oday’s quadcopter drones have revolutionized both professional and amateur filmmaking and picture-taking. These smart, self-stabilizing and increasingly self-navigating devices allow us to create dramatic action videos, program GPS-guided routes for autonomous flight, or even just capture our houses from 400 feet in the air for social-media amusement.
Drone tech owes everything to the smartphone. The advanced accelerometers, GPS receivers, wi-fi transmitters and processors brought on by our collective lust for mobile tech has also allowed what should be the least-airworthy of flying machines ever built to stay aloft. Quadcopters — such as the DJI Phantom 3, the 3D Robotics Solo and the Yuneec Typhoon, all four-bladed devices that rely on computerized stabilization and flight control rather than the self-stabilizing aerodynamics you get with wings, elevators and rudders — can be safely operated by complete noobs. Flying skill is secondary, and these machines do 90 percent of the work.
But even with all that technology, the aircraft can be challenging and tricky — and even dangerous. It takes practice to be able to fly how and where you like and capture compelling images and video, and it takes the right combination of flight electronics and camera capabilities. This guide, which will be updated regularly, highlights the current top dogs in drone technology, but it will also clue you in about how to use them and how to make the most of your pricey purchase.
Before you get motoring, study this.
Know your limits. It’s important to remember that drone disaster can strike at any moment. An ill-tightened prop can fly off, causing your precious device and camera to crash to earth from 300 feet. You can become disoriented about where it’s pointing mid-flight, accidentally sending it into the trees — or worse, the water. Or you could simply lose track of it and never see it again. All of this can be prevented with basic knowledge, the right gear choice, and a degree of patience. Don’t fly too fast, too far and too high until you know what you’re doing, and choose an aircraft with the right safety features, including automatic return-home and a “pause” button that will stabilize the drone while you regain your bearings.
Consider the camera and gimbal. Drone manufacturers typically offer two camera strategies: a proprietary camera system, which has the advantage of syncing up more seamlessly with the manufacturer’s own transmitter-based display; or a user-provided option, most often a GoPro action camera. The cameras provided by the likes of Yuneec and DJI are excellent systems, with 4K capabilities and high-megapixel still images. The GoPro option, however, affords more flexibility. You can use the camera separately from the quadcopter and upgrade it more readily, and you can be assured that the optics and sensor are state of the art, as none of the drone-manufacturer-provided cameras can match the image quality of a GoPro. (Note that GoPro is itself producing a drone this year, but details have yet to be released.)
Hobby-grade drones — as opposed to micro-drones or inexpensive toys — also usually include robust gimbals. These are the electronic stabilizing mounts that hold the cameras beneath the drone’s fuselage. They significantly enhance image quality over fixed mounts, since they remain horizontal and stationary even if the drone is buffeted by the wind or flown semi-erratically by inexperienced users. The gimbal is what produces buttery-smooth videos and tack-sharp still images.
Know the flight characteristics and features. Drones don’t fly like remote-controlled airplanes or helicopters, which use forward momentum and aerodynamics to help generate lift, along with adjustable rotors or control surfaces to control direction. Instead, quadcopters derive all of their flight characteristics — speed, direction, altitude — by modulating the power delivery to four fixed-angle rotors. Usually there are four rotors, but six- and eight-blade multi-rotor vehicles (typically used by professional cinematographers or industrial entities) can carry heavier payloads and fly longer. The device’s computers adjust speed to the rotors, causing them to pivot on an axis, climb or descend, or bank through the air.
They’re fast enough to keep up with shredding snowboarders and nimble enough to generate flight footage across all landscapes.
When quadcopters first came out, their computers focused mostly on just staying successfully airborne, maintaining stability and permitting control. Today, however, the new generation of advanced drones offer GPS-guided waypoint programming, follow-me capability, and other programmable operations that make them truly advanced camera platforms. These drones can follow precision lines as though they’re mounted on rails, and they come equipped with enhanced safety features, so they can return to their GPS-flagged launch point with the push of a button, hold steady in a variety of wind conditions, avoid FAA no-fly zones and monitor their battery levels to ensure they have the ability to return without dropping out of the sky (and into a river). The transmitters — whether equipped with their own monitors or attachments for smartphones — often provide supplemental, wi-fi-based real-time telemetry data, including speed, altitude, distance from the controller, and, most compellingly, first-person-view video feeds, letting you see what the drone sees and fly it from the monitor. (The data feed usually runs separately from the aircraft control system, so even if your wi-fi signal is interrupted, you’ll still retain control thanks to the longer-range, radio-frequency-based connections.)
