How to buy the right drone for you

Camera, racer or toy: which drone is right for your piloting needs, captain?

How to buy the right drone for you

How to buy the right drone for you: Drones (or UAVs, as they are no longer called) come in many shapes and sizes and at wildly varying price points. You can buy a small indoor flyer for less than £25 or spend in excess of £5,000 for a heavyweight camera-carrying cinematic monster.

There are essentially two main categories of drone: those that are fitted with GPS (global positioning using satellites) and those without.

Most cheap indoor drones don’t have GPS built in so were you to fly them outdoors, chances are they’d just drift with the breeze and not hold their position at all. Even indoors, these drones are notoriously difficult to fly because they require constant input on the sticks. In fact they’re almost as unwieldy as the average model helicopter and therefore tend to crash a lot. For that reason, always try and spend a little more on an indoor drone equipped with indoor positioning sensors. These drones will literally hover in one spot with all fingers off the controls. They are a much better option for anyone wishing to learn how to fly a drone and they’re generally better value in the long term because they’re less likely to crash.

Outdoor drones, on the other hand, often use GPS to locate their position in the sky and will even hover in one spot if you take your hands off the controls. These GPS-equipped models are far and away the easiest form of model aircraft to fly – and the most reliable – but it is essential that you read the manual before take off, acquaint yourself with all controls and practice at low altitude and at low speed before reaching for the sky.

In this article we’ll look at the best types of drone to buy, regulations regarding consumer drone use and some handy tips on how to get the best videos out of your camera-carrying drone.

But first, some important reading material regarding safe drone use…

DRONE RULES & REGULATIONS

How to buy the right drone for you: CAA drone regulations

(Image credit: CAA)

The UK’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) recently issued new regulations regarding drone ownership and flying. As of right now this minute, all owners of drones weighing between 250g and 20kg are now, by law, required to register online as a drone operator, and take and pass an online education test. Registration costs £9 and it must be renewed annually.

You will receive an Operator ID by email and this number MUST be affixed to the top of the drone at all times.

You can read the full guidelines, and register as a drone operator, at register-drones.caa.co.uk.

So you don't get yourself into a pickle in a public place, here are some basic rules you need to follow – and follow them well:

Do not fly anywhere near airports or airfields

This is common sense that needs no explanation. Just don’t do it.

Stay below the legal maximum of 400ft (120m)

Commercial and private aircraft are required to fly above 400ft unless landing or taking off. However, emergency service helicopters will often fly lower so always keep an eye and an ear on your surroundings.

Stay 150ft (50m) away from people and property

A wayward drone can seriously hurt someone if it hits them in the face so always be extra cautious when flying in public areas.

Never lose sight of your drone 

Flying beyond line of sight is illegal even though some drones can fly up to 5km away.

Never fly near aircraft

If you see or hear a low-flying light aircraft or helicopter in the vicinity, it’s your duty to immediately lower your drone’s altitude even if you’re below the legal 400ft threshold. It’s impossible to judge height and distance when out in the open so always err on the side of caution and bring the drone either to a low altitude of a few metres or land it.

Now we’ve cleared up the legal requirements, here’s our guide to the best types of drone to buy today.

Types of drone

How to buy the right drone for you: Parrot Mambo

(Image credit: Parrot)

TOY DRONES

Many first-time buyers opt for a toy UAV so they can get a handle on the control system in readiness for one of the bigger boys. 

Bear in mind that most sub-£75 craft do not come with onboard altitude stability sensors, let alone GPS positioning. The smallest thumb-sized toy drones may look very appealing but don’t expect them to hover in one spot with your fingers off the sticks; these things require constant adjustment of the sticks and plenty of patience to keep them airborne.

Things improve immeasurably once you reach the £100 mark. At this price level you can expect a drone equipped with ultrasound sensors that keep the craft in a (more or less) rock steady hover with no input required from you. Parrot leads the way in this respect with one or two indoor drones that are both easy to fly and excellent to learn on.

