The “Consumer Drone” (or “quadcopter”, “UAV”, “hexacopter”, or however you prefer to call it) is the part of the drone market that is exploding right now. If you have seen a quadcopter flying around your neighborhood, chances are that it’s a white DJI Phantom, or something similar.
These quadcopters aren’t your DIY bunch of pipes and tubes bolted together with wires snaked around them with exposed electronics – rather, they are sleek-looking aircraft with an outer shell covering all the innards. They come totally assembled (well, you’ll have to put the propellers on, at least – more on that later) and ready to switch on and fly (more on that later). They can be upgraded in certain ways such as adding a 2- or 3-axis motorized gimbal for stabilized gopro video, or adding FPV (it’s a not-so-well-kept secret that a DJI phantom with FPV is currently the world’s greatest toy for grownups).
A word about “flyaways”
There is a rumor that the DJI Phantom is prone to “flyaways” – i.e. without warning, suddenly flying off, never to be seen again. As far as I can tell, this is almost completely without merit. Because this quadcopter is so popular, and flown by so many beginners who simply don’t have any idea what they’re doing or what precautions to take, this rumor has come into being; however, the real cause of nearly all “flyaways” is probably one of these things:
1. Not setting the “Home point” via getting a GPS fix before starting to fly (The fact that DJI Phantoms seem to have a rather bad GPS device/antenna inside doesn’t help either)
2. Having low/dead batteries in the transmitter/controller
3. Leaving the wifi active on your GoPro camera, which interferes with control of the quadcopter
4. User error, user panic: for example, maybe the quadcopter is not in “GPS mode” (i.e. holding very steady because it has a GPS fix) but rather it’s in ATTI mode (tries to hold steady, but drifts with the wind); maybe the quadcopter is not oriented in the way the user thinks, and then the controls don’t actually reflect what the user thinks they should.
These things can fail… without warning
Now, let’s make one thing perfectly clear: These vehicles are not airplanes. They are not aerodynamic. They don’t glide to safety if something goes wrong. Helicopters, tricopters, quadcopters, hexacopters, octacopters, they’re all prone to catastrophic failure. Either they fly, or they fall out of the sky at terminal velocity until they hit something. These machines are also very complex, intricate devices containing microchips and sensors, which, a few thousand times every second, determine how fast to spin each of the motors (You, hotshot pilot, are not really piloting these things – you’re merely nudging them along – no human brain would be able to control the four motors of a quadcopter for real). Even in the very best of cases, even when you have taken every precaution, there is a non-zero possibility that your drone will fall out of the sky for no apparent reason. This is a fact that most beginner pilots are blissfully unaware of. But please, be aware of it.
This is not a family heirloom
Flying drones requires a rather buddhistic view of your possessions. Don’t get too attached to this thing that you’ve spent hundreds (or thousands) of dollars on. It is an ephemeral thing that is not going to last 😉 You are going to crash it, someday it will become “lost in time, like tears in rain…”
Take every precaution you can. If you are planning to fly over buildings, be aware of the fact that it is very, very difficult to judge how high this thing really is when it is more than 100 meters away (can I clear the spire of that church? maybe it’s better to fly next to it instead). If you are flying over people, make absolutely sure that you have steady nerves and will not panic if something goes wrong. These things can injure people.
When I was a absolute novice quadcopter pilot, I have to say that I crashed my DJI Phantoms a few times, and they survived remarkably well! They really are built to be very durable. Your mileage may vary of course 😉
Here are the best quadcopters for beginners
I will show you a few examples of the most well-known “consumer drones” currently on the market. There seem to be new products being announced in this space very frequently, so I’ll do my best to add new ones as they appear on the market. If you see one that is not listed here, feel free to contact me.
DJI Phantom 1
The price of a DJI Phantom 1 is currently $479 on Amazon (with Prime 2 day shipping). All things considered, this is the most sensible way to start your adventures in quadcopter flying. This machine is the first truly mass-market drone, and has been met with widespread acclaim. It is also, by virtue of its popularity, very easily upgradeable – your choice of propellers, FPV components, camera mounts, gimbals, propellers, etc. is quite large.
If toy quadcopters aren’t enough for you, start with a Phantom 1. It’s simple, it works. You can modify the hell out of it as your desires grow.
The only caveat with the Phantom 1 is that the transmitter is 2.4 Ghz. The GoPro’s wifi functionality also operates at 2.4Ghz. YOU MUST NOT use these together. Do NOT try to watch what your GoPro is filming, while it is mounted on your DJI Phantom 1. There is a major risk that your controller will not be able to control your Phantom properly. (If you want to install FPV, you can buy extra components for that, and connect your GoPro to an external 5.8Ghz transmitter; there are people who have used such a setup to fly very, very far – over a mile away!)
