2016 Drone Buyers Guide
A General Guide for Aerial Photo/Video & FPV Drones for the 2016 – Jeff Foster
2015 has been an amazing year for aerial/drone photography and videography, and I’ve compiled a lzist of great products that will appeal to aspiring aerial videographers just starting out or looking to upgrade to the next level going into the new year!
If you’re just looking for a list of fun toy drones to put under the tree this holiday, I’d suggest looking at Kike Calvo’s list of the Top 10 Drones for 2016: The Beginner’s List. Kike is a National Geographic Creative photographer and an sUAV expert with some great blog tips and articles at this location as well. His list of good starter drones just to learn how to fly and just have fun is a a great start for those on your gift list this year.
AND… if you’re new to these camera drones or are considering giving one as a gift this year, PLEASE be sure to print out this safety information card from the FAA! Everyone seems to be freaked-out or confused over these things in the air now and it’s always important to know the facts and what you can/can’t do to stay safe!
While I’ve always recommended to folks just starting out with drones to get an inexpensive toy quadcopter to learn with first and then upgrade to a bigger quad with a camera later when you’re confident with the toy drones, my list will only include RTF (Ready To Fly) drones that have cameras attached that will help you learn FPV (First Person View) and record videos/photos.
The aerial photography/videography industry has literally taken off this year and so many enhancements, improvements, options and developments in sUAVs (small Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) and personal drones. We’ve seen advancements in improved 3-axis gimbal technology, providing smoother aerial videos; new craft designs that allow more control and flexibility in getting those “impossible” shots with more autonomy for various shots and some amazing upgrades to camera and app technology. Whether the drone you’re looking at has a built-in camera/software option like the DJI Phantom 3 series, the DJI Inspire 1 or the Yuneec Q500 4K – or the many professional drones that might carry a third-party camera option like the GoPro HERO4 Black, the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera and the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4K, there are just so many choices and options for all levels of fliers/shooters.
I’m asked almost daily in my blog posts or social media communities, as to what would be the best craft to start with or for a specific need. That’s really a loaded question, usually, because it all depends on what you’re trying to achieve and how much time/money you can afford to put into it – and if you’re looking to start shooting commercial productions right away. So I’m compiling a list of products here and how they can be used for various purposes.
I’ve decided to separate this guide into several “classes” – from the smaller “toy” class (perfect for learning to fly with) to the FPV Racing/Sport Quadcopters, to the Prosumer Photo/Video Quadcopters all the way up to the professional heavy-lifter hexes, octos and X8s. And since I’m only interested in presenting you with options that you can shoot video and/or photos with and/or have FPV capabilities for training or shooting, I’ll only be listing the best choices in each category covered here.
Obviously I can’t include EVERY airframe manufacturer on the market today, so this is just my personal opinion of some of the most popular currently available and used by myself and my colleagues. While there are a LOT of new drones in development and production by known manufacturers and ingenious startups, there are still so many horrible crowdfunded campaigns that either delivered absolute crap drones that excel at crashing or the developer failed to even go to market at all, I won’t even consider adding them to the list. So if it’s a “Lily” or “Ghost” – don’t even ask!
You may not agree with my list of “best choices” but being generally involved in this industry as not only a product reviewer/tester, but also someone who logs hundreds of hours a year as a professional aerial photographer/videographer, and I’ve had the pleasure to work with and train with some of the top drone shooters in the U.S. There are even a few popular choices that I did include but made note that they may not be my top picks, but only worth mentioning. Many developers are genuinely trying to improve their hardware and software technology, so it’s always worth following them to see how they respond to trends and developments in the industry.
1: Toy Class – Intro Level (FPV)
This class is still quite amazing and often useful in training yourself on how to fly a multirotor in various conditions. Since these entry level craft fly in primarily a gyro-stabilized manual mode and don’t have on-board GPS, they help you gain experience with the controls and orientation of the craft. The craft listed here all have some kind of FPV (First Person View) capabilities with a built-in camera. Plus, they’re just plain fun to fly and perfect for any age/skill level! *Note that most of these kits will include one battery, but since they don’t last very long, I suggest you buy a few more at the time of your purchase.
• Hubsan X4 FPV Quadcopter
If you look on the hobby sites, in the stores and all over Amazon, you’ll find thousands of these little micro quads for less than $100. Over a year ago, I did a review on the Hubsan FPV X4 because it has a built-in camera and you can record the live FPV feed to an SD card on the remote. Because of this feature alone, I’ve selected it to represent this class of quadcopter, but that doesn’t mean it flies the best, but improvements in its design have changed that since my initial review. There are several hobby-level micro/mini quads out there that are more responsive and longer flight times than this guy, but I recommend getting one to practice with in your home, at the office or around your back patio. It will help you learn stick controls and orientation and improve your flying skills with practice and they’re quite resilient when you crash. Props are cheap and you’re need lot of spares – the same with the mini LiPo batteries. But don’t count on the FPV being very good and the video recording isn’t great either. You can get the Hubsan X4 FPV for around $135 on Amazon.
