The Ultimate Drone Guide, From Buying to Flying

Drone during flight

Man has dreamed of flying since the dawn of time, but pilot lessons aren’t cheap, and the dangerous thrill isn’t for everyone. If you’re looking to test your skills as a pilot without ever having to get behind the cockpit, then drones might be the perfect choice for you. Once restricted to commercial and military purposes, recreational drones are now available to everyone.

And many of the drones available on the market to customers are a lot more than just toys. Sure, a drone can be used for racing or stunts, but they can also be used as an incredible new tool for photographers or even as a fun way to learn programming. If you want to become an ace pilot, keeping reading. We’re here to cover all the important questions.

A Brief History of Drones

The question of who invented the drone is a bit trickier than it might seem at first due to the ambiguous definition of drones (which we’ll get into more below), but the most obvious place to start is over a century ago with the famed scientist Nikola Tesla. While Edison’s eccentric rival didn’t build the first drone himself, it was built off of radio control navigation systems that he had earlier developed. Developed by British scientists in 1917, the Ruston Proctor Aerial Target was designed to be used as essentially smarter missile systems. And while its proof of concept was sound, it wouldn’t enter into service itself.

But the idea of military drones weren’t abandoned. Unmanned aircraft would become a part of British and American research moving forward, through World War II and beyond. And as is often the case with military innovations, the technology would eventually be adapted to civilian purposes. The 1960s saw transistor technology develop to a level where it could be used in consumer-grade remote control planes and helicopters, and it was a popular fad for some time.

And that’s essentially the level of complexity that non-military drones possessed throughout the turn of the 20th century. But as a new millennium began, many began to see the promise of drones for commercial use. The FAA began issuing permits for commercial drones in 2006, and while it started small at first, these permits quickly skyrocketed in number. What could arguably be called the first consumer drone – the then-sophisticated Parrot AR Drone – would hit the market four years later.

Today, the use of drones has hit a crescendo. While unmanned aircraft continue to have their military uses, they’ve since expanded to government agencies and commercial interests, and the huge influx of new ideas has resulted in consumer drones that are far more sophisticated than the rinky dink AC helicopters and planes of yesteryear.

Understanding What a Drone is

And that leads us to a far trickier question. What is a drone? In technical terms, a drone is synonymous with a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), but the definitions become a little more technical and complicated when we start discussing commercial, military, and consumer drones.

Military and Commercial Drones

Military Style Drone

In military or commercial terms, a drone is synonymous with a UAV, but the remote control planes you’d find at your local hobby shop are obviously not going to be much good to private enterprises or the armed forces. Instead, the flight patterns of drones are usually automated using GPS systems and sophisticated artificial intelligence or else they’re piloted using high-end cameras.

Drones used in this capacity may take a number of forms. They may be planes that require a runway to launch, quadcopters like those used by consumers, or more complicated vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) aircraft. The creativity on display in the world of commercial and military drones is vast, and that level of diversity is rapidly trickling down into the consumer market and opening up a variety of new opportunities for entrepreneurs.

The use for drones in military service is varied. They’re typically deployed either because they can offer 24/7 coverage of an area or because they’re flying in areas too dangerous for manned aircraft. A military drone may provide surveillance over large stretches of land, or they may be used to delivery missile strikes on hard targets that could result in high casualties if attacked by traditional forces.

The use of drones for government agencies and private corporations are functionally similar but broader in their application. Drone photography has become a popular method for everything from shooting marketing footage for real estate developers to surveying land for farmers, and they’re similarly used by energy companies to inspect dangerous or remote sites for safety purposes.

But that’s just scratching the surface. While drones have been used by government agencies to patrol the border and track criminals for years, there’s a lot of potential for drones to be used as a component of private security systems. And Amazon has recently revealed an early prototype of their long talked about drones that can be used to deliver packages to customers faster than ever before.

Which is to say that while a drone you can buy off the shelf of your local big box store may seem like a toy at first, it can be a lot more. Drone operators are in increasingly high demand in a range of different fields, and there are plenty of opportunities for pilots to freelance or build their own business using their skills. Investing in even a cheap drone can be a great way to start a new career.

Consumer Drones

A popular consumer drone

So what distinguishes a consumer drone from an old school remote control airplane or helicopter? Technically nothing. But in colloquial terms, the term drones has come to mean quadcopters. If you see a drone available for purchase outside of a commercial capacity, it’s probably a quadcopter. These UAVs look like helicopters that use four rotors instead of one, each situated on an opposite corner of the craft.

