Ultimate drone buying guide
By Cheryl Evans 2018-05-18 20728 4
A lot of people buy drones for the sake of fun, taking selfies/videos clips, and posting them on social media. Many pilots are enthusiastic about FPV racing and intended to win the prize.
Read this guide, you will be able to understand everything about drones, and choose a drone that will eventually be your favorite.
There are high-profile brands and models, such as DJI Mavic Pro, DJI Spark, Walkera Rodeo 110, Hover Camera Passport and so on. However, Xiaomi Mi Drone 4K, ZEROTECH DOBBY, SIMTOO Dragonfly, HUBSAN H501S X4, etc. have more popularity. Toy drones are numerous, and you can find best sellers among these brands: JJRC, SYMA, Cheerson, TKKJ, i Drone, FQ777, GTeng, JXD, WLtoys...
A drone is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard, also named as UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Drones are divided into three main categories, multi-rotor, fixed-wing and rotary-wing aircraft, with distinct differences in construction as well as application.
Multi-rotors use several motors and propellers to fly. They are the most stable and easiest to control, and they do not require any runway. Flying them well is easy for beginners since a great many can hover steadily for smooth footage.
Fixed-wing aircraft boasts natural gliding capability for heavier weight and longer distances with less power consumption. However, the fixed-wing is not stable for precise camera positioning and needs long runway.
Rotary-wing UAV looks like a small helicopter since it only has one rotor. The best thing is that it takes off and lands vertically, making it possible to operate within a small space, well suited for inspections.
You can tell the difference of drones in the number of rotary parts, namely, rotors. There are tricopters, quadcopters, hexacopters, octocopters and more. Quadcopters are the most common. You can know their differences clearly by looking at the chart.
|Configuration||3 rotors||4 rotors||6 rotors||8 rotors|
|Size||Large||Readily available from small to large||Larger||Largest|
|Manufacture or reliability||More difficult to build than a quadcopter||Relatively cheap, the easiest to build from scratch||In case one motor fails, they can still fly well and land safely||In case one motor fails, they can still fly well and land safely. More stable|
|Cost (price and maintenance)||Lowest||Relatively low||Higher||Highest|
|Maneuverability||Agile and smooth thanks to yaw control at the tail||Easy to control; with more lift and thrust than a tricopter||Fast and easy to control; safer and more stable||Fast, agile, stable; with exceptionally high lift, powerful for heavy equipment|
Look at the aircraft below. The basic components of a complete version are a frame, a flight controller, propellers, motors ( ESCs, necessary for brushless motors ), a remote control, a receiver, a battery, and a charger.
There are many drone kits and ready-to-fly drones. You should check the version that you are going to buy carefully.
RTF (ready-to-fly) means that the drone is fully assembled and comes with everything you need to fly. This version includes the remote controller and battery. However, for some RTF FPV drones, you will need an FPV screen.
BNF (bind-N-fly) drones contain everything except the remote control (or transmitter). This allows you to use your existing transmitter, but it needs to be bound with the receiver on the aircraft. If your transmitter is compatible with most radios (FrSky, FLYSKY, Walkera, Futaba, DSM, DSM2, DSMX...), like Jumper T8SG Plus, this transmitter is enough for all your BNF drones.
PNP (plug-N-play) UAVs have everything you need except the radio system ( both transmitter and receiver), battery and charger. Generally, they are fully assembled, with a frame, flight controller, ESCs, and motors. PNP versions also come with an FPV camera and 5.8G video transmitter. You should notice that PNF signifies Plug-N-Fly, and it is nearly the same as PNP.
ARF (almost-ready-to-fly) versions are usually DIY kits. They require you to add additional parts and assemble the drones by yourself. A transmitter may or may not be included. It is common that you need to purchase and install servos, motors, electronics, the battery and so on to complete building the drones.
The power supply of a drone affects its flight time, brushless motors determine its durability, and remote control plays an important role in how well and how far you can fly the drone. Therefore, you need to examine the battery, brushless motor, and remote control carefully.
The battery provides power for flying. The higher the capacity (mAh) is, the longer you can fly. Due to the technical limitations of capacity, a large drone usually has more battery cells to ensure the high capacity (the voltage of each cell is about 3.7V). C ratings indicate how fast batteries use up the electric power. With higher C rating is, a drone can fly faster.
