Whether or not you’re an aspiring aerial videographer, a land surveyor, construction site mapper, wildlife tracker or simply an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) / drone hobbyist, let’s be honest. There are few greater things in life than owning your own drone. Right?
I learned to fly last year using a Hubsan H107L quadcopter, something small and easy to learn basic multirotor orientation on. I’ve since bought a handful of more drones, both large and small.Hubsan has a newer model out now with a 720 pixel HD camera (and FPV!) that’s been really fun to fly in and around my office.
I’ve spent countless hours reading, watching videos, and talking with people about UAV units, from simple indoor quadcopters that cost $40 to more advanced octocopters that, when coupled with accessories like stabilization gimbals and wireless aerial imaging monitors, cost upwards of $10,000. I’ve been lucky enough to fly a bunch of these units too
Related: Check out our list of 15 killer drones for sale.
The drone industry is rapidly changing. It’s an exciting time to dip your toes into lively UAV pond, and I hope this beginner’s guide gives you the kind of information you’re looking for.
Table of Contents
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What is a Drone?
While “drone” has traditionally been more of a military-influenced term, it’s become synonymous with other terms like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), both of which describe remote controlled (RC) or autonomously programmed aerial machines. Drones are built for recreational purposes, but also for professional aerial photography and videography, to carry cargo, to inspect bridges and flare stacks and industrial chimney towers, to track wildlife, and a number of other budding use cases. Advancements in drone technology have made owning a UAV unit more approachable and cost-effective than ever before. As a result, the UAV community has flourished these last few years.
Note: If you live in the U.S. and want to earn money as a professional drone pilot, check out our step-by-step guide to getting your FAA 333 Exemption Grant.
A new chapter in commercial aviation is being written. The laws and regulations around remote control drone usage are still somewhat unrefined, and I feel like each week I’m reading about a new commercial application that blows my mind. It’s an exciting time to join the UAV community!
Why I Put This Guide Together
Like many of the more recent entrants to the UAV community, I learned about drones on YouTube. Watching UAV footage from extreme sports movies like Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, or first-person-view (FPV) drone racing highlights from the French Alps, I became fascinated with the space. How could I buy a drone? Do I have to build one myself? How much do they cost? Where can I fly them? What does it take to become an aerial videographer?
I hopped on the web and started to connect with members of the UAV community, soon realizing that there’s a lot to learn. This guide is the kind of high-level direction I wished I would have had when I first got into the space. Use it as a beginner’s walkthrough of what it means to buy your own drone.
Who Should Buy a Drone?
Who wouldn’t want to own their own flying robot?
But seriously, you should consider buying a drone if:
- You’re a conventional RC hobbyist (helicopters, boats, cars, etc.)
- You’re a photography / videography professional looking for a radical new perspective
- You’ve got a commercial interest in drone technology
The best way to learn more about the UAV industry is to pilot your own drone. You’ll gain an appreciation for how approachable these advanced aerial systems can be, and yes, while they’re difficult to master, they’re very easy to pick up. It’s kind of like snow skiing!
Do-It-Yourself (DIY) vs. Ready-To-Fly (RTF)
The first thing you should know about buying a drone, is that you don’t have to buy one.
You can build one yourself! Of course, this requires a steeper learning curve, as you’ll be putting together, coding and calibrating a number of pieces. Get out your soldering iron, and have that DIY support forum bookmarked, because you’ll need it.
If something goes wrong, you’ll have to diagnose and debug yourself. Depending on your level of expertise, getting your first UAV off the ground can take a significant amount of time.
Fortunately, a number of companies are putting together ready-to-fly (RTF) or almost-ready-to-fly (ATF) drones, making it very easy to get started. When I bought the DJI Phantom 1 quadcopter, I was able to build and calibrate it within 45 minutes, and when I bought the Hubsan H107L quadcopter, I flew it within a few minutes of opening the box. Talk about instant gratification.
As far as cost goes, depending on how you’re looking to use your drone, you may not end up saving that much money building one yourself. You can buy a pre-built, RTF quadcopter for less than $150! Also, some of the more advanced drone kits use components that, if purchased as a stand-alone item would be significantly expensive, so much so that if you were to re-create some of the more expensive units, you might end up spending close to the same amount of money you would buying it pre-built.
Drone technology has come a long way.
Alright, let’s get into the meat and potatoes.
There are many types of consumer drones on the market, but the majority of you, particularly if you’re a beginner, will want to stick with quadcopters.
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Quadcopters typically have an X or H square frame and are known for their stability and reliability. The four propellers on most quadcopters can generate enough lift to carry 1-2 pounds and can maneuver quite fluidly, even at wind speeds of 10-15 mph.
All quadcopters follow the same basic design framework. Four motors and propeller blades, and a gyroscope or accelerometer to measure a quadcopter’s pitch, roll, and yaw – how it’s positioned in space.
Using this information, the quadcopter can automatically (and individually) adjust each of the four motors, enabling it to hover in place. The pilot uses a transmitting controller to pilot the quadcopter. It can either gain or lose altitude, move left and right on horizontal plane, or spin 360 degrees.
Because this is a beginner’s drone buying guide, I’ll stick to pre-built, ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopters. Other types of UAVs can be more expensive, or they’re too complicated for the neophyte drone pilot. Even if you’re looking to buy a special drone for a more specific use case like live-streaming aerial videography or three-dimensional land mapping, you’ll still need to master the basics. A quadcopter is a great UAV to learn on!
Top Drones for Under $200
If you’re learning to pilot a drone for the first time, it’s likely a good idea to start with something basic. You know, something you won’t shed tears over if you accidentally pilot your UAV into a wall or crash into the river. It’ll happen, folks. Trust me.
After speaking with UAV enthusiasts, reading reviews, and piloting a few of these units myself, below are the best training drones I could find for under $200 (USD):
- Hubsan X4 w/ FPV – an affordable beginner FPV (first-person view) quadcopter, perfect for novice drone pilot training
- UDI 818a HD+ – an exclusive from USA Toyz, comes with an extra battery; has “return to home” and “headless mode” functions
- Parrot Rolling Spider – removable wheels and an embedded mini-camera for aerial selfies
- Blade 180 QX – different configuration levels for safer newbie training and an embedded aerial video camera
- Nano QX – weighs little more than half an ounce and perfect for indoor flying
- Syma X1 – can do flips, stable in outdoor conditions and can carry small payload
Click the below image for our other article, “17 Cheap Drones for Beginner’s (Under $100)“:
Aerial Videography Drones
Have a good feeling for the basics and want to buy a drone that packs a little more punch? Below are a few of the most well-received quadcopter units used by aerial videographers:
- Parrot AR 2.0 – not only does the Parrot AR 2.0 boast a durable (and light) styrofoam frame, but you can also pilot it with a smartphone or tablet
- Parrot Bebop Drone – another exciting innovation from the Parrot crew, the Bebop drone sports a 14 Mpx “fisheye” camera, user-controlled 180 degree vision, and a built-in GPS (readthis parrot bebop review from QuadHangar)
- DJI Phantom 3 Standard – an undisputed market leader, DJI offers this model as one their mid-tier options but still fantastic (Check out the Advanced and Professional models too)
- DJI Inspire – the preferred choice for many residential and commercial real estate photographers and videographers; 360-degree camera view and dual-operator mode
- 3D Robotics Solo – “the world’s first smart drone”; some phenomenal autonomous features and 3DR’s leading product out right now
- Yuneec Q500 4K – have enjoyed flying this model; comes with a built-in camera and 25-minute flight time; great bang for your buck