DJI Phantom 2
The DJI Phantom 2 has a much larger battery than the Phantom 1, allowing flight times of up to 25 minutes (depending on your flying style, and how much extra camera stuff you carry). It also uses a 5.8Ghz transmitter/receiver rather than 2.4Ghz. This means that the range might not be quite as far, but it won’t interfere with your GoPro’s wifi for example (at any rate, if you want to do proper FPV, you need additional 2.4Ghz FPV stuff installed in your Phantom 2, utilizing either a little camera, or connecting to your GoPro).
The main caveat with this quadcopter is the batteries are EXPENSIVE. They aren’t the “low rent RC batteries” found in the phantom 1 which lack any cell-balancing capability (and with less outer protection, hence, probably more likely to erupt into a ball of flames if you have an unlucky crash, and then try to charge a damaged battery). The Phantom 2 batteries come in a plastic cover which snaps into the copter — this is better than the Phantom 1 which requires connecting a fiddly connector, some of which are too tight, which risks damaging the wire connections inside the drone.
The Phantom 2 comes with a very basic mount for a gopro which, as with the Phantom 1, you want to immediately throw away and get at least an anti-vibration isolator, or better, a quality 3-axis gimbal (not the cheapest 2-axis gimbal you can find – yes, I’ve just saved you $60, you’re welcome)
(Don’t bother with the DJI Phantom FC40 / DJI Phantom 2 Vision)
These aren’t the best, but to avoid confusion, I’ll put them here.
DJI has been on a bit of a rampage in the last year, releasing products very quickly. Both the DJI Phantom FC40 and DJI Phantom 2 Vision are products that seem to have been released to stay on top of a large growing market, and to keep DJI’s “first mover advantage” in the market. Both of these quadcopters are superseded by the Phantom 2 Vision+ (which is a HUGE upgrade from the Phantom 2 Vision, despite the tiny name change). So, don’t bother with these. Their cameras aren’t great, they are too susceptible to vibrations which destroy the image, and the cameras have no tilt capability (or any real stabilization) which dramatically limits their utility.
DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ (P2V+)
As of September 2014, this is the latest and greatest from DJI. No other consumer quadcopter comes close to this one in terms of features and reliability, out-of-the-box.
Of special note is the camera/gimbal. This camera is fully integrated into the quadcopter. It has a few features that are not available on any other drone.
First of all, the camera is mounted on a 3-axis gimbal. This means that the video it shoots is very, very stable. You will in fact be shocked at how stable this video is. There are a couple things that are unique about this camera/gimbal that you won’t find anywhere else, and is rather illustrative of how DJI has reached the top of this market and where they plan to be going in the future. So, this camera/gimbal is a single unit: the lens and sensor seem to be the only components of the camera that are being stabilized – the other components of the camera, such as the micro-SD slot, are above the gimbal. This is important because it means that the thing being stabilized, the camera, is very light, lighter even than a GoPro. This means that the motors themselves can be smaller, and the task of stabilization can be achieved using less power.
Additionally, keep in mind that stabilization involves a real physical thing that has weight and inertia – there are physical limits to how fast you can move and turn a camera, so the lighter it is, the fewer of these physical limitations you have. One interesting thing I have noticed with this gimbal is this: before you start the motors on your quadcopter, while it’s still on the ground, turn the sticks on your controller as if you want to turn the Phantom clockwise or counterclockwise – you’ll notice that the gimbal itself will twitch to the left or to the right in order to counteract the predicted movement of the copter. This kind of deep integration is something that you simply don’t have when you add a gimbal to any other drone.
Another big plus with this camera is that it shoots RAW files. GoPro doesn’t. You can also manually set the white balance and ISO, which can be very handy.
The video quality is unfortunately not as good as the GoPro – not all that surprising, considering the GoPro has had many years dominating its own market up to now. Specifically, the video from the P2V+ seems too compressed – it is a far cry from the ~40 megabits per second size of the video made by the GoPro. However, for regular shooting by amateurs who want to publish their videos on Youtube and Facebook, the video quality is fine.
When shooting RAW, it takes a long time before it’s possible to shoot another photo, which tells me that the maximum bandwidth available inside this camera is not very fast. I expect this problem will be addressed in future versions.
The camera is operated by a smartphone (iOS / Android) app. You install this app on your mobile phone and you clip your phone to the Phantom controller. Whether or not you’re shooting video or photos, you can see the world from the point of view of the quadcopter itself. This allows photos and videos that simply aren’t possible otherwise: without the ability to actually frame a shot, even with a very wide-angle lens, you’re obviously quite limited. With this first-person view, you’re free to shoot some amazing stuff.
More drone reviews coming soon….