What should I know before buying a drone?

Buying a drone can be quite an intimidating experience. Whenever you are entering a new technological world there are a ton of questions that you need to answer for yourself before you feel comfortable parting with quite a significant amount of money. You will come across unfamiliar terms like “return to home” and “headless mode” and need to work out whether or not these features are important to you. In this article I’m going to go over everything that you need to know before buying a drone. If I’ve done my job correctly, you will have all of the information that you need to identify a drone which matches you want to use it whilst also matching the budget that you have for your new hobby.

Before buying a drone, you need to know what you want to do with your drone (which includes how you want to use it, and the main features you want to use) whilst also understanding what all the different specifications on the drone mean.

The first step on your drone buying journey should be to determine exactly what you want your drone to do based on the primary purpose for purchasing a drone. If you want to read more about the sorts of drones you can buy check out my other in-depth article – the ultimate drone buying guide. The only guide you ever need! – Click here.

Let’s now turn our attention to the important questions that you need to ask before buying a drone. The answers to these questions will shape what you need to know and understand before deciding on the best drone for you.

What you want to do with your drone

Drones come in a whole range of sizes and colours as well as with different feature sets depending on how the drone is to be used.

How much you want to spend?

The first question you need to ask yourself is what is your budget for your drone. You see, fancy marketing techniques from drone manufacturers mean that it is very easy to spend well above what you actually want to pay for a drone.

Like most consumer electronics, drones are subject to regular hardware, software, and feature upgrades. This means that the slick advertising from drone companies can easily convince you that you need the best and most expensive drone currently on the market.

In my experience, you almost certainly never need the most expensive drone on the market unless you know exactly why you need that combination of feature sets. For example, my favourite drone is still the Mavic air. The Mavic air is not the top of the range and is a few years old but because it packs down into an incredibly small size whilst also retaining all of the advanced feature sets of the more professional level drones it is perfect for how I want to use it. Check out my YouTube video where I talk about whether or not the Mavic air is still a good choice in 2021:

You also don’t need to spend a fortune on drones.

You have two options if you don’t have a large budget but still want a drone with all of the advanced flying features. I think the best option for you is to purchase a second hands drone. For a full rundown on how to buy a secondhand drone check out my other article where I have included a 50 part checklist for you to download the free – click here.

The second option you have is to buy a drone which is inexpensive. I have an ultimate guide on buying an inexpensive drone – click here to read. Just because you don’t have a massive budget doesn’t mean that you have to miss out on some awesome features. It may just not be from a large manufacturer like DJI.

Here is a rough guide on how much I think you should consider spending for different levels of drone use:

Child drone$15 – $250
Beginner photography drone$250 – $1500
Professional photography drone$2000 plus
Racing drone$500 plus

Why do you want/need a drone?

After you have settled on your budget you need to consider why do you actually want or need a drone. You see, many people want a drone because they think it is cool but have not considered exactly why they want or need a drone.

If you just think they are cool and you want a drone to check it out that is no issue but for this you clearly do not need the best drone on the market as after the initial excitement wears off you will be left with inexpensive bit of gadgetry which will sit unused in a drawer.

Here are some reasons why you may want to purchase or need a drone:

  • for photography – drones are a fantastic way to get a unique viewpoint on the world. If you are a seasoned photographer you may want to add this capability to your kit. I would focus on the maximum resolution and sensor type and size.
  • For videography – drones are also able to capture some amazing video footage. Whether or not you are working for a video agency or you have an outlet for the footage (like your own YouTube channel) you are able to get some cool and unique footage. I would focus on features like resolution of video footage and the stability of the gimbal for smooth recording.
  • For racing – some people by drones to fly as fast as possible around a course. In this instance you should focus on features like top speed, manoeuvrability, and battery life.
  • Because you just “want one” – there is nothing wrong with just wanting a drone. In this instance I would focus on getting the longest battery life for the lowest amount of cost as well as a dedicated controller.