If you just want to whizz about the local park or heathland, try something cheapish like the huge number of budget-priced Chinese GPS-equipped copters currently flooding the market. These are cheap enough not to cause too much of a fuss if crashed but their onboard cameras – if they have one – are woefully low on the resolution front making them near useless for cinematography purposes. 

Which bring us neatly to the arena of the HD camera-carrying drone…

CONSUMER CAMERA DRONES

How to buy the right drone for you: DJI Mavic 2 Pro

(Image credit: DJI)

Photography and video are the two main reasons why drones have, pardon the pun, soared to such stratospheric popularity. When, in July 2014, DJI released the GPS-equipped Phantom 2 Vision+ with built in HD camera and three-way gimbal (the clever bit that keeps the camera rock steady no matter what the drone is doing), the world rushed at the opportunity to shoot the sort of aerial video previously only accessible to those sitting in a helicopter seat.

Some consumer platforms still use a GoPro camera mounted to a three-axis stabilising gimbal. The GoPro’s size, light weight and ability to shoot high stills as well as HD and 4K video makes it ideal for consumer-level videography and stills photography. If you already own one of the ubiquitous action cams, buying a compatible flyer could be one way of keeping your costs down. However, these types of drones are now few and far between.

These days, however, the vast majority of aerial video fans opt for models with built-in 4K cameras that seamlessly stream all flight parameters and stable visual feeds to a humble tablet or smartphone. DJI leads the way in this respect with a roster of extremely reliable, easy-to-use camera drones that won’t completely break the bank. The Chinese company currently occupies 70% of both the consumer and commercial drone markets. Its technology in this field is second to none which is why we’d generally recommend a DJI product over any other brand.

AUTONOMOUS DRONES

How to buy the right drone for you: PowerVision Egg X

(Image credit: PowerVision)

Few would have guessed that, within just seven years of DJI launching its first Phantom drone, we’d be savouring the thrill of having an autonomous robot camera flying alongside us, filming our outdoor pursuits from perspectives never previously imagined. Whether you’re mountain biking, surfing, skiing, jogging or simply chilling on the beach, there are a growing number of flying cameras out there that will happily tag along.

The vast majority of autonomous models (including the entire DJI roster) require nothing more than a few taps of a screen. Preset flight parameters usually include ‘follow me’, where the drone literally tracks the user from either behind or just to the side, and ‘orbit’, which commands the craft to fly in a circle with the camera pointing at the user below; a very difficult manoeuvre using joy sticks alone.

Some small pocket-sized autonomous ‘selfie’ drones still exist but most of them have fallen by the wayside due to the fact that their cameras are, to put it mildly, horrendous. Most selfie drones are especially terrible at filming video because their tiny cameras aren’t equipped with a gimbal that prevents jitter as the drone pitches and rolls around in the air. However, they’re not too bad for taking low-altitude aerial snaps of your beach holiday or a family barbecue.

RACING DRONES

How to buy the right drone for you: Walkera F210 racing drone

(Image credit: Walkera)

If you're a speed freak and want to enjoy the thrill of flying but have no desire to shoot video and stills from the air, consider a racing drone. 

These small, stumpy four-bladed quadcopters are purpose-built for high speed manoeuvres and are often custom-assembled by their owners. However, there there are many ready-to-fly (RTF) models available, too.

Racing drones lack GPS but are equipped with a camera. However, this isn’t for getting atmospheric arial footage of your sister’s wedding. Instead, they are there so you can see where you're going while viewing the terrain through an FPV (First Person View) headset – essentially, a repurposed pair of VR goggles – that receives live footage from the nose of the craft. FPV flying takes a lot of practice but, once mastered, it’s a hugely exciting pursuit, full of adrenaline-pumping action.

As a beginner, your best bet is to join a local racing club where you can fly safely in a professionally monitored environment, usually a disused factory or plot of land filled with various obstacles. Get good at it and, who knows, your aerial exploits might just take you to an international event like the FAI World Drone Racing Championship.