• Blade Nano QX FPV Bind-n-Fly Camera Drone
Mini but amazingly mighty! The Blade Nano QX FPV is a more advanced “toy” that allows you to use a regular controller like a Spektrum DX7 and really learn to fly with more professional controls. This model also features FPV with an on-board camera so you can fly with headset goggles like the Fat Shark Teleport V4. These aren’t as cheap as the Hubsan but again, being a micro sized quadcopter, your “crash” effects will be much less impacted as they would a larger craft. The Blade Nano quads are actually quite stable and relatively easy to fly indoors if you have enough room to maneuver. I’ve even flown it outdoors with little/no wind and they’re remarkably quick and nimble and easy to control. These retail around $150, without the controller.
• Parrot AR Drone 2.0
The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 quadcopter is still in the “toy” class but offers a few more features and is larger than the minis, and with the foam prop guards, it’s pretty crash-friendly. You don’t use a regular radio controller however, but rather your mobile device with an app you download from either the Google Play Store (Android) or on iTunes (iOS). It has a built-in camera that allows you to view your FPV on your device as a monitor while getting the nav data on screen as well as your thumb controls. Low-latency streaming of the 720p 30fps H.264 video is captured directly on your device or with a USB flash drive. Videos and photos can be then uploaded instantly from your device to the Internet. This makes the AR.Drone 2.0 a fun drone for capturing live events you want to share with the world for a reasonable price, but it’s not really great quality video. With several configurations, you can pick one up off Amazon for about $300. *Note that there are many known issues with flying a WiFi-controlled drone, including loss of control signal and FPV video, rendering the drone uncontrolled and may crash or simply hover until the batteries runs out to which it will drop from the sky. This has been proven in testing.
• Parrot Bebop Drone (+ Skycontroller)
The Parrot Bebop Drone, which will work similarly with your mobile device (as their AR Drone) or in conjunction with their new Skycontroller, gives the user control joysticks on either side of the tablet device you mount in the middle, plus a WiFi extender to allow a further range of flight controls. This quadcopter has less bulk than its predecessor and features a built-in HD 1080p camera that’s 3-axis stabilized internally, and also deliver 14MP still images. The app also features more advanced features such as GPS flight plan mapping with other controls and options. I’ve tested it and while I really, really wanted it to be great, it just *wasn’t. I’m hoping that with firmware updates they can manage to fix the many issues with the signal loss and app crashes, however there is a new Bebop v2 coming out soon, but most likely won’t ship until next year. The Bebop Drone retails for $499 or combined with the Skycontroller for $899. *Note that there are many known issues with flying a WiFi-controlled drone, including loss of control signal and FPV video, rendering the drone uncontrolled and may crash or simply hover until the batteries runs out to which it will drop from the sky. This has been proven in testing.
2. FPV Racing/Sport Quadcopters
FPV racing is a growing sport in the drone industry and becoming more mainstream with racing leagues and events sprouting up all over the place! There are different classes in this category and really, most serious racers want to build their own customized racing quad themselves from kits and parts to gain that competitive edge. But those who want to explore the trill of FPV racing with RTF quads just to see what all the noise is about, here are a few options that will get you up and running with only a charge of a battery. *Note that most of these kits will not include a LiPo battery with the kit so I suggest you buy a few at the time of your purchase. (And you might want to invest in some extra props as well) 😉
The EMAX Nighthawk Pro 280 RTF is designed from the ground up to meet the exacting specifications of the Drone Racer. It comes fully tuned with the new Skylight 32 integrated flight control board with four 12Amp BLHeli One shot speed controllers. The power system consists of EMAX 2204 2300 kV motors and 6045 propellers mounted on a 10 degree tilt allowing greater forward speeds without sacrificing elevation. For the FPV racer, the Nighthawk Pro 280 includes a 700TVL camera with optional tilt mounts that allow you a perfect horizontal view in flight, and a 20W-200W video transmitter with a selectable switch, allowing you the option to choose the power output of your transmitter.
- Independent designed solid, durable and stable frame, centroid and center of gravity are same even battery installed
- Prebuilt frame and extra accessories (RTF model can fly after battery and propellers installed)
- Bright COB rear LED, different LED color can use distinguish copters when group flying (LED power consumption is 4W, which might decrease flying times.)
- All in one design to combine ESC, BEC, and flight controller for easy installation and easy replacement. Plug and play motor, easy for swapping motor and no soldering needed.
- Independent. Independent ESC and flight controller and power supply.
- Flight controller use 32bit ARM micro processor, fast process speed to ensure fast respond
- Gyroscope, magnetometer, and accelerometer and barometer expansion port. With CPPM receiver GPS feature can be enabled. (GPS module sold separately)
- Support ANGLE, HORIZON, HEADFREE, MAG, HEADADJ …etc modes.
