Whether you’ve been feverishly reading reviews and watching YouTube videos or have no desire to do research, we’ll touch upon all the information you need to make the right decision. Everything you need to know before buying a drone and all the best drones available in 2017 is right here in our drone survival guide!
Think about what you want to do with your new drone. Do you want to fly at high speeds as fast as possible, or even race? What about photography or videography? Many drones come with deeply integrated equipment that’s difficult or impossible to change. It’s important to take some time and carefully consider everything you’ll want to do with your new drone. Another thing to consider if you’re taking any imagery is whether or not you want to share it on social media. Some drones now come with software packages that allows instant editing and smartphone connectivity. This feature makes it easy and straightforward to upload to standard sites like Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, and others. Currently, FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) regulations require you to monitor your drone and fly within their specific guidelines. That said, you can still get pretty far and see the aircraft in a large field (line of sight). Multi rotor style drones such as quadcopters are limited in flight time. If you want extended endurance and flight times, you might consider a fixed wing aircraft. There is such a large number of remotely controlled aircraft available it’s critical to evaluate which model or drone type will fulfill your needs. For further information on drones see our drone definition post here. Already decided how you want to use your new drone? Take a quick moment to pinpoint your budget and let’s get down to business!
Key points to consider when researching your options
Before you decide you don’t need this, you need to consider how useful the “return home” feature will be in your situation. New and experienced pilots both can accidentally lose connection with their drone. For example, the remote control battery might die. Typically, if a drone has a “return home” feature, it will activate after the aircraft reaches a certain battery life. This feature means your drone that’s hovering in the air where you can’t get to it to re-establish a connection will, after a reasonable number of minutes waiting, come back to you without your intervention. If this feature isn’t available, you’ll need to wait until the drone runs out of battery and crashes into the ground. If that sounds expensive, that’s because it probably will be.
Other useful features requiring GPS include setting waypoints and tracking a target. Waypoints allow you to sent the drone multiple places without needing someone to pilot the aircraft actively. Target tracking obtains GPS data from a tracker and uses the tracker’s location to follow the desired target. If you don’t have GPS, it won’t be the end of the world. It’s just a feature that’s nice to have and becomes critical in certain applications.
Sporty Handling or Smooth Imagery
Do you want to go fast, take smooth video, or both? You don’t necessary have to choose between one or the other but getting both tends to come with a higher price tag. Most aerial photographers and videographers go with a system that’s smooth and stable in flight. These aircraft tend to be copters of one kind or another. Quadcopters are popular for this purpose. If you want to zoom around and have no plan to take pictures or don’t care about the image quality, pay closer attention to the top speed, 3d functions (flips and rolls), and other performance specifications. DJI’s recent consumer drones have sport modes built in where the drones agility and speed is increased. This feature can be found in the Mavic, and Phantom 4. For a balance of image quality and performance we would recommend these two systems.
There is a large range of drones with imaging equipment out there and an even more extensive range of imaging capabilities and accessories. If you want to take photos, videos, or both you’ll need to put careful consideration into what camera is on the drone you choose. Don’t assume cameras can be swapped out or upgraded later unless explicitly stated by the manufacturer. Look for 1080p or 4K in the specifications if you want to take HD (high definition) or 4K images and video. Why care about HD quality imagery? They provide a significantly more lifelike appearance. When you look at an HD picture of a tree, you see a tree that looks like it’s right in front of you. Imagery in lower quality look more like close approximates of whatever you photographed. Keep in mind when acquiring 4K footage you may need a powerful computer to edit the footage in post. If you want a smaller sized drone, you may end up settling for lower quality pictures and video.Traditionally the drones need to be a little on the larger side to carry the extra weight necessary to support quality HD cameras. More recently, technological innovation has brought higher quality imagery in a very small size. The Phantom 4 PRO and Inspire 2 shoot amazing DSLR quality footage in a very small package.
