Among the most popular technological devices of our time is the radio controlled drone. These machines come in a variety of styles and sizes, and they serve a number of different purposes. While this makes them highly versatile gadgets, it also makes them extremely complex and confusing to many consumers looking to acquire their first drone. If you’ve experienced the frustration of shopping for a drone with a limited knowledge of the different model types available and what features you can expect to receive with each type of drone, the following buying guide aims to clear up much of that confusion.
The goal here is to ask and answer several basic questions regarding drones, explore many of their most common features, and match the expected features to the specific drone type: toy grade drones, hobby grade drones, and professional photography grade drones. Read on to become better educated on the broad subject of drones and to ensure an easier time with your next drone purchase.
What are Drones, and What Can You Do with Them?
When most people shop for a drone, what they’re considering is a radio controlled (and unmanned) flying aircraft that can be flown for either fun or business purposes, as well as as a means of shooting aerial video and photographs. This may be a fairly basic definition, but it should serve the purposes of most potential drone buyers out there.
The most common drone configuration is probably the quadcopter (4 rotor) configuration, though other configurations (such as 6 rotors, or just a single rotor) do exist as well. And then there are fixed wing drones, which typically aren’t as easy to control as quadcopters, but they’re certainly fun for model plane enthusiasts and the like.
As for their uses, among the many are photography/videography, piloting simply for fun, collecting, and flying for a variety of different business purposes (including insurance, real estate, farming, and more). We will see more examples of these and other uses as we move throughout the remainder of this guide.
What are the Major Drone Types, or Classifications?
For our purposes, there are 3 major types of drones. These somewhat arbitrary distinctions include toy drones, hobby grade drones (an example of which is shown at left), and professional photography drones. Some people make no distinction between toy drones and hobby grade drones, and this is perfectly acceptable if classifying drones in this way works for you. The main idea here is simply to help consumers and potential drone buyers to better manage their expectations (i.e., what features to expect with a given classification of drone), though it’s important to realize that the lines between the various drone types are not always clear. For example, hobby grade drones often come with built in or attached cameras, which blurs the lines between hobby grade and professional photography grade drones.
The waters become even more muddy when a hobby grade drone comes with a fairly high quality camera; what then distinguishes this drone from a photography grade model? Quite honestly, there’s no 100% foolproof method for making these distinctions, and it’s ultimately up to you to determine which features you absolutely must have and what you can live with in a drone. Just keep in mind that there’s a vast variety of features and options available with today’s drones, so you really have to do your homework to get everything you want out of a purchase without overpaying by going too high end. Similarly, you don’t want to miss out on a feature you would have enjoyed by going too low end or by rushing into a purchase without doing the necessary research first.
What Features & Characteristics Can You Expect in Each Drone Category?
Examining the major features of each type of drone is best done by individual drone category. As must always be remembered, many drone features are not confined necessarily to one specific type of drone—there is frequently significant overlap among the different drone types. Also, the following list is not comprehensive of all potential drone features. We are mostly concerned with the major features and characteristics at this juncture.
Toy Grade Drones
Under the heading of toy grade drones, which includes both indoor and outdoor flyers, here are a few of the features/considerations you might want to look for:
- Bright Colours and Fun Designs – Toy grade drones often feature highly creative designs with bright colures and interesting themes, such as the frog themed drone shown at left.
- Budget Friendly Pricing – Most toy grade drones, being very basic models, aren’t likely to cost very much. This makes them a great entry level option for testing the waters as an emerging drone enthusiast.
- Ready to Fly – Toy grade drones are typically ready to flight right out of the box. All that’s typically needed is some time to charge the battery, and then you’re ready to go.
- Stunt Flying Capabilities – Many, though not all, toy grade drones have some stunt flying capabilities, such as the ability to do flips and rolls during flight.
- Very Basic Controls – The more basic the drone, the more basic its flight capabilities. This is certainly something to consider when buying a toy grade drone, because some models can be very difficult to control. Reading reviews (when available) can help you to select a drone with sufficient control capabilities, such as stable flight features. After all, it’s not much fun to fly a drone that’s wild and erratic unless you’re an advanced (highly skilled) pilot.
