If you're interested in a drone, there is a decent chance you had Star Wars bedsheets at some point in your life (we sure did), and thus would enjoy geeking out about the finer points of drone technology. After the decision guide we jump into the minutiae, unravelling all of the jargon and acronyms so you can nail the small talk at your next drone party (these things are becoming so popular so fast, we're just assuming drone parties will be a thing by the time this gets published).
Choosing the Right Drone
Step 1: What do You Want to Use it For?
All drones are fun, but chances are there is a specific activity you want to pursue. If you truly do just want a machine to goof around and have fun with, there are plenty of inexpensive, toy style models that will do the trick. If you want to race, there are specialty models available that offer a full on speed racer experience. You can jump down to the Types of Drones section to learn more about these.
The most common usage, and the focus of this review, is aerial videography and photography. Drones let amateurs create shots that used to be exclusively the domain of Hollywood directors that could afford large cranes or helicopters. Drones are getting so good at capturing aerial footage that the NFL is starting to use them for covering football games. For right around $1000 or less, these devices can give anyone the ability to capture all of the mind boggling angles seen in this video (artistic mastery not included).
Step 2: How Good of a Pilot are You?
While drones tend to be fairly user friendly, they are not the most intuitive things in the world to control. Their multi-rotor design requires a computer that makes constant adjustments to keep them stable. Effectively adding flying commands on top of that takes some practice and presents a learning curve for beginners. Plus, unlike Pooh Bear, you won't have Christopher Robin to help you when you get your really expensive kite stuck in a tree.
Higher end models that are more geared towards capturing high quality footage generally come with their own dedicated controllers. These controllers feature joysticks that lend intuitive tactile feedback to the flying experience. This tends to make flying much easier when compared to cheaper models that turn the touchscreen of your smartphone into a virtual controller (more on that in a minute). The downside of high end models is obviously their cost. As a beginner one might be very reluctant to fly where or how they would like to for fear of damaging their big investment. In this case it would be worth budgeting time for some test flights in a wide open, obstacle-free field, or getting a $50 toy model to practice your skills with. A less expensive camera model like the Parrot BeBop 2 provides a less stressful flying experience, both because of its cheaper cost and the fact that its lighter weight makes crashes less consequential, but you make significant sacrifices in video quality and flying performance. A model like this would make a good gift for a young, budding cinematographer that wants to get their hands dirty with some aerial shots.
Step 3: Remote Control or Mobile Device?
Most models either use an app to turn your smartphone or tablet into a flight controller, or they come with their own remote control. In the case of the latter, a smartphone is often still used to display a live stream from the vehicle's camera. The fact is that both smartphone/tablet and dedicated remote control interfaces are fairly intuitive, and chances are you will quickly become accustomed to whichever one you use. However, if we had to choose, we would prefer a dedicated remote control. Not only do the joysticks make you feel more like Maverick cruising around with Goose (may he rest in peace), they also feel slightly more natural than moving a smartphone around. Additionally, it frees up the entirety of your smartphone screen to display the video you're capturing, creating a more immersive and cinematic experience and making you feel more like the film festival winning director you want to be. Finally, dedicated remote controls tend to have a greater range than the networks used to communicate with mobile devices alone.
On that note, you'll probably find that using a tablet rather than a smartphone in conjunction with your flying camera enhances your experience. This is especially true if you're using the tablet as the remote control, as it provides more screen space to view the live video stream. Even if you have a dedicated remote that uses a mobile device solely as a live stream monitor, you'll probably appreciate the extra viewing space. This is by no means necessary and using a smartphone is completely workable, a tablet just makes it feel that little bit more professional.
Step 4: What Kind of Camera Do You Need?
If you're looking for high quality video, at the very least you'll want a model that mounts its camera on a gimbal. This device allows the camera to move independently from the body of the aircraft, counteracting all the jerky flight movements of the drone itself to create smooth, stable video. Cameras that mount directly on the body rather than on a gimble do offer some image stabilization, but nowhere near blockbuster-worthy panning shots that gimbals can produce.
In terms of video resolution, it's hard to go wrong. All serious models film in at least 1080p. This full high definition resolution will look great on any computer or TV screen. Opting for the ultra high definition of 4K (four times the resolution of 1080p) will make your footage a bit more future proof, as 4K monitoring and TVs are slowly becoming the standard. Some models utilize 2.7K cameras, which are a good middle ground between these two extremes. If slow motion is your thing you'll want to get the model that can film at the highest frames per second (fps) at 1080p resolution. This combination provides Matrix style slow motion at a high resolution.
