Buying a Quadcopter
Start Small and Learn
Whatever your goal, most newbies should start at the same place – with the purchase of micro or mini sized quadcopter (and possibly a good simulator) and hours of initial practice.
The toy drones you will learn to fly on are largely disposable – they work great and are loads of fun to fly, but the motors and other parts tend to wear quickly. The prices have come down so low that I often suggest buying 2 of the same model – that way you have an extra battery, 4 replacement motors and other extra parts. In many cases this costs less than stocking up on spare parts.
First Newbie Rule of Drones
You WILL crash your quadcopter many times while you are learning and repairs/replacements for a small quad are much less expensive than with a larger model.
Nanos vs. Micros vs. Minis vs. Full Size
Although there is no official definition of these size ranges, a rough grouping would go somewhat like this:
Nano drones/quadcopters – these are truly tiny – often not much bigger than a large coin (and much lighter in weight). Although a fun demonstration of technology, they are not suggested for beginners because of their poor flight characteristics. Examples include the Estes Proto X and WL Toys 272.
Micro drones/quadcopters – these fit into the palm of your hand and measure 3 to 4 inches diagonally motor to motor. Most of them are “direct drive”, which means the motors directly spin the propellers (no gears). Total weight is approx. 1.5-2.5 ounces (40-60 grams) with battery.
Mini drones/quadcopters – these are quite a bit larger and measure 8-10” diagonally motor to motor. Many of them use the same motors as the Micros, but use gearing to drive larger propellers. Total weight is usually approx. 3 ounces (80+- grams) with battery.
Full Size Quadcopters – are classified by weight rather than size, as the bigger motors and batteries and payloads are the most important parts of the system. Most larger quads are direct drive – that is, the brushless (higher quality) motors directly mount to the propellers. They weigh in at between 1 to 2.2 lb+ (1/2 to 1+ kg).
For newbies, either a micro or a mini will be a fine learning platform. Those who intend to learn indoors will probably be better off with the micro size.
Starting with Simulators
There are computer programs available which may help give you the feel of flying a quadcopter. These run the gamut from inexpensive smartphone or tablet apps to much more sophisticated PC and Mac software which can use a real R/C transmitter connected to your computer via USB. Some examples of the genre and their capabilities are as follows:
Heli-X (www.heli-x.net) – This is a program which has numerous models of quadcopters built into it. A program such as this can really help you to learn to fly – and, although somewhat costly ($70-$180), are definitely worth the money for the serious pilot who wants to crash less in the real world. Note – a free trial is available, so be sure it works and suits your style before you make a purchase.
AeroSIM RC (http://www.aerosimrc.com) – This is another full-fledged simulator program with many models and modes built in.
IndoorHeliSim (Google Play Store) a free android app that is quadcopter only. This app simple, but effective and had various settings so you can get the feel as a beginner or a more advanced flyer.
FPV Freerider (http://fpv-freerider.itch.io/fpv-freerider) for Mac, PC and Linux – free demo and only $4.99 for the program. This simulator is aimed at those who want to do FPV racing or acro (acrobatic) flight.
NeXt Flight Simulator (http://www.rc-aerobatics.eu/cgm-rc-heli-simulator_e.html) – This full featured sim has dozens of helicopters and also a few popular quadcopters such as the Phantom.
DJI Phantom and other DJI Models – have a flight simulator built into the DJI Go App. You must, however, own the product in order to access this full featured simulator.
How much will this hobby cost?
This is somewhat variable depending on your wants, needs and budget. If you are happy with the smaller range of quadcopters, a year of fun can be had for the price of a couple fancy dinners out. On the other hand, if you are the proverbial fool who is easily parted with his/her money and buy a $1,500+ setup and instantly dunk it in the river while taking your first video (yes, it’s done quite often), then it will set you back quite a bit more. Since this is a newbies book, let’s set a starting budget of about $200 total for a couple small quads, extra batteries, accessories, modifications and repairs. If you decide to take a step up to much larger photo/video craft like a Phantom 3 the total will likely be triple that or more. A wider range would be from $200-$2,000 – depending on where you want to go with your 2nd or 3rd quadcopter.
Which model to buy first?
As in many other endeavors, not only is the brand and model of importance, but also the vendor (store, online site) you decide to purchase from. Some vendors are China or Hong Kong based and some offer very good prices and are reliable and honest. However, a (USA-based) newbie should consider purchasing from a US based vendor (shipper) when possible for a number of reasons. First, communication with the foreign vendors can often be difficult – not so with your local hobby shop, Amazon (US shipped only) or the better US based sellers. Secondly, it can take weeks for shipments to arrive – no need to play the waiting game to save $5 or $10. Consider the return policy (defective product), parts availability and advice. Therefore, the author suggests one of the following vendors or types of vendors:
A local hobby shop – Unfortunately, many areas do not have shops that specializes in quadcopters – but, if you do, this may be the first place to look. Check to see if they have a friendly and knowledgeable staff and can answer your questions and concerns.
