Drone Buying Guide: Read This Before Buying Your First Drone | Droneblog
In Droneland there are many options to be had and the cost can vary dramatically from system to system. Some will work better for you than others. As a commercial drone pilot, I am asked all the time, “Hey, that’s really cool. I think I want to get onto that. What drone would you recommend?” One of the first questions I always ask in return is “What do you intend to do with it?”
After all, with so many options. You don’t need your first drone to have features you’ll never need or use, nor do you need to spend a fortune on something you may not enjoy.
Before buying your first drone, the question you need to answer is, “Will I be moving from a hobbyist pilot to a commercial pilot at some point?” You need to consider what you plan to use the drone for before deciding which drone is right for you.
If your intention is to just capture those family moments or just for your personal exploration and enjoyment, something like the new Mavic 3, will certainly be very costly and may be overwhelming at first with its abundance of features.
Although it is a system you can certainly grow into as your skill level and confidence increase, it’s not really the best option for someone just getting into droning due to its cost and abilities.
What is a Drone?
A drone is an unmanned aircraft. Drones are also referred to as unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs, and can also be referred to as unmanned aircraft systems or UAS. Essentially, a drone is a flying robot. It can be remotely controlled using a radio controller, or fly autonomously using software-controlled flight plans such as DroneDeploy, Litchi, Pix4d, and others. Drones come in a few different forms.
- Multi-Rotor Drones
- Fixed Wing Drones
- Single Rotor Helicopter
- Fixed Wing Hybrid VTOL
Multi-Rotor drones are by far the most common type of drones. They are used by professionals and hobbyists alike, for applications like aerial photography, aerial videography, and orthomosiac mapping. They are breaking into new industries every day.
There are different types of products available and there are subcategories of this class of UAV based on the number of rotors they have. These are Tricopters (3 rotors), Quadcopters (4 rotors), Hexacopters (6 rotors), and Octocopters (8 rotors).
Out of these, Quadcopters are the most popular and widely used and likely to be what you’re more familiar with.
As with any unmanned system, there are always some drawbacks. Most prominently with multi-copters would be their limited flight time, limited endurance, and speed. They are not suitable for most large-scale projects like long-distance aerial mapping or surveying.
The fundamental problem with the multi-copters is they have to spend a huge portion of their energy to fight gravity and stabilize themselves in the air. At present, most of the multi-rotor drones out there are capable of only a 20 to 40 minutes flying time.
Fixed-wing drones have an entirely different design and build compared to multi-rotor type drones. Fixed-wing drones use a ‘wing’ just as a normal delta-wing aircraft. Unlike multi-rotor drones, fixed-wing type models never utilize energy to stay aloft in the air. Fixed Wing drones are unable to hover in one spot and have to constantly be moving.
Instead, they move forward on either a set course through an autonomous flight program or can be controlled by a pilot by remote control. They have similar flight characteristics to any winged craft.
One of the biggest advantages of these style aircraft is their exceptional flight times. Most fixed-wing drones have an average flying time of a few hours, with gas engine-powered drone models that can fly up to 16 hours or higher.
Owing to their higher-flying time and fuel efficiency, fixed-wing drones are ideal for long-distance operations (be it mapping or surveillance). But they cannot be used for aerial photography where the drone needs to hover for a period of time.
There are other downsides to fixed-wing drones. They are at much higher price points and require skill training due to the difference in the way they fly. Nearly all fixed-wing aircraft will require a runway or launcher for liftoff as well as a means for landing. In comparison, multi-rotor drones come at a much lower price point than fixed-wing drones.
Single rotor drones
Single rotor drones are just like they sound and you may be more familiar with their manned cousin the Helicopter as they both look very similar in design and structure. Unlike a multi-rotor drone, single rotor models have just one big-sized rotor plus a small-sized tail rotor to control its heading.
Single rotor drones can be much more efficient than multi-rotor aircraft but can be more difficult to control. They do have longer flying times and can even be powered by gas engines as well, similar to fixed-wing aircraft.
However, these machines come with much higher complexity and operational risks. Their costs also tend to be on the higher side compared to multi-rotor models. The large-sized rotor blade can also pose a safety risk due to its size and higher speed of rotation. Single rotor Drones also require special training to fly them properly and you won’t be flying out of the box like with multi-rotors.
Now the Hybrid VTOL is the best of both worlds. They combine the benefits of fixed-wing models (longer flight times) and rotor-based models (ability to lift off vertically and hover). The idea has been around since the 1960s, when it met with only partial success and needed technology to advance further to make these systems viable.
Today though, these types of systems are enjoying a comeback from what we’re seeing, it is these systems that large companies like Amazon are going to employ for drone delivery systems.
The Hybrid VTOL can be a very pricey system and would be out of reach for most seasoned pilots, let alone beginners.
Who should get a drone?