- Minimal Flying Range – This characteristic of toy grade drones is a double edged sword. On one hand, you may not be able to fly your drone more than a couple hundred feet (or even less) away from its transmitter. On the other hand, this can be a very good thing, as it will greatly limit the possibility of losing your drone in a flyaway incident, and you won’t have to worry about your drone doing any damage to other people’s property if you fly it in an open area away from houses, cars, people, etc.
Hobby Grade Drones
Hobby grade drones are great for flying fun, modding as an amateur drone mechanic, and even for collecting purposes (particularly themed models based on properties such as Star Wars). They typically offer great value for their price, and they span the entire length of the bridge between toy grade models and professional photography drones. Among the major features to look for in a hobby grade drone are the following:
- Ready to Fly – Most hobby grade drones come ready to fly right out of the box without much preparation beyond charging them up.
- Auto Take Off & Landing – Not all hobby grade drones have auto take off and landing, and some toy grade drones may have it, but generally speaking you’re more likely to find such a feature on drones that are hobby grade and above.
- Stunt Flying Capabilities – Hobby grade drones are probably the Number 1 home of stunt flying capabilities in the drone flying world. Most drones in this realm tend to have some level of stunt capabilities, such as being able to do flips and rolls in pretty much any direction. Often these tricks are automatic, at the simple touch of a button.
- Onboard Cameras – It’s somewhat the flip of a coin as to whether a hobby grade drone will include a camera or not. In the case of those that do, you can generally expect the camera to be of reasonable (though not super high) quality. If a gimbal happens to be present, which is even less likely, the overall camera setup is likely to skew somewhat towards the higher end of the quality spectrum. However, it still will not typically be of professional grade quality except in the rarest of cases.
- Special Features – Some hobby grade drones have special features such as a high level of moulded in detail and games you can play via apps and other add ons. For example, the Propel series of Star Wars drones not only look like your favourite Star Wars fighters, but they also have serious detailing, an app with offline flight training missions, and they even allow you to play a real life game of laser tag. Neither the more basic toy drones nor high end photography drones are likely to have such features.
- Multiple Speed/Difficulty Settings – Hobby grade drones are much more likely than basic toy drones to have multiple speed and difficulty settings to help make them easier to fly for beginners and increasingly challenging as pilots gain proficiency.
- Stable Flight Features – These include accelerometers, gyroscopes, pressure sensors, and more to help keep your drone as stable as possible during every flight. Hobby grade drones and anything above them in the drone pecking order are likely to have many of these stability features.
- Low to Medium Battery Life – Most hobby grade drones will get you anywhere in the 7-12 minute range of total flight time on a single battery charge. This is pretty much the middle ground between toy drones and professional drones as far as battery life is concerned.
Professional Photography Drones
Finally, the professional photography drone typically has the most features of all, and is also the most expensive drone to buy. This type of drone is for the super serious user, and particularly those that want to shoot the highest quality video and images. Often, these models are used as tools by such professionals as Real Estate Agents (for filming virtual tours of their property listings). Others have been known to use them for shooting a video record of their home, farm, business, or other property for insurance purposes. They can even be used by news reporting agencies, by law enforcement, for forrest fire spotting, and for any number of other activities besides high quality filmmaking. Some smaller models are considered flying cameras, making them great for those with a love of home movies. Key features and characteristics you can expect to find in this type of drone are as follows:
- They Practically Fly Themselves – Drones in this range cost more for good reason—they’re absolutely swimming in features. Auto take off and landing is just one of the things that these drones can do for you. They also usually have a return to home feature that can instantly rescue you if you find yourself losing control of your drone, and most of them even have obstacle avoidance to make sure they don’t fly into a house, car, or tree by accident. Finally, these drones can automatically hold their position for an extended period of time (great for filming purposes!), and they can frequently follow a target person or object for filming as well. Such drones have everything you need to make flying and filming easy.
