Types of Drones
You'd be surprised by how many different types of drones there are on the market today! In the last few years, the number of drones has increased significantly, with models available for all sorts of purposes:
Toy Drones are inexpensive, compact, and usually offer little more than something fun to fly. Some have cameras, GPS features, and a few basic functions, but they're more for people (adults and kids alike) who want to fly drones without all the fancy tech.
Mini-Drones are compact—often small enough to fit in the palm of your hand—and lightweight. They can be either toy drones or camera drones, but they are usually designed for indoor use. They're not suited for outdoor use, where they can be blown around by the wind.
Camera Drones are larger, heavier drones, usually with a high-grade or professional-quality camera built in. These drones are purchased specifically for aerial and overhead photography, and they offer special features focused on snapping excellent videos and photographs. The controls come with just enough advanced functions to make the drone easy to use over a long range. However, expect to pay a hefty price tag (upwards of $500) for a high quality camera drone.
Selfie Drones are similar to camera drones, but in toy drone or mini drone size. They have decent cameras built into them, and they're meant to be controlled using your smartphone rather than a controller.
Racing Drones are drones built for speed and precision handling, and they can come in either "Ready to Fly" or "Build Your Own" models. The drones come with a camera that allows you to see where you're driving, but the camera isn't good enough for serious photography. These drones are for competitive racing, and they can reach speeds on par with a quality RC airplane.
Unmanned Cargo Drones are built to carry heavy packages, and are equipped with GPS systems that allow you to program the drone to fly to a certain location to deliver the package. They're just now being used by Amazon, Domino's, and a few other companies.
Of course, drones are used for security, surveillance, aerial filmography, inspections, and search and rescue. However, the types of drones used for these activities are not the sort commercially available to you. Your options are typically limited to the types listed above.
Important Drone Features
When buying a drone, it's important that you find the right features—features that will make it easier to fly, take better pictures, and enhance the durability of the drone. Here are the most important ones to consider:
GPS Navigation – If you're flying a drone that has a decent flight range (beyond a few hundred feet), you'll need a way both to track the drone's position and for the drone to track your position (for the "Return Home" feature). GPS navigation built into the drone and controller/controller app is a must for a long-range drone.
Single-Point Navigation – This is essential for long range drones, as it will make it easier for you to get your drone to its destination without having to manually control it. You'll use the drone's GPS positioning system to tell it where to go automatically.
Autopilot – Autopilot allows you to set the drone to "Hold Position" or to "Return Home" on its own. It's a handy feature that is vital if you're using the drone for long range photography or filmography.
Hold Position – This feature essentially tells the drone to remain in the same place, hovering at the location or events you want to photograph. For photography and videography drones, this is a must-have feature for taking steady, blur-free shots.
Dynamic Position Hold – This feature enables you to keep the drone in the same position, but gives you the freedom and flexibility to move it slightly in order to improve the angle.
Altitude Hold – Instead of having your drone remain at the same GPS location, this instruction helps keep the drone high enough off the ground. The throttle of the drone will keep it hovering steady, giving you a good altitude for action shots. This feature is often used in tandem with position hold.
Return Home – You won't always be able to keep the drone within your line of sight, especially if the drone is small and far away. By clicking the "Return Home" button, you will call the drone to come to the location of its controller—you—automatically.
Automatic Flying – If you're not the best at handling the drone flights, you'll love this feature. Essentially, it enables the drone to take off, land, fly, and navigate between waypoints automatically. It uses a variety of sensors and its built-in camera to fly, and you can pre-program it to snap pictures at the waypoints before flying back to its original location.
Waypoints – This is a handy feature that allows you to program multiple destinations on its flight path. Higher-grade drones give you the option to control the drone from your tablet or smartphone, programming in the destinations (and actions, such as triggering the camera shutter) when the drone reaches those destinations.
Relative Waypoints – This is ideal for large scale mapping or panorama pictures. Instead of going to a specific location, you designate a relative waypoint within a certain range of the original waypoint. For example, if you find a better angle for photographs 50 yards to the right of your original waypoint, you can set the relative waypoint for easy automatic piloting next time you want to take photographs at that same location.
Circle Hovering – If you want to take pictures of yourself flying the drone, this feature sets the drone flying in a circle around you. The circle usually has a 20-foot or higher radius, giving you plenty of space to be safe while still giving you great angles for taking pictures.
Geo-Fencing/No Fly Zone – Geo-fencing gives you the option to set certain boundaries for the drone, preventing it from flying farther than you can see/control. No Fly Zone is a feature that prevents the drone from flying into certain locations, such as private property or airports.