After you have determined why you want to purchase a drone you will be in a much better position to understand what you really need to know.

How are you going to use your drone?

How you are going to use your drone is going to determine what aspects you need to know about drones. For example, if you are going to be a hobby photographer then you will need a drone which will fit alongside your current kit for travelling to your photography locations. If, however, you are going to be using your drone to capture very specific videos for clients than you could probably get away with a slightly larger drone with its own dedicated case. In that instance, you will also be concerned about the quality of the footage.

I wanted to use my drone to get some B-roll footage for my LinkedIn videos. I therefore needed a small drone with a reasonable camera and battery life and was able to be carried on a daily basis. Knowing how you are going to use your drone will let you know how you are going to prioritise the different features that each drone comes with.

What features you need it to have?

This is where drones can get a little confusing. There are tons of features that you will need to compare and contrast whilst searching for the perfect drone for you.

Some common features that you will need to consider are:

  • GPS – will you need to know whether drone is at all times and will the drone need to be able to be programmed to go through specific waypoints.
  • Return to home – will your drone need to be able to return to its landing spot on its own at the press of a button?
  • Headless mode – this mode makes incredibly easy for children to fly as the drone always moves in the direction the joystick is moved irrespective of the direction that the drone is pointing.
  • Fly more sets – DJI and other manufacturers offer combo purchases which include extra batteries and propellers et cetera. This allows you to increase your flight time whilst also reducing the initial purchase price.
  • Camera features – drone cameras are becoming more and more like DSLR’s and use the same nomenclature to talk about the quality of the images that are available. Familiarise yourself with the DSLR camera jargon and you will be able to then compare the cameras on drones.
  • Folded and unfolded size – most drones are able to be packed down into a smaller size for convenient storage and transportation. If you need to carry your drone with you regularly it needs to fit in your daily backpack. If, on the other hand, you will only be using it for very specific outings than you may not be so concerned with the folded size.

There are many more different features and we will go through all of them below.

Where are you going to use it?

Before considering your drone purchase you should work out where you are going to be using it. I mean this in two ways:

Firstly, where in the world are you going to be flying your drone. Some places have extremely strict rules and regulations which may include you having to get a license to fly your drone. Other places, like the United States of America, have weight limits for consumer drones which are able to be flown without a license (at the time of writing this is 250 g).

Secondly, you will need to know in what sorts of location you will be flying. Will you be by the ocean? Will you be in a city? These will help you determine what sort of drone is best for you and the sorts of top speeds are suitable for your drone locations.

As a simple rule of thumb you should only fly a drone in wins no greater than two thirds of the maximum speed. This means that if you are intending on flying in windy locations you should purchase a drone that is able to withstand the winds that are commonly observed in those areas.

Who will be using it?

Will you be flying the drone or are you buying the drone for someone else?

If the drone is to be flown by a child then features like headless mode and easy drone control (such as hand controlled drones) will be the best option for you. For more details on the best drone for kids check out my other in-depth blog – Best drones for kids [guide and products] – click here to be taken to article.

On the other hand, if you are an adult you will be able to get to grips with most of the commercially available drones currently on the market. Drones are incredibly easy to fly as the advanced drones from manufacturers, such as DJI, have a load of features which allow you to get flying within minutes of receiving your package.

Being honest about your skill level will allow you to choose a drone that has a beginner mode which you can later switch off as you get more and more comfortable.

Now that you have answered all of the questions about what you want from your drone you will have a much better idea of the things you should know before flying a drone. In the sections below, I have separated out what you should consider for each drone purchase as well as separate it out what you should consider for video drones and racing drones. I see these two as the biggest categories of drone that are commonly purchased.

For all drones

In this section we are going to go through all of the important things that you should know about drones irrespective of the use case of the drone you are buying.

Local laws and regulations

There are many rules and regulations which change regularly about drone ownership and flying. As a drone owner it is your responsibility to keep on top of all of the new regulation changes and ignorance is not an excuse for failure to comply.

