Drones or RC UAVs (Remote Controlled Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) were originally designed for military purposes and have been around since quite some time. Drones became a huge success when introduced commercially and are now being used across different industries for military, civilian as well as recreational purposes. It didn’t take long for drones to become immensely popular among hobbyists, and it looks like they have really taken off recently.
The word drone has become synonymous with other terms, including UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems) and UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and is no longer a military-specific term. All these terms generally refer to flying objects controlled by a remote control. In addition to recreational purposes, drones are used in almost all industries, including agriculture, real estate, media and wildlife tracking.
Things can get a little complicated for beginners as a lot of technical jargon surrounds RC drones. This guide aims to make it easier for beginners to understand the basic concepts and help them pick their first hobby drone. Before moving on to exploring the topic, let’s first have a look at things that make flying drones a great hobby.
Why RC Drones as a Hobby?
Flying a drone is an outdoor activity for the most part. You have to get outside and will probably end up visiting amazing places and see them from a different perspective. A hobby drone is usually paired with a video camera, allowing you to capture awesome footage. In today’s hectic urban lifestyle, getting outdoors and spending time in the open is a great way of taking a mental and physical break.
A drone flying up peoples’ heads is guaranteed to grab their attention and you are likely to make new friends. The hobby helps you connect with like-minded people and even total strangers who approach you just out of curiosity to see what’s going on.
In many states and countries, you are legally required to keep a certain distance from other people when flying a drone, but people can’t seem to help themselves and get close. In addition to flying a drone just as a hobby, you might end up generating great online content or launching your own side hustle such as real estate footage and wedding coverage. Some other benefits of flying drones include:
- There are a number of communities that you can join to learn and then teach other beginners
- Not so expensive to get started (but it’s also too tempting to upgrade which can cost a lot)
- Helps you acquire new skills, improves your motor skills and hand to eye coordination
- Drones have multiple uses including videos, racing with friends, recording adventures, online content, participating studies and creating obstacle courses
- Require very little space to store, easily transportable
- Unlike RC cars, you don’t have to reach a track and then start flying, you can just grab a drone and fly on a whim
- Can reach places where humans cannot
- Can even help save someone’s life
- Opens up new career opportunities
A Brief History of Drones
Drone refers to an unmanned flying object that is either controlled remotely through a remote control or is fully autonomous. Modern hobbyist drones have evolved to become a hybrid of these. You can fly them using a remote control, but they can also fly on a specified path automatically and can return to where they took off.
The concept of drones is not new as the concept first appeared in the 1850s when Austria launched unmanned balloons loaded with explosives. Luckily, most of those balloons failed to find their marks and blew off-course because of changing wind direction. However, that’s not really what we call a drone today, but the idea has been around for a long time. Early development of the quadcopter configuration, which is common in modern drones, first appeared in 1907.
First pilotless drones were developed in 1916 after which major advancements were made between 1930-1945. The US used drones for the first time for reconnaissance in the Vietnam war in the late 1950s. It wasn’t until the 1960s that recreational remote-controlled planes became a big thing, thanks to rapid advancements in radio-controlled components and the transistor technology. The period following the 1960s witnessed big leaps forward in UAV technology (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) and now is like the golden age of drones.
Cheap vs. Expensive Quadcopters
The main question people new to the hobby often have is the difference between cheap and expensive drones (quadcopters). Sure, spending more money generally means a better product and the same rule also applies to drones. But the question is how much is good enough. Prices of quadcopters can go all the way up to thousands of dollars, but that’s not what beginners are usually looking for.
What’s cheap and what’s not depends on who you ask. Cheap drones cost between $30 to $200, but there should be a limit to how low you should go. Dirt-cheap no-brand drones might seem like a tempting option, but they usually fall apart quickly and are usually a waste of money. Such drones are only suitable as kids’ toys and can easily break even from minor mistakes. Entry-level drones close to the $300 mark are good enough for someone who just wants to get into the hobby and are not looking for a lot of features.
But the $300-$500 price range is what most beginners should be aiming for. Although still not flagship-grade, drones in this price bracket are durable enough for casual flying and enable beginners to gain some flight experience without missing a lot of features. Mid-level quadcopters cost between $500-$1,000, while prices from here only go higher in the high-end category and can reach $10,000.
