Mainstream Multirotor Drone Buyer Guide
You’ve decided that you want to get in on the action and buy yourself a drone, but you aren’t in the market for a professional camera drone that will cost well North of $1000. Great! The first place you should look at are my two review pages – one for sub-$50 drones and the other for mainstream drones.
Now, if you don’t find a drone you like there or just don’t agree with me (it’s fine, really, I’m OK) then this buyer’s guide will help you to pick the drone that’s right for you.
Here I’ll go over the most important points that you have to consider one by one, and once you’ve worked through the checklist you should be well prepared.
The first most important thing you should decide is how big you want the drone to be.
The size of a multirotor such as a quadcopter is usually measured diagonally from one motor to its furthest opposite number – the greatest distance between any two motors, in other words. So a 250-class drone will measure 250mm, at most, between its motors.
Between 300 and 400 is considered mid-sized. You should know that classes are usually rounded to the nearest 50mm, so your copter may be a bit bigger or smaller than you’d think.
Anyway, for indoor practice flying where there is no wind you’ll probably want to get something small – perhaps 50-100 millimeters. For outside flying you’ll want at least a mid-sized machine.
The very smallest drones are usually very cheap, though, so you can usually buy drones in a few different sizes.
Does the drone have a battery that you can remove and swap for another? If not, you could be looking at long times between flights, since you can’t get and charge extra batteries. As a rule the smallest drones, nano class, do not have removable batteries. However, some of them cost as little as a battery themselves, so you can buy two or three if you like.
A larger, more expensive drone without a removable battery is much rarer, and you should avoid it if you come across one.
Flight Times and Charge Time
These should be pretty self-explanatory. These times tell you how long before you have to quit flying and how long before your battery is full and ready to fly again. If you have a drone with a removable battery and buy a bunch of spares, then this becomes less of an issue. You can also buy chargers that will simultaneously charge four or five batteries. What are reasonable flight times? Small to mid-sized drones usually get as much as seven to eight minutes of flight on a charge. Recently there have been more drones that offer a full fifteen minutes of flight.
Lots of drones with small motors recommend a 10 minute cool-down period to protect the components from overheating, so don’t go too crazy on consecutive flights.
All modern drones have a gyroscope for auto-balancing. You only want ones that come with a six-axis gyro. Some older models have gyros with fewer axes. Don’t buy them.
Pay attention to the different flight modes that a product offers. If you get the right mix of modes then you can get a lot of use out of a drone as you get better over time.
The first thing you want to look for is the option to adjust control rates. This changes how sharply the craft rolls, pitches, and yaws – making it more responsive, but also more challenging, to handle. Many drones let you pick between a low, medium, and high rate. Sometimes these are labeled as beginner, intermediate, and expert, but the idea is the same.
You may also have the option to customize the control rates for each axis and save different profiles. This makes it easier to switch between setups for different purposes.
Some drones have a stunt mode that lets you trigger automatic stunts; others give you the option for full manual control, with even the gyro switched off. Scary stuff unless you are an expert.
Finally, you now get something called “headless mode”, which makes the drone move relative to you and not where its “nose” is pointing. This usually goes paired with a one-button return function which makes the drone fly back to the remote. But it usually does it dumbly, since there is no GPS or proximity sensor system in mainstream drones, so be careful about actually using this feature.
If you want to fly in the dark, you’ll need something with adequate LED lighting. Well, that’s it. Just thought I’d mention it.
Multirotor craft are quite resilient and mechanically simple to fix, but this means nothing if you can’t get parts. Do some homework on the aftermarket support your prospective drone has. Otherwise you’ll be stuck with a 90% functional paperweight.
Cameras and FPV
First person view (FPV) flying and camera support can be fun things to play with, but often mainstream drones use WiFi for FPV. This is too laggy to actually fly well, so curb your expectations.
Remember that there are now legal requirements for drones weighing over certain limits, depending on the country or state you are in. Check out my page on drone legal issues for more info.
Up, Up and Away
And that should be all you need to know for an informed purchase. Also remember to get people’s impressions on RC forums before laying down any cash. You could also have a look on YouTube to see your prospect in action.