For Outside’s March Issue, contributing editor Eric Hansen piloted his Phantom quadcopter across the country, throttling up wherever he could. Hansen, who’d never flown a drone before, was able to get airborne after watching a few YouTube tutorials on his tablet—a testament to how accessible these devices have become. But what exactly are they, and how do you get your hands on one?
With approximately zero minutes of flight time under my belt, I was a total beginner as I set out to see what it really takes to get into the drone game. I tested three models, all of which I crashed. Many times.
Drones come in all shapes and sizes, but for this review, I only tested quadcopters, which are often ready to fly out of the box and a great way to get started. Single prop, fixed-wing, and octocopters are also common, but can be a bit trickier to fly and require more technical knowledge. I also focused on systems that cost less than $1,500. While you can easily buy advanced units that will carry large cameras for a long time, you will pay for those extra features—sometimes up to $40,000.
Drones are fun, and for now they’re just toys. Under FAA regulations, hobbyists must keep their crafts lower than 400 feet and the commercial use of drones is prohibited under the agency’s current framework. Granted, that is expected to change in the near future.
So whether you’re scoping out a new line or filming your buddy as he drops in before you, drones are effective, versatile tools for the outdoors. Here’s how to get started.
Syma’s X1 Quad Copter ($35)
Best For: Learning to fly
Flight Time/Battery: 5-7 minutes
Range: 130 feet
No one is born a remote-control master, so be prepared to crash your first drone again and again. For starters, buy an inexpensive quadcopter—these can cost less than $50 and are a good way to get used to the controls. Try Syma’s X1 Quad Copter, which costs $35. Note—this little demon is the hardest to fly of the three I tested, but if you master this drone, you’re well on your way to becoming a certified pilot. The Blade Nano QX RTF at $90 is another popular entry-level unit.
The responsive Syma is a good introduction to the basics of flying a quadcopter. Unlike many other small units, the Syma does not have six-axis stabilization. This forces you to fly manually, a learn-by-crashing approach. Thankfully, this thing is durable. Very durable. Brick walls, parking lots, truck beds, the Syma bounced back from it all. Find some open space outside or even a large empty room and practice keeping the drone steady.
Cons: This drone can be frustrating to fly, but don’t give up. Just because you haven’t mastered the Syma doesn’t mean you won’t be able to fly the more high-end drones, which tend to be easier to control.
Parrot AR 2.0 ($300)
Best For: Annoying (and spying on) the neighbors
Flight Time/Battery: 9-12 minutes
Range: 165 feet
With a few devastating crashes behind you, it’s time to look toward a more expensive drone such as the Parrot AR 2.0. With its front-facing 720p HD camera, the Parrot allows you to record your flights and get some amazing aerial perspectives. Controlled by your iOS or Android device, the Parrot streams real-time video to your phone as you fly. This alien looking spacecraft is, simply put, really fun.
The AR 2.0 comes with two body shells—a large protective frame for indoor flights and a lightweight aerodynamic hull for the outdoors. Between the free AR Drone app and a GPS Flight Recorder, you can track and even program out a route for the UAV. Plus, this device is very easy to operate. With good flight times and a lot of features, the AR 2.0 is a great way to determine if you’re destined to be a drone pilot.
Cons: The iPhone or Android controls are impressive and easy to use, but they aren’t very responsive or exact compared to those of more advanced models. Plus, the 165-foot control range can be a little restrictive.
DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-2D Gimbal ($920)
Best for: Adventure filmmaking
Flight Time/Battery: 19-24 minutes
Range: ~900 feet
Camera: Phantom Vision - 1080p | With GoPro Hero3+ - up to 1440p
DJI has led the rise of quadcopters, and for good reason. The latest Phantom 2 is an incredible unit with huge potential for aerial photographers and filmmakers.
The DJI system either comes with a stabilized onboard camera that shoots 1080p video and can capture 14 megapixel stills, or you can swap the stock camera for the latest GoPro. Using the Zenmuse H3-2D brushless gimbal—the stabilizing attachment made exclusively for a GoPro—you’ll have slightly more control of the camera settings and better resolution. (Disclaimer—I didn’t test the built-in camera, but I doubt it will be able to compete with the quickly-evolving GoPro action-cams.)
Either of the cameras can be rigged to wirelessly transmit video, allowing you to watch and control what you’re shooting. And both of these Phantom models let you customize your shots and develop your flying and filmmaking skills.
The Phantom is incredibly stable and (relatively) easy to fly—I did unintentionally fly this drone into a tree. With improved range and a flight time of more than 20 minutes, the Phantom will likely become a standard piece of kit for any filmmaker. The "return-to-home" feature gives you some peace of mind because the Phantom will automatically circle back to its takeoff point if the unit goes out of controller range.
Cons: The Phantom 2’s components are mostly plastic and therefore hard to repair. DIY types won’t be able to tinker much with the drone’s frame, and will have to satisfy themselves with the internal components.
Bad stuff happens when you panic. In other words, if you’re prone to power up on the throttle when something is going wrong—resist. Also, focus on where you are in relation to the drone during flight. If you're thinking about how to turn left and right, it might already be too late.