That’s the definition we’ll use for our guide. Unless specified, any further references to drones will refer to quadcopters built for consumer use. By excising unnecessary exceptions, we can better focus on providing you with more detailed information on finding the right drone, learning to pilot it, and understanding what it’s capable of.

How Do Drones Work?

If you’ve ever piloted a remote control plane or helicopter, you can probably operate a drone with easy. And even if you haven’t, you can likely pick up the basics in no time at all. The reason quadcopters have become the dominant choice in consumer drones is that they’re far more stable and easy to fly than traditional UAV helicopters or planes. And that’s in large part due to how they’re built.

The Physics of Drones

At their most basic level, quadcopters work in an identical way to helicopters. The physics behind a helicopter are simple but fascinating. The motor turns the rotor, and the speed and power of the spinning blades, combined with the forward tilt of the helicopter’s nose, cause the aircraft to lift. The obvious difference here is that drones make use of four rotors and four motors on each corner.

Fundamentally, the proportion of those rotors to the quadcopter itself could be too powerful, and that’s why two rotors move clockwise and two move counterclockwise. Imagine a quadcopter facing the cardinal directions. The north and south rotors turn clockwise, while the east and west rotors turn counterclockwise. This counterbalance creates lift without forcing the quadcopter to spin out of control. When all four rotors are synchronized to the same rate, the speed of the blades either cause the drone to hover in place or to adjust its altitude, depending on the tilt of the drone’s nose.

Turning is handled by adjusting the speed of each pair of rotors. If you’ve ever been in a kayak, you understand the basic principle behind it. Increasing the power of the clockwise turning rotors will turn the drone clockwise. Increasing the power of the counterclockwise rotors will turn the drone counterclockwise. This horizontal positioning of the nose is known as the yaw. Since a quadcopter uses multiple rotors, and since the same turning rotors are have a balance on each side of the drone, the turning process is simpler and far more stable than it would be with a single motor helicopter.

That sense of stability and counterbalance is also what makes consumer drones so well suited to aerial acrobatics. Pitching (or tilting the nose vertically up or down) and rolling (or rotating side by side) is achieved by increasing the speed of a single rotor while the other three rotors maintain their same speeds. Balancing these four factors – yaw, pitch, and roll – is at the heart of controlling a drone. And the increased stability that comes from the four rotor mechanism allows them to retain their sense of balance even in relatively powerful winds.

Drone Controls

Drone Controller

The basic physics behind how a drone works may be relatively simple, but if the thought of manually balancing the controls of four separate rotors and motors sounds intimidating, that just means you’re thinking sanely. While different drones have different control systems, all consumer models simplify the process of handling the motors.

Controlling a drone is simpler than piloting a helicopter in a video game. Controls for altitude and turns are handled by simple inputs, so the only thing you have to learn is finding the balance between shifting left and right, up and down. The device you use to control your drone is known as the transmitter, and it can take the form of everything from a handheld device that looks like a video game controller to a phone app to some combination of the two.

Many of the more advanced standalone controllers come with a mount for your phone so it can serve as a second screen. The phone app in instances like these often either streams video directly from the drone’s camera, allows you to establish waypoints, or both. In either case, the transmitter sends radio signals to the receiver in the drone. These radio waves are projected across separate channels that determine specific actions in response to the input from the controller and correspond to the throttle, yaw, pitch, and roll of the quadcopter.

More advanced drones make use of more channels for more complicated tasks. All drones also come with both an accelerometer and gyroscope that evaluate the drone’s positioning in space. The complicated relationship between these receivers are what allow you to quickly learn how to fly a drone with just a few flicks of your fingers.

Radio Frequencies

To prevent other users from accidentally (or maliciously) controlling your drone, each drone transmitter and receiver are synchronized to a specific radio frequency. With most consumer drones, you don’t have to worry about tuning your receiver and transmitter to the same frequency. They’ll come already paired to an RFID (or radio frequency identification).

Radio frequencies are measured in hertz, and the frequency level can have a major effective on the effectiveness of a drone. These range from extremely low frequencies (in the range of 3 to 30 Hz) to extremely high frequencies (in the range of 300 GHz to 3000 GHz). In terms of general performance, lower frequencies are better overall. Lower frequencies can travel farther and are better at piercing dense objects. The longer the distance you want your drone to go, the lower the frequency you want to use. Most consumer drones operate in a range of roughly 900 KHz.

