Section 9 – Your Next Quadcopter
The drone market is rapidly changing and advancing. Many of the newer models come complete and Ready-to-Fly (RTF) so you will not have to concern yourself with learning about separate transmitters and receivers. However, if you decide to enter the DIY (build or customize your own) end of the hobby you will have to delve further into these. Even if you have no intention to DIY you should read the following for some basic information into how more modular drone models work.
Buying and Flying with a more advanced TX (Remote)
Various manufacturers produce generic R/C controllers. Brand names or types include Spektrum, Futaba, FrSky and Turnigy. Radios can cost as little as $50 or as much as $800+. A very popular current model is the FrSky Taranis which sells for approx. $250. The Turnigy 9X is a budget model which sells for about $70 and can operate most basic quadcopters. You’ll want to have some idea of the models you wish to fly before choosing a generic TX. For example, if you are interested in quadcopter models from Blade (Horizon Hobby), these work only with the Spektrum (or clone) transmitters.
Some of the toy models mentioned earlier can actually bind (be paired and used with) these more advanced Transmitters. This is a good way to get started with learning how to adjust and program the radios.
Some Larger Drones are more Modular
At the beginning of the book, we covered the basics of how a quadcopter works. However, now that you may be advancing in the hobby, it will benefit you to learn about the various parts and how they function. This will help you with shopping and selection as well as with troubleshooting.
The following drawing shows a more advanced modular quadcopter, which has separate components onboard as opposed to the all in one design of the small circuit boards on mini and micro quads. This type of design allows you to select different receivers to mate with your TX – or, to select various brands and types of flight controllers and GPS add-ons.
Telemetry – Knowing what is happening aloft
Inexpensive and starter quads are essentially controlled in a one-way fashion – you provide the R/C control and “talk” to the drone, but it doesn’t talk back to you. Telemetry is the science of having the vehicle provide real-time data back to you. This ranges from simple things such as the battery level, to more complex data such as wind speed, height above ground, vehicle speed and even the temperature of the motors. This is beamed back to you and shows as a overlay on the quadcopter view (FPV) or on a small display screen of your R/C Transmitter. Telemetry is a very important feature for advanced and more expensive quads, so you will want to educate yourself on the subject as you progress in the hobby.
Understanding the various components will make you a smarter shopper as you will be able to compare the various features and systems by brand name, compatibility, reputation and warranty. As we enter 2016 some of these systems are being combined into one main circuit board with ALL of the functions built-in. This is similar to what has occurred in other consumer electronics and is known by the acronym VLSI (very large scale integration). The advantage of this type of design is lower costs, easier service (switch main board) and better reliability.
Despite being advertised as such, many larger quads are not sold truly ready to fly – at least not to the consumer of average to low technical ability. There are some exceptions to that rule such as the Yuneec Q500 4K and the DJI Phantom 3 and 4 series. Even these models require various skills including piloting, upgrading software, understanding GPS and flight modes, etc.
These models can be described as major advances in Ready to Fly consumer quadcopters, as they include many advanced features for a relatively low price.
The DJI Phantom – The First Mass-Market Consumer Drone
The DJI Phantom series, first introduced at the beginning of 2013, represents a major milestone in the adoption of consumer level drones. This is a Quadcopter that, just a few short years ago, would have been impossible to build. Similar vehicles were built before that time, but they were in kit form and required time, patience and mechanical skills. In addition, it is often hit or miss as to how well the homebuilt quads can perform aerial photography.
The Phantom series is sold RTF, or Ready to Fly, complete with transmitter, advanced navigation and software control and the ability to lift high quality cameras for video and still photography. As of this writing (2015), DJI offers a more advanced model called the Phantom 3. It is fully complete with camera, gimbal and controller and can take amazing video and still pictures right out of the box.
The Original Phantom 1 Quadcopter
Open the box and you see a quad that LOOKS like a consumer product! No bundles of wires strapped to exposed framing with cable ties, but a finished and sleek aerial vehicle that is ready to put into action.