You should check your local laws and regulations as well as any special circumstances such as those found if you were to fly over national parks or protected marine areas.

Here are some links to local laws and regulations in the United States of America, Canada, Australia, and the UK:

Drone flying restriction in USA

Drone flying restriction in Canada

Drone flying restriction in Australia

Drone flying restriction in UK

There wouldn’t be anything more frustrating than going through all the effort of selecting the perfect drone for you and then not being able to fly it where and how you want to.

Flight time

Flight time in drones is getting longer and longer. Just a few years ago you wouldn’t be able to fly a drone for more than about 10 minutes. Nowadays, it is common for the newer drones to easily surpass 25 minutes.

One thing you’ll need to realise is that the times quoted by the manufacturer as the maximum flight time is under ideal conditions – no wind, hovering, and no load.

Here are some of the best lifetimes of drones available on the market right now:

DroneFlight time
Mavic Air 233 minutes
UPair One FPV18 minutes
DJI Mavic Mini30 minutes
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom31 minutes
DJI Mavic Pro27 minutes
Blade Chroma 4K30 minutes
DJI Phantom 4 Pro30 minutes
Parrot Bebop 224 minutes
Traxxas Aton Plus25 minutes

Each of the times above are what the manufacturer stares is the flight time but will vary according to flying conditions.

Battery life

Battery life refers to 2 things. The first is how long the battery lasts during your flight. This is easy to identify as it is strongly correlated with the flight time.

The second is how often you need to replace your battery. For most consumer level drones the average battery needs to be replaced after about 300 hours of flight time. This will determine how expensive your drone will be to run in the long run. Replacement batteries tend to be the most expensive aspect of drone maintenance as they are full of fancy equipment and smart technology which allows for rapid charging as well as safe storage.

Packed and unpacked size

Before buying a drone you should consider the packed and unpacked size of the drones you want to purchase.

Drone manufacturers often quote the dimensions of the packs drone without any case or cover. Therefore, you should always add a few millimetres when considering the smallest size that a drone packs down to.

My preference is always to carry a drone in its dedicated case (whether that is a soft case or a hard case) because that is where the majority of the protection will come from. Not all bags have padded dividers to make your drone safe and secure.

Controller type

The controller is the drone pilots only connection to the drone. While you are flying the quality of the controller and the ease of its use will be the thing that dictates how now fun the drone will be to fly.

Not all drones come with a controller and some are flown by using a smart phone app. Some drones are able to be flown by both a smart phone app as well as a dedicated controller. If you are buying a drone for a child you have to make sure that the drone controller is not so big that it hinders effective use of the controller as the joysticks are positioned for adult hands.

My preference is to have a dedicated controller as I believe this gives the best flying experience while flying a drone out in the wild. A dedicated controller will also commonly linked to your smart phone which means that is where you can see the first person view (live video feed) of the drones flight.

Construction quality

Drones are made typically of plastic and metal.

Plastic is used as the primary construction material since it is lightweight and can be tuned to be robust so that doesn’t break upon crashing. Metal is also used to reinforce joints and for all of the electronic components.

A drone’s construction quality will dictate how well a drone bounces back from a crash. Quite often, you can rely on well-known drone manufacturers to do a good job at reinforcing vulnerable areas of the drone’s construction.

Cheaper drones will not have the same level of construction quality and may break on even the slightest of bumps and knocks. I recommend that you balance the cost of your drone with how robust you need to be.

Very small, lightweight drones will not be as damaged as the larger photography drones since the weight will limit the amount of damage they incur even if falling from a great height.

Advanced features

As drone technology advances more drones are incorporating advanced technological feature sets. Even the cheapest of drones now available include some obstacle avoidance and sensors which keep the drone and the operator safe.

Here, we’re going to go over some of the advanced features which you may want to consider as an important aspect of your next drone purchase.

