Drone Buying Guide

Introduction

Over recent years, the market has flooded with competitive options in aerial creation. And thanks to improvements in technology and a substantial decrease in prices, anyone can start flying with only a little investment. If you’re looking for your first drone, and you’re a beginner to flying, this post will get you flying with confidence. Regardless of your budget, there’s an option available. With that, let’s cover everything you need to know when purchasing your first drone, and what considerations are important before making that final decision.

What is a drone?

So what characteristic characterizes a drone? Well, drones at their core are small aircrafts equipped with a camera, which gives fliers the freedom to capture a bird’s eye view and a unique aerial perspective. They’re an exciting addition to one’s arsenal, in capturing images that would typically require climbing a high-rise or a helicopter. And today’s drone can meet the needs of any creative from complete beginners to seasoned professionals looking to film the next box office release.

Architecture of a drone

What types of drones are available?

There’s surprisingly an enormous variety of drone options available on the market. But, ultimately, the types of drones come down to their specializations, capabilities, size, and price points. And every drone falls into one of three major categories, which then have subcategories. These categories are as follows:

Consumer drones:

This group consists of several subgroups, and aims at a wide array of different demographics of fliers. The first significant characteristic of this group is construction.

Number of Rotors:

Single-rotor drones resemble helicopters, with one reasonably large rotor for flying. And they generate enormous thrust, making them more suitable for longer flights.
Multi-rotors, however, are more common and feature three or more rotors. These are the most recognizable options on the market, and the choice for most hobbyists and professionals.

Fixed-wing:

Fixed-wing drones resemble airplanes and use their wings to generate lift, and a single rotor to generate thrust. These are most efficient for covering long distances and mapping.

Fixed-wing hybrid:

Fixed-wing Hybrids combine the benefits of both fixed-wing drones with multi-rotors, which allow them to hover. This combination enables them to take off or land vertically.

From there, the next significant characterization is abilities. Each drone specializes in certain aspects. Some towards maximum flight time; others are not.

  • GPS Drones: these drones use satellite GPS to map their flight, and can automatically return to the base station when they’re running low on power.
  • RTF Drones: Ready-to-Fly drones are ideally suited for beginners. All they need is charging, and they’re ready to fly right out of the box.
  • Trick Drones: these drones are mostly toy drones and specialize in aerial maneuvers.
  • Racing Drones: these drones are light and agile, stripping off additional weight to make them as fast as possible.
  • Mini Drones: these drones are usually the size of your hand, and the most affordable. These are great for flying indoors, as they’re not easily prone to damage and have propeller guards.
  • Selfie Drones: these drones are compact, but not as compact as mini drones. They’re ideally suited for their portability and a popular choice that offers subject tracking.

Modular Drones:

This group is more geared towards professional users. Modular drones allow fliers to mount different camera equipment on the drone, allowing them to tailor their capabilities for the flight at hand.

Industrial Drones:

This group specializes in commercial applications, be it an inspection, law enforcement, mapping, surveying, or rendering. These drones offer specialized sensors, such as IR, NVG, and so on, that tailor the flight towards specific applications that are outside the scope of typical photographic applications.

What are the main differences between drones?

There are quite a few differences between one drone to another. Here are the main characteristics that separate drones, we will cover this all in-depth in the “How to Choose the Best Drone For you” section as well. Drones are separated by their capabilities, specializations, size, range, and price.

drone-flying-maveric-pro

What are the legal requirements to flying drones?

Before we go into choosing the best drone, we first have to cover the regulations surrounding their use. Now depending on which country you live in, the legislation may vary. In the United States, drones are registered using the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Drone Certification:

Before we can know which rules will apply to your drone, we will first have to assess how you plan on using it. If you’re flying for fun, the requirements are far less strict. However, if you plan on making money, the FAA requires that you pass their in-person test to receive Part 107 certification. You’ll obtain certification that allows you to use your drone to capture aerial photography or videography for two years. And you can sell these images online as stock images, or working on films, shoot weddings, and more. After two year, you will then have to renew your certification.

Drone Registration:

But outside of the certification, almost all consumer model drones require registration, particularly if drones weigh more than 250 g (8.8 oz). If it does, you’ll have to register it with the FAA and get an FAA identification number, which costs five dollars. The FAA identification number goes on the exterior of your drone. You can mark it using a variety of methods. But, ideally using printable stickers or a label maker is preferred. The site also generates a printable certificate, which you can carry with you to avoid questioning when flying. At this point, you can now fly hassle-free for three years. At which point, you will have to renew your registration.

