Originally developed for military applications, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming an increasingly popular pastime. Most drones on the market are quadcopters, with four rotor blades, though hexacopter and octocopter configurations exist. Drones are great for photography and recreational flying, and racing circuits are popping up across the world. More than anything, flying them is a lot of fun!
Types of drones
Consumer drones can be broadly broken down into four categories. The type for you depends on what you want to use it for and how much you are willing to spend.
Toy. If you're unsure about the hobby and want to dip your toes in without a hefty commitment, consider a toy drone. The basic principle is the same as serious models, they're just smaller, lighter and significantly cheaper. The downside is toy drones aren't the easiest to fly because they lack advanced features like auto-takeoff, auto-landing and various stabilisation measures. Being lighter means they get buffeted around in the wind more, too. Battery life is generally in the 5-10 minute range.
Recreational. At this level, you'll find a serious drone, but one that's balanced towards ease of use. They require very little assembly and are generally ready to fly (RTF) out of the box. You'll be able to take good photos and fly for significantly longer than toy drones. This is the best option for casual hobbyists.
Advanced. At the advanced end, components and features (and pricing) are geared towards professionals. They require more practice, or even coaching, to fly properly. They're faster, equipped with better cameras – some are capable of recording 4K video – and have professional-grade gimbals to help images stay focussed during less than ideal conditions. If you're using a drone for real estate photography, TV, cinema or mapping and surveying, you'll want something in this tier.
Racing. Racing drones are lighter, faster, more manoeuvrable and, at the top end, are custom built and require a lot of assembly. The cameras are used exclusively for first-person-view flying and, as such, don't take quality photos or video.
Drones and the law
There are strict laws governing drone use in Australia, so ensure you'll be allowed to fly it where you intend to before purchasing one. The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has a list of the restrictions that you should read in detail, but we'll summarise the basics.
For drones lighter than 2kgs (which covers most consumer drones), you must not fly in the following areas:
Above 121 metres (400 feet).
Within a 5.5km radius of controlled airspace around an airport or otherwise restricted area.
Within 30 metres of other people (except those involved with flying the drone).
Over or above a group of people at any height (even though the footage would be cool, this means flying directly over an event like a festival or concert is forbidden).
Near emergency situations, like bushfires, floods or police operations.
If you can't see the drone with your own eyes. This means flying through clouds, during bad weather or at night is forbidden. It also means you're not allowed to pilot a drone using a VR/AR headset (a co-pilot or onlooker is allowed to wear these, though).
In a way that creates a potential hazard to a person, aircraft or property.
Over or through a national park.
Laws differ across the world. For example, in the European Union, you're allowed to fly up to 152 metres high. Make sure you know the local laws when travelling with your drone. It's also a good idea to check a CASA-approved airspace app, so you can ensure where you're flying is legal.
How to compare drones
When choosing a drone, consider the following factors:
Flight time (battery)
Flight time on a single charge ranges from 5 minutes to around 30. Manufacturer estimates are always on the generous side, so expect less in real-world flying conditions. You also need to allow time for the drone to return to you to change batteries, so effective flying time is shorter still.
If your drone is for professional use, don't skimp here. When you consider that it can take more than two hours to charge a battery, you'll want to have a few spare batteries in your pack. If you can afford it, always go for the larger battery.
Do you want a drone that comes with a dedicated controller – typically a box with two flight sticks – or do you want to fly using an app and the touchscreen on your phone? The former provides greater control and tactile feedback, but the latter is more portable. Professionals tend to prefer dedicated controllers because there's a slight response lag when using a phone, but mobile is still a viable approach for most purposes except racing.
Drones come with either a fixed camera or the ability to attach different ones. If you opt for a fixed model, make sure it's a quality camera because you won't be able to upgrade it later. Fixed camera models go up to 4K resolution. Some come with optical zooms, but they cost more.
If photography and filming is a serious hobby, or you're intending to gather footage for commercial purposes, you'll want a drone with a decent gimbal. These stabilise the camera across multiple axes, allowing for smoother video and sharper photos in windy conditions.
If you're new to the hobby, you should get a drone with advanced safety features like mandatory tutorials, auto-takeoff, auto-landing and object-avoidance technology so you don't crash into trees. If you're losing control, being able to initiate an automatic return using the onboard GPS can be the difference between landing and losing your expensive new toy.
Some toy drones only have a range of 20-30 metres, more than enough to have fun at home or the park. Advanced drones have an effective range of a few kilometres (top-end models currently max out at around seven kilometres). Remember, though, this can be a moot point because of the law – if you can't see it, you can't fly it.
Let's be realistic: if you're starting out, you're going to crash – quite a bit. Rotor blades are the part most likely to need replacing, so make sure you pick up some spares.
Four things to consider
Headless mode. Some pilots find "headless mode" helpful. This is an alternative control scheme that ignores the drone's orientation and instead moves it in relation to the pilot. In headless mode, it doesn't matter which way the drone is facing; if you push left on the controller, it will move left. Look out for this feature if you think it will be helpful.
You don't need the latest model. DJI is the dominant manufacturer in the field. If you're opting for one of its drones, know that DJI releases new models regularly with iterative upgrades. So, unless the newest feature feels essential to you, you can probably save some money by not buying the latest model.
People can be wary of drones. Not only will you make strangers in the vicinity nervous, but you'll also probably get asked what you're doing. This is perfectly reasonable – it's new tech that is infamously used for military and espionage purposes, so some scepticism is to be expected. Just be polite and explain what you're doing. You never know, you might end up with new hobbyists to fly with!
Be respectful. Drones, at their noisiest, sound like a swarm of angry bees. Always be respectful of other people sharing public space. It's best to fly somewhere as far from other people as possible.
David Milner is an award-winning games journalist, former editor of Game Informer magazine, and regular contributor to The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Embarrassingly, he only completed The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past for the first time in 2019. Bloodborne is his favourite game ever.
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