There’s one instance where a higher radio frequency can come with some advantages. The same Wi-Fi networks we use to connect our phones, tablets, and laptops can be used to control some drones. These buck the trend of low frequency levels because Wi-Fi broadcasts on a channel of roughly 2.4 GHz. That means that Wi-Fi enabled drones tend to offer a maximum range of only about 600 meters, but they can be controlled by a phone or tablet, and that opens them up to a range of features that more traditional low frequency drones simply can’t support.

Deciding on a Drone

White drone with controller

The market for consumer drones has become incredibly diverse in just a few years, and that means you should think carefully before deciding on the drone that’s right for you. While less expensive drones are more general purpose toys, more expensive drones tend to be more highly specialized. There are a decent number of specs and features you should weigh carefully before making your purchase.

Drone Builds

Are you interested in the mechanical inner workings of a drone, or do you want one that you can just get in the air as quickly as possible? If you’re in the latter category, you’re going to want to go with an RTF (ready to fly) drone. That’s easy enough. There are a ton of drones available today in a variety of price ranges, and you can look to one of our guides if you’re looking for the best. In most cases you don’t even need to learn how to calibrate a drone since they come ready to work right out of the box. Just plug in the batteries and go.

But if you’re more mechanically inclined, you may want to opt instead for a DIY (do it yourself) drone. Just keep in mind that building a new drone is a lot of work. While there are a lot of helpful guides on the internet, getting it properly up and running can take a lot of trial and error, as well as a decent level of soldering skills, and you’ll probably find yourself troubleshooting issues before you can come close to putting it into flight. You don’t just need to make sure that the hardware is already wired properly. You also have to properly program and calibrate it.

You may also want to consider looking into ATF (almost ready to fly) drones. These require some assembly, but instructions are included in the kit. Many can be set up in less than an hour, and they provide you with a great way to learn about how your drone works without having to meticulously research and execute the process of building your own from the ground up.

Types of Drones

Consumer drones may not have the deep level of utility that you’d find in commercial or military models, but there’s a ton of options at your disposal if you’re so inclined. Truly professional level drones are going to cost you more than $300, but you can find some great entry level options that allow you to play around with the fundamentals. If you’re looking to become a professional drone pilot, or if you want to just expand your knowledge base and develop some new skills, some more specialized drones may be right up your alley.

General Purpose Drones

If you aren’t looking for anything except a drone that will follow your instructions and let you flex your piloting muscles, there’s barely any barrier to entry. If you find yourself nervously asking “How much do drones cost?” you can put your mind at ease. Quality general purpose options like the Syma 8XC Venture can be picked up for about $60, and that’s a pretty common price point for amateurs.

If you’re just looking for some firsthand instruction on how to fly a drone for beginners, something in that price range should suit your needs. But if you’re willing to hunt around a little and you’re simply seeking out something that’s a good toy for a kid, you can sometimes find models for as cheap as $30. Just keep in mind that the cheaper drones are generally intended for indoor use and should only be used cautiously outdoors.

Programmable Drones

Programmable Drones

One of the biggest advantages of drones in professional application is that they can operate on their own without the need for constant human interaction. Operators who know how to program drones can make a lucrative living for themselves. If that sounds intimidating, it doesn’t have to be. You don’t need to come equipped with a deep knowledge of programming languages to mess around with programmable drones. In fact, there’s a burgeoning market of drones designed explicitly around the purpose of teaching children and novices the fundamental of coding.

One standout in that regard is the DJI Tello. It comes packed with a substantive Intel processor that can handle some pretty complex commands, but the learning curve is incredibly shallow. It makes use of the Scratch programming language, a block based language that’s designed for complete novices. If you want to learn how to program a drone, it’s quite possible the best place to start.

If you’re a little more experienced in coding, or you’re looking for a drone with a higher ceiling for learning, the Project Mambo Fly may be more your speed. Parrot was one of the first companies to get in the consumer drone business, and their Mambo language is incredibly flexible. It supports very basic block based programming while also allowing you to scale up your learning with support for more complex real world languages like Python and JavaScript. Both the DJI Tello and the Mambo Fly can be found for less than $200.

More advanced users have a lot more flexibility seeking out a drone. The fundamentals of drones are all pretty similar, and that means that a coder with a modest level of experience working with hardware and software can pretty easily put together programming tools for just about any drone. Just invest in a Raspberry Pi or an Arduino. There are already a number of SDKs available that can make your transition into professional drone programming much smoother.

Racing Drones

The basics of flying a drone are pretty simple. Most of the consumer models available today are built with ease of use in mind, and they come with a number of standard safety features built in to ensure that a crash doesn’t end your drone’s life. But there’s a big difference between understanding how to fly a drone and being a drone flying expert.

