COM­PLETE GUIDE TO DRONES

T3 - - Contents - Words: Damien McFer­ran Pho­tog­ra­phy: Olly Cur­tis

Be­come an in­stant ex­pert with our jar­gon-bust­ing guide, and dis­cover what to buy and where to fly

Not so long ago, the idea of fly­ing a drone through the air sounded like some­thing you’d only find in a sci-fi novel. Rapid ad­vances in tech­nol­ogy over the past decade have cre­ated a mar­ket packed with op­tions that cater for bud­ding avi­a­tors of all skill lev­els. If you just want to cap­ture long-dis­tance self­ies on your next sunny hol­i­day, then there’s a drone for that. Per­haps you’re a pro-level pho­tog­ra­pher or film­maker who wants to cap­ture high-qual­ity ae­rial stills and footage – drones make th­ese things pos­si­ble within a re­al­is­tic bud­get, whereas a few years back you’d need to rent a he­li­copter as well as the equip­ment to achieve the same re­sults. There’s even a thriv­ing sub-set of drones aimed at peo­ple who value thrillseek­ing over any­thing else; drone rac­ing is a bur­geon­ing pas­time which is sup­ported by a wide se­lec­tion of prod­ucts and even pro­fes­sional leagues.

Drones – or ‘Un­manned Ae­rial Ve­hi­cles’ as they’re more for­mally known – have ac­tu­ally been around for a lot longer than you might as­sume. The term ‘drone’ was first used in re­la­tion to the Fairey Queen re­mote-con­trolled re­con­nais­sance air­craft, of which three were built in the 1920s. The idea of un­manned air­craft was, of course, in­cred­i­bly ap­peal­ing to mil­i­tary and naval ex­perts, be­cause it meant hu­man lives didn’t have to be at risk dur­ing dan­ger­ous mis­sions. As drone tech­nol­ogy and the ma­te­ri­als used to build them have ma­tured over the last few decades, the con­cept of minia­ture UAVs has be­come a re­al­ity. Along with this, there have been rapid im­prove­ments in things like flight con­trol, power sup­ply and drone con­struc­tion – all which have cul­mi­nated in the con­sumer-level drone mar­ket that we know to­day.

Drone ori­gins

De­spite the daz­zling ar­ray of dif­fer­ent UAVs, most drones con­form to the same ba­sic de­sign prin­ci­ples. Four pro­pel­lers – one pair ro­tat­ing clock­wise and the other counter-clock­wise – are pow­ered by mo­tors con­trolled by a cen­tral pro­cess­ing unit that in­ter­prets com­mands from the user and turns them into ac­cu­rate and re­spon­sive move­ment, even when the unit is be­ing buffed by strong winds. In the past, many drones utilised ro­tary DC mo­tors, but more man­u­fac­tur­ers have now adopted brush­less mo­tors due to their dura­bil­ity, power and re­li­a­bil­ity.

An­other key com­po­nent of the drone is the gy­ro­scope. Most de­vices sold to­day have at least a three-axis (or 3D) gyro. Dur­ing flight, a drone is con­stantly be­ing sub­jected to forces such as wind re­sis­tance and grav­ity it­self, not to men­tion your own – of­ten er­ratic – com­mands. The in­ter­nal gyro can de­tect even tiny dif­fer­ences in ori­en­ta­tion and feeds data back to the drone’s cen­tral com­puter, which al­lows it to ad­just the pro­pel­lers and main­tain a steady course – some­thing it does mul­ti­ple times ev­ery sec­ond. A three-axis gyro can mea­sure roll (front to back), pitch (side to side) and yaw (ver­ti­cal), but many modern de­vices are equipped with a more ad­vanced ‘six-axis’ gyro; this adds an

ac­celerom­e­ter, which means it can also de­tect static ac­cel­er­a­tion (due to grav­ity) and the amount of dy­namic ac­cel­er­a­tion dur­ing flight. This makes for a more as­sured ride and means the drone can de­tect when it’s ap­proach­ing the ground and ex­e­cute safety pre­cau­tions ac­cord­ingly. If you want a drone that prom­ises the smoothest flight, look­ing out for a six-axis gyro is a must.

If there’s one com­mon com­plaint that all UAVs share, it’s stamina. Bat­tery life con­tin­ues to be a weak­ness in drones of all shapes and sizes, so don’t ex­pect to get more than a few min­utes of us­age out of pock­et­sized ex­am­ples. Even at the up­per end of the scale, your flight time is never go­ing to be mea­sured in hours, although a lot of drones come with re­mov­able bat­ter­ies so you can land, re­place the power cell and take off again with­out hav­ing to wait to recharge. Ad­vances in power ef­fi­ciency and mo­tors are hap­pen­ing all the time, and man­u­fac­tur­ers are find­ing ways of gain­ing a few more valu­able min­utes with each hard­ware re­vi­sion. How­ever, this is likely to be a weak­ness in this sec­tor for a while yet.

Pick the right drone for you

De­spite the ba­sic sim­i­lar­i­ties be­tween th­ese ma­chines, not all drones are cre­ated equal. At the lower end of the mar­ket you’ll find plenty of cheap and cheer­ful op­tions that give novices the chance to get their heads around the idea of fly­ing a UAV. A good ex­am­ple is the Par­rot Mambo, a tiny drone that’s pitched as a be­gin­ner-level prod­uct and has even been utilised in a class­room en­vi­ron­ment in con­junc­tion with the cod­ing plat­form Tynker. Fea­tur­ing con­nec­tiv­ity with com­pan­ion smart­phone apps, th­ese bud­get drones are some­times equipped with low-res­o­lu­tion cam­eras but lack ad­vanced fea­tures; they’re best used in­doors where their small size and low speed won’t get bul­lied by the el­e­ments.

The next level up is dom­i­nated by com­pact but pow­er­ful fold­ing drones, de­signed to of­fer a wide range of fea­tures in a form fac­tor that’s small enough to be car­ried around with ease. Ex­am­ples such as the re­cently re­leased DJI Mavic 2 Pro show­case just how ver­sa­tile this sec­tor of the drone mar­ket has be­come in re­cent years; its gim­bal-sta­bilised cam­era can shoot 4K video, mak­ing it se­ri­ously at­trac­tive for am­a­teur film­mak­ers who want to get some ver­ti­cal­ity in their work.

Speak­ing of which, a gim­bal – which, in case you were won­der­ing, is a piv­ot­ing mount that ro­tates about all three axes, giv­ing the cam­era its own sta­bil­i­sa­tion sep­a­rate from the the drone’s – is a feature that you’ll cer­tainly want to have if you in­tend to shoot video while your drone’s up in the air. It al­lows the cam­era to re­main steady even when the drone it­self is chang­ing di­rec­tion, and is a mas­sive im­prove­ment on the of­ten dis­ap­point­ing dig­i­tal sta­bil­i­sa­tion sys­tems that’s in­cor­po­rated into small drones.

At the up­per end of the ‘pro­sumer’ drone mar­ket, you’ll find units that cost thou­sands of pounds and come with their own hulk­ing flight cases. Th­ese high-end ex­am­ples are also packed with fea­tures such as col­li­sion

You’ll want a gim­bal if you in­tended to shoot video while the drone’s fly­ing

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