Finally, you'll want to decide whether you want a camera that is permanently attached to the aircraft, or one that is removable. Permanently attached cameras have the advantage of simplicity, and are designed specifically for flying videography. Models like the GoPro Karma Quadcopter have a removable camera that can be used as a normal action camera. This allows you to get amazing aerial footage of your buddy shredding down the hill, then take the camera off, toss it on your helmet, and get a point of view perspective on your run. Just remember, if you lose the camera your drone becomes just a really expensive toy helicopter.
Step 5: Do You Need Any Accessories?
Rotors spin fast and are the first things to break in any kind of crash. Luckily they are fairly cheap and easy to replace, so it wouldn't hurt to have a few spare on hand. Also, its takes a lot of energy to hover, so most models only have a flight time of 20-25 minutes. This is more than enough time to get that perfect shot. However, if you're planning on flying a lot far from an outlet, spare batteries may be a necessity and, unfortunately, costly. Most list in the $100 range. Finally, some models have carrying cases available. This is very useful if you want to trek out and film in remote locations. Finally, some people prefer flying with a neck strap attached to their controller.
Step 6: Educate Yourself About Flying Restrictions
Federal regulations prohibit flying in certain areas, namely above 400 feet or within five miles of an airport. The B4UFLY app alerts you of any federal restrictions in your current or planned flight location. You'll still have to double check any additional state regulations as well.
Step 7: Have Fun!
Time for some positive affirmation. You're smart, you're creative, and you've just obtained a filming tool that Alfred Hitchcock could only have imagined in his wildest dreams. Go make some sweet movies!
Our step-by-step guide will help most shoppers find the product they're looking for, but chances are you'll run into something you don't understand on your way there. In this section we dive deeper into drones and their specifications, so you won't be left wondering what all those bullet points on the side of the box mean.
Types of Drones
Gimbal Camera Drones
A gimbal is essentially a mount that keeps a camera steady. It both dampens vibrations and actively keeps the camera level. Models with gimbals are able to produce smooth looking footage and keep the horizon level, even as the aircraft banks, turns, and shakes in the wind. Gimbal models are thus the clear choice for producing high quality video footage. The majority of the models we tested fall into this category.
Non-Gimbal Camera Drones
Some models do not have a camera gimbal, instead mounting the camera directly to the body of the aircraft. Even though some of these models do employ some sort of strategy for camera stabilization, most produce relatively shaky and jerky footage, making them poor choices for videography applications. Most are smaller and cheaper than their gimballed brethren, meaning they can be more easily thrown into a backpack and then used to get a unique angle for a selfie. The Parrot Bebop 2 and the Yuneec Breeze 4K fit into this category.
Toy models tend to cost less than $100, are quite small, and lack the power to fly in any kind of wind. Some of these models have small cameras as well, but are best used for practice or simple recreation.
Racing models are built to be light and agile. Most have fixed, front facing cameras that can stream video to a pair of first-person-view goggles (think a virtual reality headset) that allows the pilot to fly as if they're sitting in the cockpit. For a fun foray into the culture of racing check out this video.
These are the models we focused on in this review. They provide a high quality, aerial videography platform at a price that doesn't require taking out a loan or starting a kickstarter campaign. Most have four rotors.
Professional camera models start to get very expensive. Generally they don't come standard with a camera. Rather, you would buy a very powerful drone and then affix it with a mount that is compatible with your professional level camera. Often these models have more than four rotors, so that losing one engine won't result in all that expensive equipment crashing to the ground. Also, many of these models have two separate controls, allowing one person to be the pilot while another controls the camera (this feature has begun to make its way into consumer models as well). Freefly Systems is one of the leading providers of professional level rigs, if you're curious what they're all about.
The world of drones is filled with a multitude of arcane terms and TLA's (three letter acronyms). Here we'll go over some of the more common ones so you won't be left in the dark.
Whats a UAV?
UAV stands for unmanned aerial vehicle. It is a general, all-encompassing term that applies to everything from the small models you're considering buying to huge military aircraft. You'll notice that the FAA uses the even more general term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) in all of their legalese, most likely to cut down any unforeseen loopholes.
RTF vs. DIY
RTF is an acronym for ready to fly. All of the models we tested are RTF as they require only minimal construction (popping on the rotors) upon purchasing. RTF is certainly the way to go for beginners, and even most experienced pilots will favor RTF models. However, if you become enamored with the incredible aerodynamics of your hovering companion, you may find great pleasure in a DIY (do it yourself) model. These models range from curated kits that facilitate the joy of building something yourself, to models built piece by piece from scratch, including all of the computer coding required to to keep the vehicle level. Depending on how far you want to take your DIY antics it can turn UAV flying from a hobby to a lifestyle.
What's a Quadcopter?
The term quadcopter simply refers to an aircraft with four rotors. Most models available on the market are quadcopters, because this is the simplest design that allows for effective maneuvering. By spinning two of the rotors clockwise, and the other two counterclockwise, quadcopters can create torque to turn in any direction. The addition of more rotors increases lift power and capacity along with providing redundancy in case an engine fails, but does not increase maneuverability.
