Who doesn’twant a drone of their own? They’re remote control aircraft with autonomous navigation capabilities, expandable to carry different types of gear that might be useful from the sky (this usually means cameras and other imaging equipment). Drones are simply robots that fly, and you can buy one if you so choose.
What do you do with a drone? Nearly all the same things you’d do with a conventional remote control aeroplane (fly it for fun), but there are a number of interesting things made possible by endowing a flying vehicle with robot brains. A farmer might use one to automatically conduct an aerial survey of his or her crops via the same exact route every day without even having to leave the house. Enterprising paparazzi might use a drone to sneak a celebrity shot from a non-obvious vantage point. Swedish scientists have even choreographed drones to “weave tensile structures” (read: build buildings out of fabric).
For now, the mainstream fun to be had with drones seems to be in outfitting them with cameras and flying around, watching the live video feed. Quite the step up from Microsoft Flight Simulator 98. Let’s check some of the more notable consumer drones out there now.
FPV, or first-person view, is the term for drone flights that make use of a forward-facing camera, almost always providing a live feed back to the pilot on the ground. Watching the feed while flying is akin to physically sitting in the cockpit of your tiny aeroplane.
The H-King Darkwing has been specifically designed to carry a camera for FPV flights and 'can be field assembled in minutes and is easy to transport.'
Price: $167 from Hobby King
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Ever wanted your own hands-free camera crew? Well that's exactly what 3DRobtocs' Iris+ drone is designed for. The Iris+ can be programmed to follow the GPS signal of any Android device, and is smart enough to make sure the camera is always centered on you. You can also fly the drone manually or map out a specific course using 3DRobotics tablet software. The Iris+ isn't for sale yet, but it starts shipping on Sept. 15 for $US750.
Parrot drones are perhaps the most popular for the general public. Their styrofoam frames are lightweight and durable, so they can take light punishment with ease, and the heavily 'app-ified' experience in using them is intuitive and well-done. Steer your drone by simply tilting your iPhone, watch the live FPV video stream, and even record your HD video of what your drone sees.
Staying aloft for 6-7 minutes per fully charged battery, the Storm Drone 4 is a robust flying platform that initially saw development as a simple flying toy. When it performed much better than expected, they rigged it with a camera and saw that it could easily support and stabilise a camera. It's available through Helipal for $US359.
Given the nature of its ready-to-fly design, the DJI Phantom has seen use from the hobbyist's backyard to professional film and television productions. No assembly required! It's just $US479 from Amazon.
Its onboard GPS and 'position hold' setting mean it always knows exactly where it is and where you want it to be.
The Phantom 2 Vision+ can fly for up to 25 minutes, which is a lot longer than many drones, and comes with its own high-end camera for capturing footage. You can also tilt the camera as you fly, which allows you shoot from multiple angles. DJI makes it easy to see exactly what you're capturing by broadcasting exactly what the camera sees on your mobile device. The Phantom 2 Vision+ is available via DJI's website for $US1,299 here.
The CoaX contains an integrated Inertial Measurement Unit (IMU), a pressure sensor, a down-looking sonar, three side looking sonar and a colour camera. To communicate with the world, the robot has a Bluetooth (or ZigBee) module and a optional WiFi module. It can also be controlled via a 2.4GHz remote control. The CoaX contains two DSPs (dsPIC33). One is used for sensor data-fusion and the second one for control and communication. Additionally, the CoaX supports the Overo series of tiny computers from Gumstix (optional).
If you're involved in research or want a drone that can do it all and aren't terribly concerned with speed, this is a good (if pricey) choice.
The full kit to build this one costs $US990. It's a flying wing design, resembling a stealth bomber-type thing, but it's ready to take your GoPro for awesome FPV flights when pointed forward, but the same camera can also be pointed at the ground for spy missions.
A lot of this stuff is prohibitively expensive. If you want a much more affordable quadrotor to get your feet wet, something that won't break your heart when it crashes into the river, we recommend the Hubsan X4.
If you're looking for something on the cheap end with a little more functionality than the Hubsan X4, check out Extreme Flier's Micro Drone 2.0. The $US100 drone comes with IR sensors and a six-axis gyroscope that can keep the copter stable. You can either attach your own camera or purchase the $US128 model that comes with a camera kit.
The Pocket Drone launched as a Kickstarter project promising to deliver portable but high-performing drones to anyone who wants them (they nearly nearly $US1 million, crushing their $US35,000 goal).
Built on a tri-rotor platform, the Pocket Drone unfolds from its 7' x 3' form into a modestly sized drone that's ready to fly within 20 seconds.
This thing's not available via retail yet, but you can pre-order here, starting at $US500.
UAir's R10 quadrotor drone was also born as a Kickstarter project that more than broke its goal. The R10 is strong enough to carry a brick, and it's missing a crossbeam by design -- it marks the front of the craft so that you can visually identify its orientation in flight.
Most interesting about UAir is the active drone-related forum the company maintains. Customers and other drone users share tips and ideas on how to make their aircraft do new and interesting things. Their online store is sorely nonfunctional at the moment, but the forum is loaded with great resources for now.