Notes: Once you have a registration number, you can label each drone you fly over the next three years with that same number. Unlike commercial pilots, recreational pilots don’t need to complete a new registration for every drone. Know, you don’t need to register a drone if you don’t plan on flying outdoors, or you fly a drone that weighs under 250 g. But do know, if you operate a drone larger than 55 lbs, it will require special licensing.

What are the basic rules when flying?

There are several basic rules that are important to know while flying. And the FAA does have a checklist available on their site to avoid any hazards or penalties.

  1. Register your drone before flying. Then place the registration number on the outside of the drone and carry proof of registration with you.
  2. If you don’t have a Part 107 certification, fly only for recreation purposes.
  3. Fly at or below 400 ft.
  4. Obtain authorization before flying near or in controlled airspace. Or don’t fly within five miles of an airport, military installation, or heliport. If you do, first notify the airport’s air traffic control before the flight.
  5. Always keep your drone in your visual line of sight and in direct communication. If you’re wearing an FPV headset, have a spotter who can keep track of the drone visually.
  6. Don’t fly at night, unless your drone has lighting that displays its location and orientation at all times.
  7. Always give way to manned aircraft. Make sure you can see and avoid other aircraft at all times.
  8. Never fly over people or moving vehicles. These include stadiums, sporting events and groups of people. Remain at least 25 ft away from individuals.
  9. Don’t interfere with emergency response activities such as disaster relief, accidents, law enforcement, firefighting, or hurricane recovery.
  10. Do not fly under the influence or while using over-the-counter medications that produce side effects that could impact your ability to operate your drone safely.
  11. Don’t fly recklessly. And don’t fly in adverse weather conditions, such as high winds, fog, or rain, as they reduce visibility and stability of flight.
  12. Don’t fly near or over sensitive infrastructure or property: these include power stations, jails, water treatment, major roadways, and government facilities.
  13. Don’t conduct surveillance in areas where there is an expectation of privacy, without first getting the individuals permission.

Additionally, all National Parks ban the use of drones within their limits, unless they have a designated zoom. A bit of a shame, considering that’s a compelling reason to get a drone, but understandable. Washington, DC, is also entirely restricted.

Some drones do include geofencing capabilities built-in, which identity restricted airspace automatically. If you’re looking into a model that doesn’t offer this feature, check out the B4UFLY app by the FAA. This app shows the areas in your city that are restricted and which aren’t.

It’s also worth noting that some countries don’t have drone laws whatsoever. And other countries outright ban them. Take the time to investigate whether your country has a ban.

How do I choose the best drone?

Many characteristics ultimately separate one drone from another, even when compared to options in the same price range. We will cover all of the significant areas to look into, so you can know what factors are important. Most of the consumer drones are relatively straightforward, but here are the key features to considering while shopping.

Remote controls:

drone-control

Most drones come packaged with a remote controller, which typically has two joysticks. One stick controls altitude, including pitch (up and down tilt) and roll (side to side tilt). The other stick controls rotation and speed. A good controller should be comfortable in hand and offer a good positioning of the sticks, so your thumbs naturally rest. They should also provide a smooth and responsive feel, so you can carefully move the drone as needed. Also, some controllers have extra buttons outside of the joysticks, which enable specific tasks or maneuvers. And there are controllers with built-in screens or ones that use your smartphone as the display. But, doing so unlocks additional abilities through the accompanying app and extended functionality. Thus, besides just the controller itself, how intuitive the app is also an important factor to consider.

However, not every manufacturer offers a remote controller as a part of the package. Instead, it’s an add-on, which costs extra. And while smartphone operation works well. It doesn’t offer the precision and accuracy of a dedicated controller.

We recommend: Look for options that offer a dedicated control, that also provides customizable buttons, if possible. Whether or not the controller has the app built-in, isn’t quite as important.

Build Quality

The reality is that drones crash. And when they do, you want a drone that’ll eat that crash, without damaging its frame. Some drones include shields to protect their rotors, but not all. With that, good models offer a supply of replacement parts, like rotors or struts, to quickly replace damages. And they also make it easy to swap parts when needed. The higher-end the drone, the easier and more readily available replacements are.