For videography, you’ll take similar things into account with two additional points. First, recording video introduces another specification called FPS (Frames Per Second). The higher the frames per second, the slower you can run the video without distortion. A good rate for typical videography is around 30 fps. If you need slow motion, you’ll want a higher number. Anything over 120 fps is probably overkill but may be essential for action or sport videography. Second, you want your video to be as RAW as possible. RAW video may also be called uncompressed video. A lossless compression is similarly capable. Most compression algorithms for video are lossy, meaning the video won’t look nearly as nice when it’s decompressed and played as it did before the compression occurred. RAW footage will however come at a cost. High file sizes and time consuming colour correcting in post. Not all compressed footage is bad. Look for high bitrate codecs such as ProRes.
For high-end imagery work, you might consider drones with a larger gimbal and cinema camera such as the RED Epic, Arri, or Canon C500.
Do you have the patience, experience, and motivation to assemble your drone? It can be a fun project, especially once you see the result of your hard work zip through the air. If you’ve never put one together before, it takes a while to complete. We wouldn’t recommend assembling your drone if you’ve never owned one before. Otherwise, just be aware that there is a learning curve and can be a lot of work, and it’s not going to give you instant gratification.
Three levels of product assembly might be required even if you don’t need to assemble your drone from scratch. There are ARF (Almost Ready to Fly), BNF (Bind and Fly), and RTF (Ready to Fly) drones. ARF is popular because the drone’s pieces can be broken down for shipping. Selling ARF drones provides tremendous cost savings to the entire shipping and storage process and as a result keeps prices lower in general. Usually these is minimal assembly required with a ARF kit. BNF is an attractive option for hobby and toy drones. The aircraft is pre-assembled and tested but requires the purchase of another item such as a radio controller or battery. RTF means the aircraft is either completely assembled or needs minor assembly such as locking in propellers.
An important thing to note with the higher end drones. Some of them may require additional equipment such as a viewing device. The device can usually be a phone or tablet with either the Android or Apple operating system. Some systems although not as common now may need a full FPV set-up to broadcast the live video feed to your ground station. It’s especially important to read the product specifications carefully in this case. Otherwise, you might need to invest in new additional equipment to use your drone to its full capabilities.
Customer Support and Part Availability
Purchasing a drone can be an expensive proposition. You want to make sure whatever you buy will function as intended and the company will support the system for at least a few years. The best way to make an educated guess about support and part availability is to look at the company’s history. Search for answers to the following questions:
1. Is this the company’s first drone, or are they an established manufacturer?
2. Are there any existing complaints that repeatedly appear on forums about the product or business?
3. Look for the customer support contact information. Is there a phone number or do they only take questions by email? If you call the number, how long is the wait time?
The existence of bugs or problems are more common on new and pre-release drones. As manufactures receive feedback, issues are usually promptly addressed with software updates when discovered. Most recent drones are firmware undateable. Updating software is usually as easy as plugging the device into your computer or loading a file onto the drones removable media. In some cases the drone connects to its manufacturer’s network and updates itself. Although less common, mechanical issues or manufacturing flaws are a possibility and are tougher to resolve. If a manufacturer has developed a reputation for having mechanical failures, we wouldn’t recommend purchasing until they have issued a recall.
Practical drone applications for different vehicle types
Until recently the only use of drone technology you heard about regularly was associated closely with government and the military. Another word for these aircraft is UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). Drones like the Predator have been used extensively to conduct military surveillance and as a weapon to conduct remote warfare. The practice has been extremely controversial but continues nonetheless.
The popularity of drone photography and videography has brought this technology to the forefront of the drone marketplace. Multirotor UAV are much more flexible and are usable in a wide variety of circumstances including package delivery, surveillance, search and rescue, damage assessment, and mapping. Why might an individual make use of a drone? Photography of architecture, real estate, land surveys, and thermal imaging for agriculture are just a handful of examples. There’s a whole drone service sector that’s come into being branching into many industries. Here’s a list of the major drone categories and their typical use case. See also our drone types post here.
