Eric Cheng

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Stop buying crappy, anonymous drones!

The number of anonymous toy quadcopters being sold is staggering

Hi, everyone! Are you going to buy a toy drone this holiday season? If you are, I have a plea: don't buy crappy drones! And if you do, don't fly them outside! I was interviewed as an expert today as part of a TV segment that will air next Tuesday. Part of the show involved showing what it's like to buy and use random, no-name "drones" (toy quadcopters). The reporter was actually not bad as a first-time pilot, especially when tasked with flying toy quadcopters outside, but during an unsupervised moment (I went inside to get something), she flew one of the toy drones too high (about 50 feet up). Immediately, the wind took it out a couple hundred feet from us. I ran outside, took over the controls, and tried to fly it back; unfortunately, we were flying a fairly crappy toy quadcopter designed for indoor use, and it could not overcome the wind. Eventually, the quadcopter descended out of sight; luckily, we were flying over a shrubby hill (not over people or structures), and the toy quad was small and light.

I am a strong advocate of buying and using small trainer drones. They are small and inexpensive, and it's virtually impossible to hurt anyone with one. At the NASA UTM conference last summer, I joked from stage that you'd "literally have to swallow one to make it hurt someone." No one laughed, but someone came up to me afterwards and said, appreciatively, that I was the only speaker at the conference who had cracked a joke. But not all toy drones are made equally. I was told that the one that was lost today was about $80, which is actually enough to buy a trainer quad that flies pretty well. Instead, we were flying around something that did not instill confidence even when it was working at its best. My metric for a good trainer drone is that it should behave the way you expect it to. If a drone is responsive to stick inputs, you can grow as a pilot as you practice. If a drone can barely be controlled even when it's working at it's best, it's junk, and you shouldn't buy it.

An incredible number of crappy drones at Fry's Electronics (credit: Becky Worley)

There's a problem, though. If you walk into your local consumer electronics store like Fry's Electronics, you'll find rows of what I like to call "anonymous drones." These are drones from random Chinese companies that use standard "drone on a chip" electronics with different shells, and most of them fly horribly. Many of the boxes advertise that the drones inside have cameras onboard, and some even have displays attached to their remote controllers, but almost all of them are terrible in the air. If you're going to buy a toy quadcopter or a larger drone with a useful camera, please do research before you buy something! I recommend reading the following drone buying guides:

There is also my book, Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, which is written for beginners who want to take pictures from the air. It has a lot of tips for how to become a competent pilot and aerial photographer.

Many of us in the drone industry have converged on a few drone models that we consistently recommend. The specific models, and the companies that make them, have been around for awhile; they are proven, and there are often hundreds of reviews on sites like Amazon to back up their worth as drones (sorted by increasing price):

  • Cheerson CX-10 ($17) - Tiny, inexpensive drone that fits in the palm of your hand. Flies really well for its size, and can be pretty fast if you unlock advanced flight modes.
  • Hubsan X4 ($50) or H108 ($40) - A universally-loved, inexpensive trainer quad.
  • Blade Nano QX ($90) - Recommended by everyone; my favorite trainer quad because it flies a lot like larger camera drones
  • DJI Phantom 3 Advanced ($999) - The best deal on a real camera drone, by far. You can't pack this much tech into any quadcopter you can build yourself. Upgrade to the Phantom 3 Professional ($1259) for a 4K camera and faster battery charger.
  • Yuneec Q500 Typhoon ($1099) - Has similar specs as the Phantom 3 Professional (4K camera), but also comes with a hand-held gimbal mount for the onboard camera and an Android device embedded into its remote controller. The Q500 is a great value, but the performance is not quite as good as a Phantom 3. The quad is less responsive (actually a benefit for new pilots), is Wi-Fi based (not as robust as DJI's Lightbridge tech), and is much larger (hard to backpack around). Still, you get a lot for your money, so it's an enticing package.

There are definitely other gems in the world of inexpensive toy quadcopters, but they can be hard to find. Read reviews, buy a small trainer drone, get some practice, and then get something like a Phantom or similar camera drone when you are ready to go outside!

Again, my plea is that you don't impulse buy drones at your local consumer electronics store. Do some research and buy something that is likely to actually work, and once you get your drone (before you fly), read the manual, and if you're in the USA, check out the guidelines for recreational users at the FAA's Know Before You Fly campaign site. Finally, before you fly outside, check out to see where you should and shouldn't fly (outside).