We recommend: Look for options with replacement parts. If the manufacturer doesn’t offer replacement parts, look at other options at that price that do.

Battery life

When it comes to battery life, only the top-end drones provide flight times of 20 or more minutes per charge. Thus, you want a drone that makes it easy to swap between batteries during flight, without much hassle. But it’s essential to know; not every drone offers interchangeable batteries. This feature is typically only reserved for higher-end options. If you want maximum flight time, this is something to consider. The golden standard for flight time is 30-35 minutes on a single charge. Drones that offer that are leaders in this class.

Do know, some drones support direct USB-C charging, and you can potentially mount a charger to them. Otherwise, you can extend battery life by reducing the photo or video quality. If you don’t need 4K footage, just downscale to 1080p, and you’ll get a long flight. It’s also important to consider the amount of time it takes to take off and land, reducing the total lifespan.

We recommend: Look for options that provide at least 15 minutes of flight time and, ideally, offer interchangeable batteries. If they don’t provide interchangeable batteries, then looking for fast charge times of less than 1 hour for a full charge

Durability:

Your drone should be able to resist some degree of adverse weather.

We recommend: look for options that offer wind resistance of 20 MPH or more. And offer decent battery life, as stabilizing your drone during strong winds will reduce battery life.

Ease of Use

Not all drones are ready to fly out of the box. How easy the drone is to setup will determine how quickly you can begin capturing photos and videos.

We recommend: For beginners, look for options that are ready right out of the box. And, ideally, offer preset flying modes to flatten the learning curve as well.

 

Camera Equipment

drone-with-camera-zoom

Does the drone have a built-in camera, or is it an add-on? And what are the capabilities, specifications, and build quality of the camera equipment? Camera quality is one of the primary defining factors of a drone’s performance and a key separator.

When it comes to camera equipment, drones use one of two types of payloads, fixed or modular. Fixed drones have built-in cameras that aren’t interchangeable. However, that gives them the advantage of being cheaper, simpler, and more versatile across all mediums. Modular drones, however, have interchangeable parts, allowing users to swap the camera or lenses to make it specific to the flight at hand.

Simply put, the best drones offer resolutions of 4K or higher. Budget options tend to stick with 720p HD or 1080p full HD resolutions at most. Next, how large is the camera’s sensor? For example, a 1/2.3-inch sensor is much smaller than the APS-C and full-frame sensor we see in the traditional camera market. This sensor, in particular, virtually matches that of current smartphones. With that, their image quality isn’t the greatest, especially in low light. Smaller sensors also don’t supply very high-resolution images. In general, the more expensive the drone, the better its image quality.

Another factor is the camera’s shutter speed. The shutter speed will determine the quality of images taken during the flight. And it also determines if a neutral density (ND) filter is required. Ideally, if you’re shooting outdoors on a bright day, having a shutter speed of 1/8000 seconds is best. It also avoids the need for ND filters.

We Recommend: Sensors: Don’t go below 1/2.3-inch sensors. If budget allows, get a drone with a 1-inch sensor, as they deliver the best image quality.

First Person View (FPV) Support

Some drones offer FPV support, which gives pilots a birds-eye view from the drone’s camera. And some drones can stream this live feed to the connected phone or remote controller. But, some also support Virtual Reality (VR) goggles, for the ultimate flying experience. If that experience is essential to you, look for drones that support FPV.

We recommend: FVP comes down to personal preference. But, if it’s important to you, look for options that support it. Just beware, you may become nauseous during the first few flights as you acclimate to the experience.

Stabilization

Not every drone offers built-in stabilization, typically done by a three-axis gimbal to compensate for wind or movement. Mechanical stabilization is essential if you want to smooth, and cinematic footage. And a three-axis gimbal is the industry-standard feature for this. Thus, if aerial cinematics is your priority, don’t skip the 3-axis gimbal.

We recommend: Look for options that offer a 3-axis mechanical stabilization system. Some options only offer 2-axis, but that third axis is critical.

Autonomous Modes

quadrocopter-drone-with-follow-mode

Does the drone have built-in fail-safes and a return home mode to bring it back to the launch point automatically? These fail-safe modes are essential, particularly when the drone is low on battery or loses contact with the controller. If you’re a beginner, look for options that offer a return-home mode.