The manufacturer, DJI Innovations, is solidly grounded in this business and is well regarded, making the purchase less of a gamble than a “here today, gone tomorrow” multirotor company. Newer and more capable DJI models (Phantom 3 and 4 series and Mavic Pro) sell from $500 to $1400 complete with the top end models sporting 4k video cameras and new collision avoidance technology.
The current DJI line appeals to virtually all levels of the multirotor market. While it should not be the first Quad you own, it could easily be the 2nd or 3rd machine you purchase once you learn the basics. The intelligent flight controls should help you avoid many common mistakes and the great videos which DJI has produced on the Phantom’s operation should put you into the pilots seat quite quickly.
As always, newer pilots should practice above a soft surface – tall grass, for example, and keep the Quad within a few yards until they understand its operation. The optional propeller guides are recommended for increased safety. Those who buy from a local retail shop may be able to get some lessons from the store personnel or team up with existing owners or a local flying club for tips and hands-on stick time. DJI has made a series of videos for the Phantom which should be watched by any prospective customer and owner.
DJI Phantom 3 Pro 4K Camera Quadcopter
All DJI Phantom models have GPS as well as a compass feature. These features can be used in various ways – the TX allows the pilot to turn various functions on or off.
DJI Phantoms are sold as “flying cameras” and that is primary mission of this size and type of quadcopter. If you want a “sport” or fun quadcopter to fly around your yard or a local small field – and don’t care much about photography and video – you should look elsewhere.
Summary – although not an inexpensive package, the Phantoms represent a major step in the world of RTF mid-sized multirotors. Steve Jobs said of the first Apple Macintosh Computers “These are the first computers worthy of criticism”. The Phantom fits into the same category and is likely to be the bellwether for what is to come in the future.
UPDATE: We have written a number of articles comparing all of the Phantom models at droneflyers.com.
As of the end of 2016, the Phantom 3 and 4 models are the most popular consumer video quadcopters. These models feature a camera and a stabilizing cradle (called a gimbal) which allows for amazingly smooth video.
Other brands have introduced similar packages for the hobbyist videographer. The Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K (about $900 US) and Autel Robotics X-Star are two with decent reviews from users.
We have published 2 additional books detailing the DJI Phantom Quadcopters . All our eBooks are now free and published on or linked from our web site – Droneflyers.com
Note – these machines are purpose-built as flying cameras and are NOT the machines you want for learning, racing, hacking, etc.
More on Aerial Photography and FPV
Although some larger quads are used for aerobatics, racing and other pursuits, most hobbyists plan for photography to play a role in their more advanced machines. This section will discuss the equipment and costs related to aerial photography.
Earlier in this book we discussed cameras which are available stock on smaller (mini and micro) quadcopters. These cameras are fun learning tools, but have severe limitations when it comes to picture and video quality, range and other issues. Larger and more sophisticated quadcopters will give you more choices in camera, platforms, range and other options. Here are the basic options in terms of aerial photography drones.
1.Toy quadcopters with brushed motors and very small (included or strapped on) cameras. These will take very shaky video – useless for most applications. You will have little or no control over the camera settings, etc. – Prices for these setups range from $50 – $150 including camera.
2.Larger quadcopters with brushed motors with GoPro or similar sports cameras (Runcam, Mobius) added on. This will give a better still picture quality and video can be reasonable in low wind situations. Prices are from $150-$300 (more with an expensive GoPro or similar brand). These models still do not have control of the camera tilt or stabilization, etc.
3.Purpose built Camera equipped Quadcopters with stabilizing gimbal – Popular brands include the DJI Phantom and the Yuneec Q500 4K. These machines are sold complete with a camera, stabilizer and and “app” that allows control of the camera from the ground. They take smooth video as well as decent still photographs.
4.FPV or Racing quadcopters which have a front mounted camera which is designed for seeing where you are going as opposed to photography.
