How to choose a drone
When you are deciding what done to buy, especially if it is your first drone, there are several things to consider. Below are suggestions about how to make a choice based on how the drone will be used, and who will be using that drone. Depending on your needs, there are a range of available drone styles and capabilities, from drones that provide a basic introduction to drone flying, to specialized commercial drones, that would likely meet your needs.
Perhaps the most important consideration is how you expect the drone to be used. If you are just using it for fun, as a gift to a child, or to get experience you can decide if a drone may be useful to you or your company, then a low-cost drone may be the best solution.
There are a number of drone options available, for relatively low prices, that will provide a useful introduction to drone technology. The least capable drones, readily available from a wide range of online and traditional retail outlets, would allow you to practice operating a drone at altitudes of over 100 feet (30.5 meters), and would have a flight time of 5-10 minutes.
If on the other hand the intended use is for some more serious or commercial purpose, then the appropriate type of drone would not only be much more expensive, but you would likely have to plan on having additional resources for that drone. More sophisticated drones would likely be available from a narrower range of retailers, but readily available either directly from the manufacturer or from major online retailers. Getting such a drone would only make sense if the capabilities that you would need matched the capabilities that were available in a range of higher-priced drones. Those capabilities include:
- Camera system that can be controlled from the ground, and that can take professional quality photographs and videos.
- GPS-based navigation, coupled with a programmable flight management system, that allows relatively precise flight planning.
- Capacity for autonomous, or semi-autonomous flight for tasks such as avoiding obstacles, following a moving target on the ground, or mapping of a defined area.
Perhaps the most important consideration is how you expect the drone to be used. If you are just using it for fun or to get experience you can decide if a drone may be useful to you or your company, then a low-cost drone may be the best solution. There are a number of drone options available, for relatively low prices, that will provide a useful introduction to drone technology. The least capable drones, readily available from a wide range of online and traditional retail outlets, would allow you to practice operating a drone at altitudes of over 100 feet (30.5 meters), and would have a flight time of 5-10 minutes.
Quadcopter design: This design uses four helicopter-type rotors or propellers to provide both lift and directional control.
Dedicated controller: These devices use radio signals to send commands to the drone, and are typically powered by non-rechargeable batteries.
Rechargeable batteries: These batteries, which usually have to be charged before each flight, are removable, and are charged using an adapter that plugs into an electrical outlet like a USB port or wall socket. Drones would nearly always have rechargeable batteries, and controllers may have non-rechargeable batteries.
Extra propellers: Even the most inexpensive drones come often come with one or more complete sets of replacement propellers.
Flight control system: Even entry level drones have some level of automated flight control that helps the drone maintain controlled flight. The amount of control, and how much the user can program or vary that control, will depend on the drone.
Minimal protection from water: The electronics in most consumer drones, and their drone controllers, are not protected from water damage, so flying them in rainy conditions may lead to serious electrical problems.
Entry level drones
The smallest drones can weigh less than four ounces (112 gm) and can fit in the palm of your hand. These kinds of drones typically have a limited transmission distance, with the controllers usually able to control the drone over short distances, typically less than 100 meters (328 feet). The rechargeable batteries in these drones will likely allow around 10 minutes of flying time.
Entry level with extras
For a little more money, you can usually get one or more of the following extras with an operating range and endurance similar to an entry level drone:
Video recording: Built-in camera with the recording saved on a removable flash memory card such as a micro SD card.
Additional controller options: Typically, this option would be a smartphone based app.
First-person view (FPV) capability: The view from the drone's camera is streamed to either the controller or a smartphone or tablet
Extended range and endurance: Higher capacity batteries and motors, along with an improved communications system, allows the drone to fly higher and for more flight time.
Advanced recreational drones
Beyond the entry level drones that are primarily used for recreation are the drones that are far more capable than entry drones, and also have capabilities that would be useful to a wide range of professions and businesses. These drones combine the ability to record professional quality photographic and visual imagery as well as several of the following features:
Controllable camera: Camera operation, including where the camera is pointed, can be commanded from the ground. and with a variety of photographic modes and video formatting options.
Greater performance: Ability to fly twenty minutes or more at altitudes exceeding several hundred feet, with the controller having a transmission distance exceeding a mile (1.6 km).
Satellite navigation: Ability to GPS and other satellite-based navigation systems such as GLONASS.
Enhanced hovering capability: More stability and control while hovering.
Greater flight planning options: A combination of satellite navigation capability and a programmable flight planning system allows the drone to fly sophisticated flight profiles.
Autonomous operation: Capabilities may include the ability to return to takeoff point if controller loses contact with the drone, the ability to automatically follow a moving target, and the ability avoid collisions with obstacles.
More advanced drones tend to be heavier than entry level drones, and in the US, if that drone also weighs more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams), that drone is required to have an FAA registration number.
While advanced drones that are commonly available for purchase have many capabilities that may also be of use to a business, they are for the most part designed for taking aerial photos and videos. Also, these advanced recreational drones are often designed around a particular camera, and it may not be possible to use different cameras. If your needs falls into one or more of the following categories, then it is likely that a commercial drone is the right choice:
- Using different cameras for different situations.
- Flying for more than 30 minutes at a time.
- Picking up or dropping off a payload.
Note that in the US, any drone used for commercial purposes, even if it is a smaller and less capable recreational drone, must be under the command of someone who has the appropriate commercial drone pilot license.
Additional drone resources
- Types of drones
- Drone FAQs
- Buying drones
- Drone flying restrictions
- How to travel with a drone
- Drone vocabulary
- Register your drone
- FAA drone resources
http://airsafe.com/issues/drones/choosing.htm -- Revised 25 September 2016