A Guide to Buying a Camera Drone
As a technology, camera drones are relatively new to the market. Like the early days of personal computers, it wasn’t too long ago that the only way you could have a quadcopter was by building one yourself from a kit. In fact, almost all of the drones that you could buy as a complete, ready-to-fly bundle had simply been hand-assembled by someone else.
Today the shift is definitely towards polished, mass-produced products that can sit on the shelf next to smartphones and tablets. You can buy a basic camera-equipped quadcopter for as little as fifty bucks or you can blow $10,000 dollars on a carbon fiber octocopter monstrosity.
Pretty daunting, right? Don’t worry – I’ll get you through the most important considerations.
Drone or Multirotor?
Thanks to inconsistent naming conventions there are a lot of terms flying around (ha ha, flying around) when we talk about drones and quadcopters. So first I want to clear that confusion up a little bit.
Technically, any unmanned or remote-controlled aircraft is a “drone”, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), but in the public mind these terms don’t apply to the RC helicopters and airplanes that have been around for decades. Although, if you can call an RC quadcopter a drone you can certainly call an RC helicopter one – they both fit the bill.
It’s more useful to refer to “multirotor” aircraft than “drones”, and I have another article on the site that lists most of the common multirotor designs.
Now, when taking these multirotors as a whole, some of them are a completely manual RC aircraft. It won’t hover, move, or do anything else without your explicit control inputs. Take your hands off the controls and it will crash. Have a lapse of concentration and it will crash. Most toy multirotors and sports multirotors fall into this category. The only form of automation they have is an onboard gyroscope that tries to keep the multirotor level, but other than that you are on your own.
Then you have what I like to think of as “proper” drones. These are multirotor aircraft that take orders from you, but don’t need you to actually steer them. These are the types of drones used for aerial photography and videography. They usually have a bunch of sensors that let them navigate and you just tell them where to go and when to do it.
This is important, since the former type of craft requires that you can actually pilot an RC multirotor, whereas the latter requires that you can work an iPad. You can fly the autonomous and semi-autonomous drones manually, but the point is that this is optional.
Prices on drones are coming down all the time as production scales up and technology becomes cheaper, but as it stands the entry-level for a semi-autonomous camera drone is about $1000. The prosumer-grade stuff lies between there and $2000. As you approach $3000 you are stepping into proper professional territory where the big octocopters with expensive camera rigs live.
Fit for Purpose
Which product you go for is very heavily determined by what you want to use it for. If you are looking for something to learn manual flight, then a 4-channel, six-axis quadcopter for $30 will do just fine. You can crash it to pieces and replace it until you learn the principles of flight. I wouldn’t recommend buying an expensive multirotor to learn manual flight, since you’ll likely destroy it within minutes.
After you’ve learned how to fly, you may want to graduate to flying sports multirotors, which is where we get into hundreds or thousands of dollars.
When it comes to drones designed for aerial photography and videography, what matters is the quality of product you want to create. Do you want to sell the footage? Well then, you need to have something at a quality people are willing to pay for. Do you want to make movies? Then you need to look at the very high end, depending on the project budget of course.
A lot depends on the payload the craft can handle. Better cameras usually mean more weight. This is why GoPro has been such a huge development for drones. Their cameras give really good quality footage for the weight. Most entry-level aerial photography drones come with GoPro and GoPro clone compatibility.
Drone sizes are usually measured in millimeters from one rotor to the opposite rotor. Entry level camera drones such as the popular Phantom series are in the 300mm class. Prosumer drones that can lift slightly heavier payloads are usually 500mm and up, while the really big boys are in the 1000mm range. Bigger arm spans means bigger everything else, especially when it comes to the price.
Bundled or Unbundled
You’ll have to think carefully about the total cost of ownership and bundled content when buying a drone. Do you want to buy the drone, its flight controller, camera, gimbal, and radio controller separately, or are you happy with what’s provided in an all-in-one kit? Do you need to use a smartphone or tablet as a video screen or does it have one built in?
Can it stay in the air long enough to do what you need it to do? You’ll want to have extra batteries to swap out if you need to work continuously and don’t have time to wait for a recharge.
How far away from you do you need the drone to operate? Bear in mind that in some parts of the world it is illegal to operate a drone out of your line of sight. So check up on local regulations. Keep in mind that the control transmission range and video reception range are usually different, with the video range being shorter. Depending on your receiver it may be possible to upgrade the antenna for some extra range. Just don’t extend the range beyond the flight range of the drone, preventing it from making it back home.
If you are going to be operating both the camera and drone itself you’ll likely appreciate autonomous and semi-autonomous flight modes that help you concentrate on getting the shot rather than wrestling with flight controls. One of the most useful modes is “GPS Lock” where the drone will stay parked at whatever coordinate it currently is. It will automatically maintain a stable hover at that position, letting you get to the business of camera work.
Other flight modes may include a “follow me” mode or one that circles a particular point, a favorite for aerial surveying of an area.
Camera drones are a big investment and it can be nerve-wracking sending a $2000 dollar piece of equipment up into the wild blue yonder. So be sure to check for safety features such as a “return to home” function and a low battery landing mode. If the drone breaks contact it will come back to the takeoff point, and if the battery gets dangerously low it will try to find a safe landing spot rather than crash.
Parts, malfunctions, repairs, and more are a fact of life for drone owners. So dealing with a company that provides these services well is pretty important. For some reason a few of the big names are also infamous for poor customer support, so do a bit of reading as to the state of customer service for the brand you are considering. Drone owner complaints seem to already be having an effect, but do your homework anyway.
That’s All Folks
Broadly these are the most important things you should keep in mind when buying a camera drone. The last thing I’d advise is to make sure you know the local, state and federal laws regarding drone licensing and use. Few things are worse than getting your expensive equipment confiscated because you broke the rules or didn’t have the right paperwork.
Other than that, join a good drone community and read up on people’s experiences with certain products. A basic review can narrow your choices, but living with the machine for a while can show up some important problems. As far as possible, don’t be an early adopter of new drone models unless you know exactly what you are doing.