A Complete Beginner's Guide to Drones
Drones are literally everywhere now, and as the prices come down even more will lift off in our skies. In 2015 alone, over 2 million drones were sold to retail consumers and there are no signs of their popularity slowing down, in spite of what regulators would like to happen.
Drone revenue was expected to be around $1.4 billion in 2015, with increases for this year. A third of these drone sales occur in the United States.
So, what are they, how are they used, and how do you find the right one for your purposes? Here's a complete beginner's guide to all things drone.
What are Quadcopter Drones With Cameras?
Drones are also called “quadcopters”, which hints at their design. They have four little helicopter-like propellers jutting off a centralized motor that holds a camera underneath. Imagine a huge letter “x” laid flat. Each tip has a propeller mounted horizontally (now most with HD video cameras attached for visual capturing).
Quadcopter is a good name, since it reminds you that these are tiny helicopters, and they act in similar fashion when taking off, in flight, and when landing. There's no runway necessary like there would be with a rocket or an airplane. Drones simply rise directly upwards (with lots of noise, mind you) and land directly downwards, too.
Our military have been using drones for years but it was only in 2014 that they really became viable products for civilian use.
Officially, drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV). The military has gigantic drones that fly into dangerous areas and bomb things. Commercial drones like the ones we're talking about here are of course smaller and all they carry is their own motor plus a mounted camera.
How high can drones go, and how fast do they travel?
This will be changing in the future I'm sure, but right now drones can have a maximum flight speed of around 34 miles per hour.
Of course it depends on your drone, but flying height can be as high as 2000 feet if your modify your drone and use carbon fiber parts. That's geek level, though, and most drones don't get flown that high. Besides, the FAA limits how high you can fly them and it's well under 1000 feet.
There are super drones that can practically go into orbit but they're not generally for sale (or affordable either).
What are drones used for?
Are drones expensive hobby gadgets or important business tools? Both, and increasingly the latter. You may have heard the buzz around a year ago when Amazon announced it would look into delivering packages via drone.
That's still a long way off, but already factories are using drones in-house to ferry small items around huge warehouses. Drones are also perfect for internal mail delivery in huge companies.
Farmers are already using drones to spray pesticides and of course movie and TV directors use them to create gorgeous aerial shots as well as other creative shots which were not previously possible.
Search and Rescue efforts are greatly improved with the use of drones, which can be used to look for survivors of accidents and disasters, as well as lost hikers, and even anyone lost at sea, I imagine.
There's also been talk of delivering internet capability to remote areas. They can also be used to detect leaks in gas pipelines, and to take surveys of buildings and roofing.
Business will develop more and more uses for drones, since they can be outfitted with things other than cameras. They can be used to collect data, for example, when fitted with sensors.
Alas, despite all these wonderful and exciting commercial uses, the commercial use of drones is illegal in the United States right now. The Federal Aviation Administration does occasionally grant special permission for the commercial use of drones.
In the meantime, private landowners can use them to keep an eye on vast property holdings. One family surveyed their pasture and found an illegal marijuana farm on the far edge…complete with a mowed pathway to their neighbor's property!
What kinds of drones are there?
- Kids' drones. Kids love drones but better have an adult on hand to supervise. You'll want blade guards, and hide the pets. Pricing is budget-friendly: you can buy a kids' drone for about $60.
- Basic drones. You're not a kid so you don't need all the safety measures that come on kids' drones. But you're no Hans Solo either, meaning you aren't very capable flying things, or techno-minded. Not to worry, because there are plenty of simple drones out there to choose from. They come with low prices so if you mess up you haven't wiped out your entire savings in the process. Pick up one of these for around $80.
- Drones for Geeks and Serious Hobbyists. There are drones, and then there are Drones with a capital “D”. These are high-end, elite models with premium features that will make your head spin. We're talking cameras you can control, longer battery life, and more. Want to plot out your flight paths on your tablet? Pick up a Vision+. Cost: around $1300.
- Drones for movie-making. Serious (aka “real”) filmmakers have many uses for drones because they're way better than camera-equipped airplanes. Filmmakers love drones because they can hover right next to anything…dangerous things, for example. Plus, they can rise, turn on a dime, and don't have to fly in a straight line the way an airplane does. These run somewhere between your basic drone and the geek drones: less than a thousand bucks, like around $750 or so.
What are the safety concerns of drones?
There are numerous safety concerns, as well as privacy concerns with the use of drones. The FAA is most concerned with drones colliding with aircraft. For example, drones taking footage of huge raging wildfires got in the way of helicopter and airplane pilots who were on hand trying to put out the fire with chemicals they were dropping from their aircraft.
At the United States Open, a drone crashed and fell near spectators. Same thing happened at a football stadium in Kentucky.
There are also fears that people will use drones to smuggle things into prisons.
Finally, privacy issues arise when people fly drones into backyards, behind private walls and such.
What's the current state of drone regulation?
You already read that the FAA prohibits commercial drones but does permit them with special permission (more than 2000 have special permission).
But thanks to model aircraft enthusiasts of yesteryear, the skies are much more open to private drone flyers. There ARE still rules, however:
- keep your drone under 400 feet so it doesn't interfere with aircraft (federal rule)
- you must register your drone in a national database (federal rule)
- 20 states have banned drones in parks and over schools and churches
As of December 2015, the only clear rule release by the FAA has been that all drones between .55 pounds and 55 pounds must be registered (or pay up to $27,500 in civil fines and $250,000 in criminal fines). They also said that states cannot issue drone rules that conflict with federal drone rules, if they every manage to come out with some.
Meanwhile, many states have pushed forwards and issued their own drone rules.
Tips for buying a drone.
- Check what your state and local governments say about drone use in your neighborhood before making any purchases.
- Stick with basic quadcopters if you're a novice.
- Real estate professionals will want a drone whose camera offers a 360-degree view and dual operator mode.
- For kids or true beginners, stick with the kind of drone you can fly safely indoors.
- Keep in mind that indoor drones won't fly well outside (hard to control outside with wind).
- Bigger & heavier & more expensive means better drones for flying outside.
- Get a camera with 720p video or better.
- Unless you're an advanced drone hobbyist, stay away from 6 or 8-motor drones and stick with quadcopters.
- Gimbals are optional and allow your camera more stability and range of motion. You get smoother footage and more angles.
- Get a good battery- the range is very wide, from 5 to 25 minutes of flight.