T
oday’s quadcopter drones have revolutionized both professional and amateur filmmaking and picture-taking. These smart, self-stabilizing and increasingly self-navigating devices allow us to create dramatic action videos, program GPS-guided routes for autonomous flight, or even just capture our houses from 400 feet in the air for social-media amusement.

Drone tech owes everything to the smartphone. The advanced accelerometers, GPS receivers, wi-fi transmitters and processors brought on by our collective lust for mobile tech has also allowed what should be the least-airworthy of flying machines ever built to stay aloft. Quadcopters — such as the DJI Mavic Pro, the 3D Robotics Solo and the Yuneec Typhoon, all four-bladed devices that rely on computerized stabilization and flight control rather than the self-stabilizing aerodynamics you get with wings, elevators and rudders — can be safely operated by complete noobs. Flying skill is secondary, and these machines do 90 percent of the work.

But even with all that technology, the aircraft can be challenging and tricky — and even dangerous. It takes practice to be able to fly how and where you like and capture compelling images and video, and it takes the right combination of flight electronics and camera capabilities. This guide, which will be updated regularly, highlights the current top dogs in drone technology, but it will also clue you in about how to use them and how to make the most of your pricey purchase.

Drone Basics

Before you get motoring, study this.

1
Know your limits. It’s important to remember that drone disaster can strike at any moment. An ill-tightened prop can fly off, causing your precious device and camera to crash to earth from 300 feet. You can become disoriented about where it’s pointing mid-flight, accidentally sending it into the trees — or worse, the water. Or you could simply lose track of it and never see it again. All of this can be prevented with basic knowledge, the right gear choice, and a degree of patience. Don’t fly too fast, too far and too high until you know what you’re doing, and choose an aircraft with the right safety features, including automatic return-home and a “pause” button that will stabilize the drone while you regain your bearings.

2
Consider the camera and gimbal. Drone manufacturers typically offer two camera strategies: a proprietary camera system, which has the advantage of syncing up more seamlessly with the manufacturer’s own transmitter-based display; or a user-provided option, most often a GoPro action camera. The cameras provided by the likes of Yuneec and DJI are excellent systems, with 4K capabilities and high-megapixel still images. The GoPro option, however, affords more flexibility. You can use the camera separately from the quadcopter and upgrade it more readily, and you can be assured that the optics and sensor are state of the art, as none of the drone-manufacturer-provided cameras can match the image quality of a GoPro. (Note that GoPro is itself producing a drone this year, but details have yet to be released.)

Hobby-grade drones — as opposed to micro-drones or inexpensive toys — also usually include robust gimbals. These are the electronic stabilizing mounts that hold the cameras beneath the drone’s fuselage. They significantly enhance image quality over fixed mounts, since they remain horizontal and stationary even if the drone is buffeted by the wind or flown semi-erratically by inexperienced users. The gimbal is what produces buttery-smooth videos and tack-sharp still images.

 

A 3-axis gimbal makes for steady shots regardless of how the drone is moving.

A 3-axis gimbal makes for steady shots regardless of how the drone is moving. (Photo: DJI)

3
Know the flight characteristics and features. Drones don’t fly like remote-controlled airplanes or helicopters, which use forward momentum and aerodynamics to help generate lift, along with adjustable rotors or control surfaces to control direction. Instead, quadcopters derive all of their flight characteristics — speed, direction, altitude — by modulating the power delivery to four fixed-angle rotors. Usually there are four rotors, but six- and eight-blade multi-rotor vehicles (typically used by professional cinematographers or industrial entities) can carry heavier payloads and fly longer. The device’s computers adjust speed to the rotors, causing them to pivot on an axis, climb or descend, or bank through the air.

They’re fast enough to keep up with shredding snowboarders and nimble enough to generate flight footage across all landscapes.

When quadcopters first came out, their computers focused mostly on just staying successfully airborne, maintaining stability and permitting control. Today, however, the new generation of advanced drones offer GPS-guided waypoint programming, follow-me capability, and other programmable operations that make them truly advanced camera platforms. These drones can follow precision lines as though they’re mounted on rails, and they come equipped with enhanced safety features, so they can return to their GPS-flagged launch point with the push of a button, hold steady in a variety of wind conditions, avoid FAA no-fly zones and monitor their battery levels to ensure they have the ability to return without dropping out of the sky (and into a river). The transmitters — whether equipped with their own monitors or attachments for smartphones — often provide supplemental, wi-fi-based real-time telemetry data, including speed, altitude, distance from the controller, and, most compellingly, first-person-view video feeds, letting you see what the drone sees and fly it from the monitor. (The data feed usually runs separately from the aircraft control system, so even if your wi-fi signal is interrupted, you’ll still retain control thanks to the longer-range, radio-frequency-based connections.)

They’re also fast enough to keep up with shredding snowboarders and nimble enough to generate flight footage across all landscapes. In fact, with all the flight aides available in the current models, you can now focus on the mission, not the flying itself. The flight patterns and camera operation can be fine-tuned to whatever image and video capabilities you want, including time-lapse and low-light shooting. They’re hugely fun, reasonably affordable, and exceptionally capable cinematic and photographic powerhouses.

 

Dro

A GP drone meeting a New Zealand bush. (Video: Sung Han)

4
Remember drone responsibility. A word of warning: as the operator, it’s on you to fly your drone safely. This means first recognizing that they are, in fact, dangerous devices. Even though quadcopters typically measure less than one cubic foot and weigh just a few pounds, their four electric motors are powerful, and their plastic blades spin fast. They can cause serious injury — and already have. The problems come not merely from them falling out of the sky (which is actually a pretty rare occurrence), but from the operator inadvertently steering them into someone or something they shouldn’t.

