Tips For Buying The Best Camera Drone

Today we are going to share tips for buying the best camera drone for you. What are they, and who uses them? Some call them “drones“, some mark the label “quadcopters” as a common term–they can comprise any number of rotors or planes –the FAA names them “unmanned aerial systems” (UAS). Some would instead call them”unmanned aerial vehicles” (UAVs), a neutral term wide enough to securely include the entire extent, from Hubsan nano drones up to military and commercial aircraft having the weight of hundreds of pounds and nearly the size of small manned airplanes.

UAVs are and aren’t new. Starting somewhere in 2013, a new trend emerged in the technology toy and aerial imaging marketplace –an explosion in popularity of compact multi-rotor RC aircraft, possibly most significantly the DJI Ghost 4, a small quadcopter with a gimbal-stabilized drone camera.

RC fans will definitely, cry foul. They’ll point out RC unmanned-aircraft have been around for decades, possibly longer, not to mention that pilots have been integrating them with cameras for FPV since cameras became small & light enough plus video transmitters got cheap. Though this is correct, the marketplace was always a niche one, the exclusive realm of committed model-builders (a couple of professional users apart ) to whom few on the outside paid much attention or of whom they were even conscious.

If one overwhelming breakthrough put prosumer and consumer UAVs on the map, it had been computerized flight-control systems and multi-rotor technology, the latter impossible without the former. Conventional RC aircraft need to fly, and many become rather expensive (you might need to remortgage your home to pay for a few ).

Many are powered by miniature gas motors, some even turbines, and operate at scaled speeds competing with manned airplanes. Multi-rotor UAVs, as different from helicopters by the complexity of the management systems, need a computer to control input. Unlike planes, there’s absolutely no rudder, no ailerons, only propellers.

The only method to modulate flight is by turning the rotors at various speeds, and there’s just no way to do this manually. A side effect of the fly-by-wire implementation is they can essentially pilot themselves, exceptionally when equipped with GPS, optical flow, and other supporting systems. This means just about everyone can fly, though we guess it is an open question if only anyone should fly.

As they can follow exact flight patterns and hover in a fixed position (assuming optical flow or GPS), it was inevitable that one of the very popular-use cases for multi-rotors would be imaging. Also, as luck would have it, at the exact same time, HD and 4K cameras have gotten quite streamlined and very inexpensive (compared to the quality which they pump out), making strapping them to a UAV pretty much a no-brainer.

How Do Drones Work?

Before you buy a drone it is wise to become familiar with the main parts needed to fly a drone. Drones break down, with some variation, into these main parts:

1. Main Controller (MC)

The heart of the flight-control system may be thought of as the”brains” of the UAV. It’s an embedded computer (many run Linux) that includes custom software for controlling the aircraft, occasionally user-reprogrammable via a software development kit (SDK). In some designs, the MC is another module with connection ports. On others, notably consumer goods, there might be a single circuit board (PCB) that contains the MC, electronic speed controls (ESCs), gyros/sensors, and other core flight electronics.

Some kind of connectivity–similar to SATA ports within a computer–is provided with modular designs, allowing peripherals and user upgrades to be installed. CAN-Bus is widely used. This is an automotive serial port technology developed in the 1980s that’s been repurposed in a wide assortment of control-by-wire vehicles, including, among other things, combines.

Modular systems have the benefit that they can typically be replaced or updated. Early on, a significant portion of DJI’s business model was selling its triple-redundant A3 Pro and Naza-M flight controllers to third party UAV manufacturers and respective multi-rotor builders.

2. Gyros/Sensors

For autonomy to work, the MC should track the way the aircraft is flying. To achieve this, some type of sensor array is supplied. It will generally include inertial measurement units (IMUs), accelerometers, and gyros and work together with positional data from GPS/compass or an optical flow system. Essentially, these sensors tell the UAV how quickly its acceleration is shifting, in the direction, and whether it’s right-side up. Those who know about motor-driven gimbal camera stabilizers may identify the exact same sensor technology used here as in gimbals.

3. Electronic Speed Controllers (ESCs)

Each motor comes with an ESC (though some designs put it all on a single board). In its simplest form, an ESC regulates power going to the engine with which it is paired. More sophisticated systems may also relay data back to the MC, like vitals about how the motors are doing. With six or more rotors, positive feedback makes it feasible to keep flying (sufficient to land security ) if one engine fails.

