Drones are multirotor, remote-control (RC) flying devices that offer a new way of looking at the world around you from never-before-imagined perspectives, and sharing those adventures through photos and video. Many RC drones offer live first-person viewing (FPV), putting you in the driver's seat on an exhilarating joyride where you can explore and even race from a pilot's point of view. If you've ever dreamed of competing in an air race or performing tricks and stunts with your fellow fliers in an air show, becoming a drone pilot might be the closest you'll come to experiencing that thrill firsthand.
Drones range in price from less than $100 to several thousand dollars, and the best drone for you isn't necessarily the most expensive one. The best drone for you depends on your experience level and how you plan to use it.
As the price goes up, drones become more powerful and capable of carrying extra hardware such as a stabilizing mount and action camera. But the real cost difference is in the brains of the drone — the flight controller and onboard processor — that make it more stable and maneuverable, and allow it to perform more functions in the air. For drones with built-in cameras, the cost will also increase with the quality of the camera.
At the entry level (ranging from around $50–$200), most drones are small and light, and sometimes maneuverable enough to fly safely indoors. Their size and basic technology make them difficult to control outside, especially when there's wind. Camera-included models will capture lower-quality images and video than more expensive drones. These are a great way to get your feet wet in the hobby and learn the basics of flying.
At the next level, ranging from around $300–$1,000, drones are bigger, heavier, and designed for easier, more stable outdoor flight. These drones either come with a quality onboard camera (720p video or better), or can be equipped with an external action camera. Use these drones to fly around a park, take a cool vacation video, or get a bird's-eye view of your house.
Spend upwards of $1,000 and, in addition to 4-rotor drones (quadcopters), you'll find drones with 6 or 8 rotors for added lift and more stability. Included cameras can take stunning photos and 1080p video or better. If a camera is not included, these drones can be equipped with an external action camera, plus a high-quality stabilizing mount for the smoothest picture quality possible. Advanced flight controllers and GPS, along with feature-packed software and open-source programmability, allow you to control your drone in practically any way imaginable, including premapping flight paths for completely autonomous flights. For serious photographers, these drones unlock cinematic angles and scenes that until now you could achieve only with a charter plane or helicopter.
Drones with sufficient lift from their motors and propellers can be equipped with additional hardware. Check the manufacturer's website for the lift capacity of your drone. Drones designed to support an external camera are typically able to carry a half pound or more of additional weight beyond that of the drone itself. Extra weight will increase the demand placed on the drone's motors and may reduce flight time and affect your in-air stability.
If you're looking for a drone that comes ready to fly and take pictures with minimal setup, buying a drone with a factory-installed camera is the easiest option. The camera is already attached, and it's guaranteed to be compatible with any of the drone's software and controller apps you can install on your smartphone or tablet.
On the other hand, mounting your own action camera after purchase also has its advantages. For one, buying a drone without a camera is significantly cheaper than the same drone with a camera. These cameraless drones may include a mount designed for compatibility with the more popular action cameras on the market, such as the GoPro HERO3 and HERO4. These cameras are so lightweight that carrying them usually won't have much effect on your drone's battery life and flight times. Plus, owning a separate action camera also provides more versatility, as it can be detached to use for other footage outside of drone flying.
A gimbal is an optional accessory that attaches underneath your drone's frame to give your camera a more stable platform and better range of motion than a camera mounted within the frame. Your gimbal and camera work together to keep your footage smooth while the drone pitches, rolls and tilts in flight, similar to how a news helicopter stabilizes its camera. Your controller operates the gimbal and drone independently, so your camera can stay level and aimed on target even when you bank into a turn, or it can pan and tilt in any direction while your drone hovers in place.
Even drones without an included camera might come with a gimbal, in which case you need to make sure it's compatible with the camera you plan to mount. If you're buying a gimbal separately, check the compatibility with both your drone and your camera.
The remote controller sends your commands to the drone's flight controller, which, depending on its level of sophistication, can gauge a variety of external factors such as wind speed and barometric pressure to turn your commands into motion. Controller configurations range from just two joysticks that control thrust and turning, to complex layouts controlling every aspect of the drone and camera simultaneously.
Most drones can be synchronized with aftermarket remote controllers (known as tethering), so you can continue using the controller you're comfortable with after you purchase a new drone.
Alternatively, some drones don't need a standalone remote controller to function. These drones create their own Wi-Fi hotspot, to which you can connect your smartphone or tablet and pilot the drone using a downloadable app.