Fixed wing aircraft specialize in efficiently traveling long distances. All of their power drives them forward, and the wings on each side use a specialized aerodynamic design to generate lift. Applications that require long distance travel, like creating a map of an area, commonly employ fixed-wing drones.
Multirotor aircraft are your “copters.” The most common available variation is the quadcopter. These aircraft specialize in mobility. They can go backward, forward, sideways, and nearly any angle in between. With the right design, they are capable of hovering for extended periods of time and performing automated tasks. This drone type is perfect for landing and taking off on challenging terrain.
Using ground vehicles is ideal in places where it’s safer to drive than fly. Also performing ground based tasks and missions. These can vary in size from tiny robots to full sized rovers used by NASA for space exploration. Advanced GPS and sensors allow these land drones to autonomously roam and conduct automated missions. The electronics found in these vehicles are similar to those found in aerial drones.
These vary from submarines to fully autonomous boats. Drones perform underwater imagery, sample retrieval, and many other tasks in water environments that are hazardous to humans. Common reasons for people being unable to do the work include depth and dangerous conditions. The most famous high-depth project is the exploration of the Titanic’s wreckage. Self deployed boats can be send out by the coast guard for un-manned rescue missions or to conduct environmental research.
Primary categories of airborne drones
Aerial Imagery Drones
The vast majority of industry focus within the consumer drone market is on aircraft specializing in video broadcasting and photography. With the advancements in technology including nanotechnology, drones have more features than ever for less money than they cost before. The trend started as a home built copter based on hobby parts and DIY (Do-it-Yourself) airframes.
The DJI Phantom 1 was the first RTF drone with GPS functionality. With no complicated assembly process, the average consumer could finally break into the drone aerial photography scene. The first drones to market were set up to carry a GoPro camera hard mounted onto the belly of the aircraft. This solution was effective, but it was nowhere near an elegant one. The drones vibrations caused distortion in the video, and the camera was unable to be controlled from the ground and offered no form of stabilization.
The gimbal emerged as the best solution to prevent the drone’s vibrations from impacting the imagery. This new mechanism isolated the drone and camera while maintaining a level and stationary camera. The initial models were 2-axis servos. They provided improved results but were still not ideal. Using reverse engineered brushless motors and advanced micro controllers engineers were able to produce a highly accurate computer controlled gimbal. These were still 2-axis and large, requiring the platform to account for the extra weight at the expense of thrust and flight times.
Soon after, manufactures such as DJI introduced pre-programmed plug-and-play brushless camera gimbals. These were what finally stabilized the camera completely. They’re the key to the stunning cinematic footage you see from most high-end camera drones today.
When you purchase your new camera drone and drone with camera pay careful attention to these three features.
3-axis stabilized is best. As long as it has a brushless gimbal the footage should be watchable. Check youtube videos from the model you want to buy to make sure it’s stable enough for you if you’re not sure.
Videography and Live Streaming:
4K RAW (uncompressed) recording is best for footage you plan to edit. You’ll want 30 fps for a smooth video. If you’re doing slow motion shots, you’ll need over cranking capabilities 60-120 fps. Some camera drones can achieve 1080p HD or even 5K.
Point of Interest, cable cam, active tracking are a just a few powerful features that will help get you amazing aerial shots. These features are especially necessary for beginners who haven’t quite nailed the full manual piloting. As drones evolve these automated features will become more advanced in time.
Racing drones are relatively new to the drone scene. They have gained some serious traction in past couple years. Drone Racing is a new industry in itself. Drone leagues and teams are popping up around the word. Large, extravagant drone race events occur in places like Dubai. Drone makers have been scrambling to create the best racing drones, so there are ample options available.
Many racers bring a bag filled with tools and spare parts.Most FPV racing drones now have quick part change capabilities built-in for little down time at the races. The most common size for racing drones is the 250mm quadcopter. If you plan to get serious, check with your local drone racing league to find our what drone classes they compete in.
