Buying a Drone? Here’s What You Need to Know First

November 13, 2017

11:30 am

Over the past 5 or so years drones have moved from hobbyist and expensive to fun and accessible. Across the board these things can range anywhere from $10 to thousands of dollars, and with each type comes a variety of pros and cons. For most people they will either be looking at an affordable toy drone or a more expensive hobbyist drone to take photos and videos. However, there are still plenty of other options, and with each you can expect different regulations and concerns, which is why we’re releasing a quick overview of what you should know before buying a drone.

Drone Types

There are seemingly endless options for drones when you look through Amazon and toy shops, but when it comes to spending real money, your options become a bit more limited.

Toys

Cheap, generally durable, and typically a pain to fly, toy drones come in many shape and forms. At one point you could practically buy these kinds of drones at your corner 7-Eleven, and certainly at most big box retailers. Toy drones are designed to be fun, typically a bit durable, incredibly lightweight, and most of all incredibly accessible on the price point. Micro drones can range anywhere from $12-$30, and the more expensive but still terrible to fly toy drones can fall under a couple hundred.

The biggest downside to toy drones besides the battery life comes down to stability, for which most don’t have built-in stabilization. That means you’re going to need to constantly fiddle with controls, and the faster you go the more likely you’ll bash it into something. Interestingly enough, these drones have a wider learning curve than that of the GPS enabled hobbyist drones. At the end of the day though they are designed to be fun, some include basic cameras, and others give you a feel for what racing drones may offer.

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Racing

When racing drones first started out you typically had to have the technical skills to build them yourself. Now there are plenty of smaller companies willing to either build these for you or offer up kits to make the process easier, but no matter the format they are all designed to do one thing: go fast. In the past year drone racing has become popular enough where ESPN picked it up (in their own form), it’s spun off a new type of FPS stunt videos or freestyle, and has generated some pretty big prize pots. Because these drones are a bit more custom, the pricing can range wildly as do their specs and stability.

Hobbyist

Besides toy drones, these are the most common types you’ll find flying overhead. Hobbyist drones come from the likes of DJI, GoPro, and Parrot, and typically they focus on photography and videography features. However, in the past year there has been shift from 4K, which is now standard on the newest models, to portability. First there was the Mavic, then GoPro, and now DJI recently introduce the Spark with is both small, affordable, and portable.

Hobbyist drones can range anywhere from $500 to about $1500, and have quite a few accessories that expand flight time and improve capture quality. If you’re looking for something that’s insanely easy to fly, has a great flight range and can easily topple the federal law of 400 feet, with a side of solid battery life, these are the drones for you. In some cases they can be used in professional settings, but keep in mind you need to complete certain things for that to happen.

Professional

When you think money and drones, typically it comes down to something tied to photography or videography. Those are easily accomplished by the same drones hobbyists use, but there are plenty of other specialized professional drones too. Again, we’re not talking the blow ‘em up military drones, but more so the kind that farmers can use to spot crops that need watering, land surveyors can more efficiently map land, and soon even law enforcement will be able to use it for missing person cases. Like drone racing, professional use drones can be highly customizable or built from the ground up with specific purposes in mind, which in turn makes their pricing range anywhere from $1K to thousands of dollars.

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Durability

There are a few factors that go into how long your new drone will survive, especially if you’re an inexperienced pilot. Toy drones you can expect outright to do a bit of damage to the propellers within the first hour of use, which is why getting propeller guards are a must. Once you’ve advance your flying skills and got a hang of the constant battle of balance, you can pop those off, save some battery life, and get a bit more maneuverability. However, you’ll likely want to buy at least one extra pair of props, otherwise that drone is likely going to end up in your junk drawer never to be seen again.

Race drones are more pricey, but fortunately most of these are custom built so you know what parts are going to become faulty issues as you bash into trees or fail on a dead drop from 300 feet up. Again, props are the big thing here, but any component that sticks out such as your radio antenna for FPV could cause a drag point if skimming near buildings, trees, and other obstacles.

For the larger, hobbyist drones, in most cases if you fly these things as they are intended it’s a bit challenging to do damage to them. If you’re not careful you’re still going to get it stuck in trees, lose a couple of propellers, and if you risk a windy day maybe even a destroyed camera or gimble. Unfortunately a lot of these drones use proprietary tech too, so you either need to send it into the manufacturer or a specialist to handle the repair and it won’t be cheap.

