First time buying a drone?
Whether you are a property surveyor, an aspiring videographer, construction site mapper, wildlife tracker, or just an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) / drone enthusiast, this guide will help orient you on the fundamental things you need to know and to master before you buy your first drone.
What is a Drone?
The term “drone” is synonymous with military terms Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) and Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV).
All of these terms describe a remote-controlled (RC) or autonomously programmed flying machine.
Drones are generally built for recreational purposes.
However, more and more, they are also used for professional aerial videography and photography, to carry cargo, to track wildlife, to inspect flare stacks and bridges and commercial chimney towers, and in a number of other drone-related fields.
New cases are found continuously, leading to the proliferation of drone jobs and the growth of the drone services industry to meet the demand for aerial photography and surveying work.
Innovations in drone technologies have made owning a UAV far more approachable and cost-effective than ever before.
In the last couple of decades, the UAV community has thrived.
It is an exciting time to work in the drone space or to buy your first drone.
Who Should Own a Drone?
Who wouldn’t want to own a flying robot?
But seriously, you should only buy your first drone if:
- You are a serious RC hobbyist (helicopters, boats, cars, etc.)
- You are a photography/videography professional looking for a radically new perspective.
- You have a commercial interest in drone technologies.
The most reliable way to learn more about the UAV market is to pilot your drone.
You’ll get an appreciation for how approachable these innovative systems may be, and yes, even while they are not easy to master, they are quite easy to pick up. It is kind of like snow skiing!
Ready-To-Fly (RTF) Vs. Do-It-Yourself (DIY)
The first thing you should know is that you don’t have to necessarily buy your first drone.
You can build one yourself! Naturally, this needs a steeper learning curve, as you’ll be setting together, programming, and assembling some pieces. Take out your soldering iron, and bookmark one DIY support forum, as you’ll need it.
If something goes wrong, you will have to diagnose and debug yourself. Based upon your level of experience, getting your DIY UAV into the air can take a substantial amount of time.
Fortunately, many companies are putting together almost-ready-to-fly (ATF) drones or Ready-to-fly (RTF), which makes it easy to work.
As far as price goes, depending on how you are looking to use your drone, you might not wind up saving that much money building one yourself. You can purchase a pre-built, ready-to-fly RTF quadcopter for under $180!
Some of the drone kits use elements that, if bought as standalone things, could be more expensive–so that if you were to re-create some of the more expensive units, you could end up spending close to the same cost you would getting it pre-built.
Drone technology has come a long way that DIY may make the most sense for people who are curious to learn how a drone works, and not necessarily for people who wish to fly without spending a lot of money.
Top Things To Consider
There are several different types of consumer drones on the marketplace, but if you’re a newcomer, you will probably want to stick with a quadcopter.
Quadcopters usually have an H or X square frame and are known for their reliability and stability.
The four propellers on quadcopters can produce enough lift to carry 1-2 pounds and can maneuver very fluidly, even in wind speeds of 10-15 mph.
All quadcopters have the same basic design frame: four propeller blades and motors and an accelerometer or gyroscope to gauge the UAV’s pitch, roll, and yaw (the features that define how it’s positioned in space).
Using this information, the quadcopter can automatically adjust all the four motors, letting it hover in place.
A drone operator uses a transmitting controller to manage the quadcopter. It may either lose or gain altitude, move right and left on a horizontal planer, or spin 360 degrees.
As this is a drone buying guide for beginners, we’ll stick to ready-to-fly, pre-built, (RTF) quadcopters.
Other kinds of UAVs can be expensive or are too complicated for the neophyte drone pilot.
If you’re considering a special drone for a specific use case, such as performing three-dimensional land mapping or live-streaming aerial videography, you’ll still need to learn the basics.
An inexpensive quadcopter is a fantastic UAV to learn on!
Top Drones For Under $180
It is ultimately a personal decision as to whether or not you start with something more affordable / cheaper vs. diving into the deep end with a more professional system.
For all the cheap systems ($180 or less) there a few essential things to know:
- Battery life generally won’t be more than 10 minutes, so it is ideal to purchase many batteries for flight training/missions.
- No versions that we know of offer a 3-axis gimbal stabilization system, which means you are losing out on image/video stabilization. Nothing “professional” except camera quality.
- Models under $180 are LIGHT. This is great for training/repair purposes, as they’re pretty durable given their light mass and hard outer shells, but they don’t work well in the wind because they’re too light.
So you’d be gaining flight confidence and learning how to master multirotor competence without GPS and other smart features you’d get with a more professional system.
Below are the best training drones under $180 (USD):
- DJI Tello
- F111WF Folding Drone
- Scoot Mini Drone
- U49WF FPV Camera Drone
- UFO 4000 LED Mini Drone
Aerial Videography Drones
Have a good sense of the basics and need a drone with a camera that packs a bit more punch?
Below are some of the well-received quadcopter units operated by aerial videographers:
- DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
- DJI Mavic Mini
- DJI Mavic 2 Pro
- DJI Inspire 2
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
- Skydio 2
- U49WF FPV Camera Drone
Of course, there are MANY more models to consider for specialized purposes, but we have narrowed our focus on manufacturers and the most popular systems. DJI is by far the most advanced and easiest-to-use professional drone lineup on the market today, so that’s why our list is dominated by their models.
We hope this quick guide provides you with the right starting place.