Quick facts about drones
- Some drones are designed as toys, others are for photography and filming and others are for racing.
- There are strict regulations about where and when you can fly, so familiarise yourself with local laws.
What is a drone?
Originally developed for military applications, drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are becoming an increasingly popular pastime. Most drones on the market are quadcopters, with four rotor blades, though hexacopter and octocopter configurations exist. Drones are great for photography and recreational flying, and racing circuits are popping up across the world. More than anything, flying them is a lot of fun!
Types of drones
Consumer drones can be broadly broken down into four categories. The type for you depends on what you want to use it for and how much you are willing to spend.
- Toy. If you’re unsure about the hobby and want to dip your toes in without a hefty commitment, consider a toy drone. The basic principle is the same as serious models, they’re just smaller, lighter and significantly cheaper. The downside is toy drones aren’t the easiest to fly because they lack advanced features like auto-takeoff, auto-landing and various stabilisation measures. Being lighter means they get buffeted around in the wind more, too. Battery life is generally in the 5-10 minute range.
- Recreational. At this level, you’ll find a serious drone, but one that’s balanced towards ease of use. They require very little assembly and are generally ready to fly (RTF) out of the box. You’ll be able to take good photos and fly for significantly longer than toy drones. This is the best option for casual hobbyists.
- Advanced. At the advanced end, components and features (and pricing) are geared towards professionals. They require more practice, or even coaching, to fly properly. They’re faster, equipped with better cameras – some are capable of recording 4K video – and have professional-grade gimbals to help images stay focussed during less than ideal conditions. If you’re using a drone for real estate photography, TV, cinema or mapping and surveying, you’ll want something in this tier.
- Racing. Racing drones are lighter, faster, more manoeuvrable and, at the top end, are custom built and require a lot of assembly. The cameras are used exclusively for first-person-view flying and, as such, don’t take quality photos or video.
Drones and the law
Flying a drone or remotely piloted aircraft (RPA) is legal in South Africa, however there are regulations set by the South African Civil Aviation Authority (SACAA). These regulations include (but are not limited to):
- Any drone used for commercial purposes must be registered.
- Drones cannot fly within 50m of other people.
- Drones cannot fly within 50m of private property without permission from the property owner.
- Drones cannot fly within 10km of an aerodrome, airport or manned aircraft.
- Drones weighing more than 7kg must be approved by the SACAA.
- Drones cannot fly in restricted or prohibited airspace.
- Drones cannot fly higher than 150ft above the ground.
For the most up-to-date information on drone regulations check the SACAA website.
Keep in mind, laws differ across the world. Make sure you know the local laws when travelling with your drone.
How to compare drones
When choosing a drone, consider the following factors:
Flight time (battery)
Flight time on a single charge ranges from 5 minutes to around 30. Manufacturer estimates are always on the generous side, so expect less in real-world flying conditions. You also need to allow time for the drone to return to you to change batteries, so effective flying time is shorter still.
If your drone is for professional use, don’t skimp here. When you consider that it can take more than two hours to charge a battery, you’ll want to have a few spare batteries in your pack. If you can afford it, always go for the larger battery.
Do you want a drone that comes with a dedicated controller – typically a box with two flight sticks – or do you want to fly using an app and the touchscreen on your phone? The former provides greater control and tactile feedback, but the latter is more portable. Professionals tend to prefer dedicated controllers because there’s a slight response lag when using a phone, but mobile is still a viable approach for most purposes except racing.
Drones come with either a fixed camera or the ability to attach different ones. If you opt for a fixed model, make sure it’s a quality camera because you won’t be able to upgrade it later. Fixed camera models go up to 4K resolution. Some come with optical zooms, but they cost more.
If photography and filming is a serious hobby, or you’re intending to gather footage for commercial purposes, you’ll want a drone with a decent gimbal. These stabilise the camera across multiple axes, allowing for smoother video and sharper photos in windy conditions.
If you’re new to the hobby, you should get a drone with advanced safety features like mandatory tutorials, auto-takeoff, auto-landing and object-avoidance technology so you don’t crash into trees. If you’re losing control, being able to initiate an automatic return using the onboard GPS can be the difference between landing and losing your expensive new toy.
Some toy drones only have a range of 20-30 metres, more than enough to have fun at home or the park. Advanced drones have an effective range of a few kilometres (top-end models currently max out at around seven kilometres). Remember, though, this can be a moot point because of the law – if you can’t see it, you can’t fly it.
Let’s be realistic: if you’re starting out, you’re going to crash – quite a bit. Rotor blades are the part most likely to need replacing, so make sure you pick up some spares.
Four things to consider
- Headless mode. Some pilots find “headless mode” helpful. This is an alternative control scheme that ignores the drone’s orientation and instead moves it in relation to the pilot. In headless mode, it doesn’t matter which way the drone is facing; if you push left on the controller, it will move left. Look out for this feature if you think it will be helpful.
- You don’t need the latest model. DJI is the dominant manufacturer in the field. If you’re opting for one of its drones, know that DJI releases new models regularly with iterative upgrades. So, unless the newest feature feels essential to you, you can probably save some money by not buying the latest model.
- People can be wary of drones. Not only will you make strangers in the vicinity nervous, but you’ll also probably get asked what you’re doing. This is perfectly reasonable – it’s new tech that is infamously used for military and espionage purposes, so some scepticism is to be expected. Just be polite and explain what you’re doing. You never know, you might end up with new hobbyists to fly with!
- Be respectful. Drones, at their noisiest, sound like a swarm of angry bees. Always be respectful of other people sharing public space. It’s best to fly somewhere as far from other people as possible.
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