I don’t know how to answer that. I feel like I’ve learned a lot, but haven’t achieved very much. After almost a year of messing around with drones, I have roughly five hours of flying experience. Pretty disappointing.
But a few things stand out. Let me summarize:
Don’t play with toys:
Unless of course your whole objective is to play with toys. Mine is to learn how to fly, and then move up to making movies with good quality video. Toy-grade drones, which I will arbitrarily define as costing less than US$40, are largely a waste of time and money.
They are so tiny and light-weight that they are close to impossible to fly outdoors. And why would you? Unless you have perfect vision, you’re likely to lose sight of it outdoors and therefore have it disappear into the distance, as my first drone did. I wasn’t sorry. But if bouncing your drone a few times off the walls and ceiling, and then crashing into the Christmas tree is your thing, you’ll be well amused. For five minutes.
To brush or not to brush?:
When you choose your first drone, not knowing much about anything, look for the word “brushless.” Brushed motors are cheaper, but they need gears and spindles which can break and collect dust and dirt, plus they are more difficult to control. It doesn’t matter if you don’t understand the difference, just buy a drone with brushless motors.
You won’t regret it.
Unless you’re the kind of person who likes to spend ten times as long repairing a drone as flying it. Drones with brushed motors break a lot and crash a lot.
Do I need GPS?:
Probably. Maybe. Maybe not.
If you’re a beginner, there are pros and cons. A drone with GPS enabled is so much easier to control, you’d probably never want to fly anything else. But, with GPS, you’ll never really learn how to fly. There are situations where GPS will not work correctly – indoors, near buildings, power lines, transformers, cell towers, etc. – so it’s a good idea to be able to fly without GPS.
Now, with the drone industry being what it is – innovative, rapidly expanding – features like GPS are appearing on the lower-priced hobby drones. Even ones less than US$100. So, unless you’re thinking of spending more like US$50, getting a drone with GPS probably makes sense. But; spend some time flying with GPS disabled.
On-line buying is a minefield:
This is probably true whatever you’re buying, but my experience has been that drones and drone parts are not properly tested, and so online buying is particularly troublesome. An editorial in a recent Drone France magazine claimed that drone purchasers are the beta testers. I’d have to agree. Anything that sort-of works is mailed out to purchasers for them to find the bugs. So some drones don’t work, some crash on their first flight, and some plain fly away on their own.
From watching online reviews, I’d say this is even true of the top-of-the-line manufacturers – even the one with the three initials I, J & D, not in that order.
It’s when you have problems with your drone or spares that your nightmares will start. Some sellers will ignore you. Some will wait at least a couple of weeks before offering a partial refund. Some you’ll have to threaten. My advice, if you have to order online, is to use a company that is represented in your country of residence. It makes returns easier, and simple things like phone calls cheaper. Shipping is way faster too.
Some say Amazon is the best and will replace anything without question. Sadly I can’t test this, as most things they won’t deliver to Thailand.
Be prepared for disappointment:
Drone flying is way harder than it looks, and harder than the promo videos would have you believe. Even the pros admit to crashing into trees and buildings, landing in the sea or lakes, running out of battery power, and making all kinds of stupid mistakes.
So, if you want to stick with drone flying as a hobby, be prepared to spend a lot more money than you’d expected. The saying “You can never buy just one” is so true. You’ll need two or three on hand, so you still have something to fly after your latest mishap.
Micro SD cards are not all created equal:
You’re merrily flying around, looking down at the FPV screen on the controller, and thinking “I’m getting some awesome video here.” But when you get home and plug the micro SD card into your computer, you discover there are major chunks of the video missing. Which makes you very not happy.
The thing is, if you have a reasonably good (not toy-grade) video camera on your phone, it creates a lot of data. If the SD card is not particularly good quality, the write speed is not fast enough to store everything the camera throws at it. And so you end up with chunks missing. Actually, what happens is, the video freezes, and you end up looking at one frame for two seconds or twenty.
All of which means, you need to spend as much as possible on the card. My research says the best is Sandisk Extreme Pro, but please do your own research too. As with everything, you can get something not quite as good as the best for a lower price, but you may lose some video. Is it worth saving a few bucks?
Do you have a spare phone?:
A good one? One with a large screen? Drone manufacturers seem to think we all have lots of phones and can just grab a spare and fasten it to the controller.
Well, you don’t have to. But you do want to see where you’re flying, right? Which means you need some kind of screen in order to view the video the camera is sending back.
The cheap drones I’ve flown, the Cheerson CX-23 and CX-35 both had screens fixed to the controller. Makes sense to me. But most of the more expensive ones expect you to fit a phone or tablet. For sure, when I upgrade, I’ll be looking for something that has a screen. Okay, most likely I’ll need an app on a phone or tablet too, in order to configure the drone, but it won’t be exclusively used as the FPV screen.
I watched a drone review recently and suddenly the reviewer seemed to be holding a conversation with an invisible person. He was on the phone. While it was fixed to the controller. While the drone was flying! While he was making a video. I don’t think I want to do that.
So what about 2108?:
I plan to get my act together. Stop messing around with cheap drones that aren’t fit for purpose – even if they do advertise themselves as “Better than a DJI whatever.” I will need to spend more time and money. I will need to continue learning how to fly well, how to get the right video, how to edit it properly. I hope not to have to say “2018 has been disappointing.” And you’ll be able to read all about it right here on The Drone Diaries.