Camera Drones

Imagine just a decade ago trying to capture aerial footage of your own? Sure, it would be possible. One could make the argument that anything is possible with the right amount of will power (not sure how strong this argument is). You could take a camera up in a real helicopter? Maybe build an RC helicopter strong enough to sustain the payload of a camera, turn it on before takeoff, then pray for two things: one: that it captures something cool or that whatever you’re trying to shoot isn’t completely out of frame the whole time, and two: that you don’t crash the thing and break that expensive camera. Maybe if you were one-with-nature enough, you could tame a hawk and strap a camera to its foot? Even then, not feasible because cameras didn’t come in the size they do now back then (at least not ones that could shoot in such high-quality). Shooting your own aerial photography a decade ago wasn’t really a possibility for the public. It was either expensive, or impractical.

Taking that into consideration, it’s pretty incredible that nowadays you can pick up a $300 dollar (or less) drone that can shoot high-quality images, fly with autonomous components, and be ready to fully function and start filming right out of the box. You want footage of you and your friends because you guys are radical and love to go on adventures, that’s easily done. You’re an experienced photographer/cinematographer and you want industry standard aerial footage (real estate, high-intensity sports, film, and so on and so on), there are professional drones out there that can do the trick and more. That’s what’s amazing about drones: they can service anyone. Whether you just want something to fly around for fun like the common hobbyist, or you want to treat drones like a sport and race them (drone racing will be recognized as a sport by ESPN next month), use them commercially for aerial photography, use them recreationally for photography, or use them for literally whatever, there is always going to be an element that appeals to you.

The drones we’re talking about here, as you probably know, are small unmanned aerial vehicles. Usually under 55lbs. Often the difference between ‘drones’ and remote controlled aircraft is thought to be the autonomous components in a drone – but at this point, it’s safe to say it’s probably the camera. In fact, the camera is what has made drones such a hot commodity: it’s taken it from a toy into a professional asset, from a hobby aircraft to anyone-who-likes-to-take-pictures gadget. If you think about that last statement, that’s pretty much everyone from the 21st century (thanks to smart phones). The camera and its functionality have revolutionized the drone.

Using the camera drone as a title for drones with cameras on-board (or with the capacity to sustain the payload of external ones) is almost redundant, being that when you hear about a drone I’d say 99% of the time it’s going to have some sort of a camera. Perhaps the micro drones that can only fly indoors and are about the size of a small hand will be only flyers with nothing on them, but even those now generally have a camera (albeit low quality). But for the sake of simplicity (and because technically there are drones without cameras installed), we’ll call them camera drones, because that’s what they are… after a fashion.

How do camera drones work?

Camera drones come in either one of two builds (usually): a multirotor or a fixed wing. Pretty easy to differentiate the two; think of a multirotor as a helicopter with hovering capabilities, and a fixed wing as a plane. Each has their pros and cons. But, with that being said, the multirotor build is what’s most common in camera drones. More so, within the multirotor structure, it’s the quadcopter (four propellers) that is the go-to build. Reason being is that it’s convenient. They’re the easiest to build, fairly easy to maintain, and most importantly, they can hover and keep position well: stability is key for camera efficiency.

Many camera drones now come with applications that are specific to the drone itself. This means many of them can be flown via phone or tablet, so long as the correct application has been installed. Many experienced pilots prefer remote controls, however. Here’s another reason why they’ve become popular: they’re not that hard to fly. Granted, the difficulty is measured in comparison to flying hobby helicopters or planes, which used to be ludicrously difficult for the inexperienced enthusiast. Now, many of these applications have simulation models which apply all the same physics and help you practice before doing it in real time. All the while, the autonomous components that set aside drones from RC aircraft take the convenience-when-learning-to-fly award.

