ATTACK OF THE DRONES
The week of February 1, 2015

The beginner’s guide to buying a drone

By Mike Wehner

It’s a bit strange how quickly drones have become a techie status symbol, transforming instantly from a curious, hyper-expensive novelty to a tech toy that any self-respecting early adopter has an eye on. If you’re in the market for a drone, there are a number of angles you need to consider, from size to style—and, of course, the legality of owning an airborne gadget.

Don’t worry: We’re here to help.

What do you want from your drone?

There are countless drone designs out there, but they’ll always fall into one of two categories: the type that are capable of hovering on their own—a multirotor setup, often consisting of four separate vertical propellers—and the fixed-wing versions, which require forward motion to create lift and remain aloft.

Which type you prefer is entirely based on your own taste, but there are certain activities that each type can perform better than the other. For example, a multirotor is going to be your best bet for capturing sharp images and video of whatever you happen to be pointed at, thanks to the craft’s ability to hover in place. Multirotors are also best for indoor flight and areas where space is limited.

Fixed-wing drones will generally cover ground much faster than their multirotor counterparts, and if you’re scouting a large area, shooting footage on a trail or simply want to see what it’s like to zip around your backyard like a bird, these will be your drone dream come true.

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A fixed-wing drone

Size matters

Start small. It’s tempting to jump right into the deep end and pick up a new quadcopter that rivals your dining room table for size, but as an amateur, you’re simply not ready. Whichever type of drone you prefer, it’ll be easier and less expensive to invest in a smaller version to start with, especially if you’re prone to crashing, which you probably will be.

“Small multirotors have the advantage of having smaller mass, less weight, and more resilience,” Austin Furey of FliteTest.com—a popular site and video series dedicated to everyone who loves flight—told the Kernel. “Many micro quads can be crashed hard dozens of times with little to no damage.”

Instead, begin your drone journey with something like the Syma X5C, which is everything you want in a drone—scaled down in both size and price. It has a built-in HD camera, gyroscope stabilization, and a powerful RC controller. The best part is that it’ll only set you back $59, so if it ends up meeting an untimely end, you won’t feel like you threw your entire paycheck in a blender.

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The Syma X5C

Furey recommends going one step further in the name of simplicity and abandoning the idea of photography or video recording until you’re a more skilled pilot. “Even if your end goal is to put a GoPro on your quad and get awesome video, you will thank yourself later for starting small. Photography should be a secondary skill mastered later. For now, you need to master the basics.”

“You will thank yourself later for starting small. Photography should be a secondary skill mastered later.”

Once you’ve gotten the hang of controlling, shooting, and navigating the skies from your spot on the ground, you’ll be better equipped to handle something larger. Of course, there’s also the possibility that your budget-minded purchase satisfies your hunger for drone flight entirely, in which case you can spend all the money you saved by throwing a party for yourself. You deserve it.

Don’t fight the law

Drone popularity has taken flight (get it?) faster than the law has been able to keep up with it, which has led to a whole lot of confusion with amateur pilots. There are a ton of both official and unofficial guidelines for flying your own personal aerial vehicle, but here are the key points that will keep you on the right side of the law:

  • Don’t fly higher than 400 feet.
  • Don’t fly in any condition in which you wouldn’t drive a car, including under the influence of drugs or alcohol.
  • Don’t let your drone out of your line of sight.
  • Don’t fly over any person, regardless of whether they are OK with it; do your best to stay at least 25 feet away from anything, including people, that could be damaged if you lose control.

There’s also a handful of specific places you’re just not allowed to fly your airborne camera:

  • Airports, unless you have been granted permission.
  • Military bases, for obvious reasons.
  • Stadiums. If they can hold 30,000 people or more, keep your drone at least one mile away.
  • National parks, which is a pretty big bummer but makes perfect sense.

Individual laws can vary by state and local ordinances, so always speak with local law enforcement to ensure you’re within any location-specific guidelines as well. You can find an expanded list of tips on Know Before You Fly, which is a fantastic resource for new pilots and has the support of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

Above is a fantastic interactive tool for finding areas in the United States that are off-limits to drones. You can zoom in to your local area and spot any areas of potential concern, which includes the entirety of Washington, D.C. (Yes, you’re forbidden from flying a drone whatsoever if you’re based in the nation’s capital.)

Where to buy it

If you’re ready to take the plunge, and you’ve read all the advice, guidelines, and forum posts you can handle, you have quite a few options when it comes to drone retailers. No matter which of these retailers you commit to, be sure to read plenty of user reviews about each specific product before making the leap, as there are near limitless options out there.

Amazon: For your first drone purchase—and we’re assuming you’re taking the advice of starting very small—don’t hesitate to hit up the digital discount racks of Amazon. The Web retailer has set up its own Drone Store with videos, guides, and a large selection of drones for both beginners and advanced pilots.

Horizon Hobby: One of the Web’s premier destinations for drone shoppers, Horizon Hobby has one of the largest selections around. Each product page has a wealth of information about each drone, including videos, guides and downloadable manuals, and further information about each manufacturer in case you need even more specific assistance.

Multirotor Superstore: Once you’ve gotten a few hundred hours of drone flight under your belt, you might find yourself wanting to build one of your very own. It’s a complicated, expensive, and somewhat intimidating task to take on, but it can also be massively rewarding. “There is an incredible satisfaction that comes with building your own multirotor,” Furey said. “Also, it is not a matter of if you will crash but when you will crash. If you have the ability to not only build but repair your craft, you will have a lot more sustainable (and fun!) experience.”

Hobby King: Another great source for both drones, parts, and accessories, Hobby King has a massive inventory of ready-to-fly drones as well as “almost-ready-to-fly” models that need one or more additional components before they are sky-worthy. These are a great way to get into the drone-building scene without starting from scratch.

One last thing

This might sound silly, especially considering that this is the Kernel’s drone issue, and we’ve said the word “drone” so many times it’s coming out of our ears, but many in the hobbyist community actually hate the term. It’s been dirtied by links to war, surveillance, and a whole lot of other things that simply aren’t what the community stands for. “UAV,” which stands for unmanned aerial vehicle, “multirotor,” and “quadcopter” are generally preferred, so keep that in mind if you find yourself chatting it up with a fellow pilot.

Illustration by Max Fleishman