How to Buy a Drone: 6 Things to Consider
The drone market is so new, most potential buyers aren’t aware of what they need and what to look for. The options can be very complicated and prices can vary wildly from $300 to over $100,000 for drones available to civilians. Sometimes you’re expected to provide certain things on your own and that may not be clear to anyone not technically familiar with the equipment. I’ve gathered a list of six things many people won’t think to consider when buying a drone as well as some general tips to help you make your decision. These come largely from my own experience discussing options with potential customers.
Check Local UAV Regulations
Being so new, unmanned vehicles are in varying states of legality throughout the world. Be sure to check with your country’s airspace regulating organization. In the United States for example, commercial use of drones is completely disallowed until 2015 when the FAA is required to regulate their integration into the airspace. They are, however, allowed for non-commercial use in domestic airspace for operation under 400′ AGL, within line of site and out of controlled airspace. Australia and the UK have advanced regulations already in place by which an operator can become certified to operate with certain restrictions. Some countries have not even addressed drone usage yet. On top of that, drones equipped with a camera may also be restricted in your area for privacy issues.
Determine Your Price Range
Drones vary by 2 to 3 orders of magnitude in price and because of a limited number of providers the gaps between prices can be large. All of my experience is in the <10k USD price range and that’s where most people are looking, so that’s where I’ll focus. I’d break down the price bands into the following groups (estimated ‘all included’ prices):
- <400 e.g. Parrot AR Drone
- <1000 e.g. uDrones, DJI
- 1,000-2,000 e.g. Event 38 Unmanned Systems (my company)
- 3,000-4,000 e.g. ResearchDrones LLC
- 13,000-30,000 e.g. Sensefly
- 30,000+ e.g. Gatewing
Check Radio Frequencies Used
Systems can use several different radio frequencies and many use 2 or 3 concurrently. Make sure the frequencies used on your system of choice are allowed in your country. Common frequencies are listed below:
Also be sure that the power used is within the allowable limits. 100mW and 1W are common limits assuming omnidirectional transmitting antennas.
Takeoff and Landing
For fixed wing aircraft, take off and landing need to be considered. Most small UAS are launched by hand or with a small catapult. Recovery will take one of 3 forms: automatic landing, manual landing, parachute recovery. For manual landing, you will have to learn to operate the aircraft for the final approach and landing, something which can be tricky at first. Automatic landing can be a deceptive term… Most autopilots today have limited accuracy in landing so you may need a large open area to ensure safe recovery. Don’t expect military-precision automatic landing from commercial drones just yet. Parachutes may be the best solution requiring neither manual flight nor a very large area, just be sure not to release the parachute upwind of tall trees! Some larger UAS require a hard packed runway to take off and land because of their size and weight.
What is Included
Make sure you’re aware of what is included in any system you buy. You may be expected to provide your own batteries, battery charger, camera or even an R/C controller. Most providers allow you to use your own laptop as a ground station or will provide one pre-configured for the system.
Fact: Your drone will, through normal usage, crash or otherwise be damaged. The reliability is just not as high as manned aircraft and you are probably not as well trained as a commercial pilot. Check on the price and availability of replacement airframes. Lead time can be anything from a few days to many weeks so you’ll want to know ahead of time what to expect. Some airframes, especially small foam ones, are easy to repair in the field with tape or glue. Anything with fiberglass or wood will be difficult or impossible to repair, so you may want to have spares on hand.
A lot of equipment, especially for lower cost drones, is borrowed from the R/C world. There are plenty of confusing acronyms and hardly-documented terminology that will not help in your mission to buy a drone. Below I’ve listed some of the common terms that get thrown around that the general public won’t be familiar with, including some that are specific to drones.
- Drone/UAV/UAS – All are basically the same thing with slightly different connotations. Essentially, it’s a pilotless aircraft often with some level of autonomy.
- FPV – First Person View… Refers to live video being transmitted to the ground station for the operator to see what the plane sees in flight.
- RTF – Ready to Fly… Generally means the aircraft will arrive completely assembled but does not mean that the kit will include everything needed to fly (often it refers to only the aircraft and the user is expected to provide all electronics)
- TX/RX – Transmitter/Receiver… Can refer to any component transmitting or receiving data. Generally it refers ambiguously to the R/C Controller, telemetry radios and video radios.
- R/C – Remote(/Radio) Control… Can refer either to the entire hobby of controlling any vehicle remotely or can refer specifically to the handheld device that transmits the controls (R/C Controller)
- mAh or Ah – MilliAmp Hours or Amp Hours… Refers to the capacity of a battery to deliver a specified number of Amps or Milliamps for a number of hours. For example a battery that can deliver 5 Amps (5000 Milliamps) for one hour is 5Ah (5000mAh). The same battery could deliver 2.5A for 2 hours. The rating ignores the voltage of the battery so it’s not an accurate way to compare battery capacities unless they have the same number of cells. This is limited by the *C current rating described as well.
- *S – Number of cells of a LiPo battery… e.g. 4S is a 4 cell battery. Each cell is nominally 3.7V so this also tells you the voltage of the pack.
- *C – Capacity of the battery, used as a multiplier. Most batteries are rated for a certain rate of discharge. A 30C battery is rated to delivery 30 times its own capacity (e.g. a 5Ah 30C battery can deliver 150A). This rating is often dangerously overstated, especially in Chinese-made batteries. De-rate this by at least a factor of 2 for Chinese-made batteries.