Tracking Mode – You can set your drone to track and photograph/film certain objects as they move. The drone will track and follow the object, and you can pre-set it to maintain a certain altitude for better pictures.
Failsafe Mode – What happens when your drone is out of range of your GPS controller? How do you get it home? Failsafe Mode solves the problem by setting an automatic return point for the drone. Some drones will return to their take-off location, but some will return to the location of the GPS controller.
Built-In Sensors – Most drones have built in gyroscopes and accelerometers, which help to stabilize and control the acceleration of the drone. If you're going to be taking aerial photographs or videos, the gyroscope will give you control over the X and Y-axis of the drone, making it easier to keep the drone stable. The accelerometer will help to keep the drone steady even as it's picking up speed.
Video Transmission – If you want immediate access to the drone footage or don't want to risk losing your photographs in a crash, it's often better to stream the video to your smartphone, tablet, or computer. This eliminates the need for a built-in SD card for the drone, and ensures all your footage and photographs are stored safely.
How to Fly Your Drone Like a Boss
If you're new to the world of drone flying, the idea of piloting these little aircrafts may seem daunting. There's so much you need to learn about flying your drones that RC airplanes just can't teach you.
If you want to be a BOSS at flying your drone, here are a few tips to help you out:
Use automatic mode as long as necessary. All high-end drones come with both automatic and manual flying modes. Auto-flying mode lets the built-in computer do the work of flying, and it's where you should always start with a new drone. Experiment with the manual mode indoors or in a safe, enclosed location until you get the hang of manual flying. If you're going to do more than just fly (such as take pictures or shoot video), you should let the auto-flying mode focus on the navigation and altitude while you focus on the other tasks.
Use GPS mode whenever possible. GPS mode is a feature on pricier models, and it's 100% worth the price tag. It allows you to pre-program your drone to fly to various locations and return to your location automatically. It will use more battery than manual mode, but will prevent you from losing the drone.
Avoid heavy winds. Even the largest, heaviest drones are susceptible to winds—imagine how rough windy conditions can be for the smaller, lightweight drones! Some drones have automatic stabilization for heavy winds, but it's better not to risk your drone being blown out of range or into a tree or house by a heavy wind. Make sure to switch your drone to outdoor mode if you're flying outdoors.
Learn the basics first. Don't waste your time on the fancy tricks (rolls, flips, etc.) until you've mastered the basics of up, down, right, left, backward, and forward. Always try to practice on days with little to no wind, and in locations where you can see the drone clearly.
Learn how to crash. Crashes are inevitable with drones, and you need to learn how to protect your drone in case of a crash. Learn how to shut off the throttle immediately, or you could damage the copter blades and motor. You'll also want to invest in propeller guards to protect the blades from being damaged in case of a crash.
Learn how to hover. It's easy to fly in a certain direction, but the real challenge is learning how to keep the drone hovering at a specific altitude and in a specific location. Mastering hovering will enable you to take steadier, clearer images and video. Spend time practicing the pitch control that is required to keep your drone hovering.
Understand the terms. You need to understand what the various flying terms are: yaw, pitch, roll, and throttle. UAVCoach has a good definition of the terms and how they relate to your flight performance.
Know your way around the remote. Your remote or controller gives you total control over the drone. There are a lot of features built into the remote, all of which are intended to give you better control over the drone's piloting and its various functions (camera, autopilot, etc.). Spend time reading your user manual to make sure you understand every button and stick on the remote.
Always go through a pre-flight checklist. Before you take off, go through your pre-flight checklist to make sure everything is ready:
- Check the batteries (transmitter and drone) to make sure they're fully charged.
- Check to ensure the SD/micro SD card is fully inserted.
- Check the propellers to ensure they're secure.
- Check for loose or missing screws.
- Switch on the transmitter and, if necessary, wait until the drone is calibrated and locked in with GPS.
- Make sure the area around the drone is clear of any obstacles, and take a few (3-5) steps back.
- Always face the drone as it takes off, and keep a close eye on it as you begin flying.
Keep the drone in range. Make sure to test the drone's range of connectivity to the controller. The last thing you want is to lose your drone because it flies out of range. Use the Geo-Fencing option to set the boundaries of your drone's flight range, and program the "Return Home" feature to bring the drone back to the right spot.
Find safe flying zones. There are many no-fly zones that you need to avoid, or else you may get slapped with a fine or even jail time. Check the US Air Space Map to find the areas in your city where it's safe to fly your drone.
Avoid people. Try to avoid flying over and around people as much as possible. The last thing you want is to hit someone if your drone malfunctions or falls out of the sky. Avoid people's homes and private residences as well. Stick to locations with as few people as possible.