Remember never to drain the battery completely, or the battery life will be greatly shortened. In addition, it is recommended to buy batteries with low voltage protection, overcurrent protection, high-temperature protection and more.
Brushless motors are more power-efficient and durable than brushed ones because of significant structural improvement. Working continuously for several years will not be a problem. That's why a big drone uses brushless motors to generate thrust to overcome to drag, providing enough lift to ascend.
How to choose motors? The easiest way is to look at their models. The model usually consists of four digits, for example, 2212. The first two numbers indicate the stator diameter and the last two ones represents the stator height. The most sought-after ones are wide and tall, because they are powerful to produce more thrust. With sufficient thrust, the UAV is capable of ascending and maneuvering in the air; otherwise, it cannot fly.
Therefore, you need to take into both the size and weight of the drone, and put motors as wide and tall as possible into the frame. Have a look at the maximum thrust of motors, and you will be able to calculate the thrust-to-weight ratio of your drone. The higher the ratio is, the nimbler your aircraft will be.
The radio system includes antennas, a ground transmitter, and a receiver on the aerial vehicle. The widely used remote control is the 2.4GHz system, because it searches for available frequencies automatically and avoids interfering with other radio signals.
The number of functions and control distance are critical for remote control systems. The more channels they have, the more functions you will take advantage of. No matter you are using a remote control or your smartphone, you may get disappointed at shorter control distance. This is because the control distance is tested in the ideal conditions, free of interference. Do not be too frustrated, a signal booster will help; or replace the transmitter and receiver with those featuring higher output power.
Other parts are also of importance, and extend the functionality of a drone. Generally, they are the reasons why high-end drones are expensive.
Camera & Gimbal (Image Stabilization)
Drone pilots think highly of high-resolution cameras. However, without image stabilization, an aerial camera produces fuzzy photos and unsmooth videos when the aircraft moves in different directions and rotates.
Image stabilizers vary a lot. EIS (Electronic Image Stabilization) is the lightest solution, a chip to minimize blurring and compensating for camera vibration. Vibration damping balls are applied to the simplest gimbal. There are also 1-axis, 2-axis, 3-axis gimbals. The more expensive, the more controllable axes a gimbal has. So far, the best stabilizer is 3-axis brushless gimbal, with easily controllable pan, tilt, roll for seeing around in three dimensions.
First-person View System (FPV)
To record perfectly, a camera on a gimbal will do, whereas, you need a video transmitter, a receiver with a screen to see what the camera captures in real time - to have the image sent back and shown to you.
A powerful image transmission system turns you into a clairvoyant, who catches sight of what is at more than several miles away, for example, DJI's OcuSync system applied to Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro Platinum for 7km transmission.
Please notice there are two different WiFi FPV systems, the first uses the phone as the receiver, the second one is 5.8GHz FPV systems which are widely used in racing drones to have analog FPV. Evidently, the former ones are more economical.
Global Positioning System (GPS)
GPS is useful to provide position hold, Return to Home, autonomous flight, and geo-fencing function. Firstly, with GPS, you have plenty of time to consider what to do next, because the drone can stay at the same location and altitude without being moved by wind. Secondly, in case of too low battery level and loss of signal, thanks to the GPS connectivity, the drone will override your controls and return to the home point automatically. Thirdly, the aircraft can auto-pilot itself along the waypoints drawn by you. Finally, it is also possible for you to use geo-fence to limit the flights and do not fly anywhere you do not want to.
Drones are lifeless machines, however, their capability can be improved by sensors.
Sensors make drones smarter and facilitate the control. With a barometer, Altitude Hold functions to avoid constantly adjusting the throttle, so you can focus on directional controls. Optical flow sensors at the bottom of the aircraft are dedicated to precise indoor positioning, when the GPS signal is poor. Drones may also have sharp eyes, i.e. ultrasonic and infrared sensors to form vision systems to avoid obstacles autonomously. The more sensors a drone has, the more highly-developed its capabilities will be. In other words, the sensor redundancy improves the safety and flight performance.
How can you know whether a drone is worth the price? These features will tell you. (Please notice although the list is based on most drones, there might exist some exceptions.)
1) Headless Mode
In normal conditions, you always need to look for the front of the drone in order to fly it in different directions - it is dizzying, especially for the novice. With this mode, directional control becomes much easier, since a drone moves exactly the same as you push the aileron and elevator.