Use the thumb sticks of your radio transmitter to manually control your drone's flight. The left stick controls lift and rotates the drone to point in a different forward direction, while the right stick controls horizontal movement — forward, backward and side-to-side. Unlike RC helicopters, most drones are built to hover, meaning you don't need to constantly keep a thumb on the lift stick for the drone to remain in a static position above the ground. This allows you to use additional flight and camera control buttons more easily. If your drone is equipped with GPS, you can lock it into both horizontal and vertical positions, regardless of wind conditions.
Depending on your drone and transmitter, your control range can be anywhere from a few hundred feet to a mile or more away. External factors like signal interference from radio towers and weather can affect the controllable distance, as well.
A drone battery offers 5–25 minutes of flight time on a single charge, and can take an hour or more to recharge. But oftentimes the battery can be easily removed and replaced with a fresh one once its charge is spent. To spend more time in the air each session, you should purchase one or more extra rechargeable batteries that are compatible with your drone.
The bad news: No one who flies drones lands perfectly every time. Whether it's a collision with a tree or a hard landing on the pavement, the occasional mishap is an inevitable part of flying.
The good news: There's no reason to let a fear of crashing detract from the fun of flying, because drones are made to withstand crashes. Their exteriors are lightweight, made out of strong materials like carbon fiber and polypropylene foam, and designed to protect the most sensitive components — the motors, transmitters and CPUs. And the parts that are most easily broken, the propellers, are also the cheapest to replace and easiest to repair.
Drones often come with spare propellers, and you can purchase additional spares separately, too. Keep in mind that half of a drone's propellers spin clockwise and half counterclockwise to enhance stability, so you want a couple spare propellers of each kind.
Whether you're heading out on a flying adventure or storing your drone in the closet till your next session, don't just shove your expensive equipment in an old duffel bag. Protect your investment with a quality backpack or case designed specifically to hold your drone. Your case should have a padded, foam interior with cutouts to snugly fit your drone and accessories, safeguarding them from drops and bouncing around in transit. If you plan to hike long distances with your case, choose one with dual padded straps to keep you comfortable on your journey.
Resist the urge to pull your drone out of the box and immediately start flying. In addition to a remote controller, most drones have an app you can download to control it via a smartphone or tablet. Before takeoff, update all software and firmware, and read the instructions thoroughly.
Once you've downloaded the necessary app on your device, you can connect to the drone via Bluetooth or a Wi-Fi connection. The app also lets you save the video and photos from your flight on your device storage or to a cloud storage system.
Your drone may have open-source capabilities so you or other third-party developers and tinkerers can create software to perform a variety of different tasks. For instance, you can download apps that let you use Google Earth to create waypoints on a flight path and camera focus points for the drone to execute. There is also image/video editing and sharing software, automatic following of radio-tagged objects, and much more.
Depending on the model, the signals being sent from your drone may include a real-time video feed courtesy of the drone's camera. With this video, you can use your smartphone or tablet as both a viewing screen and controller; if you're using a remote controller, it may have an HDMI port that can connect to a compatible screen while keeping the primary control functions with the remote.
On your screen, a video game-style display overlays your flight video. This display contains telemetry data such as altitude and battery life, and perhaps even a mini map showing an overhead view of your drone's position via GPS. If you're connected to a touch screen, there may also be quick control functions like video and photo capture, as well as preset tricks and automatic commands including takeoff, hover and return home that make flying easier and safer.
To make flying easier, there are a number of safety settings available on most drones, including auto land and auto return functions to ensure your drone doesn't drop out of the sky when it's getting low on battery power. Other functions include no-fly zones and flight ceilings to help you make sure you don't accidentally take your drone out of controllable range or into a restricted area. The telemetry data your drone transmits might include altitude and distance from home to help you stay in safe areas. Some drone apps allow you to attend a virtual drone flight school where you can get the hang of flying a virtual drone before testing your skills in the real world.
A great resource to learn about flying drones is the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). The AMA can also help you find drone enthusiasts and remote-control flying clubs in your area. Connecting with others who are interested in drones is an excellent way to find out where to fly and learn proper flying techniques and advanced tips and tricks. These clubs meet regularly to talk about, fly and even race drones.
The FAA requires operators of unmanned aircraft weighing more than 0.55 pounds (250 grams) on
takeoff (including everything on board or attached), and operating outdoors, be registered at www.faa.gov/uas.
Additional state or local requirements may apply. Check your local jurisdiction. The following websites may help you make informed decisions about how regulations impact you: www.knowbeforeyoufly.org and www.modelaircraft.org.
Find the right drone for you at BestBuy.com. Your local Best Buy store also has a selection of drones. Plus, our friendly Blue Shirts are there to answer questions and help with choosing the best drone for your recreational needs.