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The Beginner’s Guide to Drones

beginner droneWhen you hear the word “drone,” what comes to mind? Most people think about the military drones that fly around for surveillance, but there is a much broader use for the term. Drones are also known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (or UAV’s) and have become a hobby for many enthusiasts. The difference with commercial drones is the fact that they are only allowed to fly to a certain altitude, which is determined by the “recreational” exceptions of the FAA guidelines.

Drones have become the next big boom for a variety of flyers. While the general public still does not know a lot about drones, the increasing popularity has made people sit up and take notice of what is going on. People love to build and fly their own unique crafts, comparing specs with one another and making the next big project. It’s this thrill that has captured the attention, and hearts, of so many people.

The Appeal

You might wonder what the big deal is about drones. It’s something that has caught on everywhere in the world, but primarily in the US and UK. People who build remote control helicopters and airplanes sometimes move to drones because they are a new challenge to overcome and master. At the same time, there are many others who enjoy building drones because of the fact that they don’t have to fly the aircrafts like an airplane or helicopter.

You might wonder how something that flies in the air could be so different, but drones are special because of the fact that they don’t require navigation when they are up in the air. While you still have to take off and land manually with a drone, you are able to create unique coordinates though a GPS-guided control. In other words, the drones practically fly themselves.

So, why in the world would people want to fly a vehicle that isn’t actually that fun to fly? The true pleasure lies in the creation of the drone. Many drones have cameras affixed to them in order to capture photos and videos while in flight. While the general public seems to think that drones were created for surveillance purposes, a true builder knows that there are several limitations on how far a drone can fly and the thrill of spending hours on a device finally to see it take flight. Recreational drones are not killing machines or surveillance devices, but something that is a fun and new way to fly.

Doing the Research

Just like any other hobby, flying drones is something that can be very in-depth and overwhelming. Take the time to research what you are getting into and don’t be afraid to join a forum or board in the process. Many members are happy to introduce the world of drones to a new flyer and can give helpful tips that won’t be found anywhere else. Take their advice to heart and don’t get a big head early on. Find online glossaries and learn what each abbreviation stands for so that you can expand your knowledge as you go.


In order to help you get started and not feel completely lost when you research, here are some of the most common terms and their definitions. There are several different frequencies that a drone can use, but the most commonly accepted one is 2.4 Ghz. However, using 72 Mhz radio equipment with 2.4 Ghz video transmitters to avoid any type of interference. Be sure to look at all types of equipment before choosing a favorite, as you may learn that they are not compatible and glitch your software.

A ground control station is known as a GCS, and is where there is software running on a computer that receives information from the drone. Some details include video and sensor data, but commands regarding flight path can also be given from the GCS. The PIC, or pilot in control, is required for any drone to meet the FAA certificate of approval.  There are many different certificates that a drone pilot can acquire, and each one can help you learn more about the hobby while keeping everyone around you safe.

There are 3 types of ArduPilot software, one for each type of main travel. The ArduCopter is a rotary-wing autopilot software, while the ArduPlane is for fixed-wing devices. Lastly, the ArduRover is for both ground and water devices. Each one of these has unique features that make it ideal for different UAV’s. When building the right drone, be sure that the correct software is used to ensure the most ideal situations.

These terms are the most basic of the basic, and people looking to build their own UAV’s should study more about each term and what it means. Some will be in reference to components used when building the drones while others are terms used in flight requirements and regulations. Be sure to research and understand all the terms before you start building your drone.

Key Equipment

Now that you’re ready to build your craft, it’s time to look at all of the necessary equipment for the job. First, you’ll need a frame. Something on the cheap end is ideal for a beginner, because they are still starting out. One of the most basic frames that people use when starting out is the Q450 Glass Fiber Quadcopter frame. This frame is sturdy and durable, yet very easy to put together.

Next, some cheap ESC’s (electronic speed control) and a motor are needed. For the motor, look at something that has 700/ 1000 kv. Anything higher than this will lead to too fast of a reaction and much less torque. When building your drone, be sure that you are comfortable with soldering and can do it well. The soldering can rattle the electronic devices apart if handled incorrectly. Stay away from clips when possible as well, because they are not as reliable as soldering in the long run.

