Drones are not one-size-fits-all, so it’s important to choose one that fits your requirements. Here are the 10 most important factors to consider when buying a drone:
The first thing to consider: What is your budget? This will dictate the range of drones you have to choose from. If you’re on a tight budget, you can’t go wrong with the Hubsan X4 H107C. If money is no object, why not splurge on the DJI S1000 and be the envy of your drone buddies? There is a middle ground, of course. The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ and DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3D are both excellent options in the intermediate price range.
Do you have experience flying radio-controlled aircraft? If not, we strongly recommend you practice with a microdrone such as the Hubsan X4 until you are comfortable with the flight controls. You will crash often as a beginner and it’s not a good idea to do that with a larger drone, lest you hurt yourself or someone else.
Many low to medium priced drones come with built-in digital cameras. High-end drones typically do not include a camera as they are intended to be paired with an external DSLR camera such as the Canon EOS 5D Mark III. With built-in cameras, the main factors to consider are the number of pixels and video resolution. Look for 1080p such as on the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+. Alternatively, you can buy the DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal and pair it with a GoPro for incredibly smooth HD video.
A gimbal is used to stabilize a camera and is necessary for shooting smooth aerial videos or sharp photos. To stabilize a GoPro, look for a 3-axis gimbal such as the Zenmuse H3-3D, or for a professional DSLR camera, the Zenmuse Z15. We recommend that you get plenty of practice flying your drone before attaching a gimbal as they tend not to enjoy hard landings.
How long your drone will stay in the air is dependent on a variety of factors, including the battery, the weight of the payload, your skill level and flying style, and the weather. In general, lighter drones with powerful motors, such as the DJI Phantoms, have longer flight times. Choose a drone that has the flight time you need.
Some drones can be quickly dismantled or folded for ease of transportation. Others are bulky and rather difficult to lug around, let alone put in a backpack. If you intend to take your drone on hikes or holidays, choose a drone that is small or portable enough to not be a burden.
If you intend to put a camera on your drone, you’ll need to ensure that it has a sufficient payload capacity. For example, carrying a Canon EOS 5D Mark III would require a heavy-lifting drone such as the DJI S1000 octocopter. Be sure to take into account the weight of any additional components such as a gimbal or camera lens.
FPV (First-Person View) refers to streaming video live from the drone to a monitor or goggles, so that the pilot can see what the drone camera is seeing in real-time. Some drones come with FPV functionality out of the box, whereas others require additional components or modifications. You’ll need FPV if you intend to fly beyond LOS (line-of-sight) or shoot professional videos. Flying via FPV is very different (and some would say more difficult) than flying LOS, so if you lack experience make sure you practice with an FPV-equipped microdrone, such as the Hubsan X4 H107D, before taking a more expensive FPV rig out for a spin. Note that FPV is illegal or heavily restricted in some countries, so check your local regulations.
Mid and high-end drones generally have autopilot functionality, such as a return-to-home feature if the drone flies beyond the range of the radio transmitter. Other autopilot features to look for include waypoint mission planning and no-fly zones.
Most countries regulate what frequencies can be used with radio and video transmitters, and how powerful they can be. This isn’t usually a problem with low-end drones that come with a radio transmitter but can be an issue when buying a more powerful, longer-range transmitter for use with professional rigs. If you are unsure, check with your local civil aviation or communications authority.