4. Receiver

The receiver is for the radio control system. It pairs (“binding”) together with the controller the operator or pilot holds, which inevitably, if confusingly, is referred to as the”transmitter” modern receivers usually operate in the 2.4GHz range (like other license-free radio units, such as Wi-Fi) and have four or more stations, extra channels allowing custom functionality to be given via the control signal, along with essential piloting inputs.

These additional channels may be used in the hobby world for anything from extending/retracting landing gear to firing a smoke generator. In aerial imaging applications, the other channels can sometimes be devoted to camera or gimbal control.

5. Motors

In most cases, these are brushless electric motors. The motors are often paired. Each pair comprises one clockwise (CW) motor attached with one counterclockwise (CCW) rotating engine, even though they could be sold individually. It’s essential to replace them or build your own system to use the right rotational direction in the appropriate position. This can get confusing since the propellers are usually designated CCW or CW based on which way they screw on, not which way they rotate–that is most likely the opposite direction!

6. Propellers

Light UAVs use plastic propellers, which withstand breaking on impact since they’re flexible and safer. Heavier models utilize carbon fiber or other more rigid materials (airplanes frequently use wood or glass/nylon). Carbon fiber propellers are terrible, even fatal, and must be used only by seasoned pilots and well away from individuals. Unless an intense performance is an issue, the advantages of carbon fiber are marginal on multi-rotors.

7. Transmitter

This is the radio controller. For a growing number of tech toys and entry-level UAVs, the”transmitter” is the combination of a mobile app and a Wi-Fi-enabled smartphone or tablet (Parrot utilizes Wi-Fi control for all its quadcopters). UAVs integrated with receivers, such as Spektrum and Futaba, can work with a range of transmitters.

This allows the user to pick the best fit based on what features they’re searching for and their budget. It needs to be noted: these tend to be proprietary, so with a Brand X receiver, you’re probably going to require a Brand X or, at the very least, a Brand New X-compatible transmitter. Systems that include a transmitter (in addition to other essential accessories necessary for flying) are called “ready-to-fly” and would be the easiest to jumpstart the newcomer.

When investing in a transmitter, typically, compatibility can be determined by referring to your receiver’s specs. It will have to support the exact same protocol as the recipient and support at least as many channels as the receiver needs. A DSMX 4-channel receiver will work delightfully with a DSMX 6-channel transmitter. For advanced settings, one also must consider secondary systems that will have to inter-operate with the transmitter, like a telemetry radio.

Transmitters can range anywhere from simple two-joystick tasks for remote-control toys up to highly complex pieces of electronics with innovative programming to help myriad aircraft configurations, telemetry displays, expandable model memory, audible feedback, and train interfaces. In many ways, high-end transmitters are more complicated than the aircraft they fly.

Additional Common Hardware Systems

The other hardware systems that aren’t crucial to the archetypical UAV but are nevertheless common include:

  • GPS
  • Ground station
  • Obstacle avoidance
  • Optical flow
  • Telemetry/OSD

1. GPS

Once you transcend the toy group, GPS–often generically known as GNSS to incorporate GLONASS and other systems–is relatively standard on multi-rotors. By providing (comparatively ) precise positional data, GPS enables flight modes such as fixed hovering, automobile return home, orientation control, and security “bubbles” that limit how close the UAV can get to the pilot.

GPS also provides an excess degree of granularity to further improve flight stability. UAVs that are equipped with GPS can usually fly but will lose some of their autonomy. Thus, they’re more dependent on the abilities of the pilot to remain airborne. For GPS to work, a compass can be required to offer to bear, and compass calibration may involve a baroque but crucial pre-flight routine.

2. Ground station

A ground channel is an all-in-one solution for FPV, control, telemetry data, and entire autonomous flying. It might be merged into a single air-end and one ground-end element or may need a complex hardware range—ground stations based on desktop software or an app. Often, the software alone is necessary for operation, though a transmitter can often be tied to it for immediate manual control.

Regardless of the limitation on BVR, which rules out many industrial applications, for aerial video and photo, it’s still possible to make the most of “waypoint” flying to establish highly regulated flight patterns for the sake of predictable, repeatable shots while retaining the aircraft within the visual range.

3. Obstacle avoidance

While GPS and sensors enable UAVs to primarily fly themselves, they operate on the premise of unobstructed air space. Beginning in 2015, we started to see the first consumer crash avoidance systems. Yuneec’s adaptation of Intel® RealSense™, for instance.