2) H/L Speed
H/L Speed serves as a shifter in the car, so the speed will be changed immediately. For beginners, the low speed is better, and easier for flying in a small space. However, for experts, the high speed creates more excitement.
3) 3D Flips & Rolls
Thanks to this function, no skills are needed, you can perform aerobatics like a veteran. Just push the button, roll the UAV freely without moving the throttle, rudder, elevator and aileron.
4) One Key Return
After you activate the function, the drone will fly back directly to where the transmitter is. This breaks the limitation of short control distance and facilitates returning to the home point.
● $20 - $44.9
1) 0.3MP Camera
Camera drone bring a different perspective to you. Some cheaper ones save what the camera captures on an SD card, the others transmit the live video to your phone via its self-generated WiFi hotspot. The WiFi connection puts your eyes in the air and gives you access to all controls.
2) Altitude Hold
Let go of the throttle, then, the aircraft will stay at the same height in the air. This helps to focus on directional control, take clear photos, and record smooth videos.
3) G-sensor Mode
The UAV is manipulated by your "invisible hand", in fact, you are holding the phone which is used to control it.
4) One Key Takeoff/Landing
Tap the icon on the App interface, and your drone will ascend to a desirable height or land at once. No need to move the throttle up and down.
Draw a line or tap on the App interface, the aircraft will auto-pilot along the route at a certain height. It is like moving the camera on a rail.
● $45 - $119.99
1) 2MP Camera or 720P FPV
Paying more money usually means you get a better camera with WiFi transmitter. Thus, you can take clearer footage. If the App has Beauty Mode, post-production will take you less time - your works will be ready to share.
2) Optical Flow Positioning
Optical flow sensors ( camera modules ) determine the ground speed by using the ground texture and visible features. It also helps with the position hold indoors or where the GPS signal is poor.
3) Voice Control
It is cool to own a drone which follows your commands. Speak out "up", "down", "left", "right", "forward", "backward", or other similar words, and the drone will obey and fly accordingly.
● $120 - $295
You will be amazed at the superiority of drones priced at $120 - $295.
1) Brushless Motors
Because of the cost of brushless motors, you will never find it on a cheap drone. These motors work longer and generate more lift.
2) 5MP Camera, 1080P FPV
In most conditions, you will get 5MP camera for 5.8G 1080P FPV or WiFi FPV over up to 1km distance.
3) GPS-based Features
These drones also integrate GPS, so they will return to home in case of low battery and weak signals. More importantly, with the high-resolution camera and GPS, the aircraft can execute Follow Me, Point of Interest to go after or surround you.
Apart from the above, more customization options are available on the App, and you might also have the access to programming commands.
● $295.5 or above
1) 12MP to 20MP Camera, 4K UHD Videos
This is where you can find the high-end drones with camera pixels varying from 12MP to 20MP. Generally, 4K UHD videos are a matter of course, and the still photography modes include Signal Shot, Burst Shooting, Interval, Panorama and so on.
2) Image Stabilization
Certainly, how stable the footage largely depends on the stabilizer. As the price increases from $295, the image stabilization differs greatly.
3) Advanced Functions
More sophisticated functions such as TapFly, Face Recognition, Visual Tracking, Gesture Mode, help you achieve in cinematic shots with ease. TapFly is developed from Waypoints; Face Recognition and Visual Tracking are dedicated to following the movement of your face and body respectively; Gesture Mode is to use the gestures to manipulate the movement of drones and to take photos/videos.
Vision systems can only be found in the top-tier drones. There are also significant improvements in materials used in aircraft construction, flight duration, image transmission distance, and control distance. So far, the longest flight time of consumer drones is about 30 minutes, and the image transmission distance is more amazing - up to 7km.
Everyone should fly drones responsibly. Professional operators should get a license, while hobbyist should think highly of the rules and regulations.
Firstly, if your model aircraft weighs more than 0.55 pound, go to the official registration site of FAA UAS (Unmanned Aircraft System) to register your drone before the first flight. Secondly, visit AirMap and Mapbox to check the no-fly zones in the places you plan to fly. Thirdly, those younger than 13 years old are prohibited from playing with drones. Finally, do not exceed the height limit of 400 feet.
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