Intro to drones part 2: How to choose your first drone
1 Choosing the right drone
So, you're ready to buy your first drone. Great! But what to get?
In this article, we'll discuss criteria to consider when buying a drone so that you can find the model that's right for you. We'll also make a few recommendations based on different use cases.
Note that this is the second in a three-part series. In Part 1, we reviewed drone basics such as technology and terminology. In Part 3, we'll cover what you need know in order to fly safely, as well as the difference between recreational and commercial flying.
Choosing the drone that's right for you
Before all else, consider how you plan to use your drone. Are you a selfie king or queen who wants to post pictures on social media, an adventurer looking for a unique shot, or a professional who demands the highest image quality?
Once you've answered that question it's time to start looking. That's a lot easier to do once you understand the range of options available, so let's dive in and look at features you should think about before buying a drone.
Size is an important factor since it impacts portability and convenience. When it comes to 'Buy&Fly' drones, sizes range from models small enough to fit in a cargo pocket to those requiring a small backpack or case.*
There's some truth to the saying, "The best camera is the one you have with you," and it's true for drones as well. If having a drone with you at all times is of paramount importance, look for a very small model like the Hover Camera Passport that fits in a pocket or handbag. You may give up some high end features in exchange for convenience, but you'll be able to pull out your drone at a moment's notice.
|The Autel Robotics X-Star Premium packs in a lot of premium features at a competitive price.|
Compact drones, like the DJI Mavic and GoPro Karma, are the Goldilocks of the drone world, which explains their rapidly growing popularity. They provide features found in larger models while remaining small enough to be a good choice for activities like travel, hiking, or adventure sports.
Larger drones, such as the DJI Phantom series or the Autel Robotics X-Star Premium, will generally deliver the best specifications and often include some type of marquee feature such as a camera with a larger sensor, a removable camera, or even a hexacopter option. While they're usually feature-rich, they may require a dedicated pack or case for travel.
When it comes to flight, weight is paramount, so drones use cameras with smaller sensors (which require smaller lenses). However, there are important differences between models.
Some drones use very small sensors, similar to what you would find in a mobile phone. The Hover Camera mentioned above uses a 1/3.06" sensor, but that's part of what allows it to stay small. The most common sensors used in drones today are probably the 1/2.3" variety, also found in many consumer-oriented compact cameras. At the high end you can find 1"-type sensors similar to those in a premium compact camera, such as the Sony RX100 series.**
Shutter type is important as well: some models, like the DJI Phantom 4 Advanced, include a mechanical shutter that can eliminate rolling shutter artifacts when taking photos.
|The camera on the DJI Phantom 4 Pro and Phantom 4 Advanced use a 1"-type sensor similar to what is found on premium compact cameras.|
Finally, consider recording formats. Many drones can capture Raw images in addition to JPEGs, and 4K video is common as well. Video shooters take note: if high quality video is important to you, look beyond resolution and consider frame rates, bit rates, and codecs as there are differences.
Absolute performance when it comes to things like speed an maneuverability may be important if you want to shoot fast moving subjects like action sports or moving cars. If that's your use case, pay attention to specs like maximum speed, though be aware that on some models, flying at maximum speed can result in the drone's rotors creeping into the frame.
Most drones have a claimed battery life in the range of 15-30 minutes. In the real world you'll probably get something less than that, particularly because it's a good practice to land your drone with some battery power remaining. Altitude, ambient temperature and wind speed are the three largest factors in determining actual flight time.
Many drones claim to have long operating distances, sometimes in the range of several miles. Keep these claims in perspective. Operating range will depend on many factors, but you should have your drone in visual line of sight at all times, so it's unlikely you'll be flying that far anyway.
|DJI Phantom 4 Pro batteries are rated for approximately 30 minutes of flight time, though in practice you'll probably get a bit less.|
Drones aimed at enthusiasts have dedicated controllers that provide a standard interface, allow for precise control, and usually have dedicated hardware buttons or switches for important functions. Dedicated controllers allow for longer range operation as well. If your goal is to shoot high quality photos or video, this is your best option.
Smartphone-only controls are common on mini or 'selfie' drones, and their range is measured in meters rather than kilometers. If you want to stash your drone in a pocket so you can pull it out for a family photo at the beach, this is a good option. Many drones are designed to react to gestures and hand signals as well, making the controller less critical for certain tasks.
Some models take a hybrid approach. For example, the DJI Spark is designed to work from your phone, but can optionally be paired with a controller for extended operation.
|The DJI Spark can be controlled by gestures, a mobile device, or an optional dedicated controller.|
Automated flight modes
Automated (or 'intelligent') flight modes can be tremendously helpful by handling some aspects of flight control while you focus on creative decisions. Many of these modes are almost standard features at this point. But do you need them?
If your primary focus is still photography, look for models that have dedicated photo modes for tasks like shooting panoramas or stitching together vertical shots. Camera controls such as manual exposure modes or auto exposure bracketing can also be useful.
For video, automated flight modes can make a world of difference, making it much easier to do things like tracking a subject. The smooth motion these modes provide can also make your footage look more cinematic.
Collision avoidance systems
Collision avoidance (or obstacle avoidance) is not a substitute for attentive piloting, but can be helpful avoid collisions with objects such as buildings. These systems can also be helpful if you need to navigate tight spaces. To learn more about how these work, refer to Part 1 of this series.
The most common variety of collision avoidance sensors are those that look forward in front of the drone, however some models have rear and side facing sensors as well. If you're nervous about running into something, look for a model with collision sensors. But remember, they are not infallible.
|Sideways facing obstacle sensors on the Phantom 4 Pro.|
Notice that this section is called 'budget' and not 'price', and that's an important distinction. You'll probably need to budget for at least some accessories.
At the top of the list are batteries, and there's a wide range of prices. For example, additional batteries for an Autel Robotics X-Star Premium cost $99, while batteries for a DJI Phantom 4 Advanced are closer to $170. Add two or three batteries and the costs add up quickly. Frequent flyers may also want a charging hub to keep those batteries topped up.
Other costs can include filters (ND or polarizers), micro SD cards, replacement parts like rotors, and for larger drones a carry case or backpack with inserts to support your model.
*For the purposes of this article, we're ignoring the dozens of very inexpensive (and practically disposable) micro-drones that are basically toys, nor are we addressing high end professional products aimed at commercial cinematography.
**If you want to go larger than 1"-type sensors, it's possible to get models with Micro Four Thirds cameras, or those that can carry a DSLR or cinema camera, but those are beyond the scope of this article.
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