- Support RC Input: standard signal, CPPM (PPM SUM) signal, PWM singal.
- Low voltage monitoring and low voltage warning. (Buzzer sold separately)
- Use EMAX 12A ESC, support open source BLHeli and ONESHOT feature; flight controller is based on NAZE32 Skyline32, support open source configurator Baseflight and Cleanflight
- Extra power output and power output switch for LED expansion.
The EMAX Nighthawk Pro 280 RTF retails for about $260 and comes with a remote. It’s a good starter craft. (I just got one and plan to test it and review here on Drone Coalition soon!)
• Walkera Runner 250
The Runner 250 is the latest offering from Walkera which is packed with innovative features specifically designed for the FPV Racing fraternity. The modular design of the runner 250 allows you to change out race damaged components in a matter of minutes. The full carbon fiber main frame of the runner 250 is super compact and tough and can easily handle those inevitable high speed gate collisions while the built in forward and rear LED lights help you with orientation when flying the runner 250 in line of sight.
The onboard OSD module overlays your flight footage with important race telemetry such as battery voltage and your runner 250’s tilt angle. The speed controllers, flight controller, FPV Transmitter, receiver, OSD and LED Lights are designed to literally plug straight into the integrated printed distribution board meaning no soldering is required, making the Runner 250 super easy to build and repair between races.
This version of the Runner 250 really is race ready and comes supplied complete with built-in 800TVL camera, FCC approved video transmitter with mushroom style antenna, 2100Kv motors with matched ESC’s, Runner 250 flight control system, OSD Module, 2.4Ghz Devo 7 transmitter, LiPoly battery and charger making the Runner 250 the perfect solution for beginners and pro FPVracers alike.
• Ready to fly 250 size racer
• Built-in 5.8Ghz FPV video transmitter
• Built-in OSD Module (On Screen Display) to show you real-time flight data
• Fully factory assembled, charge the battery and fly!
• Modular design for easy build and repair
• Self tightening toughened composite props
• Compact carbon fiber main frame
• Dampened camera mount platform
• Front and rear LED lights
• 12-14 mins flight time
The Walkera Runner 250 FPV RTF runs around $325 depending on the kit and the reseller package.
• TBS Gemini FPV Racing Hexacopter
The TBS Gemini FPV (Team Black Sheep) is the latest generation of mini racer multirotors. Its revolutionary design with forward tilting motors and aerodynamic canopy as well as fully integrated yet modular electronics turn it into a beast that will dominate any race event.
Optimize your setup for HD filming with a Mobius or leave the Gemini stock as the ultimate racer quad. Both setups are capable of operating on 3S and 4S setups, depending on your skill level and speed requirements. It’s versatile enough to become your take-anywhere, fly-anytime multi rotor, rip through trees and leave the competition in the dust at races.
The frame is based on a design by award-winning multi-rotor pilot and one of the leading innovators in multi rotor design, Dr. William Thielicke (aka Shrediquette). TBS added its own secret-sauce with a fully-modular, crash friendly ESC and flight control installation. We get the best of both worlds: a tightly integrated component layout that optimizes weight efficiency, but also repair-friendliness in case of crashes. And let’s face it, these things are made for crashing.
3. Prosumer Class – Basic Photo/Video Quadcopters
This class of drones is geared toward the photographer or videographer that wants a quick and easy aerial RTF (Ready To Fly) solution. You just want to “get those cool aerial videos, landscapes and panos” that everyone else is sharing online these days. These are considered the “prosumer” level craft and will help get you in the sky quickly and easily – most with an out of box, charge and go experience. You can get remarkably good results, including 4k video and 12MP RAW still images depending on the model you buy, so they’re far from being considered “toys”.
However, do know that it takes a lot of practice to master flying these craft, even if they appear to “fly themselves” – so always go slow and follow the instructions. There are several “how to” videos online that will help get you started, as well as instructional videos like Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones Learn by Video by Eric Cheng and myself, and also Eric’s new book Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones (Peachpit, pub).
• DJI Phantom 3 Standard
The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is an entry-level, all-in-one package that includes the quadcopter, controller and built-in camera on a 3-axis gimbal for super stable video. All you need to provide is your smartphone to operate and control the camera and set-up the crafts’ options. This quadcopter will average around 20-25 minutes of flight time and has an automated RTH (Return To Home) feature should it get out of range or lose connection with the remote. It will automatically fly back to it’s original take-off point and land itself safely. The Phantom 3 airframe is by far the easiest to fly of all the quadcopters in this category, regardless of what camera/configuration you choose. See my review on the Phantom 3 series here on Drone Coalition for more details.
