Lost in the Quads: How to Choose the Right Drone

October 18, 2017
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Buying a drone or unmanned aircraft vehicle can be a daunting prospect for anyone, from beginners to industry professionals. There are hundreds of options, ranging from the simplistic to the materials of science fiction. Drone technology is advancing at an ever-increasing pace. So fast, in fact, it is nearly impossible for one to stay current. Here are some of the main points for one to consider when searching for the first or next UAV.

Which Type?

There are several types of UAVs on the market. Most people immediately think of the square-shaped multirotor always appearing in the news. However, a different type of UAV might be more appropriate, depending on one’s needs, as Robert Lefebvre pointed out in his workshop, “UAV Systems Comparisons: Planes, Frames and Autopilots,” presented at Interdrone’s International Drone Conference, on September 17, in Las Vegas. The following comparison was derived from his workshop.

1)     Fixed wings resemble small airplanes.

Pros: Long flight duration and can fly at high speed.

Cons: Cannot hover which may prevent detailed imagery; may require larger area for turns, take-off, and landing; often have no landing gear, which can quickly damage the UAV if landing improperly.

2)     Multirotors have three to eight rotors.

Pros: Easy to use; vertical take-off and landing (perfect for tight areas).

Cons: Short flight durations (batteries allow for 15-30 minutes of flight); susceptible to wind; do not scale well as there is a practical limit to size and duration.

3)     Helicopters have one rotor and are typically gas powered.

Pros: Best weather performance; middle range in duration and speed.

Cons: Mechanically complex and fragile.

Budget: Drones can be divided into three main categories: Beginner, Intermediate, and Advanced. Most beginner drones cost under $799, intermediate drones cost $800 - $6,999, while advanced drones will come with a price tag over $10,000.

A little advice: Do not simply buy what is affordable at the time. Save up. Better to wait until one can afford a drone with more capabilities than buy a cheap one just for the sake of getting in the air. 

Purpose: For what is the drone going to be used? If this is just a hobby to fly around and get a few pictures, then the beginner level is probably fine. The more expensive models allow for more functionality, such as advanced imagery, self-guided flight, obstacle avoidance, and more.

Equipment: This ties directly into budget and purpose. Make sure the drone has all the capabilities one requires, including features such as cameras, sensors, and gimbal. Do not try to keep adding components to the drone. One may, for example, end up spending several thousand dollars for a gimbal and/or a camera upgrade.

Obsolete: Due to the widespread public interest and industry investment in UAV, new models are turned out every 6-8 months. This is especially true for the Beginner category with drones under $799, which is why it is advisable to save and purchase higher end models, if possible. In six months, the model that was cutting edge may not be supported anymore, which also runs into compatibility issues. Again, if one tries to add several different components to a drone, make sure those components are compatible.   

Some recommended intermediate models with a price range of $800-$2000:

  • YUNEEC Typhoon H
  • DJI Inspire 1 v2.0
  • DJI Phantom 4
  • DJI Mavic
  • Walkera TALI H500
  • Power Vision Egg Drone
  • Walkera Scout X4
  • GoPro Karma
  • MOTA Giga-8000.

Intermediate and up with a price beginning at $2000:

  • xFold rigs X8
  • Power Vision PowerEye
  • DJI Inspire 2
  • Yuneec H920
  • DJI Matrice 100
  • DJI Matrice 600
  • DJI Matrice 200 series
  • Drone Volt DV Wing
  • FreeFly ALTA 6
  • Drone Volt HERCULES 10
  • Drone Volt Janus 360
  • FreeFly ALTA 8.

Conclusion

UAV’s are becoming a useful tool in a range of industries such as construction, real estate, mining, city planning, agriculture, surveying, and more. Every job needs the right tool; the same concept applies for UAV’s. This article is a guide to help operators select the right UAV for their needs. With the rapid transformation of UAV design and technology, even with the tips outlined in this article, the decision is still difficult. Talking to vendors and doing test flights are still two of the best ways to determine whether one is buying the right drone for the job. Good luck and happy flying.

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Work reported in this article are supported by the National Science Foundation under Grant ATE #1700552. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation.

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