OK, so, you are ready to buy a drone. The sweet temptation of this wonderful tech quietly invaded your thoughts, then your time, and eventually your wallet. Don’t worry- you are not the first, and (most certainly) not the last victim.
With thousands of products on offer, it is easy to make a mistake- through buying an inferior product, or paying too much for functions that you’ll never use. Especially if you are a novice, we strongly suggest considering the selection criteria below before swiping your credit card.
Criterion 1: Purpose
It is important to consider what you to do with the new equipment. Teaching someone to fly? General fun excursions? Commercial applications? Most drones are built for a very focused and specific purpose and you’ll get the most from your drone if you buy one that closely matches your aspirations.
Criterion 2: Weight
The heavier the vehicle, the more stable it is in windy conditions. However, these are often too big to be flown indoors, which may be a more desirable criterion.
Do not underestimate how much fun it is to learn and to play with a small drone inside your own house! Plus, if you fly inside with a small 6-inch quadcopter, you don’t have to worry about the many drone regulations that apply if you fly in public areas. We highly recommend DJI’s high quality Spark mini-drone with features similar to high cost drones. The Spark’s battery life is approximately double that of most of the competition in its size and price class.
Criterion 3: Payload
The lift that your drone can produce will be reduced at high altitudes. Pilots refer to this as the Power-to-Weight ratio of an aircraft, which is affected by air density. Power-to Weight will normally only be a consideration if you fly at high altitudes and plan to carry payload (e.g. crop spraying in the mountains).
In cases where you plan to carry payload (e.g. surveying equipment, retrofit camera, spray fluid etc), it will be necessary to evaluate the drone capabilities for your individual requirement.
Payload forms part of the maximum all up weight of the drone, which is used to categorise drones for regulatory purposes. For example, in the U.S., the pilots of all drones weighing between 0.55lb (250g) and 55lb (say 25kg) and flown for leisure, must be registered- albeit a simple online process. At the time of writing this article, similar rules were forthcoming in the UK (read more here).
Criterion 4: Control and controllability
Do not make the mistake of thinking that smaller and cheaper drones are easier controlled – quite the opposite! Look for features like “Autohover”, “Gyro Stabilised”, and “Altitude Hold” which will make controlling a breeze.
Drones with Smartphone control are absolutely worth considering. Flying with the camera view and control panel on the same screen helps to focus attention and it is easier to control both devices- drone and camera- from the same panel.
Criterion 5: Camera
The regulation often limits use of a drone with a camera, and generally, there is much more freedom in flying drones without cameras. For example, in Qatar you are permitted to fly a drone without camera on the outskirts without a licence.
However, if your drone has a camera you need a licence which would cost you around the equivalent of US$140.
Most other countries, e.g. the US, UK and Australia, have adopted the rule that camera-equipped drones may not be operated closer than 50m from private persons or property without their consent.
For home use, we are convinced that most built-in cameras are adequate. An effective combination of features is HD with both photo and video capabilities. We strongly recommend the new Mavic 2 Pro with 10-bit HDR zoom lens camera for exceptional photo and video quality, really the “nextgen” of drones. Be sure to claim your Educational Discount of 10% when purchasing this innovative technology.
Of course, if you use the camera for professional purposes, many options can be found including 8k and gyro-stabilizing.
Criterion 6: Battery
You would most likely not obtain the flight time advertised in the brochure, the reason being that the batteries are often rated within ideal circumstances and against an optimum power usage level. If you vary power use while flying, or use high speed settings, the battery gets depleted much faster. Still, it is handy to compare advertised battery lives between competitive products when you choose a drone.
Make sure that you are able to obtain replacement and/or spare batteries if needed later.
The consumer class drone with the longest battery life is the Mavic 2 Pro in which we have great confidence. Battery life was shown to be 31 mins during tests in no wind conditions, and at forward speed of 25km/h.
Criterion 7: Bells & Whistles
Some of these quadcopters have awesome discretionary features, but you pay for what you get and it is worth considering if you really need them. Typical examples are:
Gesture control– Some drone cameras are able to interpret a gesture and execute an action, e.g. thumbs-up to take a selfie.
Autofollow– The camera controls the drone in this mode and is locked onto a person or object, maintaining a preset distance away. There are really cool new products with this feature and we highly recommend the SJRC S70W Quadcopter, available at EBay for a around $150.00 only!
Altitude hold– a must-have for new enthusiasts, it keeps the pilot-selected altitude despite disturbances.
Headless mode– also highly recommended for new flyers. In headless mode, “forward” is not the direction in which the drone is facing at any particular time, but the heading it faced when the mode was activated. This makes controlling much easier!
Smartphone control– Choose to control the drone either from your smartphone or from the dedicated controller supplied with the drone.
Portable design– some drones can fold and even come in purposeful carry cases.
Auto take-off and land– Push a button on the controller and you’re all set.
Auto return-to-point-of-departure– an easy way to get out of trouble. The return destination can be preset in advanced systems.
Collision avoidance– this is a prerequisite for advanced Beyond-Visual-Line-Of-Sight operations, but many intermediate systems are also equipped to stop and hover in the proximity of an obstacle.
Battery monitor– warns the pilot when the battery approach a preset low charge value.
Variable speed– as soon as you master the basics, you’ll want to go faster and faster. This feature helps to match flight speed with the appropriate level of pilot skill.
Autoflip/ Autospin– some buttons on the controller really makes you look better than what you are!
A final thought
Think before you buy! It is not necessary to break the bank unless you really want to. Planning your purchase may easily save you money and will definitely improve your drone experience.