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.

drone-over-people-minTaking 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?

phantom-4-cameraWell, 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 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, 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.

phantom-4-featuredIt 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 ‘spot’ which gives you more control and higher speeds. It comes with an LCD screen remote – which is where you can view the feed of the lives dreaming 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, they’re all 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 drones, their products are quite impressive. The Typhoon H is a hexacopter (6-router) with retractable landing gear and a 360 degree gimbal similar to the inspire. It handles very well and with six rotors will stay in the air even if two rotors fail. It has a flight time a bit under the Inspire (about 19~ minutes).

The interesting thing about this drone, is that you will have to upgrade it and throw in a bit more cash to make it fully smart-sensor carrying (speaking towards obstacle avoidance here). 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 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 money, and breaking 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 will be right there on the 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.

So 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.