We recommend buying an assembly kit or an ARF drone. In the event of a crash (it will happen) you’ll know exactly how to repair it. Many racers bring a mechanic’s bag with back up racers, arms, motors, and most importantly propellers . Many FPV drone racers have quick part change capabilities built-in. They vary significantly in size and form factor. The 250mm quadcopters are most common. If you plan to get serious, you should check with your local drone racing league to find our what drone classes they race in. There is typically three categories of racing drone.
1. 150mm micro
2. 250mm mini
3. “Open” class. The “open” class can vary from race to race, but they usually don’t exceed 400mm.
A unique part of drone racing is FPV. FPV allows the pilot to see what camera-mounted drone sees. The video feed is broadcasted wirelessly through a video transmitter and sent to the pilot’s monitor or goggles. Most of these FPV setups use 5.8Ghz analog bands. These broadcasting bands are further broken down into channels. Before an event, organizers will provide racers with a list of available channels. The most common standard for separating out the analog channels is RaceBand. Getting your first racing machine together can be overwhelming. Be sure to check out our complete “How to Get Started in Drone Racing” guide here. When you purchase your new racing drone pay careful attention to these features.
Amount of Assembly Required:
You’ll need to decide whether or not to buy a fully do-it-yourself assembly kit or an ARF drone. We recommend doing one or the other. The more familiar you are with the inner workings of the drone, the easier it will be to repair.
Top Speed and Performance:
We are racing, after all, so make sure it can do everything required to compete (like go super fast)! You’ll want to learn a little programming as well to tweak the drone’s performance parameters.
Flying a Racing Drone takes practice:
Racing drones are small, light, and fast. All unnecessary equipment has been removed such as GPS autopilots or obstacle avoidance features. Flying a race drone is full manual and takes a bit of skill. This is all part of the fun. Be sure to purchase extra parts for race drone as you will be needing them.
Personal drones are hot in 2017. With the announcement of ZEROTECH’s Dobby drone, they’ve set the standard feature for personal drones to come. These drones are designed to be super small and ultra portable. The Dobby’s footprint is close to the size of a smartphone. These personal drones will feature similar powerful functions to their big brothers. Because of their size, they have a limited flight time.
Their micro size will also have limitations in image quality. Although, very soon they could cross paths with the larger camera drones in functionality. Another drawback is the fact that they don’t feature mechanical camera stabilization. They do however have stabilization on a digital level. This process usually degrades the image quality as it has to crop images on the fly. As the camera moves the onboard image processor zooms in on the picture to remove dead image space created by eliminating the vibrations.
All things considered, you can’t help but acknowledge the coolness factor of these tiny drones. Take it on you next holiday hiking in the mountains. Shoot photos at your friend’s wedding or your next family reunion. Take a close look at these specifications for your personal drone.
You don’t want to have to spend most of your time charging your drone. Short flight times are standard so you’re unlikely to find anything that can fly an extended period. Many drones, including personal drones, offer second and third batteries to prolong your flight time significantly.
Personal drones are smaller in size, but there is still a range of size options available. You’ll want to think carefully about where you’re going to take your aircraft. For example, hiking in the mountains might necessitate a lighter and smaller aircraft to leave room for food, water, and other essential equipment. If you’re driving and have plenty of room in the trunk, maybe it’s irrelevant.
Hobby Toy Drones
Most drone pilots dabble with a toy drone at some point. They are great fun and a small investment. Most fly full manual with no position hold or other autonomous functions. They usually come in a small size perfectly suited to the park or indoors. Toy drones or toy quadcopters cost as little as $20. They are an excellent way to get started in the drone scene if you are a beginner or young flyer.
Be warned, most of these toy drones are much harder to operate than the more advanced camera drones. Those guys in the mall that fly them around as if it’s no big deal? They’ve had a lot of time to practice. These little toys make excellent gifts. Just make sure there’s nothing expensive and breakable in the room where your kids or spouse are learning the ropes. These come in various formats including quadcopters and helicopters. Check out these features before buying.
Make sure it’ll fly long enough to be enjoyable. These little drones are small allowing them to recharge quickly. Some only fly for 3-5 min.