Online specialists or Big Retailers – there are a number of vendors who specialize in quadcopters. Some examples at the time of this writing:
Horizon Hobby – maker and distributor of the well regarded Blade products – known for good support after the sale.
Amazon and eBay also have nice selections – often sold through retailers who partner with them.
Banggood – a well known Chinese merchant, now had a USA Warehouse with quick shipping and low prices on toy quadcopters.
Quadcopters are popular all over the world. In fact, sales of this book are doing very well in the UK, France as well as elsewhere. Many people have no choice but to purchase from the Hong Kong and Chinese vendors – and there are some with very decent reputations. As of this writing, Banggood.com is one such vendor which seems to treat customers well. As always, look into the reputation of your chosen vendor. It will be easy to find discussions about the various suppliers on the online R/C forums.
About returns and refunds
It is rare for a new quadcopter to have factory defects – more likely, the customer takes it out the box, flies it into a couple walls and then claims it’s broken. In other cases, the customer simply does not know how to calibrate or fly the drone. Many vendors do not accept returns of used quadcopters – as well they shouldn’t – since most damage is often of the “you crashed it, you broke it” variety. However, for those cases where something is truly wrong out-of-the-box, the return policies of Amazon and other vendors (and even paypal payment) could come in handy. Using the Chinese vendors, very popular due to low pricing, usually means that you cannot return the product even if defective in the box. Depending on the vendor, you may be able to get a replacement part for no charge.
Higher end vendors such as Horizon Hobby (Blade Quadcopters) and Traxxas have better customer service, return and warranty policies. However, you will pay more for their machines. It’s up to you, the consumer, as to which makes most sense to you.
Don’t be a Pioneer when Purchasing!
It’s best to avoid newly introduced models of quadcopters, even from established companies. Reliability is often poor and parts are not immediately available. Models which have been on the market for a year or longer usually have been improved to deal with initial quality control problems. Go with the tried and true for your initial, and perhaps even your later, drone models.
Wait before you get an expensive Camera Model
Many of the toy quadcopters have upgraded models with photo and video capabilities. These will be tempting as many pilots foresee taking aerial shots. However, the best first quadcopter is a stripped-down model with no camera or extras. This will allow you to put your full concentration on flight and not think about “getting the shot”. Beginners also have a tendency to crash and/or lose their first quadcopter(s) – so you will have the opportunity to buy a camera model soon enough!
Note: Some models, such as the Syma X5C, include a camera and are inexpensive enough for a first machine. Still, it’s better to ignore the camera until you get the basic idea of how to fly.
Your Flying Grounds
Before choosing a model and size, consider your living and yard spaces and where you intend to take your first flights. If you picked this book up mid-winter in Maine, chances are that you are going to try to learn indoors! The same goes if you live in a small apartment – a micro quad will make a smaller space seem a little bit bigger, so they can be ideal for those who are a bit tight on space. Some other considerations to keep in mind are:
1. Wind resistance – micros, since they provide a smaller wind profile, are usually better in a breeze.
2. Visibility – as you improve you may have interest in flying your quad a bit further away from your person – a micro will quickly become a very small dot once it is more than about 40 feet away! Minis can be flown up to 200 feet away with some success.
Most flyers will eventually have at least one of both sizes, so you really can’t go wrong with this decision.
Note – although learning indoors is possible, your family is unlikely to take to you crashing into the good furniture. An open basement or garage provides a better starting place – even better would be to have a practice room with carpet or soft flooring!
Brand Names and Models
The following units are examples of good first quads.
Hubsan X4 -H107 (Micro – $25-$50) – buy the optional prop guard if you are just getting started. This is an improved newer version of the X4…the first version had some shortcomings.
Syma X11 – ($30) In-between a micro and mini size, this is becoming a new favorite of many for learning and messing around. It comes with propeller guards as standard. It uses gears to drive the props – so you will have to eventually replace both the gears and motors.
Syma X5C – ($50) – Mini-sized and perhaps the most popular starter quad in the middle size range. More expensive variations of this model have “FPV” where your smartphone mounts on the TX and can see what the quadcopter camera is pointing at. Most beginners would be better with the base model as this type of monitor can distract from actual flying.
Blade Nano QX (Micro – $80) – if you don’t mind spending the money, this is a high quality and capable learning machine.
Dromida Ominus (Mini – $70) – a decent machine – a newer and more advanced design.
JJRC 1000 – ($35) Great starter drone somewhat in-between the micro and the mini size.
These, of course, are not the only quadcopters which would fit a beginner, but they should give most fledgling pilots a good place to start. The appendix contains both a list of manufacturers and a list of some of the quadcopters to consider in 2015. You can also find up-to-date reviews at droneflyers.com
How about the DJI Phantom or other larger models?