The scoop: Between each drone type typically the more you spend, the more internal systems it has to protect it against getting damaged (think forward facing sensors); however, when it does go down, you’re going to be spending more.

Battery Life

Depending on the type of drone you purchase, battery life can vary widely. Typically on the smaller toy drones you’ll get about 5-8 minutes of use out of the standard LiPo battery packs that come with it, fortunately you can typically buy multiple replacements for only a few dollars. However, some of the smallest drones don’t offer replaceable batteries, which means you’re stuck not only with short flight times, but also tied to the time it takes to charge it back up.

One you move beyond the toy lineup, batteries go from cheap and accessible to a bit pricey (for hobbyists). Take for example DJI’s Phantom 3 lineup. Their batteries still cost about $65, give you between 15 and 23 minutes of flight time, and are of course swappable. That’s already an older model drone, and the newer versions bring on a higher price point and in many cases a bit more flight time too. You’ll also want at least two for these larger hobbyist drones, and maybe a field device for charging them, too.

At the professional and racing levels, these too follow similar pricing models, but typically need more mAh to support increased functionality, weight, or speed. Fortunately for racing drones most of those do not use proprietary tech, so that means batteries can be a bit cheaper due to the unbranding.

The scoop: Toy drones have terrible battery life, large drones have more and cost reasonably more.

Flying Indoors Versus Outdoors

If you have a toy drone, you’re likely going to be stuck with indoor flights as wind simply doesn’t mix well with them. The lighter the drone and smaller the motors, the greater the chance that your drone will simply float away with the wind never to be seen again.

For larger more expensive drones, very few can actually support indoor use due to either their speed or reliance on GPS technology. The newer models, such as DJI Spark however have special sensors built in to allow indoor use, but ultimately these do better in larger, open environments.

Just like the smaller toy drones though, wind will still play a large factor in their use outdoors. Regardless of the built in stabilization features, drones that have to battle wind will have shorter flight times, it will impact video footage, and the higher it goes the more likely it’ll cause problems. The only other downside for these larger drones being used outdoors is that many of them support a distance where you can’t truly see it any longer, but by law they must remain within your line of sight. It’s easy to get tempted to fly in more of a FPV setting, but as soon as it breaches your line of sight, you could get into some hot water.

The scoop: Toys work great-ish inside, but not so much for the bigger expensive drones

Restrictions and Regulations

If you have a toy drone, flying it is basically limited to indoor use for the reasons I listed above. Even on a nice day these things are typically unstable, which means you’re going to be using something like a baseball field, so restrictions are the least of your worries. For the bigger, more expensive drones that include things like GPS, you will especially want to pay attention to not only where you fly, but how high. We have the basics below, but you can find the latest regulations in our last article.

Basic Hobbyist Restrictions

  • Don’t fly near airports
  • Stay under 400 feet
  • Don’t fly over people
  • Don’t add weapons to it (not exactly a law, but you know)
  • Don’t fly near first responders (wildfires, police, etc.)
  • Don’t fly on or near federal property or parks
  • Don’t use the drone for commercial purposes

Basic Commercial Restrictions

  • Drone must stay within line of sight
  • Drone must weigh under 55 lbs, including any payload
  • Drone must remain under 400 feet
  • Drone must not fly over people unless exempt (separate effort)
  • Drone must only be flown during daylight hours
  • Drones can fly in Class G airports, but with caution (New)
  • ATC approval needed in controlled airspace
  • Be at least 16-years-old
  • Obtain a remote pilot airman certificate with a small UAS rating

Read more about drone regulation on TechCo 

Are They Dangerous?

In the right hands, no, a drone should not be considered dangerous (we’re not talking military stuff here). That being said, accidents do happen, and the larger the drone, the faster it goes, and the stronger its propellers you increase the potential for someone getting hurt. That is why it’s not only important to know how a drone functions and the regulations for where you are flying, but toss on some propeller guards while you’re learning. The one thing you can’t really avoid is the weight of a drone; however, as CNN recently brought into their capturing arsenal, there are modular drones that break apart on impact to lessen any issues.

The scoop: No, they are not, but people do stupid things all the time.

Read our Drone Series on TechCo

Shopping for a Drone, read our reviews on the latest model on TechCo

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Elliot is an award winning journalist deeply ingrained in the startup world and is often digging into emerging technology and data. When not writing, he's likely either running or training for a triathlon. You can contact him by email at elliot(@)elliotvolkman.com or follow him on Twitter @thejournalizer.

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