The Best Beginner Drones
Buying a Beginner Drone
If you’re reading this it’s probably because you’re a novice in the drone world and you’re looking for direction. Or perhaps you’re gifting someone with that new tech the world keeps raving about. You do a bit of scrolling around the internet searching different units and find yourself overwhelmed with all the options and opinions out there.
The reality is drones disrupted the market with impressive speed. Whereas a few years ago there were only one or two companies that held notable credibility within the market, now there are hundreds. This phenomenon floods the market with new products and while it’s fantastic for the industry’s growth, it makes the technology seem vaster for the newcomer.
But worry not! We’re here to give you a nice set of guidelines that’ll pave the way to your first ever drone. Listen to us, we’ve been doing this for a while.
What should I expect from a beginner drone?
You probably know what to expect from a drone, as you’ve seen a few products already. To summarize–they’re most commonly known for being quadcopters, carrying integrated cameras (which is what sets them aside from RC helicopters), and having some form of autonomous capability.
While we could explain to you the ins and outs of drone technology and reference multiple different models here, since you’re a beginner we’re going to keep it simple: all you need is a small machine that is easy to use and crash-resistant.
We don’t advocate spending lots of money on your first drone nor buying that professional unit that claims it’s smart enough ‘even newbie pilots can fly it.’ First off, you’re going to crash. Hopefully not a lot, but it’ll definitely happen. There’s a huge difference between crashing a drone that cost you $100 and one that cost you 1k. Secondly, the whole point in the beginning of any new skill is to learn as fluidly as possible.
If you purchase a drone that is hyper-intelligent, intuitive, and professional, chances are you’re going to be able to get away with pressing a few buttons and seamlessly putting the bird in air. Thing is, when it comes to manually navigating your drone (something every great pilot can do with their eyes closed… well not really, but you get it), you’ll be at a loss. That’s why it’s advised that you start with a smaller drone that relies solely on your direction to fly. As you begin your pilot experience, you’ll come to understand the physics and dynamic of the vehicle itself without any of that helpful intelligence. If you knew that your car could parallel park itself, isn’t there more value in knowing how to do it on your own regardless?
That’s why it’s recommended that you purchase a beginner unit which has a low-quality camera, a durable build, and very few autonomous components. We recommend that this drone comes ready-to-fly right out of the box and from a credible company. And we also recommend that it comes with prop guards (protective material around the propellers so they don’t break if you crash—which are usually the first thing to go).
So how much are we talking here?
Honestly, that’s up to you. The line between beginner and mid-grade drones is a subjective one. The opinions vary. Generally, when people think mid-grade drones they’re envisioning a drone that has autonomous components, can take footage in 1080p, and live-stream the first-person view. But others don’t.
If you’re planning for the future and you want to buy a drone that has the capacity to provide more as you improve your skills, then at the most I’d spend $250. If you’re buying a drone because you’re curious about these little robot birds and you want to see what the flight dynamic is like (and learn to fly), I’d recommend spending $100 at the most. The latter is the more popular recommendation.
What do I need to know?
All the elaborate tech explanations can come afterwards. Your little drone isn’t going to be complex, and it’s one of those things where you’ll figure it out as you go. As a basis, know that you should purchase a quadcopter (to familiarize with the build as it’s what’s most common). In an overly-simplified explanation, basically they’re composed of four rotors that each control a propeller. The rotors work independently of each other to produce thrust, pitch, yaw, and roll. Flight is stabilized with a flight-board that balances your drone. Every drone has a flight board.
Your transmitter (controller) will send a signal on either a 2.4ghz or 5.7ghz frequency, which will be intercepted by the receiver onboard the drone, which then delivers a signal to the actuators on the drone which will tell each rotor what to do independently. With these beginner drones, expect a flight time of around 7~ minutes and 45 minutes to charge each flight. Don’t expect to have a machine that can fare in windy or outdoor conditions, nor should you expect one that can live-stream the first-person-view. To that point, if it can live stream (or take photography in general), it’s probably going to be in very low quality and with latency.
As for the tech’s jargon, here are some key terms to be aware of.
FPV: First Person View
RTF: Ready to fly
Headless Mode: A mode that allows you to fly without orientation, meaning you don’t need to know which is the ‘front’ or ‘back’ of your drone. This greatly assists novice pilots, as it’s easy to lose orientation via line of slight.
Follow Me: also known as Active Track (coined by DJI), it’s a feature which allows the drone to track a subject autonomously.
Return Home: also known as one key return, this feature allows you to press a single button and the drone will return to a rendezvous point your set for it. It can also achieve this autonomously with some units, as the software will trigger the mode if the drone flies out of range or if the battery is EOL.
Hover: also known as ‘position lock’ and ‘altitude lock’ this feature allows your drone to autonomously hover in place once you let go of the controls. This is incredibly beneficial for both novice pilots and aerial photographers alike, as you can step away from your controls and not have to worry about your drone crashing.
Gimbal: this is the device that holds the camera on most drones, which greatly stabilizes the picture. For more professional drones they’re usually 3-axis systems, while in beginner drones they’re usually absent.