Everyone! As a Drone Pilot, I’m a bit biased. Seriously though, everyone could benefit from soaring through the air and seeing that different view of our world. If you’ve ever sat and watched the birds flying around and wondered what it would be like, get a drone. Have that experience, it’s a whole new world out there when viewed from above.
You don’t have to be a photographer or be looking towards a drone pilot career, no. All you need is the desire to fly. Ever since the Wright Brothers took their first flight in 1903, mankind has pushed the boundaries of air flight. So, soar like that eagle you know you are; get a drone.
Why should you get a drone?
There are a few reasons for considering the purchase of a drone. One, you want to see what’s out there and capture it, either in photo format or video. Or, you may want to go further and become a Part 107 pilot. You may have always wanted to be in cinematography and this is a way to pursue that desire and possibly hone your filming skills.
No matter the reason, you should get a drone. The question is what drone is best for me?
What is the best drone for me?
There are many options out there today to choose from. Knowing your use will help guide you to the drone that fits you best. This also doesn’t mean that the newest and coolest is best for you either. When purchasing your first drone it is important that you know what you would like to do with it.
As a good example, are you looking to have your drone follow you as you go through an activity such as riding a bike or when out boating, etc.? There are drones that do that.
For the above example, there’s really only one system out there today that will do this better than any other. That would be the Skydio 2 and the new Skydio 2+.
The Skydio 2 was designed mainly to be an autonomous flying system. It has exceptional obstacle avoidance and is quite capable in most situations. It’s not perfect and there are certain things you’ll want to avoid such as small cables and branches. Although the system will avoid most dangers or hazards, there are certain size limitations to what it is able to see and avoid.
The Skydio 2 will run you around $1000 to $1500, putting it in what’s quickly becoming the mid-range cost of most consumer drones. The Skydio 2 and the newer 2+ offer around 26 to 30 minute flight times, and have a top speed of 36mph. They use a Sony IMX577 1/2.3” 12.3MP CMOSSensor/Camera.
DJI MINI 2
The DJI Mini 2 is by far the most affordable option available today and one I highly recommend. It offers many of the features you would find in the more advanced DJI systems and is one of the few in this price range capable of 4K video.
It’s also in the sub 250gram category. The weight is important and we’ll cover that, in more detail further down. Offering a 28-to-30-minute flight time and 12mp camera, the mini 2 is able to record 4k video and is the best option to get started droning.
This is based on cost and what you receive for that value. It has a price point of $400 to $600 depending on how it’s purchased, with or without the Fly More Package.
Check current price on Amazon »
Autel Nano/Nano +
The Autel Nano and its upgraded version of the Nano + is also in the Sub 250-gram category and is one of Autel’s newest offerings. The standard version is very similar to the DJI Mini 2 but at a slightly higher price point.
It comes in two versions; one, the standard model which features a lesser camera, and then its other version, the plus. Both cameras do offer a higher pixel range than the Mini2. The Standard version has a ½” sensor and the plus version has a 1/1.28” sensor.
The price point on either of these two systems is higher than the Mini 2 and would be something to consider when deciding between the three. Both versions of the Nano are 4K capable.
With the Standard model starting at $649 and the plus version starting at $799, only you can decide whether the improvements in the camera are worth that additional cost. At this price point, we also have another quality system to consider that is comparable to the Plus version.
Check current price on Amazon »
DJI Air 2S
Now when it comes to the DJI Air, we once again have a few variations we can look at. We’ll just focus on the newest though. The DJI Air series started out with the DJI Air and then with some small advancements came the Air 2.
The newest offering in the form of the Air 2S has an even better camera than the 2 had. It is pretty impressive for its price point and abilities and is being used more and more commercially.
Offering a 1” 20mp camera and 28 to 30 min flight time, it really is a first-rate drone system, weighing in at just under 600grams and being at a price point of just under $1000. It is a drone you could have for a long time yet to learn on and enjoy fully. It can definitely hold its own against other similar options.
Check current price on Amazon »
I recently got to spend a little time with the newest Autel drones. The nano was good, but the Autel Lite – now that’s a serious drone and has many of the features that a new or seasoned pilot would be looking for.
At a bit of a higher price point starting at $1249 for the standard version and $1549 for its premium plus version, it’s going to hit your pocketbook, at this price level. There are a lot more systems we could consider, but by far the Autel Lite is a competitor to these other models in every way.
Having a 1” CMOS camera and able to shoot video in 6K, this drone can easily become a part of the commercial industry as well as a good option for a hobbyist who wants all of the professional features. With a 38min to 40 min flight time, this drone will keep you in the air longer and capture some fantastic imaging.
Check current price on Amazon »
DJI MAVIC Series
DJI has been the powerhouse of droning for many years now and they have a track record of success. The Mavic series of drones has been DJI’s flagship for a few years and every model in this series has been a great flying platform.