The camera records 2.7k/30 video to the on-board Micro SD card, as well as 12MP RAW/JPG still images. The camera lens is approx 94-degree FOV, which is less distorted than a comparable GoPro Hero4 Silver. All of the nav data and system/camera features appear on your mobile device screen, running the DJI Phantom Vision App, available for both Android and iOS devices.
The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is great for new aerial photo/video pilots learning to use a bigger quadcopter that the toy class but want to save some $$. It retails for about $700 complete with controller and one battery with charger and ready to fly.
• Yuneec Q500 4K
The Yuneec Q500 4K ready-to-fly (RTF) is complete with CGO3 Gimbal Camera, ultra high-definition (UHD) resolution, four times higher than HD, the camera delivers high-quality images with the ability to capture slow motion 1080p 120fps and 12 megapixel photos. Capture life in 4K with incredible detail and unparalleled realism.
Getting smooth professional footage flying manually is never been as easy as using Watch Me mode. Set up the Typhoon’s position and automatically get amazing footage of your actions on the go.
With ultra-high definition (UHD) resolution, four times higher than HD, the camera delivers high-quality images with the ability to capture slow motion 1080p/120fps and 12 megapixel photos. Capture life in 4K with incredible detail and unparalleled realism.
- Personal Ground Station with built-in touchscreen
- Integrated 3-axis precision gimbal camera
- 4K/30fps ultra high definition video
- 1080p/120fps slow motion video
- User controlled video resolution, white balance and light exposure
- 12 megapixel photos with No-Distortion Lens
- Handheld SteadyGrip for capturing video footage
The SteadyGrip handheld device ensures ground shots are as smooth as those taken from the air. The CGO3 mobile APP allows SteadyGrip user to caputure images, shoot videos and control the CGO3 gimbal camera.
The Yuneec Q500 4K RTF bundle retails around $1300.
After a long wait since the official announcement of the 3DR Solo at NAB Show in April this year, the 3DR Solo is now shipping! 3DR (3D Robotics) has been in the UAV market for years now, specializing in the DIY/Maker-builder market. The Solo is their first real RTF consumer-ready product that can really compete in the hobbyist and prosumer markets for photo/video drones.
The 3DR Solo is made to work with your existing GoPro Hero4 cameras, with a smooth 3-axis gimbal and and HD live video stream for FPV delivered to your smartphone or tablet. The app will give you live telemetry flight data and craft control info, as well as allow you to control your GoPro while in flight.
The 3DR Solo features several smart shot options that you can use right out of the box, such as Orbit, Cable Cam, Follow and Selfie. In addition, the controller is designed with its own 1GHz computer on board, that has memory for camera positions and repeatability, plus fine-tuning the craft’s controls and gimbal motion. As with most of the more advanced quadcopters in this class, it has built in safeguards to help you maintain control of the craft and will return to launch if anything goes wrong or loses a signal.
The 3DR Solo with controller only retails around $1000, and about $1400 with the 3-axis gimbal for the GoPro Hero4 (camera not included).
• DJI Phantom 3 Advanced &Professional
It’s hard to even consider the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced/Professional quadcopters in this category as they truly do cross-over into the professional category as far as features and camera quality. But with the same ease-of-use that we’ve come to expect with the Phantom airframe over the years, this latest lineup is even easier to fly, steadier video and built-in flight controls and with the built-in Lightbridge technology, the distance you can fly and preview your FPV is a mind-blowing 1.2 mile (2km)range (or more). See my review on the Phantom 3 series here on Drone Coalition for more details.
Using the DJI GO app on your tablet device (iOS/Android compatible) you control all the flight operations, camera setup and operations during flight, autonomous operations such as take-off, landing, POI, waypoints and more. The FPV through Lightbridge give you full 720p HD live video stream with nearly zero latency while the camera can record up to 4K/30 (Professional) or 1080p/30 (Advanced) video to the on-board Micro SD card, or shoot 12MP images in either/both JPG or RAW format.
The 3rd generation Phantom is an industry standard which both hobbyists and professionals can depend on capturing fantastic images and videos. The Phantom 3 Advanced retails for about $1000 and the Phantom 3 Professional is less than $1300. It’s no wonder this is the quadcopter I most recommend for those getting into aerial photography and videography to start shooting right away.
3. Advanced Quads, X8s and Hexs – Professional RTF Drones
This category of drones is aimed at the professional photographer and videographer. Only the DJI Inspire 1/Pro has an integrated camera systems capable of shooting 4K video (Pro version with X5/X5R has micro 4/3 sensor and interchangeable lenses) while the others rely on 3rd party cameras with their gimbal systems. These are truly professional level drones that are used in smaller commercial productions, but most likely not in large format cinematic environments that require larger cameras/lenses.