- Impressive Battery Life – Drones of the professional photography grade have some of the longest battery life spans per use that you’ll find in the drone world today. Upwards of half an hour of total flying time on a single battery charge is not unusual for many top models.
- High Quality Cameras – It probably goes without saying, but professional photography grade drones come with the highest possible quality cameras and gimbals. You’ll be shooting beautiful video in glorious 4K HD quality with most of these models, and because of the quality of their included gimbals, your footage will be as smooth as silk—even if your flying isn’t.
- App Based Control – Many of the top models in this category have dedicated smart phone apps that can be used for things like controlling them with your device, live-streaming footage to your device’s screen, and providing useful information such as your speed, altitude, and how much battery power you have left.
- Built in Wi-Fi – What good is having an app with live-streaming capabilities without a Wi-Fi signal? Thus, today’s top photography drones not only have Wi-Fi, but their range can be up to several kilometres in many cases.
- Long Range Flight – Speaking of Wi-Fi range, you obviously wouldn’t need that if these drones couldn’t fly an incredible distance away from you—in many cases they can go more than 10 Kms away from their transmitters.
- Smart Recognition – Some recent drone models have even included an innovation whereby they can actually recognize your facial features when turned on and respond to you by obeying your hand gestures for telling them what to do, such as taking off or taking your photo.
- Some Setup May be Required – It’s not unusual with this classification of drone to have to install the props or landing gear yourself when you first acquire your model. You may also have to perform other setup tasks or conduct routine maintenance from time to time as well. While all drones may require some work on occasion, the more complex the model, the more maintenance may be necessary. However, the upkeep on these machines is certainly within reason, and most high end models come with the necessary tools for performing at least the most basic tasks.
- Professional Quality Controller – Most drones in this territory come with advanced transmitters offering numerous control capabilities at the mere touch of a button. The latest models even offer dual channel transmission at both 2.4GHz and 5.8GHz.
Which Type of Drone is Right for You?
Now that you have some knowledge on the different types of drones available (and their typical features), you must ask yourself what type of drone user you expect to be? Is your desire to become a skilled ‘extreme’ pilot, or do you hope to take beautiful pictures and videos with your drone?
If stunt flying is your goal, you’re going to want a drone that’s more in the entry level range. Toy and hobby grade drones tend to offer this type of flying (flips, rolls, etc.), whereas professional photography drones rarely have stunt flying capabilities.
Alternatively, if shooting high quality images is your objective, you won’t be able to do that if the drone you buy doesn’t have a camera.
Similarly, a mid-range hobby drone may provide you with a decent enough camera, but is a ‘decent’ camera really going to meet your photography expectations?
If you hope to do both stunt flying and possibly take some photographs, there are mid range drones that will do both to a respectable degree.
However, if you want to go all in for both photography and developing your extreme piloting skills, you may ultimately have to buy more than one drone, as there is far less feature overlap at the extreme ends of the drone spectrum (i.e., a great stunt drone is not going to also be a top notch photography drone, and vice versa).
In the end, the choice is entirely up to you.
Drone Flying Restrictions
Finally, there are a number of rules and regulations to consider when becoming a drone pilot, such as those governing the proximity to an airport wherein one can fly. Many of the rules may not apply to drones in the toy grade range (due to their lightness and limited range). However, if you’re getting into more powerful drones with significant flight ranges and altitude capabilities, the rules will most certainly apply.
The big hitch here is that society is still in the relatively early stages of figuring everything out when it comes to the dos and don’ts of drone piloting, so the rules have evolved somewhat over the last few years and are likely to continue doing so for at least the foreseeable future (as newer drones with more and more capabilities emerge).
To keep yourself abreast of any changes (and to see what the current rules and regulations are), read this Transport Canada document on the Government of Canada website and familiarize yourself with its content before you purchase your first drone.
Taking the Next Step
Now that you know a great deal about each of the different types of drones, visit Best Buy Canada’s Drone page to see the full range of models currently available.