Exploring the World of Drones? Get Started With This Buying Guide

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Here's how to navigate the massive new market of drones to find the right one for you. (Hint: Save money and heartache by starting small and upgrading as your pilot skills improve.)

Remember how surprised you were when you first drove a car and discovered it wasn’t quite as easy as Mom or Dad made it look?

It’s the same with drones. Sure, flying one looks easy enough, but when you take the controls you find out it’s only easy if you want to crash it or cause havoc. Before you buy your own drone and add it to the estimated 350,000 registered with the Federal Aviation Administration, consider these ideas to ensure that you choose the device that’s right for you, your intended purpose and your skill level:

Think twice before you spend big

People generally develop their driving skills in basic, inexpensive cars that can withstand grinding gears and other beginners’ mistakes. Consider using the same strategy when buying your first drone. Professional drone pilot Don Gottleib suggests newbies begin their flying experience with a remote-control helicopter. “It’s the hardest thing to do, but once you get it, after a few months, you’ll be a really safe drone pilot,” said Gottleib, who started his learning process with a small helicopter he purchased for $20.

To get an idea of the spectrum of drones, check out this estimated price list assembled on MyFirstDrone.com, which ranges from about $40 for the “crazy small” Proto X to just about $1,400 for a DJI Phantom Four — a larger and more advanced drone that avoids obstacles automatically, can track a moving subject automatically and flies up to 44 mph.

Understand drones may need some assembly

No, they don’t all come out of the box ready to go. The drones labeled RTF are ready-to-fly, according to MyFirstDrone.com. Even then, you may need to install or charge batteries and otherwise finish assembly. You may also find drones labeled “BNF” for bind-and-fly, which means that you need to provide a controller that is compatible to use with the drone. The down-and-dirty basic models are labeled ARF or almost-ready-to-fly. The definition varies, so don’t assume that a motor or even a battery is included. Ask the seller what you will need to actually get the thing off the ground.

Know your operator

Are you purchasing the drone for an adult? A child? A filmmaker? It’s important to buy the right drone, so you don’t waste money or cause injury. Rick Broida wrote a review of various drones for Time magazine, breaking his suggestions into categories. He covers extra-safe drones for kid pilots, low-priced ones for adults that might inadvertently steer their drones into brick walls and more sophisticated ones for hobbyists and pros.

As Broida writes:

Drones are dangerous, no doubt about it, so adult supervision is a must for any young flyer. As for the drone itself, you’ll want something inexpensive, yet sturdy, with blade guards that can protect walls, pets, siblings, and other hazards against less-coordinated pilots.

Plan to trade up

Certainly the picture and video quality of the camera on a $200 drone is not as crisp or clear as from more expensive models. But low-end drones — simulators are also an option, said Gottleib — will allow you to practice flying and taking aerial photos and videos before you splurge.

Start out close to home, or inside

If you buy a small entry-level drone (which Best Buy estimates are priced between $50 and $200), it should be safe to practice inside your home. That will help you develop needed skills before you take the drone outside where wind will make flying tricky.

But if you insist on buying a more advanced drone to start out — again, we don’t recommend it — then make sure you go to an open area where there are few people, trees, animals or other obstacles so you can safely gain mastery of the vehicle. DJI, the company that sells the more advanced Phantom quadcopters, offers tips for getting started on these models, including to keep the drone in line-of-sight and, importantly, not to fly too high: “In the U.S., the maximum allowed height for flying commercial drones is 400 feet, so as to not interfere with the aircraft in the regular airspace.”

Plan to master the basics

Again, start at the beginning and spend some time building skills.

Sure it’s tempting to skip ahead and buy a drone with stabilization and auto return. “Some of these drones today are too easy to fly. But when they get in trouble? They don’t know how to save it,” said Gottleib. “And they get on a final approach to a major airport. Oh my God. There’s a jetliner coming in.”

You really don’t want to be that drone owner.

What are your thoughts or concerns about the growing popularity of drones? Share with us in comments below or on our Facebook page.

Stacy Johnson

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