The drone you see above is my second drone. It took me all of four days to crash and destroy my first.
This video (make sure quality setting is at 1080p HD) is a simple launch, ascend to tree-level, and take a look at back yard, reservoir behind us, and a pan around the neighborhood. Just this example shows the possibilities of a video drone. YouTube is full of far better videos. YouTube also has interesting compilations of drone crashes, to show how quickly and easily you can get into serious, drone-ending trouble. The oak tree in my front yard turned out to be a drone magnet, and I flew the drone into it at about 30 feet. When I cut the engines, the drone tumbled to the ground.
When checking the drone afterward, I managed to lose control of the thing, and it flew off across the street and ended up in the neighbor’s yard, severely damaged. It was then that I realized where I went wrong.
This is the DJI Phantom 3 Standard, one of the best entry-level video drones (“quadcopter”). That sweet little camera you see underneath has a 1/2.3″ sensor, shooting 12 megapixels through a 20mm f/2.8 lens. Max image size is 4000 x 3000 and it easily handles video at full HD (1920 x 1080) in framerates of 24/25/30, unbelievably smooth (jitter-free). You can download a User Manual here, if you want all of the specs on this model. Suffice to say, the results are better than you’d expect for a $500.00 pricetag.
There are many available choices in this growing sector, and even DJI offers a wide variety. Buying your first drone requires a lot of homework. Read everything you can find, including user forums, before making a choice.
I was thinking like a photographer, when I should have been thinking of my student pilot days.
This is an aircraft. Technically, it is an unmanned aerial system (UAS). The drone, itself, is the sexy bit on the right. Four motors powering four propellers, a state-of-the-art battery that provides about 20 minutes of flying time, and a quadcopter capable of flying to the FAA-limited 400 feet altitude and a WiFi-limited distance of about 500 meters.
You should be browsing YouTube videos while you’re researching which model to buy. And you should be watching any manufacturer-supplied videos and tutorials before you try to fly your new drone.
Also be aware that there are FAA restrictions in the use of airspace in the U.S.A. and some overall rules that need to be followed. Don’t think that you can just unpack your new drone and start flying whenever wherever. Do not fly within 5 miles of an airport without first notifying them of your flight. Do not fly over people (sorry, no stadium shots), and don’t even think about messing around wherever there are emergency first-responders involved. You do NOT want to be the idiot who interfered with a medical evac chopper.
There was an attempt to have all drone owners register their drones with the FAA, but we then decided that folks who fly drones purely as a hobby need not register. You can register (I did), but you don’t have to. BUT, here are the rules:
- Fly at or below 400 feet
- Be aware of airspace requirements and restrictions
- Stay away from surrounding obstacles
- Keep your UAS within sight
- Never fly near other aircraft, especially near airports
- Never fly over groups of people
- Never fly over stadiums or sports events
- Never fly near emergency response efforts such as fires
- Never fly under the influence of drugs or alcohol
If you use your drone for business in any way (or if it weighs more than 55lbs.), there are different and more stringent regulations. Check before you buy or fly.
You’ll have to also check for any local regulations in your area. A kid crashed his drone in a playground in one local community, and regulations were rushed through to keep drones off of any public property in that borough. In Pennsylvania, there are six (only six) state parks that allow drone flying, and even there they restrict the area allowed. The FAA offers a handy app called B4UFLY, which uses your location to warn of any conflicts. Use it.
Forget flying a drone in our National Parks. Some asshole(s) has already messed that up for the rest of us. Drones crash. And they like to crash in the exact worst places. They’re also called “drones” because they make a really annoying droning sound, which impedes upon the peace and tranquility that many are looking for in our national park system. (And many other places. Be aware of those around you and be considerate.)
The unsexy bit on the left is the remote controller (RC). Two toggles control the aircraft’s flight (up, down, left, right, etc.). There’s a lot covered in the manual. Take your time to digest. There are also pre-programmed flight modes that are covered in DJI-provided YouTube video tutorials. The RC sets up a WiFi link with the quadcopter and also your display device of choice.
Connected to the RC is my old HTC One M7 phone. This runs the DJI app, which is your complete interface to communicate with the drone, to control video or stills, check battery levels, and so much more. As a personal note, the DJI app is not compatible with my new HTC 10, and I was lucky to still have the One M7, which does handle the app. Before you buy a drone, make sure that the device you want to use is compatible. Manufacturers can’t keep up with all of the latest and greatest phones, tablets, etc. Again, the UAS community has a lot of YouTube videos available, including complete overviews of the DJI app.
I bought a helipad. Don’t laugh. When you’re starting out, ideally you’d want wide open spaces with no trees, no wires, nothing that could grab your drone and throw it in the trashcan. I have trees all around my back yard, so I take off and land in the center of the yard. When this particular drone is powered off, the camera hangs lens-down in the grass. Any dew on the grass will transfer to the lens, so I sprang for a helipad, just to keep the lens out of the grass. It’s also handy to take with me, so I’ll have it wherever I choose to fly.
We all know that we should always READ THE MANUAL (PDF download here), but I will stress that, in this case, you should READ THE MANUAL. When I bought my first DSLR years ago, the best advice was to go through the manual, try everything out point-by-point, then go through again. This is even more important with things that fly. I took a lazy approach to the flight part, concentrating more on the photography side, and ended up buying a second drone. Learn to fly first.
I had read (and so, have no excuses) that it is really easy to become disoriented when flying a drone. It’s one thing to fly when it’s going away from you, but when it’s coming back AT you, everything is reversed. Push left on the stick, and the drone flies off to the right. Push forward, and you’re suddenly going backwards. Practice, practice, practice, to get a good understanding of flight in all directions.
When your drone is up at 200 feet, it will rarely bump into anything. Almost all drone crashes happen at or near ground level, and a large portion involve trees.
The Phantom uses GPS in flight. This is what allows the copter to hover in place without drifting. This also allows the copter to return to its starting point, if anything goes wrong (low battery, lost signal, etc.). Connecting to seven or more satellites is a good-to-go state, otherwise pay close attention.