• DJI Inspire 1 and Inspire 1 Pro w/X5 micro 4/3 Camera
The DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter is a new breed of craft, with an articulated frame that lifts the arms and landing gear up out of the way upon take-off to clear the camera’s view of obstructions during flight. It features a built-in 12MP camera that captures 4K video in a minimally-distorted lens but still maintain a clean wide-angle view. See my two-part review on the DJI Inspire 1 on ProVideo Coalition (Part 1) (Part 2)
The Inspire 1 can also utilize its Vision Positioning System – which allows you to fly indoors with great stability and no GPS signal. It also captures still images in Adobe DNG RAW format for ultimate color and resolution control. And similar to DJI’s Vision+ quadcopter, you can control the camera’s recording options live through a smart tablet app – but with much more control over other flight controls as well, such as advanced mapping and other autonomous operations. You can also operate the Inspire 1 with two operators and radio controllers: one to fly the craft while the second uses the FPV signal to aim the camera gimbal to the desired POI.
Get crystal clear images with DJI’s most advanced camera to date. The gimbal holding your camera is the result of DJI’s years of expertise in camera stabilization, giving you smooth, stable footage in any flight conditions.
- Video: 4K @ 24-30 fps, or 1080p @ 24-60fps,
- Photos: 12 Megapixels
- Lens: 9 elements in 9 groups including an aspherical element
- 1/2.3 inch CMOS sensor
- 94⁰ wide-angle FOV
- 3-axis, 360⁰ rotating gimbal
The Inspire 1 comes complete with either single operator or dual operator remote configuration and a sturdy case which retails for about $3100 (single) and $3400 (dual).
DJI Inspire 1 Pro
The Inspire 1 Pro takes the DJI Inspire 1 from being an entry-level professional system and evolves it into a high-end production system. With a larger Micro 4/3 sensor, image quality, low-light performance, digital noise, and dynamic range are all improved.
- Ready-to-fly aerial system
- Included professional 4K camera and 3-axis stabilization gimbal (Zenmuse X5)
- Live, wireless HD video transmission via DJI Lightbridge
- Dedicated remote with flight and camera controls
- Powerful app to adjust camera settings, edit videos, and more
- Vision Positioning system for GPS-free or indoor flight
- Perfect for high-level shoots and professional sets
The Inspire 1 Pro comes with with Inspire 1 Quadcopter, Zenmuse X5 Camera, Single Remote Control, Charger, One TB47 battery, lanyard, USB cables, and travel case and retails for about $4500.
The SteadiDrone MAVRIK is a medium-lift X8 configuration craft for shooting with larger point-and-shoot or mirrorless cameras. The MAVRIK offers unique design features that make it a pleasure to operate everyday. Fully autonomous and intelligent, it allows for simple and effective capturing of aerial media, from the smoothest video filming to mapping and data acquisition, agriculture, search and rescue, waypoint mission planning and even ‘follow me’ features, the MAVRIK uses 3DR’s Pixhawk flight controller, so if you’re already familiar with the IRIS+, then this is a next logical step toward using more professional cameras and heavier payloads.
Apart from the obvious GPS guidance, fully autonomous modes, waypoint mission planning etc, the MAVRIK offers their ‘Rapid Deploy’ folding design allows setup within seconds without the need for any tools, simply click the arms into place and you’re ready to fly. Other features include a rail supported gimbal system with an advanced vibration damping system and large brushless gimbal for a huge range of cameras and payloads, both fully adjustable according to payload size and weight. The gimbal also features the ability to point straight up, so you have over 190′ of pitch freedom.
There are several configurations for the Steadidrone MAVRIK – including a No Avionics version so you can use whatever flight controller you choose. The RTF X8 configuration retails for about $7000 and the 2-axis gimbal can hold most point-and-shoot mirrorless cameras and small micro 4/3 cameras such as the Blackmagic Pocket Cinema Camera.
The Yuneec Tornado H920 is a professional multirotor aerial photography and videography platform. Its unique design and innovative features make it possible to capture amazing photographs and video footage for a variety of uses. And thanks to nearly two decades of experience in developing and producing RC and manned aircraft, Yuneec engineers were able to deliver the long flight times, ease of operation and reliability you’ve been looking for in an aerial photography and videography solution.
The Tornado H920 aircraft features an ultra-lightweight carbon fiber frame, retractable landing gear, folding arms & 5-Motor failsafe mode, making it the solution of choice for professional users. The built-in capability to hold three rechargeable batteries provides consumers with a flight time of up to 42 minutes depending on payload. Additionally, the Tornado H920 has several smart features that ensure safety and ease of use, which consumers have come to expect from Yuneec International products. Features such as Return-to-Home, auto landing and five-rotor flight safety are built into the Tornado system.
The ST24 personal ground station, a 24-channel all-in-one transmitter, is powered by an Android operating system and features a 7-inch touchscreen that displays telemetry data and a built-in flight simulator. Consumers will also benefit from the GPS receiver that is the top of the line in its class.