HOW TO SHOOT AERIAL VIDEO LIKE A PRO

KEEP IT SLOW AND LOW

We can’t stress this enough. If you dart around the sky veering the craft from one direction to the other, the footage will just look awful. The rule is to keep things moving really slowly and without any sudden changes in direction. Also bear in mind that the lower you fly the greater the sense of motion. 

One of the most cinematically impressive drone shots is the classic ‘reveal’. For this you need an attractive focal point like a statue, building, natural feature or even a few people. Fly the drone towards and beyond the focal point, bring it to a halt and set your camera to record. Now fly backwards very slowly keeping the drone near to one side or just above the main object. The result is always spectacular. Alternatively, keep the drone roughly at the same altitude as the object you’re shooting, move it slowly across the frame from behind a tree to reveal the subject, and gently move the left control stick so the drone slightly revolves around object. With some drones you can also select autonomous ’orbit’ mode and have the drone fly in a near-perfect circle around the subject.

KNOW YOUR GIMBAL

The gimbal is an essential device designed to keep the camera its holding steady while the drone is in motion. Without it, the picture will dip and dive as the drone moves forward and backwards. The best gimbals have three mechanical axes that stabilise pitch, roll and yaw. All gimbals can be controlled to move up and down by the pilot on the ground. Set your gimbal to one of the slower settings and take time to practice with it. Good gimbal control is essential to producing fluid footage.

PREVENT JITTERY PANNING

Panning is an art. Stick to the universal ‘seven second’ rule and your footage won’t stutter as it arcs from one side to the other. This means counting seven seconds from the start point of the pan to the end point. That said, panning in a circle from a static position is never advised since it just looks boring as the image swivels from one side to the other. Much better to use the drone to slowly fly from one side of the scene to the other, perhaps while adding a smidgeon of subtle panning in the process. And, once again, keep gimbal and drone movement slow and steady – you can always speed up footage in post production.

SHUTTER SPEED

In photography, a fast shutter speed is considered a good thing – it produces pin sharp images. However, it has a negative effect with video by giving the impression that the moving image – especially during sideways motion – is stuttering across the screen in tiny staccato movements. To get around this inherent anomaly, always try and set your camera’s shutter speed to twice that of the frame rate. So, if shooting 1080 footage at 50fps, select a shutter speed of 1/100 of a second. And if shooting at 25fps, try 1/50.

The trouble is these settings don’t work well in bright light, which is exactly when you’ll be flying. You’ll notice the video is massively overexposed and almost completely washed out. That’s where the humble but invaluable ND (Neutral Density) filter comes in. This simple screw-on kit is basically a piece of darkened glass that reduces the amount of light reaching the camera lens. Put one on and your videos will improve immeasurably with gorgeous, smooth motion-blurred pans that make a hi-res video so much more appealing.

As a byproduct, ND filters will also reduce the ‘jello effect’; that wobbly look created by the in-flight vibrations that all drones produce. US-based PolarPro produces some of the best DJI-specific ND filters on the market. We’d suggest using one of their ND8 filters for cloudy days and an ND16 or higher for the sunniest times.

INVEST IN VIDEO EDITING SOFTWARE

If you only edit videos very occasionally, free editing software packages like Windows Movie Maker or Apple’s iMovie will be perfectly adequate for the task in hand. However, if you plan to edit videos on a regular basis and require a powerful program with access to a raft of comprehensive editing facilities, then a paid-for product is undoubtedly the way to go. 

There is no shortage of choice when it comes to paid-for software editing packages but bear in mind that some programs are only Windows or Mac compatible while others now charge on the basis of a monthly or annual subscription which can amount to a lot of extra annual outgoings.

Our favourite paid-for products include Apple’s Final Cut Pro X (£299) and Adobe Premiere Pro (£20 per month subscription). Both of these easy-to-use post production editing suites will turn any drone footage into something to be truly proud of.