Obstacle avoidance

Obstacle avoidance is something that has saved my drone from a collision and crash many times. Typically drones will have forward, outwards and downwards facing sensors which measure the distance of the drone from some obstacles.

In some models of drone the drone will stop at about 3 m away from the obstacle. In other, more advanced drones, the drone will be able to actively avoid the obstacle and fly around it. This is becoming more and more common in the latest model of drones.

GPS / compass

GPS location and compass direction is available on the majority of higher end consumer drones. The great thing about these features is that you are always able to know if your drone is pointing the right direction so that you can fly back to yourself and it also means that if your drone lands in a place that you didn’t plan you are able to get the last known GPS location of the drone.

Drones with GPS sensors are able to also fly through waypoints (a preprogrammed path of flight). Having a drone with a GPS is a lifesaver in so many different ways and also gives the drone the foundational functions it needs for a series of automated functions such as auto hover, auto selfie and drone shots etc.

Return to home

Return to home is a feature on a drone where you push a single button (whether on the software or on the controller). And the drone will return to its GPS location on takeoff or a pre-defined landing spot.

I’ve never used my return to home function, but it is great to know that it is there if I need it. The return to home function and auto landing can also be improved by the drone taking photographs of the takeoff spot. This means that the drone is more likely to land in the precise area that it took off in.

Headless mode

Headless mode is when the drone moves in the direction that the joystick is moved in irrespective of the orientation of the drone.

Headless mode is a great way for kids and inexperience flyers to get the best flying experience possible. Flying toward yourself can be problematic as the left and right controls on the joystick have been swapped which means that it can be harder to fly your drone toward yourself.

Get headless mode if you’re drone is for a younger or less experienced pilot.

Replacement parts

When you are considering what drone to purchase you should also have a look at replacement parts and how much each cost to replace.

Propellers

The propellers can cost anywhere between five dollars and $25 and are the most common thing that you replace on your drone. After about 200 flights or any significant damage or bums you should consider replacing the propellers.

Batteries

Batteries need to be replaced less often but they are the most expensive component of a drone to replace (other than the drone itself). Drone batteries cannot be swapped out between models and so you will need to look at the availability and cost of original drones from the manufacturer. It is never a good idea to get a drone battery from third party provider.

For video drones

If video is important to you here are the main things that you need to consider if you are buying a video drones

Sensor size

The sensor is where light lands after it passes through the lens. This is the part of the camera that turns the light into an electronic signal so that it can be processed and turned into a digital image. Here are the most important parts that you should pay close attention to:

  • Sensor type
    • CMOS – Complementary metal-oxide semiconductor. Includes solid-state circuitry at each and every photosite, and can manipulate the data for each pixel right in the sensor. The CMOS sensor can respond to lighting conditions in ways that a CCD can’t.
    • CCD – Charged-coupled device. Captures photons (light particles) as electrical charges in each photosite (a light-sensitive area that represents a pixel). After exposure, the charges are moved off the chip to an amplifier located in one corner of the sensor.
  • Effective pixels – this tells you how many pixels can respond to the incoming light and correlates with the maximum resolution of the image.

Most new camera have a CMOS type of sensor as they have better imaging processing capability. Even the Mavic Mini (DJI’s entry level drone) has this type of sensor. The number of effective pixels and the quality capable from each camera is related to price. When you are buying a more expensive drone you will always get a better camera included. That is, until you get to the professional level drones that have interchangeable cameras and sensors.

Lens

When we talk about the lens we must address all of these components:

  • Field of view: expressed in degrees and tells you how wide the drone is able to capture an image.
  • 35 mm format equivalent: The term 35 mm equivalent focal length is a comparison of the field of view seen through a digital camera lens compared to the field of view produced by the older 35 mm film cameras.
  • Aperature: Also known as f-stops and controls how much light gets into the sensor and the depth of feild.
  • Shooting range: will tell you how close and far away you are able to focus on an object (expressed in meters and to inflinity)

Each different camera on a drone will have a different array of values for each of the above. Drones typically are not used for portrait or other close up shots so manufacturers make a lens that is suitable for long range focusing with a wide field of view for those awesome landscape shots!