This happens because flying drones, even with all the electronic aids included, is still very challenging. The vehicles are usually square, so it’s easy to become disoriented about which direction they’re pointing. Throw in the fact that their apparent motion in reaction to control inputs changes as the drone rotates around its axis, and you have a fast-moving, four-bladed weed-eater flying through the air. In short, it’s easy to lose control, and very difficult to get it back. So your job is to learn how to fly before setting out on your next GoPro project.

Be conservative when estimating your own capabilities, don’t let it go too far away, stay away from airports and stay away from people.

Also, you’re now required by federal law to register any drone weighing more than .55 pounds with the Federal Aviation Administration (at faa.gov/uas). Drones that are very lightweight — mostly the palm-sized devices, with low power and short range, as well as kids’ toys — are excluded, but most of the common hobby-grade drones are not. It’s fast and easy to register, it costs $5 and the registration covers any drone that you operate, so you don’t have to register each individual drone.

There are several reasons for initiating this requirement: the registry forces users to acknowledge the risk of flying drones in public airspace, and it initiates a paper trail should mishaps occur. If you have your registration number on the drone and it strays away from you, the device can be traced to you — even if it’s just to return it. More importantly, though, it gives the government some teeth when regulating drone activity: if you don’t have it registered and do something bad with it, then steep fines and penalties can be levied once you are tagged as the operator.

Ultimately, you want to use common sense. Be conservative when estimating your own capabilities, don’t let it go too far away, stay away from airports and stay away from people. Eventually, someone will get into serious trouble with a drone. Don’t be that person.

Note: Several sites have cropped up offering a drone registration “service” for a fee. The site federaldroneregistration.com, for instance, charges $25. There’s no real benefit to this. They imply that they ease the process and provide easily printable registration-number labels for your drone, but the FAA site is incredibly easy, and you can easily print off the number yourself and tape it to your quadcopter, or just write the number on it with a Sharpie. Avoid all of these services and go straight to the FAA.

5
Go get started. Given that decently capable drones can start at $400 and shoot well past $1,000, you should probably learn how to fly before you launch your into the air. The best way to do this is to buy an inexpensive, palm-sized quadcopter and fly it around your yard or living room. The Hubsan Q4 H111 ($22) or the Heli-Max 1SQ ($86), are affordable options. Practice with one of those until you get the hang of it.

Always start off slow and easy. Choose a space with plenty of room and focus on mastering the basics — up and down, back and forth, and side to side. Remember that the controls reverse themselves as the drone’s orientation changes. That is, when it’s facing you, inputting left movements makes it go right. Grasping that intuitively will take time. Until then, keep it facing away from you as much as possible to limit the chance you’ll become confused. Keep the drone in sight, and don’t let it get too high. If you lose sight of it, even for a few seconds, you risk it drifting off, potentially over roads or people. Exercise caution, even when you think you know what you’re doing.

Finally, keep it away from people when the blades are turning — especially kids, party guests, and your own hands, fingers, and other body parts. If they intersect with the rotors, serious injury can result.

Additional contribution by Jeremy Fischer

The Drone Zone

These little monsters can fly.

DJI Spark

 

An Incredibly Capable, Entry-Level Drone

The Spark was announced in May 2017 and is the smallest and most affordable drone DJI builds. It weighs less than a pound but can fly up to 31 mph, and can be flown with your phone or via simple hand gestures at close distances (up to 10 feet away). With 16 minutes of flight time on a single charge, swappable batteries, and 1080p video recording, the Spark packs unbeatable value for the price. The beauty of the Spark is that you can launch it from the palm of your hand, capture some shots you’re happy with, and have it fly back to you all very easily. This is the drone to buy for someone just starting out.

DJI Mavic Pro

 

Pro Grade Footage That Fits in a Backpack

A 2016 GP100 selection, the DJI Mavic Pro delivers incredible quality in a surprisingly small form factor. The Mavic Pro shoots 4K video at 30 fps and 1080p video at 96 fps, producing stunning aerial footage thanks to it stable 3-axis gimbal. It can fly for 27 minutes before on a single charge. The Mavic Pro can fold up to fit in a backpack, purse, or jacket pocket — which solves the problem of having to carry around big drones in order to achieve high-quality footage. If you’re seriously into drones and want pro-level shots, this is the most affordable, accessible entry point.

GoPro Karma

 

Your Best Option if You Own a Go Pro

The GoPro Karma was disruptive among the drone industry when it was first announced in the fall of 2016. With its packable size and easy controls, the Karma was the first portable drone to provide good-looking footage. A few months went by, and suddenly users were reporting that their drones were falling out of the sky, forcing GoPro to immediately recalled the drones.

The Karma was re-released months later and since, has become a solid option for anyone who already owns a GoPro: yes, it can be used with the GoPro (HERO5 Black, HERO4 Black or HERO4 Silver) you already own. The Karma smooths footage with GoPro’s handheld stabilizer (the Karma Grip), which can be removed from the drone and used independently (a nice selling point). The quadcopter fits into its own backpack-style case and can be unpacked and launched in a matter of minutes. If you can forget about the brand’s rocky start into the aerial industry, the Karma drone makes sense if you already own the GoPro camera it uses.

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