DJI Phantom models are very popular “flying cameras” for video and photography. We have included a chapter later in this book about the Phantoms…and also have published two additional books on the Phantom line. Budding pilots with little or no R/C and flying experience should probably start with some “toy grade” models as outlined in the following pages. If you want to “start big” you could consider a used or refurbished Phantom 1 or “new old stock” Phantom 2 model (approx. $340), but be sure you do your learning in a large open area. A GPS stabilized quadcopter such as the Phantom will actually be much easier to fly than many of the toy machines, but you will not learn as much about manual flying.
A very careful and conservative newbie who takes the time to carefully study the manuals, videos, etc. could probably skip the toy models and start with a Phantom – but in my experience this type of pilot is rare.
Note: More information on DJI models can be found later in this publication.
Are the Parrot Bebop and AR Drone for beginners?
These are mid-sized drones which are controlled from a smartphone or tablet computer. Both machines advertise full feature sets – however they operate differently than most of the quadcopters on the market and have a very short flying range (stock). In general we do not suggest any of the Parrot models for beginners (nor for more advanced pilots). The same goes for other models based on smartphone-only control. For proper flying of drones you need to “learn the sticks” of a standard R/C controller.
FAA Registration – Not needed for Toys (under 250 grams)
As of December, 2015 the FAA has requested that all drone pilots register and get a “tail number” which must be displayed on your equipment. This pertains only to larger and heavier quads – those over 250 grams. Registration is only $5 and can be done online at https://www.faa.gov/uas/registration/. Most beginner quadcopters are less than the 250 gram limit so no need to register yet!
About 3-4 Axis and 6 Axis Stability
Another consideration when choosing a first quadcopter is whether you want to learn in a more manual fashion or have help in the form of features which make flying and control easier. Although these terms sound technical, the summary is that 6-axis quadcopters will self-level when the operator takes their fingers off the right control stick. 3-4 axis models will continue in the direction they were going – even if that direction is a steep angle toward the ground. In general, a 6 axis quad will be easier to fly, but that may not be what you desire. As an example, if your interest in this hobby involves flying acrobatically, doing flips or racing pylons then you will need a lot of manual skills. The 3 or 4 Axis quad will force you to learn more about all the forces in motion. If you really want to learn some of the ropes, consider the 3-4 axis a better tool for the job – or, get one of each! One will build your confidence and the other will build your skill set. At the time of this writing, these are some popular starter quads and their number of axis:
3 or 4 Axis – Syma X1, WL Toys 929, HCW 553
6 Axis – Blade Nano QX (has a 4-axis mode also), Walkera QR Ladybird, WL Toys V202/212/222, Vitality H36, MJX X100, Hubsan X4 H107, JXD 388, Syma X5, X11
(Before buying, please confirm the above information with other users and the vendor. )
Certain models, such as many in the Blade line, have two or more modes – some which are 6-axis as well as a more manual mode which mimics 3 or 4-Axis.
Whether 3,4 or 6 axis, start with a model which you know is a good one for beginners. Use online reviews at Amazon or the advice of a good vendor for your final selection. Or, join our forums at droneflyers.com/talk and ask away!
Note – in 2016 , 3 and 4-Axis quadcopters are becoming less popular, since they are harder to fly. Most all larger quadcopters (Phantom, Blade, etc.) are 6 Axis and so the manual flight skills are not as important. However, those who want to be ahead of the pack in terms of piloting skills can still learn a lot from 3 and 4-Axis quads. Those looking to enter the racing and acrobatic parts of this hobby should definitely learn in this fashion. The knowledge gained will likely help you save your more expensive machine sometime in the future!
It’s best to buy a small supply of replacement parts along with your quadcopter . This will help you avoid disappointment when your propellers crack or your sole battery runs out! If possible, ask your supplier what parts they would suggest for a beginner. Examples include:
1. Purchase at least one or two additional batteries. Each battery will provide up to 10 minutes of flight time, but could take up to one hour to recharge.
2. Propellers – many of the kits come with a set of extra props – but some of the micros can go through them fairly quickly. You may want to order another couple sets.
3. Motors – it is likely that you will destroy a motor or two in the first few weeks of use. It does take good eyesight and some basic mechanical ability (some require solder, others plugs) to replace a motor on these quads. If you have what it takes, then order one of each (clockwise and CCW) motors or complete motor/arm assemblies.
Some models have motors which plug into the flight controller as opposed to being soldered on. These may be a good option for those who don’t want to learn how to solder.
If you find that parts are not easily available, it may be good to change to a model where the vendors have plenty of spares. You don’t want the lack of a $4 part to keep you grounded. Some quadcopters are so inexpensive that you can buy two – one to fly and one for spares, and still spend only $50 or so in total.
Quadcopters differ in how easy they are to repair (see section “DIY Drone Repair and Upkeep” later in this book). Many require basic soldering skills as well as nimble fingers and good eyesight to make a repair. Others may have plug-in motors and other components which are more modular and easier to replace.