You’ve decided it’s time to plunk some cash down on a drone, a quadcopter, an unmanned aerial vehicle – whatever term you wish to use – but where do even you begin? There are so many different types to choose from, and each has its own set of set of strengths and weaknesses. They can also be really expensive. This guide will help you choose the perfect drone within you budget.
For the sake of completeness, we’ve even included a few small quadcopters in addition to the bigger, more powerful pieces of hardware from the likes of DJI. So, whether you want to take a couple of short flights in the backyard or record some serious aerial video — we’ve got you covered.
Types of drones
Consumer drones don’t really fall into easily identifiable categories, although there is some distinction between the budget market (see the Hubsan H107C+) and the premium models (such as the DJI Phantom 4).
There are many drones to pick from between those two ends of the spectrum, such as the Parrot Bebop, but we’d advise going for a basic model for a couple of hundred quid less or a high-end model for about a thousand pounds more.
Another line can be drawn between the micro-drones, such as the X-7 Microlite, and the rest. They’re worth a look if you just want something small and cheap to fly around the park or the office, especially if you’re flying a drone for the first time.
Another choice you’ll have to make is between models with cameras and ones without, though the former group is much bigger. Even cheaper drones now have a basic cameras on board. Obviously if you want to use your drone for some eye-catching photography, you’ll need a camera or at least a mount.
Don’t go in without a clear idea of what you want to be able to do with your airborne gadget: 4K video? Racing? Indoor stunts? These use cases should play a big part in deciding which one is right for you.
Thinking about the size of drone you want to be responsible for and the amount of money you want to spend is a good way to begin to sift through all the possibilities. You can then move on to the other important specs.
Key drone specs
Reading through drone technical specifications isn’t quite as daunting as it would be for a phone or laptop, but there are a few key considerations to make.
- Brushless motors: spend more than a couple of hundred and one of the benefits is the addition of brushless motors, which are quicker, smoother, faster and longer-lasting than those on the most basic flying machines.
- Camera: obviously essential to the quality of your drone footage, and standards go from paltry VGA right up to the best 4K. At the higher end, you’ll find drones with a gimbal that keeps the camera steady while the drone moves and gets blown around.
- Direct recording: for the smoothest footage, you’ll want a drone that records straight to an on-board memory card, rather than feeding the video back to your phone.
- Flight and charge time: even the best drones struggle to stay in the air for much beyond 30 minutes at a time until the battery dies, so factor this into your considerations depending on what you want to do with it, and note the recharge time too (even if you’re taking a spare battery).
- GPS stabilisation: this is another important feature if you want to be shooting video, enabling the drone to hover in one spot without you touching the controls.
- Live video: even if almost all drones have cameras, not all will beam back a live video feed to your remote control or phone (called FPV or first-person view). Make sure it’s included if you want to be able to see what you’re filming while you’re filming it.
- Protection and repairs: give some thought to both how well your drone is protected against crashes and how much spare parts cost, particularly if you’re going to let your kids have a go. There should be an indication on the manufacturer’s listing.
- Range: by most countries' aviation authority's laws you need to keep your drone in view at all times but that can be quite a distance depending on where you are, and models vary in how far away they can get before losing contact.
Extra features and other considerations
There are plenty of extras you can get your hands on if you dig deeper into your pockets, so look for them when you’re out shopping.
Automatic obstacle avoidance can come in handy to prevent crashes while a return-to-home feature helps your drone from getting lost if it disappears from view, but both come with a price premium.
Another feature that has started appearing on more expensive models is a ‘follow me’ mode, so your drone will scoot through the skies after you while you bike down a mountain or sail down a river.
Of course if you don’t need all these extras you can save yourself some cash.
It’s also worth bearing in mind that flying a drone isn’t quite as easy as some people make it look. The larger models in particular can be difficult to handle, especially for beginners, so choose one that fits your skill level or at the very least be prepared to put in a serious amount of practice time.
User reviews (both from professionals and existing users) should give you a good idea of what a drone’s like to fly and fill in any gaps on the listed spec sheet (like how loud it is when it’s up and running).
Finally, know the drone flying rules. In the UK this is governed by the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), from whom you must get permission for flying your craft in certain areas.
No doubt, some of you will have strong opinions about your drone setups. Help us out by adding extra buying tips for beginners in the comments below.