Upper-end, professional camera drones come with a stomach full of autonomous components. Many of which directly pertain to flight stabilization; many camera drones can be put in ‘beginner’ mode in which the drone stabilizes itself and makes it easier to maneuver. The drones now have smarted-sensors which automatically avoid collisions. They have GPS units and onboard computers that can guide them back to a rendezvous point you program into them if they’re low on battery or get lost. They can track and follow you without you having to pilot them. Due to this, camera drones are not excessively difficult to learn to pilot (although practice makes perfect very much applies here).

To wrap it up, it’s basically like this: think of the camera drone as a little flying computer. On-board are actuators (which control all moving parts of the aircraft) that are directly linked to the mainboard. The transmitters (remote control or tablet) send a signal which is received by the onboard receiver. The computer processes the signal and then responds, directing the aircraft as the pilot has commanded via remote. Many drones create their own WiFi hotspots. Once linked to the drone, the drone can then send signals back to show its current vitals (battery life, flight status, etc.) The cameras are usually directed by the gimbal which is also controlled via the transmitter, and the camera feed is transmitted by the connection, so the further the range the more distorted the picture can become.

Why has the camera drone disrupted the market with such rapidity?

Well, a broad and vague answer to this question is the evolution of technology. There wasn’t a big gap between oh wow, here’s a downscaled drone that has a camera on it too – oh wow, here’s a downscaled drone that can shoot in cinematic 4k and live stream the first-person-view directly to the tablet. The FPV is a huge one here too, because it added a completely new element to the drone hobby.

Recreationally, the first person view offers full immersion. You can wear a headset and literally see nothing save for the camera of your drone (these headsets can have sensory features where it’s possible to direct camera movement by the position of your head: you turn your head to the left, the camera turns left). That’s why drone racing is a thing. Because now, to these pilots, it’s like they’re in the cockpit flying those speed racers around in competition. But not just drone racing, the entire experience of flying a remote controlled aircraft has evolved. Now pilots can fly around and see through the eyes of their drone, which is to say they can see things they otherwise couldn’t. Uncharted terrain. The top of forest canopies. Anything you want that’s of high altitudes or far away.

Commercially, it’s created its own market. Now that pilots can see through the FPV, they can use drones for professional photography. If you think about it, it’s like being there, right behind the camera. They know exactly what their shot is going to look like and can set it up however they’d like by piloting the drone. It’s given cinematographers a new outlet for aerial photography and done the same thing for photographers. Aside from recreational, the commercial uses spawned by the first-person-view of the camera drone are many, and continue to expand every day.

Camera drones are now used for security. Since they can fly autonomously, they can patrol areas that are perhaps unsafe for human security. Just as well, they can explore. Scientists are beginning to use their own personal drones for research and exploration. Police officials are now trying to decide how drones can be applied to the police force. Search and rescue teams have begun to use drones to assist them in rescue missions. Think about these industries – not only are drones the most inexpensive option for these jobs, but they’re also the safest. They reduce manpower and keep manned workers out of danger. Not to mention, they’re efficient. Think of the places a drone can go when looking for someone, or observing a wide and difficult piece of terrain, or when darting around a complex looking for thieves or trespassers. They have allowed for a much larger range of vision.

Aside from that, drones are now being used by agricultural companies to map out wide acreages of land. Amazon is currently developing a drone with the goal of implementing it as a carrier for same day deliveries. South African companies are developing a drone with thermal imaging that can run autonomously and identify illegal poachers at night. Restaurant chains and other food-delivery-services are beginning to test out drone-delivery models (chipotle did this at a college and it worked!). News journalists have begun using them to infiltrate and film real-time events. Since drones can create hotspots, there’s talk that we’re going to see a lot more of them around to expand networks.

In both the commercial and recreational spaces, the camera drone is nearly limitless. Its uses have only begun to expand and its potential has most certainly yet to be reached. In every one of these industries the drone has found a place in, it’s the camera that services and allows for commercialization (even with the carrier drones – payload or not, they need to be able to see where they’re going if deliveries are going to be done safely).

Any of this interest you?