Although spending more on a quadcopter buys you more speed, better control and other features, these might not be what beginners need. However, starting too low is also not a good option and you need decent enough quality and durability to get a real sense of flying a drone.
Is Buying a Used Drone a Good Idea?
Prices of used drones might seem too good to be true, but they are cheaper for a reason. Buying a used drone in most cases is not a good option for beginners. Battery is one of the main components that deteriorates with the passage of time and replacing one might cost you even more than what you paid for a used drone. Buying one used only works well for hobbyists who understand the ins and outs of the trade and are able to thoroughly check everything themselves.
If you are still convinced that a used drone is a better option or have found a really good deal, then you might want to consider the following before confirming the deal.
- Are spare parts readily available locally or can be easily sourced online?
- Any modifications done? If so, then can you remove them and bring back the quadcopter to its stock condition
- Is the maintenance history available?
- Battery cycles (most batteries are rated at 200 charge/discharge cycles after which they start losing the ability to hold charge). The lower the battery cycle count the better
- Battery condition (a big no to swelled, puffed or rounded batteries)
- Warranty and proof of purchase
- Flight counter (hundreds of flights might translate into possible future repairs)
- Does the color match between different parts? If not, something might have been repaired or replaced
- Does the product come with its original packaging and instruction manuals?
- Are there any extended warranty options available?
- Manually check range and see where the signal starts to drop. Is the range according to specifications?
- Are the barcodes and serial numbers still visible?
- Included accessories e.g. a case, camera mount etc.
- Scratches on lens
- Visible damage or cracks in the frame/body
- Is the landing gear working properly?
- And finally, the most important thing, test-flight
Best Drone Brands
There are plenty of drone brands to choose from, but the important thing is to stick with the ones that offer local support and have spare parts availability. Warranty, insurance and after sales services are the next. Different brands are available in different regions, so it’s not possible to cover every major brand for all regions. The following are some major drone brands for beginners that offer their products in many countries/regions.
DJI arguably tops the charts when it comes to availability, reliability and features, but it’s also pricier. Some good options for beginners include the DJI Tello, DJI Spark and DJI Mavic Mini.
The China-based company offers plenty of options and is considered to be among the leaders in the price-to-value category. Some of its popular drones include the Hubsan Zino Mini Pro, Hubsan H501S X4 and Hubsan H111 Nano Q4.
The company is popular in the EU and is behind some of the most popular drones. Some of its offerings include Parrot ANAFI and Parrot Mambo.
FIMI is a Chinese brand that offers reasonably priced and feature packed drones geared towards buyers who want good value for their money. Some of their popular models include FIMI X8 Mini, and FIMI X8 SE.
The company is an inexpensive alternative for hobbyists on a tight budget. The China-based company might not be so popular among the enthusiasts But they offer plenty of budget-friendly models for beginners on a tight budget, including Holy Stone HS175D, Holy Stone HS700E 4K and one of the most economical FPV drones the Holy Stone HS440.
Things to Consider When Buying Your First Drone
You can buy a drone for as little as $50, while the prices can reach five digits. That’s why you need to pick the right option keeping your own requirements in mind. Drones can be broadly classified into the following main categories.
- Drones for hobbyists and recreational purposes
- Drones for commercial purposes including professional videography and photography, construction, maintenance and real estate
- Drones for institutions including government agencies, big corporations and universities
- Military Drones for gathering intelligence, security and attack
Since our focus here is on picking your first drone, it’ll probably be a hobbyist drone, so we won’t dig too deep into professional and commercial drones.
Ready-to-Fly vs DIY Drones
RFT drones either come as completely preassembled units you can fly right out of the box or you just need to assemble a few parts (come disassembled to make packaging more compact and manageable). Building a drone can be a rewarding experience. But it requires know-how of how different components work and is not the best option for beginners who don’t like to tinker with stuff. You need to be familiar with soldering, calibrating different components and a little bit of coding.
In addition to a steep learning curve, building one yourself usually also costs more because you would not want to buy cheap parts to build a customized drone. In case something goes wrong, you are responsible for debugging and diagnosing the issue yourself. That’s why ready-to-fly drones are the recommended option for beginners. Ready-to-fly or almost-ready-to-fly drones make it super easy for beginners to get started and plenty of options are available for every budget.
