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What began as a pocket-sized, flying electronic gadget now plays an integral role in the worlds of surveillance, photography, and delivery: the drone.
Photographers and filmmakers use them to capture images they never could with traditional equipment. Others use them to take aerial photos or inspect remote locations. Some day soon, advanced drones may deliver small packages directly to customers from a centralized fulfillment center.
With all the different makes and models available today, it’s important for consumers to find the right drone for their specific needs. Some consumer-level drones are ready to fly (RTF) straight out of the box, while others require additional pilot training and/or official registration. If you want to learn more about drones, we suggest reading the rest of this article. If you're ready to purchase a drone, check out our top five picks in the matrix above.
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The first retail multi-rotor drones were little more than flying toys with limited range and battery power. Their small motors were charged via battery pack, and a basic RF controller moved their rotors to achieve loops, dives, and hovers. But technology has grown in recent years, and today, many people use these types of drones to perform aerobatic stunts and aerial races.
An important factor to consider before purchase is a drone's indoor/outdoor rating. Some smaller models are not designed to fly in outdoor conditions, while others could be too large to fly safely indoors.
Because some drones can carry small payloads, such as still and video cameras, many photographers have added them to their equipment arsenal. For example, a wedding photographer can capture a panoramic or overhead shot by flying a camera-equipped drone over the wedding location. An amateur filmmaker can create pro-like crane shots and close-ups by using a drone with a stabilizer.
When shopping for this kind of drone, consider adding on special camera mounts for even more impressive results.
Drones equipped with live HD cameras can also be used to inspect remote locations such as the last row of a farmer's field or the display on a distant storage tank. Instead of risking a worker's safety, drones can also be directed to hazardous sites for visual inspection.
When shopping for a surveillance drone, look for models with flexible camera mounts, increased stability, and extended battery life.
We spoke with Brandon Allen, a mechanical engineer and FFA-licensed commercial drone pilot in Denver. Brandon commented that one of your top priorities as a drone buyer is identifying your main intended uses for the drone, as well as your budget.
So what do you want to do with your drone? Will you be flying it just for fun? Working on your aerial photography skills? Joining a fast-paced racing league?
In some states, users are not required to keep it in visual range if the drone has a real-time video camera.
A drone’s range is largely determined by its battery life. Naturally, you don’t want to send your drone to a remote location without the ability to fly it back to home base. Some drone models indicate when they’ve reached a low level of power, but this feature isn’t universal.
Communication between a drone’s remote control and its onboard transceiver also makes a difference when it comes to range. Many drones create their own WiFi hotspots, which connect to a smartphone piloting app or a hand-held remote control.
Recreational flyers may need to maintain visual contact with their drones in order to reduce the chance of injury to others or damage to the unit.
An important consideration for first-time users in particular is ease of use. Many drones sold for recreational flying require some calibration before the owner can take it out for a spin. These drones are usually labeled “Ready To Fly,” or “RTF.”
One of the most challenging maneuvers with multi-rotor aircraft is hovering. Fortunately, many RTF manufacturers employ sensors and software that allow the drone to achieve a stable position automatically. The pilot simply chooses a preferred direction and the smartphone app or remote control responds accordingly.
Other drones are not designed with beginners in mind. These models may require some advanced calibration and assembly before they’re flight-ready. The controls are not quite as intuitive as those found on RTF models, so pilots should plan on receiving additional instruction and certification before taking the controls.
First-time drone owners often start out with a basic model that suits their budget and recreational needs. However, many get the hankering to upgrade their drone with advanced features and accessories. Here are some additions you may wish to consider if it's time to upgrade.
Using a standard smartphone piloting app is certainly exciting when you’re flying your drone recreationally. But some drone users yearn for the thrill of competitive drone racing and aerobatics. A specialized remote control system enhances your maneuverability and makes these adventurous activities even more fun.
Because some drones can carry small payloads, such as still and video cameras, many photographers have added them to their equipment arsenal.
Accidents happen, especially during the early “learning” phase of drone flying. A single crash could damage a rotor and bring your entire day to a halt. Fortunately, most drone manufacturers include additional rotor blades in the original kit and/or sell them as separate items.
While many mid-range and high-end drones include HD cameras in their housing, the images aren’t always clear or stable. You may want to consider upgrading to an action camera like a GoPro. These cameras are designed to counteract the effects of wind and vibration, providing a much more stable video image.
Many manufacturers mount cameras inside the body of the drone. This is acceptable for casual photography, but if you want more professional results, consider adding an external camera mount, or gimbal. Gimbals allow you to place your video or still camera in front of the drone body, away from the vibrating motor and rotors. Gimbals can swivel and pivot, providing you with additional control over your imagery.
Transporting a delicate drone to and from a flying site can be a daunting process. Some drones come with a basic storage case, but you might consider purchasing a sturdier packing case or customized backpack for safer portability. These special storage systems can carry additional rotor blades, batteries, chargers, binoculars, and other essentials.
Most drones come with only about 10 to 20 minutes of battery power, so it pays to have each shot planned before you take off.