If you’d like to buy a camera drone, we’re going to list and detail a few of the top-dogs in the market. But before that, a quick tip from those who are experienced pilots, don’t start with the big guys. As with anything, you don’t want to buy a brand new Mercedes as your first car (well, maybe you do, but practically its more viable to learn with something that won’t break your heart so much if you crash – plus most camera drones don’t have that little thing called insurance). Drone sizes are sort of, all over the place as of now. Some call them one thing, some call them others. Generally you’ll see three sizes. The micro drone which is the size of a hand, the mini drone which is a bit bigger, and the full-sized drone which is just camera drones.

As for starting off, it’s recommended that newbie pilots begin with a mini drone that has a FPV camera. Usually a quadcopter. Reason for this is that the mini quadcopter will be able to fly outdoors, simulate the same flight dynamic as a larger drone, and will have the FPV camera. This way, you take that precious new camera drone out of the air and accidently dive-bomb into solid ground – it hurts, but it’s not like you just lost a DJI Inspire 1 Pro (that’s about $6000 down the toilet).

With that being said, there’s also something to be noted about the autonomous functionality of the upper-end drones. It’s no lie that those drones, at their size, will have higher quality components and, quite simply, more of them. Due to that, there are also those experienced pilots that leaned on the bigger, upper-end camera drones because of the beginner modes they have. Many of the autonomous components of the higher scale drones will almost (if not completely) fly the drone for you. These features make collisions with other objects or crashing from poor directive decisions nearly impossible.

At the end of the day, it all depends on how you want to look at it. Do you want to buy a cheaper drone and get the feel for the gadget then move up once you’re comfortable? Or do you want to start with a more expensive camera drone because you trust that the tech guys aren’t going to let you down?

Either way, the choice is yours.

We’ll start here with one of the most expensive drones in the game (relative to anything not explicitly used for a distinct feature like a 30k drone for cinematography). The DJI Inspire 1 is usually the go-to out there for camera drones (some would say the Phantom 4, but that’s a separate argument). It’s under $5,000 and has a wide list of features, cutting-edge technology, and a dual-control system that allows you to control the drone with one and the camera with the other. The camera shoots in cinematic 4k or 1080p depending on what you want to do with it.

It’s got all the features you want (return home, follow me, so forth), its arms are made of carbon fiber, it can hit speeds of about 50mph and can stay in the air (and record) for over twenty minutes. Although not speaking towards the Phantom 4 Pro, but what sets the DJI Inspire 1 aside from the Phantom series is it’s definitely the more ‘professional’ drone. Plus, it looks like something out of a science fiction thriller. Trust us on this one.

Another great DJI drone is the Phantom 4 itself. It has 1080-720P HD camera (which can also shoot in 4k!). It Livestreams, of course. There’s multiple flight modes: you can have your regular flight mode then you can put it in ‘sport’ which allows for more control and higher speeds. It comes with an LCD screen remote – which is where you can view the feed of the livestreaming camera. There’s obstacle sensors that recognize objects in the Phantom 4’s flight path and avoids them. It has its own GPS unit on top of other autonomous components. It has visual tracking and can track along an object or person without needing the ‘tracked’ to wear a GPS device;  rather all the pilot has to do is target x object/person on the screen and the drone will track along. It looks sleek and it can fly for about thirty minutes.

Also, one thing to add about these DJI camera drones, is you can buy bundles that are well worth the extra cost and come with a bunch of additional goodies (extra batteries, chargers, camera lenses, extra propellers, etc.). Most who swear by DJI also swear by these bundle deals. And, not to mention, the Phantom 4 is ready to fly right out of the box.

The Yuneec Typhoon H is a great one too. Although it comes from a company that isn’t recognized as a leader in consumer drones, their products are not to be overlooked. The Typhoon H is a hexacopter (6-rotor) with retractable landing gear and a 360 degree gimbal similar to the Inspire. It handles well, has a huge power-capacity, and is fail-safe up to four rotors. It has a flight time a bit under the Inspire (about 19~ minutes).