Types of Drones
Drones are different from toy helicopters and airplanes of the past. Modern drones are much more stable, easier to fly and come with advanced technologies. However, a large feature set and a huge variety makes it difficult for beginners to choose a product that’s right for them. Drones can be categorized into Ready-to-fly (RTF), almost-ready-to-fly (ARTF), plug-and-play (PNP) and bind-and-fly (BNF).
RTF Drones (Ready-to-Fly)
Ready-to-fly drones are the best option for beginners who want to get started without getting into too much technical jargon. RTF drones come as a complete package that includes everything needed to start flying a drone. However, the term RTF does not necessarily mean that no assembling is required. It just means that the package includes everything needed and the user has to attach components such as rotor blades and charge batteries.
ARTF Drones (Almost Ready-to-Fly)
As the name implies, ARTFs might require a little bit of assembling or part hunting. But the issue with this type of drones is that the definition of ‘almost’ can vary greatly from one vendor to another. ARTF drones are more suitable for hobbyists who are familiar with assembly and want a higher degree of customization.
Although some ARTFs might be suitable even for beginners, they generally suit hobbyists who already have some experience with drones. The term ARTFs and DIY drones are often used interchangeably, but not all ARTFs require the same amount of work DIY drones require.
PnP Drones (Plug-n-Play)
Plug-and-play aka plug-and-fly drones might sound like they are similar to ready-to-fly-drones, but in reality, these refer to kits that come either without a receiver or a transmitter. It’s more suitable for skilled hobbyists who already own a receiver or transmitter or want to use higher-end versions of these parts.
BNF Drones (Bind-and-Fly)
These drones do not come with a transmitter and are popular among advanced hobbyists who already own a compatible transmitter. Although BNF are like RTFs without a transmitter, things are not so straightforward as BNFs need hobby-grade transmitters that operate at specific frequencies and are usually purchased for higher-end drones.
Multi-rotor vs Single Rotor vs. Winged Drones
Drones or UAVs in general can be classified into multi-rotor, single-rotor, fixed-wing and fixed-wing hybrid drones. But for the sake of keeping it simple for beginners, we’ll only focus on multi-rotor drones (specifically quadcopters) because these are what most people think of when it comes to hobby drones.
Multi-rotor drones are commonly used for surveillance, photography and recreational purposes and are suitable for beginners. These drones are usually tri-copters, quadcopters, hexa-copters and octocopters, with quadcopters (four rotors) being the most common. Technical uses of these drones include photography, surveying, inspections, construction, security and agriculture. Some key advantages of multi-rotor drones include:
- Better stability and control
- Highly maneuverable
- Can be flown closely to buildings and other structures
- Can take multiple payloads
Multi-rotor drones also have some cons that buyers need to be aware of including:
- Limited speed and endurance
- Require a lot of power to operate and fight gravity (less battery timing), resulting in short flight times
- Can only use electric motors
These drones are essentially mini versions of a helicopter with a single rotor with a big spinning wing. They have an edge over multi-rotor drones in terms of greater efficiency and are not restricted to electric motors, which ultimately means longer flight times. However, these are also expensive, complex and not as stable as multi-rotor drones. Due to these factors and less maneuverability, these drones have specific uses, including carrying heavy payloads and surveying.
As the name suggests, these drones have one large, rigid wing and work and look more like an airplane. These are very energy efficient because they don’t need as much power as other types to keep floating in the air. Fixed-wing drones have longer flight times and can cover long distances while using less power and carrying more payload. However, fixed-wings are expensive and you need training and a launcher to fly them. These are suitable for long-distance monitoring activities such as aerial mapping, agriculture and surveillance.
Fixed-wing Hybrid VTOL Drones
This is a relatively new entrant and is becoming popular among enthusiasts. It offers the benefits of both fixed-wing and rotor-based drones by attaching rotors to the fixed-wing. These can take-off/land vertically and hover more efficiently. Only a few of this type are currently available in the market. One example of such drones includes the Amazon Prime Air Delivery drone. Their cons include very limited availability and that the technology is still in its early stages.
Key Components of a Hobby Drone (Quadcopter)
A quadcopter consists of many components and having a basic understanding of these can help beginners make a more informed purchase decision.
