Drones also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have gained a huge popularity. They allow for unique videos such as Videos 1 and 2 below. Besides, flying a drone is much easier compared to RC aircrafts, since drones manage most of their flying operations. They can even fly in total autonomy. All you have to do is to point waypoints on a map.
Video 1: Las Vegas Video Tour Made using a Drone
Quadcopters also known as quad-rotors are among the most widespread drones because of their ability to take-off/land vertically. They are also able to hover which is very useful for video recording or taking picture from a fixed perspective. You can get a Ready-To-Fly (RTF) small quadcopters for few dozens of bucks. But, they are rather limited and can only fly indoors. If you want to experience a true UAVs as a hobbyist we recommend to pick either an AR Drone or a DJI Phatom. We give more details about these two drones below to help you chose the best one for you. In summary, take the AR Drone is if you have a tight budget. Otherwise, the best choice is definitely the DJI Phantom.
Video 2: Mentawai Islands Surf Video Made using a Drone
Parrot’s AR Drone
One of the most popular hobby quadcopters is Parrot’s AR Drone, as proved by its active community. The basic pack is relatively cheap (about $300) regarding the proposed features (see Video 3). While most demos show the AR Drone flying outdoors, the box includes two hulls: one for indoor flights and the second for flying outdoor. The indoor hull protects the propellers and objects in case of collisions. The outdoor hull is lighter to offer less resistance to wind.
Parrot provides an app (Freeflight) that allows controlling the AR Drone using smartphones or tablets through a self generated Wifi network. There are versions for both iOS and Android. Freeflight has multiple features and allows different activities. The app includes games, gives you access to live data from other pilots, and also allows you to take pictures and record videos using the onboard HD 720p camera.
Video 3: AR Drone 2.0 Features
Freeflight has of course a pilot mode presented in Video 4. The interface is intuitive so beginners can immediately fly the AR Drone. Since most of the flight parameters are controlled by the quadcopter itself, all you have to do is decide which way to go or at which speed. Take-off or landing are performed by simply tapping a button. Even performing a flip which is a complex maneuver is as easy as a double-tap. For advanced users Freeflight allows a wide range of customizations to cover different flying conditions (e.g. indoors vs. outdoors) or applications.
Video 4: Pilot Features of the AR Drone Freeflight App
You can give the AR Drone more autonomy if you extend it with a Flight Recorder. This board is both a GPS and an autopilot. It allows planning a flight by choosing waypoints on a map. As shown on Video 5, for every point you can choose also the altitude and the speed. Then all you have to do is watch the video while the drone is taking care of all the flying. Besides, Flight Recorder makes it easy to get your drone comeback to you. Just tap the home button to make the AR.Drone 2.0 automatically return to its take-off point.
Video 5: AR Drone Flight Recorder in Action
If your budget allows, we’d rather recommend you go for a DJI Phantom which is also very popular. It has a rock solid frame and much more interesting specs compared to the AR Drone. With its 5200mAh LiPo Battery, the Phantom 2 can fly non-stop for 25min at a speed that tops at 15m/s. The Phantom 2 can also carry a payload that goes up to 300g. Actually, it is often used to carry a stabilized high quality camera that allows for flicker free videos, definitely close to professional footage (see Video 6).
Video 6: Capturing videos with the DJI Phantom
DJI makes various versions of the Phantom that differ in their level of equipment. Since, the Phantom is easily upgradable, you can buy the drone with only its remote control alone (approx. $680) and buy other accessories later on, or reuse a GoPro cam if you already have one. But, if you want the full set up at once, you should go for the Vision series ($1000 to $1300 approx.). The high end Phantom Vision+ comes with a 14 Megapixels camera attached to a 3-axis stabilization gimbal to ensure flicker free footage as show in Video 6. Besides, the axis is motorized so you can tilt the camera up or down, while keeping the Phantom hovering or moving steadily resulting into movie like effects. The Phantom Vision series is also shipped with a Wifi access point which is basically a relay that allows operating the drone at a wider range (see Video 7): from 400m up to 800m in an open area. Awesome!
Video 7: DJI Phantom 2 Vision Unboxing, Setup, Flight Testing and Aerial Video Demonstration
The DJI Phantom is a true drone since it is able to perform autonomous flight. The app for smartphone and tablet allows programming waypoints and flight plans based on a satellite map (see Video 8). The autopilot can also take over when flying the Phantom in manual mode. When disconnected, the GPS failsafe mode is activated and the drone automatically goes back and lands at the home position. The default home is is where GPS position has been determined for the first time after start up. But, you can set it manually.
The DJI Phantom has more cool features that exploits the onboard GPS, compass, and flight controller making the flight experience pure fun. Just put it where you want it in the sky and take your hands off the controls. As long as you have good GPS lock, it will stay there until either you move it or the battery reaches 15% (then it will land on its own). With the ATTI mode, the Phantom maintains the current altitude and speed and direction when you release the controls. It continues to travel in what ever direction it was going in until it receives new input from the pilot.
Video 8: DJI Phantom 2 Auto-Pilot in Action