Something to be noted here: to give the Typhoon H obstacle avoidance, you’ll have to buy a separate sensor system and implement it yourself. Which unfortunately does raise the price to a bit over the Phantom 4. However, when delving into the actual design of the drone, you’ll notice it ‘steals’ features from both the Inspire and the Phantom 4. All around, it’s a steady machine, great for aerial photography (also, since the landing gear retracts, when using the 360 gimbal you’ll never have to worry about those little legs screwing up the shot!), has great battery life and can fly just under 45MPH, which is a bit less than the DJI Phantom 4.

Now, to downgrade a bit here if these $1000+ drones are a bit out of your price range, if you’re simply scared of investing that sort of money, and crashing your drone as an inexperienced pilot, we introduce the Parrot BeBop. This drone is about a fourth of what the others cost and a lot smaller too. Because of the huge price drop and downsize, it doesn’t come with 4k image capabilities. However, it still has a full HD 1080P camera that can record at 30FPS and take 14 megapixel stills.

It uses a smart phone or tablet as a controller and is one of the most user-friendly platforms out there. From taking off and landing, to recording and controlling your camera, everything you’ll need to fly the drone is simplified via the command program. It flies for about ten minutes and has a 100 meter reception range.  This drone won’t fair in comparison to those mentioned before, as has been stated, but at a price under $500 and with recording capabilities of 1080P at 30FPS – it’s a great bargain.

If you’re looking for something that sits in the same grade as the Phantom machines, but is a bit more affordable, the DJI Mavic Pro is a drone that’s quickly becoming a favorite within the drone community. Talk about a small drone that packs a punch, this DJI engineered-masterpiece can fold into the size of a water bottle. It shoots in cinematic 4k like the Phantom 4 Pro, contains 360 obstacle collision avoidance, and it can fly at speeds up to 40mph. It looks like something out of a science-fiction movie, and when taking into consideration its features for being as affordable and tiny as it is, seems like it’s from the future, too.

They didn’t leave out any of the Phantom intelligent autonomous components, and rather improved upon them in the Mavic Pro. It comes with all the standard autonomous features of the Phantom series (return home, active track, tap fly, etc) and even has a ‘tripod’ mode that guides the Mavic when flying indoors. It’s only $1000 – and for that price does everything that the Phantom 4 Pro accomplishes, just in a smaller size. Of course, when comparing the two drones there are differences in agility, power, and field of vision (particularly with the cameras – the Mavic doesn’t have the same range as the Phantom 4 Pro), but both machines are fantastically engineered and come highly recommended. Think of the Phantom 4 Pro as the Mac book Pro, and the Mavic Pro as the Macbook Air. They’re both incredible machines, can accomplish the same things, but one has a bit more capacity.

But let’s say that you don’t really want to spend the money on a highly engineered drone like the models manufactured by DJI – and rather you want to spend a fraction of the price and start simply. If that’s the case, it’s recommended that you start with a drone tailored more towards beginners, and perhaps even beneath the mid-grade range. A perfect drone under $200 that serves as an all-inclusive introduction into the drone dynamic is the UDI U818A FPV. Make sure when researching this drone that you purchase the one which offers FPV, as the experience will be vastly different without it.

This drone was built by UDI (they make decent products in this grade). It’s built with a 6-axis gyroscopic flight system, which optimizes flight and helps with aerial agility. The HD camera can take 2MP stills and record in 720p – which isn’t very impressive, but is what’s to be expected from a drone of this caliber. Remember, the selling point of this drone is that it simulates the flight experience of higher end drones like the Phantoms. It contains autonomous features like headless mode (flying without orientation – great for beginner pilots) and return home. It can livestream FPV directly to the LCD screen on the transmitter. It flies for up to 9 minutes at a time, and it’s equipped with colorful LED lights to make it night-flight capable.