There are two types of propellers are needed to for drones as well. Regular propellers rotate counter clockwise while pusher propellers move clockwise. If you are building onto the Q450 frame, don’t exceed 10 X 3.8. Smaller propellers are better for learning with, but they won’t have the same lifting capacity. One of the best pieces of advice that can be offered is to NEVER cut costs by purchasing cheap propellers. The entirety of your drone relies on the functionality of the propellers, and you could end up losing a lot of money if you buy cheap ones.

For the battery, look for a reasonable 3s with 2.2 or 3000 mAh and a discharge ratio of 30C or 40C. Look into the discharge ratio of your battery in order to determine what will be the best for your drone. If you are not sure what to use, start with a higher battery so that your battery doesn’t overheat and lose efficiency in the long run. Take extra caution when handling batteries, as one that is too hot may malfunction or catch fire.

Radios can be purchased for around $100, but be warned that cheaper radios do not last as long. Find an ideal 9ch radio that is reliable, but affordable for your first flight. A preferred brand is Futaba, but you will be able to find each brand unique and eventually one that fits your needs and liking.

Lastly, be sure to look into simulation software. Purchasing this type of software will let you experience the relative feeling of flying a drone without the risk of actually losing any money. Start out with the basics and move onto greater heights once you feel confident enough. While you may not be able to completely remove the first flight jitters, learning with the simulator ensures you know what you are doing and the mistakes that you made so that you can overcome them on the next flight. Feel how the drone responds and how weighty it is so that you are more confident while flying. If you ever feel lost, simply let go of the controls and let your drone straighten itself out before trying to orient yourself once again.

Other Tips for the First Flight

To be honest, your first craft should be something very cheap and simple. Remember that this will be your learning device and that it doesn’t need to be fancy or eye-catching. Instead, go for durability and stability over features. Regardless of what you decide to build, make sure that you have replacement parts nearby at all times. Nothing is more frustrating than taking going out to fly and having to leave early because you broke a part that you can’t replace.

Next, be sure that you know how to properly calibrate your drone, as you will need to do so after a crash. Master the calibration process so that you can get back on your feet and try once again. As long as you are prepared to fail, which isn’t a bad thing to expect on your first few outings, you’ll be able to grow and evolve from the learning experience rather than simply get frustrated and upset with your new hobby.

Purchasing a Drone

If you want to fly a drone, but don’t have the confidence that you can build one on your own, you can always choose to purchase one to start with. Drones can be purchased as both multicopters as well as planes. There are several great brands out there that you can start out with, but be sure to know what features are implemented and how much you want to spend. If you don’t set a budget, you’ll quickly see how expensive drones can be. Don’t get a big head and purchase a nicer drone because you want to show it off, get one that you can learn with and fail on without thinking about the money that goes into it.

Popular Models

If you would like some tips on popular models, here are some of the more popular options. The first is the Parrot AR Drone. This drone is very easy to use and maneuver. It has a wide HD camera lens and can be flown both indoors and outdoors. Best of all, it can be flown with a smartphone app if desired. The Parrot AR Drone ensures that everyone will get a chance to experience flying a drone without putting in a large investment.

If you would like to try a plane instead of a copter, then give the H-King Darkwing a try. This drone was created with the first-person viewpoint in mind. It can support a wide number of mounts for cameras and radios. The large wingspan also means that it is easy to fly and navigate for beginners.

Owners of a Go Pro should look into getting a Lehmann LA100 GoPro Drone. This drone is built for owners of the camera, and can fly on its own for around five minutes. It is made of carbon fiber and foam, making it lightweight and durable. The materials are also able to withstand temperatures between 25 to 60 degrees Celcius.

Lastly, you can purchase a Micro Drone if you want something smaller. It can be flown safely inside your home and even entertain your family and pets. It has a very sharp turn radius and can rotate a full 360 degrees. The remote is fully customizable and can be used by both left and right handed people.

Trying out the Drones for Yourself

Flying drones is a hobby that is misunderstood by most people. Many think that it is used for spying on neighbors, and some of the lesser-educated people may use it for this purpose, but the true thrill lies in the building and flying of one of these devices. It’s a hobby that more people are learning to understand and appreciate. If you are a person who loves to create new things and take your ideas to new heights, you’ll love flying a drone and will understand why so many people are trying it out.

Three Drone Models to Consider

So you’ve read about drones and figured it might be fun to get one of your own.  But you may not be clear on where to start: a drone can run from under $100 to $2,500 or more depending on the features.  Further, depending on your intended use, you may not need to go out and purchase a top-shelf drone.  Here are three popular drones to consider along with a brief description of some of the features of each.