Obstacle avoidance offers awareness of the surrounding environment, helping the UAV not bump into anything and memorizing a 3D map that may be called up later when upgrading an autopilot flight line. This technology places UAVs one frightening step nearer to the science fiction/horror nightmare of complete vehicular autonomy.

It should be remembered that having obstacle avoidance isn’t a reason to throw security out the window or willfully function in the area of objects into which you might crash. Software and hardware are fallible, and even with the best systems, the UAV can simply respond so fast. With aircraft exceeding 50 mph speeds and no “brakes,” so to speak, a lot can go wrong–and quick.

4. Optical Flow

Optical flow–called Vision Positioning on DJI-based systems–is intended to do indoors near what GPS does outside at greater altitudes. There’s a camera for taking high-frequency still pictures in a classic implementation to keep tabs on its relative position, with a technique known as”motion estimation.” Since present optical flow may only provide comparative positional data within limited boundaries, it won’t give you complete autonomous functions, such as return home, but enable fixed hovering.

Besides optical flow, some systems, like DJI’s, also feature an ultrasonic emitter and microphone to strengthen vision data à la sonar.

Although designed to support indoor flying, the optical flow doesn’t allow safe operation near, or mostly over, people. It depends on an unobstructed view of the floor (or another static surface) and with current systems is merely good at heights up to 7′ or so, which would place the UAV straight over the normal person’s head, and of course, collide with a lot of basketball players. Furthermore, Ultrasonic systems shouldn’t be used around animals with acute hearing, like dogs, as the emissions are audible and can result in distress or be frightening.

5. Telemetry/OSO

Telemetry is information about your flight–altitude, speed, battery voltage, etc.. This can be looked at in several ways. The old-school way is through a screen built into the transmitter. Sometimes, the telemetry will function on its own radio system with a special frequency.

Therefore a transmitter using a dedicated telemetry receiver or the ability to set up one is necessary. More recent is onscreen display (OSD) and FPV, which superimposes select data over the flight camera video feed. In cases like this, an OSD module is needed, by which the video feed will pass after leaving the camera and before reaching the video transmitter.

UAV Categories

There are no formal definitions, and when there’s one thing we gear heads are famous for, it has endless semantic disputes over correct jargon use. Concerning camera-equipped UAVs and people capable of carrying cameras (excluding the serious RC hobby market), we can roughly break down classes as follows:

  • Consumer
  • Prosumer
  • Professional

Consumer

Here the term “customer” encompasses the “tech toy” category and what we might regard as”newcomer” hobby aircraft. They’re compact, 350-sized maximum (**), or smaller for quads. Even though many have cameras, these cameras are primarily for showing off to friends and FPV; they lack stabilization and are not suitable for most dedicated video or photo use. They tend to not have GPS or even in the means of autonomy but provide “fun” features–you determine whether they’re gimmicks or not –like one-button flips and the ability to “easily” perform other acrobatic maneuvers.

Prosumer

“Prosumer,” slightly nebulously, covers the lower end of aircraft, mostly quadcopter plus a couple of hexa-rotors, which are designed especially with photo and video in mind. A typical implementation is to combine a GoPro HERO or similar action camera with a two – or three-axis gimbal for stability.

We’d put these in the”prosumer” category, as some users might be fans searching for more than what the entry-level provides, while others might be shooters that are mostly into capturing great pictures instead of being RC geeks.

Generally, we’d hesitate to consider the majority of these hobbyist vehicles because nearly all are multi-rotors–and multi-rotors good or otherwise, have a standing in the RC community of being moderately graceless–more about allowing VTOL and fixed camera angles and not as much about performance or proficient technical flying. However, there’s nothing stopping hobbyists from tricking quadcopters out and flying them for the sheer enjoyment of flight.

Professional

Professional UAVs will comprise most Hexa-rotors and virtually all octo-rotors and up. These are explicitly designed to carry payloads, like cameras, concerning platforms which can be bought through retail outlets like B&H, or UAVs max out at about a 25-lb payload in stock configuration.

This is enough to meet even high-end manufacturing requirements. Because of compact, high-speed recording media like CFast and the miniaturization of camera electronics, cinema-quality acquisition is possible in cameras that fall in this weight range.

Drone Safety

UAVs are airborne vehicles that could travel at high speed–up to 50 mph or so for multi-rotor camera systems, and much quicker for fixed-wing planes and RC rotorcraft (i.e., conventional helis). Inherently, they have the potential to be quite dangerous. Most safety advice takes the kind of common sense, but common sense that too often gets ignored.