By no means is this a product that’s going to grant you quality aerial photography. Rather, it will introduce you to the drone dynamic and help you learn to pilot – from there you can choose whether or not you want to graduate to a professional drone. Despite, it’s going to be a lot of fun, as these little drones rip through the sky. Go and read some reviews about them, they’re one of the best ‘bangs for your buck’ at that grade.

Now to mention a drone that’s even above the Phantom class – one that is meant specifically for industrial and professional aerial footage (shoots in RAW 4k which is a game changer), the DJI Inspire 1 Pro is out of this world. One, although the aesthetic doesn’t matter when taking into consideration the features of the drone, it’s about the sleekest, most intimidating drone on the market. It has a white, porcelain carbon fiber frame, and a black interior. It supports the Zenmuse X5 (comes with it built-in) which is a leader in drone cameras.

It’s said that the drone can fly in nearly any condition, being strong enough to handle heavy winds and sub-zero temperatures. The landing gear is retractable, so you have a 360 degree range on the camera, and it livestreams FPV in high-definition via Lightbridge 2 technology (it can transmit perfectly over a mile away). This heavy duty drone comes in over six pounds, and flies for about eighteen minutes. It has an onboard GPS unit and it’s stacked with autonomous features to the point that it can nearly fly itself. Obviously, being that this machine is meant specifically for professionals, it’s about triple the price of the Phantom 4 Pro (especially when loaded with everything). However, it’s truly the mark of the future for aerial photography, and a great drone to be considered if you want to film in RAW 4k and produce the most professional content available amongst consumer drones.

Although at one point the Phantom 3 was considered to be one of the top professional DJI drones, nowadays among the new releases of the Phantom series, it has become sort of a mid-grade machine. This is great, because it drives the price downward and is often overshadowed by its predecessors, despite its amazing capabilities. At around $800, the DJI Phantom 3 Profesional can record footage in 4k like most of the other pricier machines. It’s not as easy to fly as the Phantom 4 or Phantom 4 Pro, but that’s not saying that it comes in short with autonomous components. It still has what you’d expect from a Phantom machine, save for a few of the upgraded features seen in the later models.

It can fly for up to twenty minutes and has multiple modes of flight. The drawbacks that are most apparent is that it has a lower range of control, and doesn’t transmit FPV in the same resolution as the newer models . Still, if you’re looking for a drone that’s going to give you 4k aerial footage, and that can sustain flight, is intelligent enough to allow for easy learning, and has a 3-axis gimbal reviewed to stabilize footage – yet you don’t want to spend over $1000, the Phantom 3 4k is something worth considering. This phenomenon occurs a lot with drone technology, being that it’s evolving so rapidly. A very-capable model will be released, then right at its release date the company will announce the newer upgraded model that’s soon going to make it into the market. As soon as the successor is released, the model before drops in price. Yet, often the differences between the newer model and its counterpart are slight, creating more price-correlated-value of the original model. Just some food for thought.

To mix it up a bit more, one of the most esteemed beginner/mid-grade drones is the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Elite. They say it’s the best drone in its price range ($200-$300) and that it outperforms even its own qualifications. Equipped with a high-definition camera, it also livestreams the first-person-view at 720p. It’s controlled by a smartphone or tablet with the respective application installed. Perhaps one of the best features is the AR 2.0 Elite can be programmed to fly in a certain route, which it will accomplish autonomously and allow for the pilot to have more control of the camera.

It flies for about ten minutes (give or take) and has a control distance of around 130 meters. Similar to the aforementioned UDI U818A FPV, this drone is a fantastic piece of equipment to give a taste of what a professional drone is like. It has all the right features like livestreaming FPV and autonomous components, has a strong core design, and doesn’t need a designated controller to pilot. Parrot manufactures high-quality, durable drones in this grade and the AR Drone is the step below their Bebop, but still offers a lot for what it’s priced at.

This drone should be regarded as an introduction/beginner drone, but also respected as a fine choice for intermediate pilots who want to improve their game.