Quadcopters have four motors that lift it up and enable it to maneuver. Although brushless motors have become the norm, some cheap models still have brushed motors. The only practical advantage of a brushed motor is the cost as they are cheap to manufacture and that’s about it. Brushless motors might make the cost of a drone go higher, but are worth it and offer many benefits including:
- Long life, more durable (brushed motors wear out fast and can easily break on even a slight crash)
- Less maintenance
- More efficient, waste less energy as heat
- Less friction because there are no brushes, resulting in better torque and speed
- Longer run times
Because of these advantages over brushed motors, brushless motors have become the go-to option in modern drones. Unless you are looking for a dirt-cheap drone to get into the hobby, there is no other reason one should go for a drone powered by a brushed motor.
The frame is like the skeleton of a quadcopter that holds everything together. Ideally, the best frame is the one that is the lightest and the strongest. But we live in an imperfect world where we have to create a balance between things. Although no hobbyist wants to crash their quadcopter, accidents do happen and, in such cases, a strong frame can make a lot of difference. However, a strong frame also generally means a heavier drone and compromised agility (unless you are paying a premium for costlier materials like carbon fiber).
When it comes to frame (or drone) size, larger frames are more suitable for experienced hobbyists who want more flexibility in terms of components they can mount on it e.g. bigger batteries and more powerful motors. Quadcopter frames are usually H or X shaped that house four propellers blades and motors. Commonly used frame materials include glass fiber, plastic and aluminum. Carbon fiber is another material used in drones, which offers a great balance between weight and durability, but drones made of it cost more and fall in the higher end of the spectrum.
Drones that weigh under 250 grams and measure less than 200mm are ideal for beginners as these are lighter and are not restricted by regulations in most regions (no registration is required for sub-250 grams drones). Quadcopters built on these dimensions are small, agile and maneuverable in tight spaces. A small frame means other components mounted on top of it are also small, including the battery, which means shorter flight times.
Radio Transmitter and Receiver
The radio transmitter and receiver establish the communication between the user and the drone. Ready-to-fly quadcopters come bundled with these, but if you want to extend range in the future, look for a quadcopter that supports standard protocols and accepts 3rd party add-ons.
Electronic Speed Controller
The ESC allows you to change direction and speed of a brushless motor, serves as a DC-to-AC current converter and an interface between the flight controller and motor. It allows users to change speed by varying the speed of motors and also serves as a dynamic brake.
The flight controller is essentially the brain of a drone and should be compatible with the ESC. The FC has on-board sensors (barometer, accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer etc.) that continuously monitor data based on which it calculates different parameters, including how fast to spin each motor. It takes signal from the transceiver, processes it using algorithms and controls the motors accordingly.
Propellers are clove-like blades attached to the motors and serve as wings that pull air downwards and create a pressure difference (lower on top than bottom). Longer propellers mean stronger lift (at low rpm), but they also take more time to speed-up/slow down. Shorter propellers make a quadcopter more agile, but also consume more energy to spin at high rpm. Propellers that are too short can negatively impact the lifespan of the motor, which has to endure more strain.
Batteries are what drive the motors and come in different capacities (mAh). Batteries of entry-level and mid-range drones last 5-15 minutes, so it’s a good idea to buy some extra batteries to extend flight time, especially when capturing aerial action. Li-Polymer batteries have become a common thing because of their high energy density and durability. A bigger battery is not always the best option because batteries are one of the heaviest components and using a massive battery on a small drone is not a good combination in most situations.
Although not all drones have a built-in camera, it’s common in mid-range quadcopters aimed at beginners. If you plan on using your own GoPro, make sure the quadcopter supports its mount and is able to bear the additional load. FPV (First-person view) drones have a built-in camera system that transmits live footage, while video drones are expensive, but come with gimbals for video stabilization.
Other Features to Consider When Buying Your First Drone
Price alone is not a great indicator of quality and performance. How a quadcopter will perform is primarily dictated by the components as covered above. In addition to these, there are some other important things too that you need to consider including:
Spare Parts Availability
As a general rule of thumb, the more popular a quadcopter is, the easier it is to get spare parts. This factor is particularly relevant to beginners because they are more likely to crash a drone than experienced hobbyists. And it’s not just about crashes. Some parts wear out over time and need a replacement. That’s why it’s recommended to buy a drone for which spare parts are readily available, including batteries, propellers, motors, controllers and the landing gear.
