, as many are sold with 6 or even 8 sets of blades, and are more accurately known as hexa- and octocopters.
However, the word “drone” while the accepted norm, is actually inaccurate as an actual drone is “an aircraft which can pilot itself” and carries a fair bit of negative connotation.
That said, these remote-controlled hobby aircrafts are commonly referred to as “drones”. So you’ll notice the words quadcopter and drone used interchangeably in the context of this post.
Okay, now that we have the language lesson out of the way, let’s get started on some common questions most beginners have when purchasing their first drone.
Where May I Legally Fly a Quadcopter or Drone?
Just about anywhere.
In the United States, for example, drone use is detailed (sort of) by the FFA Advisory Circular 91-57. It was written in 1981, so it’s not for drone operation per se, but since consumer drones are currently classified as “model aircraft,” it acts as sort of a rulebook for those that own a drone, but it could certainly change in the future.
The guidelines are rather lax, and simply require that you limit the altitude to under 400 feet, keep it within a line of sight, and and not fly it within five miles of an airport.
In the UK, the regulations are also rather lax on drone flight, but they’re evolving. Currently you can fly any drone under 20kg (44 pounds) as long as you are not using it for commercial reasons, flying within 150 meters (492 feet) of a congested areas, or 50 meters (164 feet) of a person, vessel, vehicle or structure that isn’t under control of the pilot.
How Much Should I Spend on a Drone/Quadcopter?
This is easily the most important question when you’re considering your first drone purchase. While you can find a toy-like quadcopter for under $50, that doesn’t mean it’s going to do what you want it to. In fact, these cheaper quadcopters are typically best for flying indoors, and often they come without a camera (or a very poor quality one), making them all but useless if you had intentions of using them for aerial photography, or flying outdoors in all but the mildest of winds.
While undoubtedly fun, entry models like the Syma X5c ($39 – above – which we reviewed) are a great place to start in the drone market but don’t expect it to act like a higher-end model. Users report that it can be difficult to control outdoors, has a less-than-impressive battery, and a rather un-inspiring camera.
That said, it’s $39 and a lot of fun to play with.
Higher-end models, like the DJI Phantom 3 (above) will set you back $1,200 or more, but they feature options that take them out of the casual hobbyist realm and into the professional aerial photography market (we reviewed its predecessor – the Phantom 2 – previously).
They also feature add-ons like 4K cameras, app-based monitoring and a better gimbal, which increases stability even in relatively strong winds. Another great feature of higher-end models is GPS which allows them to automatically return to you in case you accidentally fly them out of range of the controller.
I could go on about the benefits of a better quality drone for days, but the truth is that it’s all about parts and programing. Better quality (read: more expensive) drones simply have superior parts, programming, and the ability to add-on or upgrade to future-proof them for years to come.
What Add-ons Should I Buy Initially?
In the drone world, it’s really all about the upgrades. Because you’re undoubtedly going to want to upgrade at some point, the best place to start is by purchasing a quality controller. That’s not to say that’s all you need to buy, but you’ll quickly learn that your first quadcopter is a sort of a blank slate.
That said, there are two upgrades that are important from the get-go.
While some units come with remote transmitters, and others use generic or even smartphone controllers, better ones (like the SPEkTRUM DX6i, above) are not only going to offer more control, but they’ll also serve as a hedge against near-future obsolescence when compared with the app-controlled devices. The reason they don’t get outdated as quickly is due to the upgradability offered by many controllers which allow you to upgrade antennae, transmitters and other parts.
A Good Charger and Backup Batteries
Flight time on the average drone hovers (no pun intended) around 8 to 10 minutes. Since this isn’t exactly a lot of flight time, it makes sense to purchase additional batteries and an aftermarket charger (like the Coolplay pictured above for Syma drone batteries). Your battery will typically come with a charger, but aftermarket chargers allow you to charge multiple batteries at once, as well as different types of batteries in case you own a few types of drone.