Avoid public locations. Try to avoid flying over highways and public roads, as well as any airports—both large and private. NEVER fly above military bases, and be wary when flying under bridges (the interference could sever your connection to the drone).
Watch your altitude. Most drones won't go over a couple hundred feet off the ground, but some high-end drones are capable of impressive altitudes. Keep your drone below 400 feet in order to avoid collisions with airplanes, gliders, and small aircraft.
Your Complete Guide to Drone Photography
Drones can be an amazing tool for stunning photography. Here are a few tips to help you take amazing pictures with your drone:
Shoot in Auto Mode – While many photographers are dedicated manual mode shooters, most drone cameras aren't built for the precision settings of a DSLR camera. Setting the drone in auto mode also allows you to focus on flying the drone and snapping precise images, without worrying about exposure, light balance, and all the other detailed settings.
Test various filters – Most drone cameras have just one lens aperture, so you won't have many options for changing shutter speeds. Neutral density filters can be integrated into the lens of the camera to restrict light exposure, thus lengthening shutter speed.
Bracket the photos – Use 3-shot brackets (a feature of many camera drones) to under- and over-expose your shots. It's the best way to ensure you get at least one shot you like, or you can use the 3 shots to blend the exposures for the perfect photograph.
Always have back-up batteries —Drones burn through their power pretty quickly, and even more so when you're filming or taking images. Have no fewer than 3 batteries for your drone, as that will give you upwards of an hour of flight/photography/filming time.
Stick to 100 feet or less –Higher flights don't equal better pictures. Instead, you'll get a view more like Google Earth. For the most detailed, beautiful pictures, keep the drone lower than 100 feet off the ground.
Be aware of the drone blades – When piloting the drone, there's always the risk the blades will get in your camera's line of sight. Try to keep the camera angled downward, but be aware that steeply angled shots could catch a bit of the blades.
Tinker with the settings – The drone camera will have a variety of settings that you can tinker with, from white balance to resolution to exposure to frame rate. Dig into the camera manual and see what you have to work with, and experiment with different settings.
Use post-production tools – It may not be ideal, but you can always correct defects in the photographs using post-production software (like Photoshop). Focus on taking the best quality pictures possible, but accept that you may need to correct some defects in the photo later.
Shoot in RAW – Shooting in RAW format allows you to correct exposure or color flaws as precisely as possible BEFORE the image is compressed into JPEG format.
The Future of Drones
Drone racing has become a popular sport, and will continue to be so as drone technology becomes more advanced. The Drone Racing League currently offers a $100,000 prize, and the 80 MPH drone races are absolutely breathtaking—and quite terrifying at the same time!
Amazon Prime Air is one of the most hotly anticipated services of the decade. Amazon plans to use drones to ship packages (under 5 pounds typically) anywhere in the United States, with drone "bases" around the country. The Australian company Zookal plans to do the same with textbooks. 7-Eleven was the first company to successfully complete an FAA-regulated drone delivery—the drone delivered a Slurpee, chicken salad, coffee, and donuts to a Nevada family in just a few minutes.
Emergency services are also looking for more ways to integrate drones. Drones are being used for remote surveillance and monitoring by law enforcement, and they are being loaded with medical supplies to be carried quickly to emergency sites for use by EMTs and rescue services. They play a vital role in search and rescue services in mountains, forests, and wildernesses around the country.
Google and other companies are looking into the possibility of using drones to provide internet connectivity. The drones are designed to circle the Earth in the stratosphere, using laser beams to provide internet access to remote parts of the planet.
At CES 2017, a number of new drone innovations were unveiled:
- Airblock, a LEGO-like system that allows users to construct their drones using magnetic parts that snap together.
- Selfie Drones, such as the ROVA or C-me drone, which hover safely around the user to take selfies.
- High quality (720p and 1080p) Polaroid cameras integrated into new drones.
- Racing drones capable of reaching up to 100 MPH.
- A waterproof drone intended to be used for fish-finding, with an attached light and sonar to lure the fish closer.
- Star Wars-themed drones (toys, really) for sci-fi lovers.
- Home security drones that use motion tracking to identify anything out of place, sending alerts to your smartphone.
It's estimated that the drone industry could expand to up to $90 billion within ten years. There are agricultural applications (helping farmers know where to apply fertilizer), military applications (many of which are already in use), energy applications (monitoring infrastructure or analyzing wind turbines for damage), and even emergency relief applications (using drones to map the extent of damage after an earthquake or hurricane).
The truth is that drones can be used in so many ways in the future—it's all up to the drone manufacturers and the tech they are able to come up with.