COMPLETE GUIDE TO DRONES
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.
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