Some drones also offer pre-programmed cinematic modes, which include subject tracking, circling, and aerial maneuvers. If you’re new, but want to create cinematic content immediately, then these are a must as well. Otherwise, you will have to practice to master the flying technique required to replicate them.

We recommend: Look for options with a return-home mode or some fail-safe mechanism to land the drone when it’s getting low on power.

Collision or Obstacle Avoidance

Crash avoidance systems are a must for new fliers. Drone sensors have evolved over the years. And recent models now offer full obstacle sensing, in any direction, and automatically adjust their flight to avoid crashes. Having object sensing reduces the stress of flying in challenging environments.

We recommend: Look for options that have at least three directions of sensing, front, back, and ground. You don’t necessarily need omnidirectional drones, but those three directions are the most important.

Portability

The top drones are usually collapsable in some way. A collapsible design makes them portable enough for easing storing in a bag or backpack. When looking at options, if maximum portability is essential to you, look for compact options. Though, bear in mind, the size will ultimately limit their capabilities in some way.

We recommend: This factor is a personal preference. If portability is important to you, look for foldable or collapsible options.

Maximum Transmission Range

While the FAA mandates that you always keep your drone within sight, many drones offer exceptionally far ranges. Depending on your prescription and eyes, you should be able to see between 1.5 to 3 miles away, on a clear day with good visibility. However, some drones have ranges of 8000m, which equates to approx. 5 miles. Depending on how you want to fly, the maximum range could be a vital factor consideration.

We recommend: This factor is also a personal preference based on how you plan on flying. If the range is important to you, check the manufacturer’s website and look at what the drone is rated to see if it meets your needs.

Communication Loss

Eventually, you’ll lose communication with the drone, making a recovery option invaluable. In those moments, what the drone’s programmed to do is essential.

We recommend: Look for options that offer return home flight modes, which automatically fly the drone back safely.

Common Drone Buying Mistakes to Avoid

Don’t buy the newest, flashiest, and most expensive drone. Drones evolve rapidly. And even today’s greatest options will come down in price in time. Find an affordable option, even “old,” that suits your needs.

Don’t buy a hobbyist drone if you’re looking for a more professional-oriented tool. If you’re looking for cinematics and strong imaging performance, skip the mini, racing, and trick drone options.

At PhotographyPX, what do we look for in drones? What do we evaluate?

Like our camera reviews, there are specific factors we assess and evaluate to see how any competitor stands. We always look at options relative to industry-standards at its competing price point, at MSRP during its original release phase. From there, we evaluate it versus the lineup in that class. If you’re curious, here are the factors we consider during the review process.

  1. Design: How well is the drone build? Is it visually appealing?
  2. Remote Control, flight App, and accessories: Does it come with a controller? How easy is it to set up, pair, and operate? How’s the flight app? Is the app intuitive and easy to use? What sort of features does it offer? Does the drone come bundled with any other helpful accessories?
  3. Camera Equipment: What camera equipment does the drone support? How good are the photos and videos? For the best drones, we look at options with a minimum of 1-inch sensors and 4K video. Budget options can have smaller sensors and 1080p or 720p video.
  4. Flying experience and ease of use: how easy is the drone to fly? Is it stable while hovering, or does it drift? How responsive is the drone to inputs? What’s the maximum flight time? What does the drone do as battery life gets close to finished?
  5. Durability and ease of repair: How well does the drone survive after an accident or mishap? And if something breaks, how easy is it to repair?
  6. Value: How well does the drone stand up against the standards at its competing price point? Does it provide a feature set or key selling points that separate it from rivals? Is it worth the price?

Drone Insurance

Like any other vehicle, drones also offer optional insurance, and it’s not a bad idea. There are three kinds of coverage available. For recreational fliers, any other three are sufficient. However, for commercial fliers, you’ll want all three in a single policy.

Liability

This form protects you from damages to valuable property, structures, and people.

Payload

This form protects your drone against possible accidental damages.

On-Demand

This form of insurance protects you for one flight.

Let’s Fly

Now that you’re well equipped, know the rules, and how to pick the best drone, let’s fly. The only other things are, invest the time to watch YouTube videos about drone flying and operation. And take the time to read the manual. Otherwise, for your first flight, learn from a seasoned flier or take extreme caution. Pick a location with a generous amount of room with few obstacles on a clear day. Then hit it.

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