The racing drone circuit has popped up practically overnight, and it’s gotten complicated in no time at all. If you want to learn how to get into drone racing, there are plenty of user meet-ups and social groups in the real world and across the web. And when you’re ready to step up your game, there are drone racing leagues that allow you to test your mettle against other competitors and maybe win some prizes in the process.

But you should take things slowly. Most leagues have rules on what sort of builds are allowed and what aren’t, and most successful drone racers have built their own models from scratch to ensure maximum performance. And while models like the Vortex 250 Pro and Eachine Wizard X220 are good enough to score some wins for a talented drone pilot, anything you get off the shelf isn’t going to compare to a finely tuned hand constructed drone.

But if this is your first rodeo, you honestly don’t need to be spending a lot of money on a racing drone that’s outside your skill level. Learning the fundamentals should be your first priority, and any decent drone can teach you the talents you need to get your first taste of drone racing. Models like the Altair Hornet 818 and the Holy Stone HS110D offer adjustable skill and speed settings that allow you to start at amateur level and gradually ramp up the difficulty as you become more comfortable flying them.

Camera Drones

Drone with a Camera

One of the most popular uses for drones is photography. While there are a few super cheap drones that offer cameras that can take pictures blind, they’re really toys more than anything. If you want anything approaching serious photography with a quadcopter, you’re going to want to invest in an FPV drone.

What is an FPV drone? It stands for first person view. These drones come with cameras built in, and they run off of Wi-Fi so that you can look through the eyes of your drone and capture footage in real time. Consumer drones are uniquely well equipped for photography due to the level of stability that the four rotors offer. The ability to hover means that they can capture footage that won’t be unnecessarily blurred by motion.

FPV cameras are one of the most popular features for drones, and they don’t have to cost a lot. There are a number of drones with decent cameras for under $200. But there are a few models that stand out. The Holy Stone HS110D is great because it comes with a dedicated controller that includes a phone mount, allowing you to shift easily between controls and capturing video and stills.

The Potensic T25 is also a good choice. The controller comes with a phone mount, and it also has GPS built in so you can set up customized flight paths. It’s not quite up to snuff for what serious photographers will need, but it shoots in 1080p and comes with a number of automated modes.

But if you’re looking for something that you can use for professional photography, you can expect to spend at least $400. That’s the level where you really start to see highf level video performance and the sort of image stabilization systems that really support professional level photography.

Drones approaching $500 also start to offer the sort of complex obstacle avoidance systems that professional work necessitates. And despite the fact that FPV cameras allow you to see directly through the eyes of the drone, we advise you against flying your drone outside of your line of sight. Obstacles like power lines and birds can be hard to see and hard to avoid when just peering through a drone’s camera, so it’s better to be able to spot them with the naked eye.

Features and Specs

Finding the right drone is all about carefully balancing the strengths and weaknesses of any given model. That means keeping in mind both the critical specifications that each drone offers as well as the range of features. Fortunately, there are plenty of cheap models on the market that are also feature rich.

Battery Life

Black DJI Drone

How are drones powered? For consumers, they’re charged exclusively by batteries. And it’s an unfortunate truth that a drone’s downtime heavily outweighs its active time. The longest battery life for a drone is about 30 minutes, and even the best models in the under $200 price range tend to offer about 15 minutes of use at once. Many only offer about 5 – 7 minutes of charge. With an average charge time of an hour or more,

Understandably, there’s a big difference between a 5 minute runtime and a 30 minute runtime, particularly if you intend to be using your drone for professional or semi-professional use. You should carefully consider the battery life when buying a drone, but also consider whether it can hold multiple batteries and how easy it is to charge. Having multiple batteries on hand can extend the usability of a drone, but that doesn’t do you much good if you have to plug the drone itself in to get it to full charge.

Distance

The next question you may be asking yourself is how high can a drone fly. Consumer drones aren’t designed to fly very high, but that’s by design. The FAA only permits consumer models to reach heights of 400 feet unless they’re provided special permissions. That ceiling isn’t a high bar to pass, and most consumer drones can reach it easily.

The distance your drone can fly will probably be a more important factor for you. Most drones have a maximum distance listed. Short range drones offer a distance of about 150 feet, and anything less than that should probably be reserved for indoor use. Most drones offer a range closer to about 300 – 500 feet, and particularly intrepid models like the Hubsan X4 H501S offer maximum distances of 1600 feet.