One common concern about consumer-level drones is public safety. When choosing a recreational drone aircraft, you should carefully inspect the blade guards and other safety measures provided by the manufacturer. For example:
This list is certainly not exhaustive. Indeed, new owners have an obligation to learn all of the rules and regulation of drone use before launching one into the air.
Because drones have the capability to enter the same airspace as small planes and helicopters, they are often banned within a certain distance from airports and military bases. There may also be local ordinances against the use of drones in designated neighborhoods. This information is important to know well in advance of buying a drone.
And, of course, drone contact with a power line or moving vehicle should be rigorously avoided. Before launching any kind of drone, users are obligated to find a safe location.
Ideally, a pilot should be in control of the drone at all times. But the ability to shut off the drone's power remotely is also a good thing.
Our professional drone consultant, Brandon, offers these tips to newbie drone owners.
Start small. You will crash.
Even if you buy a high-end drone with obstacle avoidance and flight automation, you're prone to crashes when you're a newbie. Starting with an entry-level indoor drone with prop guards is a great way to hone your skills while minimizeing costly mistakes.
Spare parts are worth their weight in gold.
As mentioned above, you will crash, and you certainly don't want to go home empty-handed. Having back-up propellers can make or break your day. Extra batteries are also a must. Current battery chemistry limits flight times to somewhere between 5 and 25 minutes for most amateur drones. Having plenty of charged spares means you can fly longer — though flying for more than 30 minutes straight can be fatiguing.
You get what you pay for.
The adage is true. If you invest in a quality product, you'll enjoy better quality, performance, reliability, features, and tech support.
We evaluated a lot of drones before deciding on the final line-up. Some came close but didn't quite make our top five. Here are the reasons why they weren't selected.
If you're looking for a cheap drone, the Eachine E010 Nano Quadcopter is bound to grab your attention. On second glance, though, it's really just a toy, and the lack of a camera is a major restriction. It has its benefits as an introductory drone — a serious crash wouldn’t make a big hole in your pocket — but many consumers would soon grow bored of just zipping it around.
The Rabing Mini Foldable Drone is another low-cost model. It has a tiny camera that's suitable for general leisure pursuits, but the trouble is the battery size. You only get five or six minutes of flight, and recharging takes half an hour. Flying it is fun. Waiting is not.
The Syma X5C Quadcopter has similar problems. Range is a little better, as is the camera, but for a flight of seven minutes, you have to wait an hour and a half. It's a shame, because the Syma’s handling and aerobatics are great for the money.
A flight time of 15 minutes or more makes the DROCON Blue Bug a very attractive proposition. It's not the easiest to learn, but once you've got the hang of it, performance is excellent. So why isn't it in our best five? It's designed to carry GoPro action cameras (or similar). If you've got one, it's worth the investment. If you haven't, it's an expensive toy.
Finally, we looked at the Autel Robotics X-Star. The awesome specification list includes a 4K ultra HD camera, GPS navigation, and 25 minutes flight time. The product description reads like a drone fan's wish list, and performance is remarkable. Unfortunately, there are issues with inconsistent communications, and there are compatibility problems with some Android and Apple devices.
If you live in the U.S., be sure to check out the latest Small Unmanned Aircraft Regulations set forth by the Federal Aviation Administration before flying your drone.
Q: Do I really need to register my drone with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)?
A: It depends on the size of the drone. Small toy drones flown exclusively indoors do not require official registration. However, heavier drones capable of outdoor flight must be registered with the FAA before they can be flown legally. This information should be included in the drone’s original packaging or instruction manual.
Q: I am a realtor, and I want to take aerial photos of my properties with a drone. Is this legal?
A: The commercial use of images taken by a drone is illegal under current FAA guidelines. Because these aerial photos would benefit your business, they’re considered to be commercial. Recreational users are allowed to sell or publish photographs taken during recreational flights — but they shouldn’t make it a regular practice. FAA regulations are in flux and may change, so if you’re in doubt, please check first.
Q: Do I have to maintain visual contact with a small drone at all times?
A: FAA guidelines state that a pilot must maintain visual contact with the drone at all times. There is also a maximum height restriction of 400 feet. If a drone flies out of controller range, it should have the ability to return to a programmed home location. Some advanced drones can send back real-time video data to the controller, but most consumer-level models don’t have that capability.
Q: Are there locations where drone flights are never permitted?
A: Drones may never fly within five miles of an airport or military base. National parks are also off-limits, as is the White House. As tempting as it might be, drones cannot be flown over sports stadiums or outdoor concert venues, either. Drone operators should also avoid flying directly over public roadways and crowds of people.
Drones are definitely fun to fly, but there is still a learning curve to consider. We urge drone owners to read and acknowledge all of the instructional material included in the original package and do some additional research as well. One-on-one instruction from an experienced drone pilot could prove highly valuable for the new drone owner.
Some users may be tempted to push a drone beyond its natural limits, but that’s an expensive and dangerous proposition. We at BestReviews say that the best part of any flying session should be taking your completely undamaged drone back home for another day.
At BestReviews, we purchase every product we review with our own funds. We never accept anything from product manufacturers. Our goal is to be 100% objective in our analysis, and we do not want to run the risk of being swayed by products provided at no cost.