Short Discussion of FPV Gear
First Person View (FPV) gear for drones will work differently than the purely digital cameras we are used to. These are often analog systems, and therefore use either a different (2nd) camera or an analog A/V output from your existing digital model. This output is coupled to a transmitter with its own antenna – and often needing its own battery. The video signal is then transmitted from the quad to your ground station and displayed on a small monitor on on the inside of specially designed googles. Many hobbyists prefer to keep the entire FPV system separate – with its own small cam. FPV does not require a high resolution, so the camera can be very small and light. These analog systems have less latency (lag) – but also less range than the fancier digital FPV systems now finding their way into the high end models.
In the diagram above, #4 through 6 are parts of the FPV system. They can be described as:
#4 – FPV Camera or Analog (usually composite) output from existing quadcopter camera (GoPro, Keychain Cam, etc.)
#5 FPV Transmitter and antenna – this takes the “TV Type” signal from the FPV Camera and broadcasts it to the ground.
#6 FPV Receiver and Monitor or Goggles – This receives the signal from your drone and then displays it on a connected monitor or goggles. In some cases, a smart phone or computer tablet acts as both the ground receiver and the monitor.
Some equipment and connections are not shown in the above diagram. These include the battery or power connection to the FPV camera and transmitter and connections for triggering the camera on or off from the ground TX. FPV gear setup can be quite technical – a full discussion is outside the range of this book. If you are not technical, it will probably be best to look for a unit sold RTF (ready to fly).
Controlling Photography and Video Cameras Aloft
Simple toy quadcopters have video cameras which can be turned on or off by a button on the transmitter. However, since flight times are fairly short, many users simply turn the video camera on before takeoff and let it run for 6-8 minute duration of the flight. There is a separate control for the snapshot (still picture) function, but such shots are of very poor quality so it may be best just to use a frame from the video for any desired photos.
Larger systems work differently. Ready to Fly FPV systems like the Phantom 3or 4 and Yuneec Q500 4K have full control through a wireless connection to a smartphone or tablet, but many quads which carry cameras do not. In these cases, you have a couple choices.
Activate video before quadcopter takes off – again, since the flights are usually short, you can turn on your GoPro or other video camera and let it record the entire flight – then edit it later.
Use Camera with Interval Shooting – many cameras have a setting which is called Interval Shooting or Intervalometer – this allows programmed intervals at which the camera snaps a picture or takes a short video. As an example, a camera can be set to take one picture every 10 seconds for the entire duration of a flight. Only certain cameras have this feature, so check on your choice of cameras to confirm.
Rhode Island, USA
Aerial Picture of Stone Tower
Understand Flight Controllers (FC , F/C)
Flight Controllers, as mentioned previously, are the brains of a drone. They are created from a combination of hardware and software, much like modern computers, tablets and smartphones. As you progress in this hobby it may be important to understand the various F/C platforms available to control your drone.
Quadcopter flight controllers are of two basic types:
1. Open Source or Community based projects – these are designs which have been developed and shared and cost nothing to use or modify. The designs consist of both software and hardware. Examples of such projects include:
Ardupilot (APM, Pixihawk)
Although the software code and reference designs are usually free, you still have to buy the actual hardware (circuit boards) as those cost $$ to produce. Upgrading the flight controllers can be accomplished by downloading the newest code and connecting to the flight controller using a USB interface. This is not a task for non-techie beginners.
2. Commercially Developed systems – these are flight controllers developed (or heavily modified from open source) in-house and sold only with a specific model or range of models. Examples include:
Parrot AR Drone or BeBop F/C
Dualsky (FC450, etc.)
With these flight controllers you are tied to the particular manufacturer in terms of upgrades and modifications.
Bare bones flight controllers – selling for as little as $15 – have the ability to manually fly a quadcopter, while more expensive models ($40-$200+) have advanced capabilities and modular expansion for features such as GPS, Barometers, Sonar, etc. which will help with autonomous (hands-off) flight. Those in the market for more advanced quadcopters should research the various flight controllers and options to make certain that they have the proper functions for their intended use.
Most newer consumer drones are based on advanced and commercially developed flight controllers. These are truly at the heart of the drone revolution and are starting to contain AI (artificial intelligence) as well as being capable of machine learning (getting smarter as they gain experience!). As a result, the next great drone advances are not likely to come from a garage workshop, but rather from years-long work involving millions of programmer-hours.