The Tornado H920 is compatible with a variety of independent high-end professional aerial and ground capturing cameras including the all-new CGO4 gimbal camera. Specifically developed for the Tornado H920 copter, the CGO4 incorporates a true Panasonic GH4 micro four thirds camera sensor with a 3x optical zoom lens, an integrated 5.8 GHz video link module designed to capture the highest quality aerial photographic and video imagery, conveniently housed within a precise and ultra-stable 3-axis gimbal system.Additionally, the Tornado H920 also pairs with Yuneec’s V18 professional gimbal stabilized camera with 18X optical zoom and for further convenience, the Tornado H920 is also compatible with the Panasonic LUMIX DMC-GH4K and Sony A7Rii using the 360-degree panorama capable GB603 gimbal.
The ready-to-fly (RTF) Tornado H920 package includes a travel case, the ST24 personal ground station, Proaction grip for stable ground footage, two batteries and a premium two-port charger for about $5000. *Camera/accessories are sold separately.
4. X-frames, Hexs and Octos – Professional Heavy Lifters
Okay – so you have more money than you know what to do with, or you’re REALLY into the big budget heavy-lifters and big cameras so you need to consider your options… well, there are plenty out there if your wallet is fat enough and you have the skill to operate one of these bad boys! I know, there are a LOT of custom manufacturers and startups getting into this market and we’ll see more pop-up for sure int he months to come, so I’m only sharing a few that are getting a lot of attention these days. Be warned though most of these don’t come truly RTF and you’ve got a bit of building/configuring and plenty of training/testing to accomplish before you take off and start shooting your next epic motion picture!
The DJI “Spreading Wings” hex/octo airframes are probably the most popular and well-known of the big dollar heavy-lifters out there. DJI has put a lot of time and research into developing a study and dependable airframe, gimbal and electronic components in these copters.
The S900 is a hex design capable of a 6.8kg payload, including a Zenmuse gimbal and 12,000mAh battery and flight times up to 18 minutes. The airframe collapses and fits in a case that can be setup and ready to fly in minutes, and also features retractable landing gear for a full 360-degree visibility with your camera.
The S1000+ is an octo design, also with retractable landing gear and capable of a larger payload of 11kg so larger gimbals and DSLRs like the 5D MkIII can be carried for up to 15 minutes with 15,000mAh 6S battery.
Both of these heavy-lifters can be configured as single or dual-operator production copters with many configurations and fully customizable to accommodate several cameras/gimbal combinations.
The FreeFly ALTA is a hexacopter drone for aerial imaging that – when used in conjunction with a separately available MoVI gimbal – supports mounting the camera either below or above the airframe. This configuration flexibility makes shooting from virtually any angle possible, even with the camera pointed up. Alta features a maximum payload of 15 lb, and is therefore suitable for DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and even compact cinema cameras (depending on lens weight and other variables). Equipped with Freefly’s own flight control system, Alta works with a range of transmitters, including many Futaba, Spektrum, and radios (see specifications for specific requirements). Flight modes provided include Manual, Height Hold, Climb Rate Control (Vario), Position Hold, Ground Speed Control, Return-To-Home, and Auto-land. For monitoring and first-person view, the flight controller works with FPV systems from Skyzone, BOSCAM, Immersion RC, and Fatshark. OSD display is user-configurable, and telemetry can data can also be displayed on compatible Futaba transmitters.
The Alta includes a hard transit case. Additional item essential to get started include flight batteries and a charger, a transmitter (radio controller), and of course a MoVI gimbal and camera.
- The Freefly ALTA features a robust standard hard case that the aircraft folds up in and a packs away. Before each flight, simply unfold the prop arms and in insert the battery (available separately) – the props themselves unfold automatically as they spin up. No pre-flight assembly requiring tools is needed.
Up to 15 lb Payload Capacity
- Designed for today’s growing crop of compact cinema cameras, the ALTA is suitable for models such as the RED Dragon, Sony F55, and ALEXA Mini. It also supports popular mirrorless and DSLR cameras widely used in video production or to take stills from the air.
- The Freefly Synapse flight control system combines gyros and other sensors with proprietary control algorithms to allow users to execute complex flight patterns with ease. It features an integrated on-screen display, high-bandwidth position control, live , and has been tested for years by the industry’s best pilots.
The Freefly ALTA is quickly taking the lead as the cinematographer’s standard for heavy-lift capabilities. The ALTA UAV comes fully assembled and includes all the necessary tools and accessories you will need to mount a MōVI and get it flying. The standard ALTA drone ships with a Toad in the Hole quick release, Battery Cage Landing Gear, FPV mount plate, cables to connect your personal receivers and/or FPV system, and mechanical tools to disassemble & inspect your UAV. Retail for this configuration starts around $8500.
