Drones are interesting machines that can be used for recreational and commercial purposes alike. Whether flying just for fun or to capture stunning aerial photography, there are several things beginners need to consider when purchasing their first drone.
Along with flight capabilities, several other features should factor into your decision-making process, including camera quality and battery life. You’ll also need to take size and weight into account. Compact, folding models under 250 grams, such as the DJI Mini 2, have fewer regulations and are easier to transport than larger, heavier models.
If you are buying your first drone, there are some regulations you need to be aware of. In the United States, you need to register any drone that weighs over 250 grams with the Federal Aviation Administration. Not doing so can result in hefty fines. Thankfully, the process is relatively simple on the FAA’s website and takes just a few minutes. It costs $5, and you must be at least 13 years of age to do so. You’ll receive a registration number that is valid for 3 years, which you need to affix to your drone.
Suppose you are flying a larger drone or one for non-recreational purposes, such as taking photos of your home to list it for sale or taking pictures of something for a website. In that case, you’ll need to pass the FAA’s Unmanned Aircraft General – Small aeronautical knowledge exam.
It is vital to understand the flight limitations of any drone you buy. Along with the control range, these include maximum take-off altitude and wind levels. Drones are limited in altitude because above a certain threshold the air is too thin for the propellers to be able to create enough lift. For high-quality drones, this threshold is usually 4,000 meters above sea level or 13,123 feet. Note that this is different from the altitude you can fly it from your position, which is 400 feet above where you are standing.
Putting the above into practice means that if you were standing on a mountain with an altitude of 4,100 meters, your drone wouldn’t be able to fly at all. This also means that if you were standing in a location that was 1,000 feet above sea level, the max altitude you are allowed to fly your drone is 1,400 feet.
Drone capabilities vary greatly from one model to the next. Some can reach speeds upwards of 50 miles per hour and have a control range of several miles. Others may top out at just 10 or 15 miles per hour and have a relatively short 1,000-foot control range.
You also need to take wind speed into account when flying a drone. Most drone manufacturers list what kind of wind speeds you can safely fly your drone. For high-quality models, this is often between 20 and 24 miles per hour. However, for some hobby drones, this may be as low as 10 miles per hour. For more information on this, check out the buying guide at BestReviews.
All drones have a control range that they cannot fly past. On cheap toy models, this may be as short as 150 feet. On mid-level models, it tends to be between 1,000 feet and 1 mile. Premium drones will have a flight range between 2 and 6 miles.
Along with the range, the flight time affects how far you can fly your drone. Low-cost drones often have a flight time between 7 and 12 minutes before you run out of battery life. On the other end of the spectrum, you can find models with flight times between 30 and 40 minutes.
If you are buying a drone for aerial photography and videography, the camera quality needs to be a top priority. Some beginner models are capable of 15 MP stills and 4K UHD video. Others may only be capable of 5MP stills and 720p video. The camera specs will be listed in the drone’s product details.
Along with the camera quality, another feature that affects how well your pictures and video turn out is a gimbal. Gimbals are used to stabilize the camera, so your footage comes out clear and crisp rather than shaky and blurry. Depending on the model, a drone may have no gimbals, a single-axis gimbal, a dual-axis gimbal or a three-axis gimbal. Three-axis gimbals are the best and will provide the most stable videos.
Many drones feature quick shot modes to make aerial video easier. Once initiated, the drone will autonomously capture cinematic shots that rival those in Hollywood movies. The most common of these are rocket, dronie, helix, boomerang and circle.
If you are looking for a drone for capturing action shots of yourself, choose a model with active tracking. These are capable of autonomously following and recording a moving subject.
Many drones are capable of autonomously returning to their take-off location. This is important if you ever lose sight of your drone while it is in the sky. In order to do this, they need to be equipped with satellite connectivity to track their positions. This can be GLONASS, GPS or a combination of the two.
Obstacle sensing is a very important feature in beginner drones. Depending on the model, it may only sense obstacles in a single direction, such as in front of it when flying forward or in all directions, including above and below. The more obstacle sensors a drone has, the better it will be at avoiding crashes, even when under the control of an inexperienced pilot.
Drones may be equipped with a number of pilot-assisting features that make flying these easier. Some examples are auto-hover, one-touch return home, automatic take-off and landing.
Drones vary greatly in price, with tiny toy models costing as little as $20 and premium options costing several thousand. If looking for a high-quality drone as your entry-level model, expect to spend between $100-$500.
A. How hard a drone is to learn to fly depends on its piloting software. More expensive models tend to be easier to learn to fly than cheap toy models because they feature stabilizing software that allows them to retain their altitude and obstacle sensors that help avoid crashes. Most people can learn to fly a drone with this kind of software in just a few minutes and will become comfortable with it after a few hours.
A. The majority of manufacturers recommend pilots be at least 14 years of age. The exception to this are drones specifically designed for children. These are often small and feature fully enclosed rotors and extremely durable builds. If you are unsure whether or not a particular drone is suitable for a child, check the manufacturer’s minimum age recommendation in the product details.
What you need to know: This lightweight, foldable drone features a high-quality camera and is ideal for travelers.
What you’ll love: It offers an impressive 10-kilometer range with a 31-minute battery life. Also, it has a three-axis gimbal and remains stable in high winds, so your videos never come out shaky.
What you should consider: It lacks the popular active tracking feature and only has downward obstacle sensing.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
What you need to know: Packed with many of the same features as high-end drones but for a fraction of the price, the HS510 offers a lot of value for your money.
What you’ll love: It is capable of shooting in 4K and features both GLONASS and GPS to minimize the chances of losing positioning connectivity. Also, it weighs less than 250 grams, so there is no need to register it with the FAA.
What you should consider: It only has a single-axis gimbal.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
What you need to know: If you’re looking for something affordable to learn to pilot on and having the best quality camera isn’t a top priority, the Tello fits the bill.
What you’ll love: It can be programmed via a mobile app to autonomously perform a variety of movements, and it includes rotor guards to protect the propellers and whatever objects you hit in the event of a crash.
What you should consider: Its flight time is just 13 minutes.
Where to buy: Sold by Amazon
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Brett Dvoretz writes for BestReviews. BestReviews has helped millions of consumers simplify their purchasing decisions, saving them time and money.