The newest version, the Mavic 3, is by far the best of the series yet, minus some bugs they are working out. Featuring a dual-camera system and a 43 to 45 min flight time, it is the best of the Mavic 2 series drones combined into one.
With a 4/3 CMOS Hasselblad camera, and a unique telephoto camera, with a combined total of 28x in hybrid zoom capabilities, it is a powerhouse of droning tech. Now for the beginner pilot, this would certainly be overkill and dig rather deeply into your pockets.
With three variations of this model, and different price points for each, it is not really meant for one who is just getting started. If money is no object and you’re truly passionate, then this could be for you though.
Starting at $2,199 for the standard version and ranging to $5,000 for the Cine model, this drone will get you going and have the staying power where you won’t need to reinvest in a new system for some time. One could always consider the Mavic 2 though, which came in a standard or zoom version. Either one you choose, the Mavic series is certain to provide a fun and enjoyable flying experience.
Check current price on Amazon »
Why is the weight of my drone something to consider?
As someone who is new to droning and just getting started, you’re probably not aware of the rules yet.
You can read more about the rules for drone hobbyists here »
Once you get your first drone, you will be learning a lot. Not just how to fly but what is involved to fly safely. Safety will be the most important factor in your thinking when preparing for any flight. You will quickly learn there are many rules and regulations that even a Hobbyist pilot will need to be aware of.
One of those rules is about registering your drone with the FAA for a small $5 fee. The way the rule is written today, if you are a hobbyist pilot, you do not need to register your drone if it weighs under 249 grams. Anything weighing over 250 grams has to be registered even if it is used only for personal use or hobbyist flying.
As a commercial pilot, you have to register every drone you fly commercially, even those that are under 249 grams.
To learn more about the different rules for professionals vs hobbyists, read this article »
Should I buy a used drone?
There is a very large marketplace for used drones. However, if you’re just starting out, going with something new may be best, as most new drones come with an option for crash replacement. For the budget-conscious though, there are always used drones. In the used drone marketplace, there are a few ways to go.
The thing about used drones is you may just be buying someone else’s problem. You could go to someplace like eBay or similar and shop around there. But there you don’t really know the seller and whether the information provided is accurate. You may or may not have a good experience with the drone you receive, so it’s a bit of a risk, with no return policy.
There are other marketplaces to consider though. Each manufacturer offers refurbished drones at a reduced price. With this type of purchase, a care program may even still be available.
Some companies like Blue Sky or Adorama will also have used drones available. With these types of sellers, it’s always best to communicate with them as much as possible. They do check the equipment they sell and can tell you if there are any issues with it or not. Most even have a grading system already in place to give you an idea of its condition.
No matter how you get started or which drone you start with, you will find a welcoming community of fellow pilots who are glad to help you get where you want to be – soaring through the sky and enjoying this world in a whole new way.
We’ve mainly covered GPS drones here. There is a whole other world of droning though. Let’s get into that a little.
In Droneland there’s always been a focus on the GPS drone and its applications in the growing drone industry. One aspect that commonly gets overlooked is that of FPV or First-Person View pilot.
FPV is gaining in popularity in leaps and bounds and is now starting to have real-world industrial applications. This may actually be the style of piloting you’re looking to start with. If that’s the case, on average, you’re going to need to invest around $500 to $1500 into a kit to start flying.
First, you will want to consider whether you will start with analog or digital. These are the two types of radio transmission that these drones fly through. You will find that analog is a bit cheaper to get started in but digital is the way the market is going, so in this case, starting with the older system may not be your best option.
What gear do I need for FPV?
FPV flying requires three basic pieces of equipment.
There are advantages to this style of drone that GPS drones do not offer. The main one is the ease of fixability. FPV quads can range from as low as $100 to several thousand dollars. They are designed to be crashed and repaired.
They fly faster and are nimbler than their GPS cousins, and with the right skill set can be flown cinematically. They do not offer the ability to hover. What they do, though, is provide the perspective of sitting in the cockpit, and this may be the preferred style of flying you’re looking for.
One of the nicest aspects of FPV flying is the versatility of the equipment, as the goggles and the controller can be paired with nearly any drone. Then there is also the fact that you can build your own. With there being kits available, and not just separate parts that you have to find yourself, you’re not only able to learn flying a drone, you can also learn the ins and outs of building and programming your drone.
A lot to think about
As you can see when considering getting into droning, there’s a lot to think about. So much in fact it can seem daunting. There are all the different types and styles of drones. There’s the price and your budget. There’s what your intentions might be in the long run. So much! Don’t sweat the small stuff.
Just know you’re not just getting into droning, you’re joining an ever-growing community of like-minded flyers, who are more than happy to help you along your way.
If you’re interested in one drone or another and can’t decide, reach out to the drone community, someone will always be able to answer any question you may have, and welcome to Droneland! Your life will never be the same.
Photo by Mihai Moisa on Unsplash