Remote Control Style:
If you have the option to do so, try it out in the store before bringing it home. If the controller isn’t comfortable in your hand, it won’t be nearly as fun to fly. Some of the included remote controllers are really tiny and cumbersome to operate.
Some toy drones have cool functions that allow you to do flips. When you master basic flight these 3D functions will provide an additional level of flight and operator challenge.
These are a lot like toy drones but in miniature. These little drones are perfect for flying around the house. Also, they make great pet toys. Cats and dogs love to chase them around. They’re also an excellent way to hone your flying skills on rainy, windy days. These are another great gift idea for your kids or spouse. Their smaller size makes them extremely unlikely to knock anything important over, but maybe move the precious stuff just in case!
There are a lot of cool features out there for mini drones. Parrot offers one they call HYDROFOIL which races across the water on pontoons. There are also little racing air /land vehicles. This option is, of course, in addition to the quadcopters that are plentiful in the market. Take your time and look through all of the available options. You’re likely to find something you didn’t know existed either because you haven’t run into it, or it’s a brand new concept. You can also view our best drones of 2017 here as well have a host of listed mini drones you can buy on Amazon.
Make sure it’ll fly long enough to be enjoyable. These little drones are small allowing them to recharge quickly.
Remote Control Style:
If you have the option to do so, try it out in the store before bringing it home. If the controller isn’t comfortable in your hand, it won’t be nearly as fun to fly.
Professional drones are what you need if you’re serious about putting your UAV to work. They are, in most cases, much larger and built using industrial grade components such as carbon fiber and aluminum. The larger footprint allows for larger propellers and beefier motors. The added power is what’s needed to lift heavy payloads such as Cinema cameras, DSLR cameras, LiDar scanners, crop chemicals and more.
The drones that aren’t large compensate for it in other ways. Many manufacturers are designing small, portable, industrial grade platforms to perform a multitude of commercial tasks. Companies like Autel Robotics have released industrial UAV planes for long missions. This design is popular for surveillance and mapping jobs as it has the best endurance of all platforms.
The biggest drawback to professional drones is price and size. You can easily expect to pay $10,000+ for a commercial drone of this type. Chinese manufacturers like DJI tend to have more affordable options for carrying larger payloads and spraying crops. Look for the following features in your professional drone.
Max Payload Weight:
Whatever the drone has to store to do its job, make sure the weight will be supported to keep it running until it has to return home and re-fuel.
Sensors for Mapping:
Verify that the drone has the mapping sensors required or that you can add them on after-market.
On long missions, there’s a possibility you’ll have either no connection to home base or an unreliable one. You need enough memory on board to prevent data loss if your connection is lost or slow.
Other Application Specific Needs:
Don’t forget to consider the environment where your drone will be operating. High heat, intense cold, and humidity are all factors in how long your drone will work before breaking down.
Safety and Redundancy:
With commercial UAV rules and regulations evolving, you will want to take safety seriously. Some commercial systems are now including redundant systems where if one component fails the other will take over and allow for a safe landing.
Selecting the best drone for you and your application
Once you have decided what type of drone you want to buy, you’ll want to perform further research to find the best model for the money. Thankfully we have done most of the research for you and provided you with a comprehensive list of our top picks in each drone category. See Our Best drones of 2017 guide. We have also provided links to the best store to buy them.
Once you have narrowed your choices, we recommend checking out forums where real owners have provided their experiences. Current owners are an excellent source of information and tend to provide genuine and honest feedback. If you hear about the same issue from multiple owners, it’s likely a widespread problem across the drone model. You can contact the manufacturer to see if they resolved the issue in the latest production run.
If you find yourself looking at drones that are way out of your price range, make a list of desperately needed features. Then, make a separate list of those that are nice to have but you don’t desperately need. If the necessary features alone are breaking the bank, consider buying a drone used or looking at a previous version of the drone you want. For example, DJI is still selling the Phantom 3 Professional. It costs less than the new Phantom 4, and they’re including an extra free accessories and discounted prices. Also be sure to check out our quick drone comparison guide here.