Photography modes

One of the last important factors of drones for photography is the different photography modes that you can use. This is starting to get very technical and for most people this will not need to factor into their decision making. As an example of the different photography modes here is what the DJI Mavic 2 Pro offers:

  • Single shot: will take a single shot and it what most of us are used to with a camera.
  • Burst shooting: will take 3 – 5 quick-fire images so you can select the best one.
  • Auto Exposure Bracketing (AEB): The camera will choose one exposure (based upon what its metering thinks is correct) and then it will take one other shot on either side of this best guess (one over exposed and one underexposed).
  • Interval: Will take an image every so often as the settings dictate. Evert 2 – 60 seconds.
  • RAW: A RAW image offers very little processing from the image sensor. The camera saves the settings but does not process the image. There is much more freedom to edit the image but the file size can be 2 – 6 times larger than the processed version.

Taking a moment to think about the sorts of things you will shoot and how you’ll best be able to use these modes will be the best thing you can do.

Gimbal motion

The gimbal is what keeps the camera steady while flying. Having a good quality gimbal is almost as important as the camera itself.

I recommend having a look at the range of motion of the gimbal and see if it matches what you want. For example, the parrot and Anafi is able to do 180° range of motion (pointing straight up and then pointing straight down). Whereas the DJI series can only do pointing straightforward and pointing down.

So if you want to inspect things above the drone you need to make sure that the gimbal moves in the way you needed to move.

Automated shots

The latest DJI drones and GO4 app have the following intelligent flight filming modes. These modes allow you to capture some impressive footage without having to master the manual flying needed to get such cinematographic shots.

  • Rocket: Ascend with the camera pointing downward keeping the subject in view.
  • Dronie: Fly backward and upward, with the camera locked on your subject. I use this one all of the time and it results in a brilliant shot for almost anything.
  • Circle: The drone circles around the subject keeping a fixed distance away (does not move with the subject)
  • Helix: Fly upward increasing heigh while spiralling around the subject.
  • Asteroid: The drone flies backward and upward. It takes several photos, then flies to its starting point. create a “little planet” type of shot.
  • Boomerang: The drone flies backward around the subject in an oval path, rising as it flies away from its starting point. It then descends as it flies back in.

These can start to look a little cookie cutter when used too often – that’s why I like to capture the majority of my footage with manual flying techniques.

For racing drones

If you’re considering buying a racing drone here are the things that you need to consider.

Type

Not all racing drones are made the same and one of the differences between a racing drone in a video drone is the fact that many of the components can be swapped out and it is common for drone racers to build their drone from scratch.

Ready to Fly

Ready to fly racing drones are ones that are ready to fly right out of the box. They contain everything you need to get racing right away.

Almost ready to fly

Almost ready to fly drones need different components and this varies from manufacturer to manufacturer.

Top speed

Clearly if you are racing you want your drone to be as fast as possible! The top speed of your drone will dictate whether or not you are able to be competitive in any race.

It is not ideal to go out the fastest that you can go if you are new to flying. Check to see if your drone has a beginner mode which will limit your speed.

Controller compatibility

Check to see which controllers are compatible with your racing drone. A simple Google search will give you all of the information you need to make sure that you don’t buy a drone with a limited range of controller options. The good news is that as the technology improves more drones are becoming more compatible with more controllers.

Conclusion – What should I know before buying a drone?

There we have everything that you should know before you buy a drone.

This article aims to make sure that you do not have any buyers remorse and if you go through each step one at a time I guarantee you that you will be in a much better position for purchasing your drone!

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. He has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. Andy started droneflyingpro.com to share his love and the research of all things drone! He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drone. His favorite is still the DJI Mavic Air for the portability and functionality packed into a small and portable drone!