They’re also fast enough to keep up with shredding snowboarders and nimble enough to generate flight footage across all landscapes. In fact, with all the flight aides available in the current models, you can now focus on the mission, not the flying itself. The flight patterns and camera operation can be fine-tuned to whatever image and video capabilities you want, including time-lapse and low-light shooting. They’re hugely fun, reasonably affordable, and exceptionally capable cinematic and photographic powerhouses.
Remember drone responsibility. A word of warning: as the operator, it’s on you to fly your drone safely. This means first recognizing that they are, in fact, dangerous devices. Even though quadcopters typically measure less than one cubic foot and weigh just a few pounds, their four electric motors are powerful, and their plastic blades spin fast. They can cause serious injury — and already have. The problems come not merely from them falling out of the sky (which is actually a pretty rare occurrence), but from the operator inadvertently steering them into someone or something they shouldn’t.
This happens because flying drones, even with all the electronic aids included, is still very challenging. The vehicles are usually square, so it’s easy to become disoriented about which direction they’re pointing. Throw in the fact that their apparent motion in reaction to control inputs changes as the drone rotates around its axis, and you have a fast-moving, four-bladed weed-eater flying through the air. In short, it’s easy to lose control, and very difficult to get it back. So your job is to learn how to fly before setting out on your next GoPro project.
Be conservative when estimating your own capabilities, don’t let it go too far away, stay away from airports and stay away from people.
Also, you’re now required by federal law to register any drone weighing more than .55 pounds with the Federal Aviation Administration (at faa.gov/uas). Drones that are very lightweight — mostly the palm-sized devices, with low power and short range, as well as kids’ toys — are excluded, but most of the common hobby-grade drones are not. It’s fast and easy to register, it costs $5 and the registration covers any drone that you operate, so you don’t have to register each individual drone.
There are several reasons for initiating this requirement: the registry forces users to acknowledge the risk of flying drones in public airspace, and it initiates a paper trail should mishaps occur. If you have your registration number on the drone and it strays away from you, the device can be traced to you — even if it’s just to return it. More importantly, though, it gives the government some teeth when regulating drone activity: if you don’t have it registered and do something bad with it, then steep fines and penalties can be levied once you are tagged as the operator.
Ultimately, you want to use common sense. Be conservative when estimating your own capabilities, don’t let it go too far away, stay away from airports and stay away from people. Eventually, someone will get into serious trouble with a drone. Don’t be that person.
Note: Several sites have cropped up offering a drone registration “service” for a fee. The site federaldroneregistration.com, for instance, charges $25. There’s no real benefit to this. They imply that they ease the process and provide easily printable registration-number labels for your drone, but the FAA site is incredibly easy, and you can easily print off the number yourself and tape it to your quadcopter, or just write the number on it with a Sharpie. Avoid all of these services and go straight to the FAA.
Go get started. Given that decently capable drones can start at $400 and shoot well past $1,000, you should probably learn how to fly before you launch your into the air. The best way to do this is to buy an inexpensive, palm-sized quadcopter and fly it around your yard or living room. The Hubsan Q4 H111 ($22) or the Heli-Max 1SQ ($86), are affordable options. Practice with one of those until you get the hang of it.
Always start off slow and easy. Choose a space with plenty of room and focus on mastering the basics — up and down, back and forth, and side to side. Remember that the controls reverse themselves as the drone’s orientation changes. That is, when it’s facing you, inputting left movements makes it go right. Grasping that intuitively will take time. Until then, keep it facing away from you as much as possible to limit the chance you’ll become confused. Keep the drone in sight, and don’t let it get too high. If you lose sight of it, even for a few seconds, you risk it drifting off, potentially over roads or people. Exercise caution, even when you think you know what you’re doing.
Finally, keep it away from people when the blades are turning — especially kids, party guests, and your own hands, fingers, and other body parts. If they intersect with the rotors, serious injury can result.
The Drone Zone
These little monsters can fly.
What follows is a list of the key consumer quadcopter manufacturers, along with their best drone options for most consumers. The list excludes most pro-level drones (essentially anything above $2,000) and will be updated as new products come out, new manufacturers enter the scene, and older models retire.