Although the newer drones mostly have their own built-in cameras (this wasn’t always a thing as beforehand drones were often built to support cameras, rather than implement them) if you’re a GoPro advocated, the 3DR Solo is the first drone in the world to be completely compatible with the new GoPro Hero line. The Solo, manufactured by 3DR Robotics, has a camera system tailored specifically towards GoPros, which allows for the GoPro to livestream the first-person-view at distances up to a half mile. It comes stacked with autonomous features like Selfie Mode, Orbit, Tracking, and autopilot. It has a flight time of around 20-27 minutes, depending on the way it’s being used, and it comes with an integrated 3-axis gimbal meant to support the GoPro Hero 3, 3+, and 4. It has a control range of a little over 700 meters, depending on the conditions.

If you already have a GoPro Hero at home, this drone could be a fantastic choice because at only $300, it accomplishes everything an upper-end mid-grade drone does. All it needs is a GoPro. Despite, as a drone itself it’s well engineered, durable, and resilient. Even without a GoPro the 3DR solo is a fantastic drone to learn to pilot on, and comes with enough autonomous features to make the learning process easy. If you’re a GoPro enthusiast, check it out.

Mostly, the company Walkera manufacturers well-engineered lower end drones. However, as of late they’ve started to release drones that compete in the professional market. One of them is the Scout X4, which clocks in just under $1000. This dynamic machine can go from 4 to 8 motors if it wants, transforming from a quadcopter to an octocopter. It has a decent payload, and is fit with an iLook camera that shoots in 720p at 30fps. Note here, this drone is also compatible with the GoPro Hero 3 & 4. A neat perk of the Scout X4 is that it has an autopilot waypoint mode that works via google maps. It can also auto-takeoff and auto-return too.

The implanted G-3D gimbal has been reviewed to support the cameras well, and provide for clear, focused footage. It flies for about twenty five minutes and has a control range of over 1000 meters. Again, this is another machine that could be fantastic when paired with a GoPro, and shouldn’t be overlooked because of the brand.

To continue on the Walkera train here, the Walkera Voyager 3 is the competitor of DJI’s inspire 1. It’s wildly more affordable and comes with its own high-definition, 4680×3456 MP 1080p, 60fps camera. It’s loaded with autonomous features like a dual navigation system, one key (takeoff, landing, and return home), and it has its own version of active track. It flies for around twenty minutes and comes with its own DEVO F12E 12 channel remote (includes a built-in 5” monitor FPV livestream).

Although this master of Walkera engineering can’t shoot in RAW 4k like the Inspire 1 Pro, it’s about a fifth of the price and still contains a wide range of capabilities. It has retractable landing gear which allows for 360 degree unobstructed footage, and is actually ready-to-fly right out of the box. Which is big for a drone of this caliber. It’s certainly not an Inspire 1 Pro, but for the price it offers value. If you’re considering one of the lower end Phantom machines, take a look at this drone first.

As you can see from the aforementioned drones, there’s such a wide range of classes/capabilities that there’s a lot to consider when choosing one to buy. It’s important as a consumer to do the proper amount of research, read reviews, and keep up on community dialogue to ensure that you know exactly what you’re purchasing, and what the future of your purchase means (if you’re about to purchase a drone that’s set to upgraded in the next month, it might be worth it to wait for either the new drone, or for the one you’re keen towards to have a price drop).

Whether you’re just a curious onlooker, or someone serious about the hobby, it’s a fact that camera drones are here to stay. The FAA (Federal Aviation Association) just released Part 107 which basically details a set of rules and guidelines for drones here in the United States. They’re pretty lax and not too rigorous. Now, it’s required that all camera drone owners register their drones; which makes a ton of sense, and it’s completely reasonable — $5 dollars for ALL drones owned by a single owner.

So long as the drone community respects the rules laid before them, there’s no reason drones are going to be inhibited or banned anytime soon. The camera drone has single handedly disrupted the market – from those who love the hobby for those who use the flyers for work, there’s now a place for them. That place, as we are so clearly seeing, is only going to continue to grow.