Cheap drones usually have a range of around 30 meters, which isn’t much even for beginners. Range becomes a more important factor if you are buying a drone for photography or videos. The advertised range is usually less than what you can achieve in the real world because they are based on ideal situations like no interference, perfect weather and so on.
A flight time of 20-30 minutes is typical for mid-range drones and depends on many factors with weight and battery capacity being the most important. Regardless of the battery size and charging speed, it’s better to buy some extra batteries and keep them charged, which is the easiest and most economical way of doubling the flight time.
Headless Mode and GPS
The headless mode feature makes it easier for beginners to operate a drone. Things are straight forward when you and your quadcopter are facing the same direction because right and left are the same for both. However, things can get a little complicated when a drone turns around i.e. your right is its left and vice versa. Design of certain drones can make it difficult to guess which is the front end, making it even more difficult to operate.
The headless mode feature makes the drone stick to a specific direction, so it does not really matter if it’s facing towards you or not. The feature comes in handy for beginners who don’t want to keep guessing whether they should steer their drone right or left. Built-in GPS enables the drone to know its location and find its way back home in case it gets lost. This feature is usually known as return-to-home and comes in handy in situations when you lose sight of the drone or if it gets out of range.
Obstacle Avoidance Mode
Although these modes were previously found on high-end models, they have made their way into mid-range drones and even some budget models. Obstacle avoidance is considered a premium feature, but it’s worth the extra money considering it can save your drone from crashing into objects such as trees. The effectiveness of the mode varies from one model to another, but even at the basic level, it provides a certain degree of protection against crashes.
Follow Me and Automatic Flight Modes
The follow-me mode along with obstacle avoidance is a must if you want to use a drone for capturing any sporting activity such as mountain biking, skiing and running. The feature helps you concentrate on what you are doing instead of focusing all your energies on operating a drone. Automatic flight mode refers to setting a path on which a drone is supposed to fly, saving you from manually operating it along a certain path.
Propeller guards protect the propellers and are highly recommended for beginners. They not only offer protection in case of a crash, but also protect you and people around you from touching the propellers. Then also come in handy when pulling a drone out of the air or when operating the drone in very close proximity to people, animals and buildings.
Buy from the Official Store
If you have the option, it’s always better to buy a drone from the official store or at least from a reputable vendor with a lot of positive user feedback and reviews. Many vendors offer accidental coverage, which works great for beginners who are more likely to crash a drone. Amazon has a liberal return policy, so you can return the product if you think you have made the wrong choice. However, make sure to carefully read customer reviews and understand what works for them and what does not.
Drone Law and Safety
Although flying a drone as a hobby is fun and can be fruitful, you have to fly responsibly. There is a possibility that even a tiny drone can injure someone. No safety features can be 100% foolproof, so you need to be careful and take time to understand the basics before taking off. Here are a few tips to consider when flying for the first time:
- Read the instructions manual and get familiar with different controls
- Inspect the drone and look for any visible damage before flight
- Avoid flying near people, trees or animals
- Avoid fully emptying the battery, not only an empty battery can cause a crash, it also degrades battery life
- Quadcopters can be noisy, so avoid flying where people might get annoyed
- Drones weighing above 250 grams require you to register yourself with the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration), which includes most drones able to carry a camera
- Professional/commercial drones have more stringent requirements than hobby drones
- You need to display the registration number at all times on your drone as well as your name and contact number (as a sticker or a label)
- You cannot fly a drone everywhere and at all altitudes, so make sure to read and understand your local regulations regarding where and how high you can fly a drone
- The process for registering a drone is pretty straight forward and can be completed in less than an hour after paying a modest fee and passing a basic test
Beginners might feel like there are too many things to consider when buying a drone for the first time. However, the above-mentioned basic things can help you make a more informed buying decision. The key factors to consider include the price, ease-of-use, plug-and-play approach, spare parts availability, warranty and built-in safety features.
Beginners also need to make sure they understand and abide by local laws and rules for flying drones, so they don’t get involved in any trouble down the road. You get what you pay for, which also holds true for drones, but at the same time, you don’t have to spend a fortune just to get started.