One thing to keep in mind: when you are learning to fly a drone you are probably going to have a few crashes.  For that reason, before dropping serious coin on a drone, many people purchase a cheap model and use it for practice flights.  Once you’ve mastered the art of flying without crashing into trees, buildings, and/or people, then you can probably move on to a more expensive drone.  Also, be sure to check your local rules and regulations to ensure that your hobby doesn’t get you into trouble with the authorities!

Parrot Drones: Great All-Around Drones for Beginners

parrotThe first mention should go to the drone company Parrot.  Parrot makes a variety of drones in a range of price points, but the biggest advantage to Parrot drones are that they are designed for those who are just beginning to fly drones.

The frames of Parrot drones include a significant amount of Styrofoam to keep the weight down; at the same time they are constructed to survive crashes by incorporating things such as protective rings around the propellers, widely available replacement parts (for those times when you just cannot avoid a crash), and easy-to-remove parts to assist in the repair.

Further, Parrot drones frequently incorporate app technology, which allows you to use your iPhone (or other similar device) to control them.  As a result the control of a Parrot drone is probably a little bit more intuitive than some other drones out there, making this an excellent choice for beginners.

The Parrot AR Drone Quadricopter, 2.0 Elite Edition, with a 720p camera mounted on it, can be purchased for around $350 for a new one.  This affordable drone can link to your smartphone or tablet and stream live video while it flies.  This video may be recorded for later review as well.  It runs off a piloting app that makes learning to fly easier than some drones requiring the use of multiple joysticks or other complicated controls.  Weighing just 4 pounds, this drone is 23 inches on each side and comes with a rechargeable battery built into the chassis.

One neat feature of this drone is the auto-correct feature.  This feature causes the drone to automatically correct for any movement not transmitted from the pilot’s device.  This means if an outside force such as wind moves the drone or tilts it, the autocorrect feature will bring it back to its original position, allowing it to hover in a fixed position when the pilot is not moving it around.

Finally, users of this drone can program it to engage in a pre-planned flight.  Users wishing to shoot a specific film sequence will find this useful, as the drone can be programmed to go to certain locations and remain there for a specific period of time, change angles, and so on.

Micro Drone by Extreme Fliers

extremeIf you don’t want to lay out the cash for a Parrot drone a less pricey option is the Micro Drone from Extreme Fliers.  This drone comes in at less than $100 ($99, at the time this article was written) so it is a good choice if you aren’t yet confident enough in your piloting skills to drop more money on something that may end up stuck in a tree or sinking in the river.

The Micro Drone has a gyroscope built into it to improve stability.  If you’ve ever flown anything—from a kite to a model airplane—you know that wind gusts can be unpredictable at best.  To save your drone from being tossed around like a toy the gyroscope is a good choice of equipment.

The Micro Drone can be equipped with your own camera such as a GoPro, or if you want to pay a little extra you can purchase one with a camera already built in.  For around $30 more than the base price the drone will come with a camera kit.  The camera is nestled in between the rotors and will not touch the ground when the drone is landed.

While it lacks the ability to stream video directly to your smartphone or tablet, the Micro Drone is nonetheless a good choice for the beginning drone pilot.

Phantom 2 Vision+

phantomIf you’re ready to spend a little bit more, the Phantom 2 Vision+ is a very nice drone.  It will run around $1,300, but it is well worth it!  Features include an expanded flight time of nearly 30 minutes (the standard flight time for a drone tends to be under 15 minutes).

The camera mounted under the body of the drone can be tilted while the drone is in flight.  This provides different angles to shoot from.  As with the Parrot drones, the Phantom 2 Vision+ transmits a stream from its camera to your smartphone or tablet, allowing you to view what the drone sees in real time.  The camera shoots HD video at 1080p/30fps and 720p/60fps.

A very nice feature of this drone is the “Return-to-Home” feature.  This program keeps the drone from crashing if it gets out of range of the controller.  In the event the drone is no longer receiving instructions from the controller, the “Return-to-Home” feature will cause it to automatically return to its takeoff point and land.


Flying drones is a hobby which can be learned in an afternoon and yet take a lifetime to master.  Thanks to the wide selection of drones available you can begin enjoying this hobby at a relatively low cost before moving on to more expensive drones with better options as your piloting skills evolve.

Have fun, and be sure to check your local laws first!