The new SteadiDrone VADER has been developed and designed to offer the most advanced, heavy duty, heavy lift long endurance multi-rotor sUAS available, with features and quality you simply won’t find on any other system. A reliable tool for everyday commercial and industrial applications, with a massive payload capacity and wide flight envelope, the VADER folds down into a compact travel case, smaller than any other system of comparable size, its the only option for serious aerial professionals and industry.
The SteadiDrone VADER is an ‘open’ platform which is not payload, camera, sensor or even flight controller specific, its ability to fly just about anything, mounted underneath or right on top of the unit, along with its rapid deploy folding design and other unique features is what sets it apart from the rest, designed from the ground up, to the sky.
MAX operational flight time (No payload) ± 50 min (X4) ± 40 min (X8)
MAX range (Endurance based on a 5m/s speed) 15 Km (X4) 12 Km (X8)
MAX forward speed 20 m/s
MAX climb rate 9 m/s
MAX descent rate 6 m/s
MAX operational altitude (ASL) ± 4000 m (empty)
MAX range (Radio) 1500 m
MAX operating wind speed ± 11 m/s
MIN operating temperature -5 °C
Max operating temperature +50 °C
Dimensions open (L x W x H; mm) : 962L x 970W x 565H (Dome), 663H (GPS Mast)
Dimensions folded (L x W x H; mm) : 793L x 338W x 212H
Diagonal length : 1320mm
Weight Airframe : 3.8kg (X8/X4)
Weight RTF ex LiPo : 7.6kg (X8) 6kg (X4)
Weight RTF inc LiPo : 12kg (X8) 10.2kg (X4)
Weight MAX Payload : 6kg (X8) 4.3kg (X4)
Weight MAX AUW : 18kg (X8) 14.5kg (X4)
Designed for multi-use, including industrial and agricultural, the SteadiDrone VADER comes in many combinations and configurations, starting around $22,000 in an RTF X8 platform.
All xFly Systems xFold heavy lifter drones come fully built, configured and balanced to ensure our clients the best quality video recording possible. Each copter is tested with up to 2h in the air and while in the air they also test receiver range, return to home and is fully RTF prior to shipping.
The latest xFold series Ready to Fly (RTF) systems which were built for heavy duty users who wanted only the best on the market. xFold Spy, Travel, Cinema and Dragon editions are made to last long and to be 100% safe. With X8 to X12 configurations available on their entire xFold line, professional operators now have the flexibility needed to configure their Pro UAV’s in order to meet the highest demands of Professional Aerial Cinematography.
All xFold’s Ready to Fly platforms include:
- Multi-rotor pilot operation handbook
- 3 Axis Brushless Gimbal System (for Red Epic, Dragon, Arri Mini, C500, C300, C100, FS700, F65, and more…)
- Dual FPV System with HD screens – HD Gimbal operator, SD Pilot.
- Two lipo batteries
- Smart Transport Case
- Free phone/skype support for 6 months
- Discounted Factory Training Certification
Each build can be customized with a diverse selection of options/add-ons including:
- Option for 3rd person (zoom and iris control)
- Remote camera shutters
- Extra Batteries
- Smart Chargers
- Director Monitor station
- Service Plus – Extended Service Plan
5. Fixed Wing and Hybrids – Professional Mapping/Geological Surveying
For those who want to cover larger areas to collect mapping data or create tiled images for precision agriculture or geological study, a fixed-wing craft will cover more acreage than a traditional multirotor and have longer flight times. Most of these options are more affordable than you might expect, but not that flying these craft will require a significant amount of training and practice to become proficient in operation.
The BirdsEyeView Aerobotics FireFLY6 is a hybrid airframe, with the ability to takeoff and land vertically, hover and maneuver like a multicopter, and transition to efficient forward flight. The FireFLY6 is a first of its kind for the RC, FPV, and hobby aerobotics communities. A long range flying wing with powerful vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, the FireFLY6 is a next generation aerobotics platform combining the efficiency of forward flight, the maneuverability of a multicopter, and the reliability of an elegant single-controller autopilot. This unique blend of features makes the FireFLY6 the perfect solution for a wide range of applications: mapping, agriculture, powerline/pipeline monitoring, package delivery, aerial videography, FPV, and good old fashioned remote control fun, to name a few.
The design of the FireFLY6 is unique to typical fixed-wing craft as the foam-based airframe has a Y6 prop configuration for vertical take off and landing, or the ability to hover like a drone; plus the added chain-driven cam that rotates the motor shaft forward to fly like a regular fixed-wing craft. This design reminds me a bit of the V-22 Osprey used by the Navy. I’ve seen different camera configurations with this craft, including a to-person system with a separate gimbal operator and flight controller.
AvA: Advanced VTOL Autonomy is now available for the FireFLY6. AvA is flight control firmware, designed for the PX4hawk autopilot, that gracefully handles the FireFLY6 in all regimes – takeoff to landing. Flight mode transitions from hover to forward flight (and back) are fully AvA-controlled, making transitions a simple matter of flicking a switch. No special radio programming or piloting techniques required.