Multirotor: a vehicle with multiple rotors used in flight.
Quadctoper: a vehicle with four rotors used in flight.
Hexacopter: a vehicle with six rotors used in flight.
Payload: how much your vehicle can lift, including its own onboard battery and systems.
UAV: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, AKA Drones.
There are several drone models out there, but you’ll want to stick with a quadcopter for your beginner drone. Quadcopters are drones with a square, X or H-shaped frame to accommodate four motors and four accompanying propellers. Two propellers spin clockwise while the other two spin counterclockwise, allowing for quadcopters to hover in place without spinning out of control. Whenever you use the transmitter to execute a control (pitch, yaw, roll), an accelerometer or gyroscope is sending power to a particular set of motors and individually maintaining each propeller’s speed. Quadcopters are the best type of model for a beginner drone not only because of their reliability and stability during flight, but because the recent progress in drone technology has made them cheap, small, durable, and readily available for beginners to purchase and fly right out of the box.
Now that we’ve narrowed the search down to quadcopters, we’ll move onto how much you’ll want to spend. Cost is always going to be relative, but it’s best to keep your beginner drone cheap. As you start out in flying your UAV, crashing your investment is inevitably going to happen. The less cash you shell out for your first drone, the less stress you’re going to feel when you’re learning to fly and making a few mistakes along the way. Higher end drones easily cost $1000 or more, which is a lot of money to smash into the ground. There are cheap beginner quadcopters out there for under $150 that will still have enough features to get the hang of the controls and hone your piloting skills. Beginner drones in this price range are also going to be ready to fly (RTF) within minutes of taking them out of the box, so you’ll be saving time in addition to money by not needing to worry about assembly. Building your own UAV is an option, but sticking to an RTF model is going to be the most cost-effective and accessible way to go about purchasing your first beginner drone.
In addition to keeping the cost down, you’ll want to think small for your beginner drone’s size. Beginner drones also tend to be smaller and lightweight, measuring as small as a couple of inches across and weighing less than an ounce. Higher end drones weigh more with faster spinning propellers, meaning a crash is going to be all that more disastrous. Keeping your beginner drone small is safer overall, making crashes less likely to damage your drone or whatever you end up flying into. If you’re planning on learning indoors, a small and lightweight beginner drone is the way to go to minimize damage. A UAV can still cause injury no matter what the size, so make sure you’re still flying your beginner drone responsibly.
Since you will be taking more than one trip into the ground as you learn how to fly, durability is another hallmark feature of a good beginner drone. Being able to take a crash and continue functioning for the next lift-off is key in drone pilot training, so drone manufacturers tend to take durability into consideration when choosing what materials they use when making a beginner drone. Drones built using high-density foam are going to be particularly durable and easier on whatever they end running into, like your walls and furniture if you decide to train indoors. Bumpers around your beginner drone’s rotors can add some extra durability, since propellers are one of the easiest parts to break in a crash and absolutely necessary to get you off the ground again.
A camera is another consideration to take into account as you look into buying a beginner drone. If you’re mainly interested in buying a UAV for flying and stunts, you’re probably better off without a camera. A camera is going to add some cost along with weight, which will impact the drone’s performance in the air. The additional weight and power needed for the camera is also going to drain the battery more, limiting your flying time. However, if you are interested in aerial photography or videography or first-person view (FPV) drone racing, there are plenty of inexpensive beginner drones that do come with a camera. The camera on beginner drones isn’t going to have amazing quality, but the camera will still give you practice in using one while you fly. Most beginner drones with a camera will be for the purpose of snapping aerial shots, but just make sure the camera is mounted on the bottom. There are beginner drones with additional features geared toward aerial photography and videography, so keep an eye out for features like an adjustable camera or transmitter-controlled video. Beginner drones for FPV drone racing are going to be more limited, but there are a few options out there with an FPV camera mounted to the front to get an initial feel for the racing experience.
Overall, the less features on your beginner drone, the better for learning how to pilot and gain an appreciation for the machine itself. Higher end UAVs are typically going to be doing a lot of the piloting for you with features like GPS, auto takeoff and landing, return-home functions, and other advanced functions. These features can be a big help once you’re comfortable flying and have other drone purposes to focus on, but you should be able to master these basic skills if you’re really going to get into the world of drones. The features on beginner drones may look short, but the bells and whistles are only going to be a distraction as you learn the basics of UAVs.
Even though most beginner drones have a short list of features, there are some additional specs worth noting that can give you more bang for your buck when buying your first UAV. Battery life can be one of the most limiting factors when flying a beginner drone, so keeping an eye out for any package deal including an extra battery is going to double your flying time and give you more chances to practice. One of the most useful features being included in many beginner drones is the ability to switch between multiple modes of flight. These modes typically control control sensitivity and the drone’s maneuverability, allowing you to ease into and become more comfortable with greater difficulty levels in flying.
Beginner Drones Conclusion
There may be a lot to consider when delving into UAVs for the first time, but you can’t go wrong as long as you stick to the buying attributes of cheap, durable, and small commonly found in most RTF quadcopters when shopping around for a beginner drone.