Here are some general tips to consider:

  • Follow all pre-flight calibration steps very closely, particularly compass and GPS calibration
  • Maintain visual contact at all times–FPV doesn’t count as “visual contact.”
  • Stay below 400′ above ground level (AGL); in some locales, even lower
  • Do not fly over private property, people, or in an urban environment
  • Do not fly within 5 miles of airports, in confined airspace, or close helipads
  • Learn how to control your aircraft, even if you intend on using autopilot performance in training; think about investing in a”newcomer” aircraft or flight simulator software to acquire experience flying

 

Beyond these general safety tips, your very best resource will be other fliers. Specifically, consult RC clubs in the local area and contact organizations such as the AMA for advice. Even if you don’t see yourself as enthusiastic, RC clubs will have the best advice concerning dos and don’ts and must have the ability to direct you to classes in case you would like to learn from a coach or need assistance troubleshooting.

Beyond Multi-Rotors

The buzz nowadays, of course, surrounds multi-rotor configurations, usually quadcopters. However, the RC world has known several Jurassic types that long predate these novices:

  • Helis
  • Planes
  • Sailplanes/Gliders

1. Helis

Helis with multi-rotors is not the same. Helis contains a control surface created after true helicopters and, thus, are extremely tough to fly. There’s one or more main rotor to offer a lift, and a tail rotor to prevent torque by the primary rotor. Multi-rotors, by comparison, have symmetrical-sized propellers, typically designed in clockwise/counterclockwise sets.

2. Planes

Planes are fixed-wing, usually with one nose rotor, like a mini Cessna. The motor could be a little heat engine, particularly in smaller, lighter types, electrical. Jet-inspired turbine engines are also available but not advised for the faint of heart.

3. Sailplanes/Gliders

Once started –tossed into the air–gliders take advantage of thermals, soaring like hawks. A simple battery-powered elevator/rudder system provides the pilot control, making them the right RC aircraft, not only glorified paper planes. Be conscious of cheaters, however. Occasionally motorized aircraft will market themselves as gliders. These imitators feature wide, glider-style flight surfaces, allowing extending slide occasions with the motors shut off. These fake gliders are often utilized in commercial applications, such as mapping, because of their long-range.

Exception

Not all drones fit perfectly into a category. The X-craft X PlusOne, for example, can not decide whether it’s a plane or a multi-rotor. It includes four horizontally-oriented rotors and takes off and lands vertically. However, once safely in the air, a change happens.

The X PlusOne turns 90-degrees and flies” forward,” a static, wing-shaped body providing upward lift. This unorthodox arrangement allows the X PlusOne to reach speeds of around 60 mph. There are no elevons, ailerons, rudders, or kindred flight surfaces in the typical sense. Instead, variations in motor speed are what move it.

 

Which Do I Buy?

Like anything else, this depends upon the intended usage. Aerial imagists should consider their investment as a tool. Typically, the choice will come down to the camera(s) and gimbal systems the UAV supports, and what attributes the flight-control system provides; e.g., most GPS-based aircraft can return home mechanically; though, not all can track a moving subject by locking-on into the subject’s smartphone or smartwatch.

View your applications and search for the feature set that represents the ideal fit. Beginners should also consider picking up a customer copter for the sake of practice.

These may look like kids’ toys, but the basic flying principles are the same. Additionally, if you experience a deadly crash, you are not out a good deal of money. And of course, being lighter and smaller, there is less risk that a collision will lead to damage or harm someone.

One should also think about the completion level. If you’re not a dedicated model builder, opt for ready-to-fly. Or pick a completely assembled aircraft and a transmitter, individually, to go with this. Also, consider power necessities.

The Hexa-rotor (six-rotor) systems need LiPo batteries that can’t be carried on or shipped via commercial aircraft. They need special hazmat certification to ship.  This will limit the availability and make spares costlier to obtain.

If you’re devoted to aerial production, investment in a professional platform may make sense. But if you simply want to include some aerial “B” shots, something in the prosumer range likely makes more sense.

Ultimately, if you have a periodic requirement to fly with something heavier, like a compact cinema camera or DSLR/mirrorless, think about renting or employing an owner-operator on an as-needed basis. They will probably be a better pilot, and you won’t be stuck investing loads of money in a system you rarely use, which will quickly become obsolete.

Post Author: Ethan Thompson

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