Autonomous Flight Modes
Many models offer guidance features that make both flying and getting that perfect shot much, much easier. Some have a tap-to-fly feature, which brings the drone to a hover a few feet off the ground automatically. As liftoff is one of the most tenuous and potentially hazardous moments in any flight, this can remove quite a bit of stress. Some allow you to plot gps waypoints on your phone or table, and then have the drone automatically follow that course. Other models can follow a subject using visual tracking or follow whoever is holding the controller. Some DJI models even have a live tracking feature, where you can identify a moving subject on your live stream screen and the camera can track it visually, no sensors required. There are also orbit functions, which automatically create a 360˚ panning shot around you. That is sure to be the perfect climatic shot in the short film chronicling your dream climb to the top of Mont Blanc, or at least rake in the Instagram likes.
There are also a number of navigational features meant to prevent loss or damage to your new investment. Return to home, or RTH, functions can automatically bring a vehicle back to its starting point when it is low on battery or has lost connection with its controller. While they are a good fallback, RTH functions are not foolproof, and we would not recommend using them as a standard way to bring your drone back. Most models allow you to enter in flight restrictions in terms of maximum height (400 feet is the maximum altitude allowed by the FAA) and distance from the controller. Some have a hover-in-place feature, which can operate like a panic button. If you feel like you're losing control, hit the hover button and the vehicle will stop as quickly as possible and calmly hover in place. Newer DJI models offer a collision avoidance system that will halt the flight if there is an obstacle in its way. This only works if you're flying directly forward, however. If you're flying to the side to capture that dramatic pan left, it'll never see that tree coming. Some newer models that are only available for pre-order improve on this by adding side-facing sensors as well.
Return to Home: Only for Emergencies!
Return to home (RTH) functions are great to have as a failsafe, but they should be used as just that: a last resort. No manufacturers recommend using RTH for anything but emergency situations (though some of the advertising may imply otherwise). Common emergency situations include a loss of signal, dangerously low battery, or a loss of visual contact. Using RTH generally causes the drone to automatically ascend to higher elevation, then use GPS to find its starting location, and land. While this often can work seamlessly, it can also end with a crash into an unforeseen obstacle, or an inopportune gust of wind. In fact, some of the pilots we consulted with jokingly called this feature, "Return to manufacturer." It is much better to get into the habit of piloting your drone back yourself, putting it into a hover near the ground, and hitting the land button. The bottom line is that all of these drones have the potential to cause physical harm or property damage, and should thus only be used in a safe manner in accordance with the manufacturer's recommendations.
Most models store video on a microSD card. Luckily, large capacity microSD cards have become quite cheap, as 4K video can quickly chew through storage space. Some models beam footage to your phone or tablet and use that device's memory for storage. This works, you may just have to clear out some storage space before you start flying (it might be painful to delete those Game of Thrones episodes or, worse yet, Angry Birds).
Don't Be That Guy (or Girl)
The last bit of advice we'd like to leave you with is, be respectful. Small unmanned aerial vehicles are slowly developing a stigma for being a tool of privacy invasion. In fact, there was an entire episode of Parks and Recreation concerning privacy invasion, and UAV's were one of its centerpieces. And, let's face it, even if it really was an innocent change in wind direction that sent your flying camera over your neighbor's fence in full view of their jacuzzi, can you blame them for assuming the worst? So be conscientious, avoid those types of situations. Don't ruin the experience of fellow hikers by firing up what sounds like a flying weedwacker while they're trying to enjoy the tranquility of an alpine lake. A temporary UAV ban has been placed on all U.S. National Parks due to this type of behavior, and other land management agencies are warning UAV pilots not to interfere with wildfire fighting efforts. Try your best to ensure small UAVs are seen in a positive light rather than stigmatized, so the full bore of this accessible technology can be brought to make the world just a little bit better. Speaking of making things better
Other Small UAV Applications
Small, inexpensive, unmanned aircraft are set to be a revolutionizing force in a number of industries. One of the most exciting and heartwarming developments is the fact that there are entire organizations dedicated to advancing conservation efforts through using aerial vehicles to extend and streamline ecological monitoring and data collection. There is even a movement to crowdsource personal UAVs to assist in search and rescue operations. In the commercial realm, real estate agents have already started using them extensively to take aerial photos of properties. They are being used in a number of different industries from agriculture to structural inspections. A company in Nevada has already been granted approval to use these vehicles for deliveries. And all this is in the nascent years of the widespread availability of quadcopters, who knows what will come next. Long story short, if you want to be on the cusp of the future, it wouldn't hurt to learn a bit more about drones.