Those ranges may not seem like a lot, but it’s important to keep in mind that drones should be kept in your line of sight when possible, and the battery life of a drone is just as big an impediment to a drone’s maximum distance as the quality of the radio signal. If you’re looking for an especially long distance drone, seek out models that transmit radio frequencies on lower bands.

Safety Features

Most drones built for consumers are built with ease of use in mind, but there’s still a learning curve that comes with operating a drone. We don’t think much about vertical space in our daily life, so operating a drone can take some getting used to. Fortunately, even cheaper models tend to come with some safety features built in.

Headless mode is a great option for new users, as it automatically adjusts the pitch and roll of the drone to the ground. Taking off and landing drones is also a tricky skill to acquire, so you may want to look for drones that offer one touch options if that’s a concern. Slightly more expensive models also offer collision detection that kicks in when there’s the threat of an imminent crash.

Advanced Connectivity

We’ve already noted the advantage of signal distance that comes from drones that operate on low radio frequencies, but the advantages that come from Wi-Fi or Bluetooth connectivity can be worth it for a lot of users. Bluetooth tends to support a shorter distance than Wi-Fi, but both allow you to control your drone directly through your phone or tablet.

That brings with it the potential for an umber of cool features. Live streaming video feeds is one of the more important ones, and it’s essentially a necessity for anyone who wants to use their drones for photography. Some cameras with live video offer another cool feature as well: waypoint navigation. You can simply touch or swipe on your device’s screen to direct your drone to a new position without having to make use of a standard control stick. Many also offer a follow me mode that will trail behind your location automatically and take video.

One last consideration is whether or not to invest in a drone with GPS. While they require a little more calibration, they allow you to establish waypoint navigation using a GPS map, and they’re an ideal choice if you’re looking to program a drone to perform automated flight paths. Most GPS drones also come with a return to home function. Once the battery gets low, they’ll automatically return to a designated GPS destination for collection and recharging.

The Proper Protocol For Drones

DJI Drone

Many drones may seem like toys, but unless you intend to use yours exclusively for indoor flight, you probably need to consider local and federal laws and regulations. Read on to learn what sort of rules you need to follow when you decide on the drone you want.

FAA Regulations

The Federal Aviation Administration has strict rules in place for drones flying over United States land. They’re in place to protect the privacy of citizens and prevent any unexpected disasters in flight paths. Any drone that weighs over 0.55 pounds is legally required to be registered with the FAA.

Fortunately, the rules about how to register a drone are pretty relaxed. You need to be 13 years or older to register a drone, and you’ll be charged a $5 fee for registering. There are also rules about where you can fly your drone. If you want to fly your drone in controlled airspace, you need to get authorization before you can get your drone off the ground.

In most instances, controlled airspace refers to a radius of a few miles around an airport, but many events are designated as controlled airspace on a temporary basis. Concerts, sporting events, and major festivals are common occurrences that are temporarily designated as controlled airspace.

Fortunately, the hobbyist drone community is friendly and engaged, and there are a few resources you can use to make sure that you aren’t flying your drone in restricted area. Airmap and B4UFly (curated by the FAA directly) meticulously track the location of controlled airspaces. ThisĀ helpful guide can provide you with more context on the rules of the sky where consumer drones are concerned.

Earning a Drone License

Consumer drones can be a great way to make a transition into a new professional field, and there’s no lack of opportunities available for aspiring drone pilots who want to make money off their skills. But if you want to fly your drone for commercial use, you’ll need to learn how to get a drone license.

Drone licenses are regulated by the FAA. Luckily, they’re much easier to earn than a traditional pilot license. Applicants must be at least 16 years old and pass a background check performed by the Transportation Security Administration. You’ll be required to pass an Aeronautical Knowledge Test at a centerĀ approved by the FAA. The turnaround on a license tends to be rather quick, and you can apply for your license 48 hours after you take your test. Testing costs a flat fee of $150.

As with a drivers license, drone licenses need to be periodically renewed. Pilots are required to undergo testing every two years to keep their license current, and the FAA can request an inspection on your drone at any time. In the case of an accident, you must require a report to the FAA, and your drone must be given a personal inspection before any commercial flight.

Final Thoughts

There are a decent amount of considerations to weigh when deciding on a drone, but there are enough good models around that finding one that matches your needs shouldn’t be a major issue. If you’re just curious about learning how a drone flies, you can sate that curiosity for less than $50. But if you’re a bit more serious about the hobby, you may want to invest even more heavily.

But the most important thing to remember is to have fun. A quality drone can be a gateway to multiple new skill sets of a way to advance your existing career, but at their core, they’re a way to experience the thrill of flying without having to get in a physical cockpit.