The Berkeley, California-based company, founded by former Wired Editor in Chief Chris Anderson, manufacturers drones for both consumer and commercial applications. Its first consumer product was the Iris+, which came out in 2014 as one of the fastest quadcopter drones yet built, and the first with true follow-me capability.
The new Solo, which came out last summer, pushes the idea of the drone as a versatile camera platform. It has follow-me capability for dramatic action shots, but also “cable cam,” “orbit,” and “selfie” modes — all of which can be easily controlled from the screen on the transmitter. It’s designed to work with GoPro cameras, and it interfaces beautifully with them, incorporating live feeds into 3DR’s own app, via a smartphone or tablet affixed to the controller.
Yuneec produces two lines of multi-rotor drones: the four-bladed Typhoons and the six-bladed, professional-grade Tornados. The top-line Typhoon model includes a 4K camera on a 3-axis gimbal. Its transmitter has the benefit of an integrated screen that displays the live video feed and allows for on-the-fly changes in settings and recording format. (A GoPro-optimized version is also available.) It also comes with a handheld SteadyGrip — basically an image stabilizer for using the drone’s gimbal and camera for terrestrial use. It streams to your smartphone, which sits on a cradle above the handle.
This spring, Yuneec will also roll out its Typhoon H, a nearly-pro-grade drone with six rotors, a 360-degree gimbal, and retractable landing gear, which guarantees that the legs won’t end up in your field of view. It will also have ultrasonic sensors to prevent collisions with large obstacles and point-to-point tracking-shot capability.
DJI can take full credit for launching the drone craze as we now know it. The company’s original Phantom 1 model, in its trademark white, set the standard for easy operation, durability and reliability. Its most recent version, the Phantom 4, is almost spooky in its capabilities. It now flies for 28 minutes, shoots gorgeous 4K imagery with its newly fine-tuned camera lens, and allows users to simply tap on the screen to places they want to drone to fly — up to 3 miles away. Furthermore, you only need to tap on a subject — a person, a moving car, etc. — and it will automatically follow them. Spooky. Its gimbal is so stable that you can make long-exposure photos while hovering up to a mile in the sky, and its new suite of sensors will allow it to detect obstacles and autonomously fly around them to continue its mission.
While most premium drones come with dedicated, dual-stick transmitters (which use radio signals to control the drone), Parrot focuses on using wi-fi to get the job done. As a result, their current model, the Bebop 2, can be flown with any Apple or Android tablet or smartphone, so you save money by virtue of not needing the controller. The tradeoff is slightly less intuitive control feels and a diminished range of roughly 1,000 feet. (If you prefer the feel and precision of a dual-stick control, you can opt for the Skycontroller accessory, which uses joysticks and extends your flying range to up to 1.4 miles.) The drone’s image quality is excellent, with 1080p resolution and 3-axis stabilization, and it can fly for 25 minutes on a single charge.
This manufacturer of all manner of radio-controlled vehicles — cars, boats, airplanes, helicopters — provides the most economical option for a full-featured drone. The BLADE Chroma line of quadcopters offers 1080p, 4K or Go-Pro mount options, as well as Bind-n-Fly capabilities if you happen to have your own transmitter. The $499 model includes a stabilized gimbal for a GoPro and a transmitter, but you won’t be able to see what your camera is seeing, so it’s mostly a fly-and-point drone. The more advanced 4K model, however, does include live streaming. All models feature Horizon’s SAFE flight capability, with several modes for easy operation and fail-safe return to the drone’s launch point.
This new entrant in the consumer drone space is rolling out right now with the Byrd, a fully capable drone that can be packed into the average backpack. Its collapsed dimensions mirror that of an iPad, though thicker; the whole device can be folded up, and the gimbal can be removed, without tools. There are several camera and feature options, including proprietary 1080p in the Standard model, a GoPro mount on a Gimbal in the Advanced model, and a 4K camera in the Premium model. The Advanced and Premium units can fly up to 1.2 miles away, compared to the Standard’s 1,000 feet, and they offer full follow-me capability and flight times between 25 and 30 minutes. The drones can also carry up to five pounds, which means that with the right mount you can attach a small DSLR to the quadcopter, permitting significantly greater flexibility in your images and video.