AvA also enables fully-scripted autonomous operations, where all flight behavior (including transitions) can be preplanned using map-based point-and-click commands in our custom interface, FireFLY6 Planner.
Complete FireFLY6 kits start around $1400.
The SenseFly eBee is a fully-autonomous foam wing drone that can capture aerial photos or generate 3D models and orthomosaics. It’s easy to fly as it’s fully autonomous with a flight plan you upload from a tablet and can cover up to 12 sq miles in a single flight/
It’s manageable and lightweight (700g/1.5lbs) and comes with its own built-in 16MP camera, carry case and software package. The eMotion 3D mission software will take elevation data into consideration when setting the waypoints of your mission plan. You can also reprogram your flight plan during the flight through the tablet.
Misc Cameras, Gear, Apps and Accessories
While some of the suggested drones’ options come complete with everything you need, including a built-in camera, many of them don’t and I get asked more times than not what I think about certain cameras for aerial photos and video.
Of course, my choice of small sports camera for aerial work is going to be the GoPro HERO4 Black. It’s still the standard of choice in this area if you want either 4K at 24/25/30fps or 1080p at 120fps. Not only for the price ($500) but for the size and form factor. You can also pick up a GoPro HERO4 Silver ($400) or the new GoPro HERO4 Session ($300). You can get a GoPro and modify it with some aftermarket lenses to remove the fisheye distortion.
I also highly recommend Polar Pro filters for your GoPro, Phantom and Inspire cameras (including the new X5) – which are made with quality Tiffen glass and lightweight to not stress your gimbal’s motors. They also make a lot of handy handheld tools and accessories for you personal drones.
If you already have a DJI Phantom 3 (or Phantom 2) and are tired of charging just one or two of your smart batteries at a time, then the folks at P-Squared Group have some Quadchargers for you! I did a full review on the P2/P3 Quadcharger GO and Quadcharger Pro that allow you to safely charge up to four of you Phantom’s smart batteries in less than an hour!
As a great companion to the DJI Inspire 1 4K (X3) camera, DJI has released a handheld stabilized camera called the OSMO, which I wrote an introductory review on ProVideo Coalition. The handheld stabilizer features a 3-axis gimbal and camera similar to the design of the X3 that comes on the Inspire but works in either an upright, angled or underslung position. DJI is updating the Inspire 1 gimbal/camera to be easily adapted to the OSMO handle in early 2016, so existing Inspire 1 users can just purchase the handle and use the camera they already own.
Another standard for medium-lift copters such as the SteadiDrone MAVRIK or the DJI S900 would be the Sony NEX5/7. It shoots either 24MP stills up to 10fps, or 1080p 24/60p AVCHD video and provides really clear quality images. This works with the DJI Zenmuse Z15 gimbal that’s built specifically for this camera and only a couple other options.
Of course as you move up the chain you’re getting into DSLRs and RED categories, which we won’t cover the specifics here, but do know that for every camera option there is usually a specific lens that you MUST use so the gimbal will be balanced properly. You’ll need to check with the manufacturers for each option and discover what works best for your needs.
And to protect your investment, many resellers and manufacturers offer a case option with your purchase, but if they don’t then check out the Go Professional line of cases with custom inserts for your specific model.
Some really cool FPV goggles I found recently at the Drone World Expo are the Vuexl VX1 FPV Goggles which are the most versatile configuration I’ve seen to date and can be easily work by folks like me with prescription lenses.
And for your iPad Air or iPad mini out in the field, you’re going to want The Padcaster. The aluminum frame that surrounds the protective formed tablet mount has a ton of threaded holes to mount to a tripod or add accessories, such as your telemetry receiver or antennae.
In addition to the many apps available now for various utilities and flight planning, I discovered a new one that I’m dying to test out soon, but worth a look – the FreeSkies Copilot app (iOS only currently) that will allow you to set-up 3D waypoints using a 3D preview map of the area you wish to cover, so you can easily see where your drone will be traveling through and avoid obstacles like buildings and trees for sending it on a fully autonomous mission to capture smooth video.
And if you are looking to get into doing aerial drone mapping, then I can’t recommend Kike Calvo’s book So You Want to Create Maps Using Drones? highly enough! It is the definitive guide for anyone just starting out or needs to get a further understanding of the processes and procedures in capturing images and data and producing orthomosaic images, maps, 3D models and more.
IMPORTANT TIPS for New Drone Owners:
Please share these tips and links to those who you may be gifting a drone to this year, or for yourself if you’re a newflier.
There’s an easy read of basic tips put out from Inside Edition that everyone should be aware of.
And important information with some clever and fun videos you can share with others to raise awareness of drone safety and responsibility from Know Before You Fly.