Whether getting one as a hobbyist or a professional, drones have become more suited for certain tasks. This helped achieve a whole new level of output that can be expected of them.
If one believes that a drone is suited to their task requirements, the next thing to consider is which one to choose. Drones’ performance, capabilities and features vary widely among the brands seen in the market (some people even customize and build their own drones).
This article may help one arrive at that decision, after completely understanding what drones are all about.
1. Classification: Indoor vs. Outdoor Drones
There are no hard and fast rules here, since it all really depends on user preference and usage or purpose. For the purposes of classification and identification, it is safe to say the following:
a. Indoor drones:
For beginners needing to practice or wanting to try it out but are on a budget, an indoor drone is perfect for them. Many indoor drones can be purchased for $100 or less. Just keep in mind that they are not able to withstand strong gusts of wind and that most of them can be controlled within 36 meters at the most. Most of them within that price range also has less than 10 minutes of operable time.
b. Outdoor drones:
These are generally more stable and sturdy compared to indoor ones. There are also outdoor drones for beginners, but expect them to definitely go beyond $100. The control range is much farther and operable time much more than 10 minutes (some can go for 30 minutes).
c. Hybrid drones:
Most hybrid drones are still in the experimental stages, but there’s a steady stream of news and press releases regarding groups developing it. Here’s one of them. The hybrid part pertains to its power source, being a combination of battery or electricity and fuel (maybe even water in the near future) which allows the drone the capability of longer flight (2.5 hours) and range (100 miles) as well as heavier load (20 pounds). Hybrid drones are currently being developed for emergency response, search and rescue, military operations and the like. Those in development are expected to hit the consumer market between 2018 and 2020.
2. Drones Types
Choosing the drone type is also dependent on the purpose. Most of these are classified as outdoor drones, with the exception of the multi-rotor (specifically, the quadcopter) being also capable of being indoor.
a. Single rotor
Simply put, these are classic helicopters typically used for aerial LIDAR laser scanning. It has a single main rotor for lifting (making it capable of VTOL – vertical take-off and landing) and a tail rotor for control. Fueled helicopters with longer blades are more stable, sturdy and lasting – capable of far, heavy and long flights. They are much more expensive too, with price tags ranging from $25-120K. It is not as popular as multi-rotors because of that, and also the training needed to fly these things. Practice is needed to be able to handle the mechanical complexity in flying them. Those without the proper experience may cause serious accidents handling these. The Yamaha R-Max (which has been around since the 90s) is generally considered to be a successful single rotor design.
There are many variations of the multi-rotor. Out of these, the quadcopter arguably is the most popular right now due to its more manageable cost (pro drones range from $5-65K). Also, a general rule in aerodynamics states that the larger a rotor is and the slower it spins, the more efficient it is – which explains why quadcopters have much more endurance.
- Bicopter – possibly the cheapest to build as it uses two motors and two servos; difficult to stabilize and has the least lifting power
- Tricopter – has three motors; can be Y-shaped (arms 120 degrees apart) or T-shaped; two front propellers spin opposite to each other while rear motor can be tilted left and right
- Quadcopter – has four motors mounted X or t/+ frame, with each set 90 degrees apart; two motors rotate clockwise and the other two counter-clockwise to create balance; can also be used for drone racing
- Pentacopter – currently in experimental stages; expected to have five motors with two front arms
- Hexacopter – has six motors mounted 60 degrees apart on a symmetric frame or a Y-frame with a pair (one on top, the other on bottom) on each arm separated 120 degrees apart similar to tricopters; has three pairs of clockwise and counter-clockwise propellers; if one motor fails, it can still land safely; more expensive than quadcopters
- Octocopter – has eight motors mounted 45 degrees apart on a symmetric frame or an X- or t/+ frame with a pair (one on top, the other on bottom) on each arm separated 90 degrees apart similar to quadcopters; has four pairs of clockwise and counter-clockwise propellers; upgraded version of hexacopters which requires multiple battery packs
These are the classic unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) or airplane drones. These things can stay in the air for 16 hours, making their primary function involve data gathering or aerial inspection. They are very fuel efficient and capable of long-distance flight. However, they are incapable of hovering during flight which means that it’s generally not good for photography. Also, since they can’t do VTOL, a runway is needed for lift-off and landing – which by itself takes practice as well. Costs are similar for pro single rotors.
d. Fixed-Wing Hybrid
These are also still in development, but it is expected to combine both VTOL and horizontal take off. Experimental hybrids are known to have rotors in them for VTOL. Once the technology is perfected (also by 2018 to 2020 at the earliest), it will be made commercially available. Amazon’s Prime Air delivery drone is an example of this hybrid.
3. Drone Features
Another important consideration is the actual features the drone offers. As drones get more complicated and complex, more features are added and the heftier the price tag gets.
a. Camera Integration
There are those that offer integrated cameras, support add-on cameras only, or both options. While getting a drone with integrated cameras offer ease of use, flight-specific filming features and technical support, keep in mind that these companies’ main product are the drones – not the cameras. They might not provide the quality that a photography or video buff expects. These things also feed off the drone’s battery supply, lessening flight time. There are some drones with great integrated cameras, but it’s always best to have that second option of add-on cameras.
b. Auto return or Return to Home (RTH)
This is a feature working with GPS that allows the drone to go back to its original position when the user triggers it or when the drone is low on either signal or power. It’s great for beginners. Some users find this feature lacking, though, since RTH may cause the drone to fly into obstacles on its way back. It is best to look for this feature in tandem with obstacle avoidance feature mainly found in high-end drones. If that is not available, make sure to activate RTH only in open spaces.
c. First Person Viewing (FPV), Global Positioning System (GPS) and Wi-Fi
For photography, video capture or even racing, FPV is a necessary feature. It allows users to view their cameras’ screen real-time via a wi-fi transmitter sending the images to a separate monitor, handheld controller screen, smartphone or tablet. This one depends on the cameras and transmitter attached or integrated to the drone. FPV and GPS both rely on wi-fi. Without wi-fi, controls are done using a radio transmitter. It’ll jack the price tag up definitely and the hardware will affect the flight time due to the load and consumption.
d. Follow me
This is a hands-free feature that’s great for letting the user stay in the center of the camera, as it swivels in the correct direction to keep them in the frame at all times. It’s like a selfie without the stick, and it can be as far as desired. It utilizes either a special GPS-reliant transmitter or an object recognition software.
e. App control
Many drones now allow smartphones or tablets to work as a controller with the help of the proper app. Usually, the OEM recommends their own but there are many apps which can be as effective (or better) in Google Play or Apple Store. While regular controllers work on 2.4 GHz radio waves, smartphone controls require wi-fi connection. App controls also accommodate FPV and Follow Me.
Equipment load and drone speed affects this aspect. Generally, long range drones can fly out from a minimum of 200 meters to a maximum of seven kilometers while short range drones may not get farther than 40 meters.
The size of the drone will affect the load capacity, or the number, weight and kind of attachments it can support while flying. A drone the size of a fist usually can only support integrated mini-cameras. The larger ones can support at least an attachment and better cameras.
6. Battery life per charge
Equipment load and power consumption definitely can reduce the flight time. But generally speaking and under optimal conditions, a high performance battery can provide a flight time of anywhere between 15 to 30 minutes. A low performance one can give anywhere between three to seven minutes at the most. Anywhere in between can be considered a mid-range battery.
Hopefully, this article helps in providing a clearer understanding on drone basics. Now, it’s time to shop.