4 Motors, 6 or 8?
The more motors and propellers you can get on your drone, the better. The drawbacks of additional motors are in cost, size and battery life. The benefits are nearly everything else.
Six or eight motors leads to increased stability, maneuverability, power, and safety. For example, if you experience mechanical failure or high winds on a quadcopter it can prove to be a very difficult exercise indeed to get your drone back to you without damage. This is further complicated if it’s carrying any weight, such as a camera.
Hexa- or octocopters on the other hand don’t have the same limitations. They can carry more weight, move better through winds, climb higher, move faster, and even return to you with a damaged motor (the others just pick up the slack).
However, six or eight motor drones are often prohibitively expensive for most consumers and are therefore sort of a niche-specialty for professional-quality aerial photography and videography, like this.
Is it Easy to Fly?
If you have aspirations of purchasing a $100 quadcopter to take home, unbox and fly, you’re going to have a bad time.
Not all quadcopters come ready to fly (more on that in a second), and those that do aren’t necessarily easy to fly. The physics of a quadcopter make it nearly impossible to fly, however, the computer inside (the flight controller) does things like adjust speed, maintains stability, and helps you to keep the drone in the air.
Since a better flight controller makes a quadcopter easier to fly by non-pilots, it’s sort of a no-brainer that a better flight controller equals smoother flight.
Most radio control devices – such as planes, cars, helicopters, etc. – are actually easier to operate at lower price ranges. The reason being, they have far less sophisticated mechanics and you give up a lot of control with a $50 radio control device that you would retain with a $500 device.
Quadcopter are the opposite of this. They get exponentially easy to use as your budget increases (in addition to adding some even cooler features) until they reach a sort of peak of ease-of-use before starting to trend downward as you get into the professional-level quadcopter that require a great deal of experience to operate.
According to user reviews on Amazon, forums and a few hobbyist blogs, the $700 price range tends to be the sweet spot for ease-of-use, but this is decidedly unscientific and your mileage may vary.
DIY (Do-It-Yourself) or RTF (Ready-To-Fly)?
There are two distinct ways of getting in the air; DIY or RTF.
For the beginner, the RTF drone is probably your best bet, but if you’re a hardcore tinkerer or a drone enthusiast, the level of customizability offered by building your own is second-to-none. As far as budget, you do stand to save some money by piecing a higher-end quadcopter together yourself, but anything under a couple (or few) hundred dollars is typically better purchased RTF.
With a DIY model, you can customize to your heart’s content. You’ll get to choose whether a 4 or 8-propeller setup is appropriate for you, as well as coding, debugging, and assembling your very own unit. In addition, you’ll have dozens of flight controller options as well as add-ons like a higher quality gimbal (for flight stability), a GoPro mount, or a front-facing camera to give you a first person view while you cut through the sky.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that DIY and RTF aren’t the only two choices. There are also a few others, with the most popular being:
BNF – or Bind-And-Fly: BNF models are fully assembled but without a controller (remote control). When you get your BNF model, you’ll have to ensure that you have a controller to be able to operate it, and in the analog days this was as simple as ensuring transmitter and receiver were on the same channel. Now, both must also use the same manufacturer protocol to ensure proper calibration. Ah, digital.
ARF – or Almost-Ready-to-Fly: An ARF model is a kit that will require assembly, but typically includes all you need to fly them (other than a transmitter and receiver). Not all ARF kits are created equal though, and some might require additional parts or components such as motors, stability control units, flight controllers, or even batteries.
Where Can I Get Help?
The drone community is just that, and its members are often happy to help when you run into mechanical issues, or just need advice on what to buy and where to get it.
Here are just a few that come highly recommended by drone enthusiasts. Feel free to add additional ones in the comments below.
In the future, drones will certainly revolutionize all of our lives, but for the time being, it certainly makes a cool toy to play around with, that is, if you know where to begin.
What questions do you have (or do you often see) about buying a drone? Ask in the comments below and I’ll do my best to find you an answer.