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Beginner's Guide to the Best Camera Drone Quadcopters, 2015

Updated on January 13, 2015
Will Apse profile image

Scientist, writer, audiophile and smartphone addict, Will Apse, loves explaining tech issues in a way that anyone can understand.

Quadcopter Camera Drones
Quadcopter Camera Drones

What makes a great camera drone?

  • Stability is probably the most important feature if you want crisp video. Any kind of judder or vibration ruins a shoot.
  • The quality of the camera is obviously a big factor, too. GoPro cameras have set the standard in the last twelve months, with HD video from a very lighwieght platform. Ultra high resolution, 4000 K cameras have also started to appear.
  • Flight time matters. This can vary from a few minutes to about half an an hour.
  • Price: around $600 will get you high quality, rock-steady video. If you are just looking for some fun, there are usable rigs for around $100.


A Phantom 2 with GoPro camera suspended underneath.
A Phantom 2 with GoPro camera suspended underneath.

DJI Phantom 2 with 3-Axis Gimbal and GoPro Video Camera

DJI have led the field when it come to providing rock steady platforms for aerial video in the last twelve months.

There are a variety of options for using the DJI Phantom 2 but the best results come with the DJI Zenmuse Camera 3-Axis Gimbal providing extreme stability to a GoPro Camera.

You get 'FPV' (First-person view) flying using an iPhone, iPad or a special monitor. The three way gimball constantly adjusts the camera position to keep it at the orientation you have chosen, despite the movements of the drone in the air. Very abrupt maneuvers can make your video jerky or bring parts of the drone into the picture that you do not want, but generally speaking, if you fly reasonably smoothly, you will get a very steady video indeed.

It is possible to pre-program a flight path with up to 12 way-points so that you can video a large, complex area effectively.

Flight time is a very useful 25 minutes.

Just how Steady is the DJI Zenmuse Camera?

Parrot Bebop Drone with control system
Parrot Bebop Drone with control system

Parrot AR 2 and the new Bebop Drone

Parrot are well known for their smartphone controlled AR drones. Enthusiasts have married Parrot AR drones to GoPro cameras with good results but generally these early Parrot devices are not known for recording high quality video.

The Parrot Bebop Drone, released in 2014, represents a huge leap forward. There is a 14 MP camera onboard with a fish-eye lens backed up by some very sophisticated software. You can pan and tilt whilst hovering and get rock steady video fed to a variety of mobile devices, as well as the screen provided by Parrot (check out picture above).

You can even hook up to an Oculus Rift, virtual reality headset for a truly wild ride through your neighborhood.

DJI's 4K camera drone
DJI's 4K camera drone

Best 4K Camera Drone?

Putting aside the camera drones built for Hollywood, the recently launched Inspire 1 from DJI has to be one of the most desirable drones of 2015 for film makers.

It has an ultra stable 4K camera and comes with an option of two separate remotes. With paired remotes one operator directs the drone and the other directs the video capture, panning and zooming in 360 degrees. No one offers more stable, shake-free tech than DJI and the results are very,very impressive.

The price tag might be a shock at three to four thousand dollars but this device will give you genuinely professional results



Camera Drones Under One Hundred Dollars

The DJI Phantom 2 and the Parrot Bebop Drone will give you fantastic video but not everyone needs such high quality results or first-person view flying. Perhaps more to the point, not everyone wants to pay several hundred dollars for a camera drone.

Below are a couple of fun but capable devices that will not break the bank.

Hubsan Drone and Controller
Hubsan Drone and Controller

Hubsan X4

This is a small machine, about 6-inches square, that is safe enough to fly inside your home. The control module is easy to operate with a pair of sticks that control rotor speed to allow up and down movement, spinning and forward movement.

Smart software allows most people to learn how to fly after a few attempts.

The latest Hubsan video cameras have a 720p camera. Older models have standard def quality. There is a slot for an SD card which stores your shoots and allows you to easily play back the results on a PC or laptop.

UDI
UDI

UDI U818A

This is a bigger machine than the Hubsan X4 above and less suited to flying indoors. It is surprisingly powerful, though, and can cope with light winds outdoors.

Like the Hubsan it uses an SD card for video storage.

Flight times are less than ten minutes and your max range is about 30 yards. This will not get you a job in Hollywood but it will deliver a lot of entertainment in your backyard.


Nixie Wearable Camera Drone

This watch-sized, quadcopter drone can fly off and take pictures before returning to your wrist.

It was developed at Stanford, won $500,000 in Intel's 'Make it Wearable' competition and should be available to buy sometime in the near future.

Beyond the Quadrocopter

The very small PD-100
The very small PD-100

Smallest Camera Drone in the World

The Nano UAV - Black Hornet- PD-100 PRS will sit in the palm of your hand and is a lot smaller than its control systems as you can see in the picture above.

It is not a quadcopter but has a single rotor for lift and a single, small, back rotor to prevent spin just like a conventional helicopter.

The US and UK Armies are already using this drone as an inexpensive spying device.

TechJect Dragonfly Ornithopter
TechJect Dragonfly Ornithopter

TechJect Dragonfly

Ornithopters have wings rather than rotating blades. Four-wing models fly in the same way as an insect.

The TechJect Dragonfly has had many set backs in development but is expected to hit the shelves soon. It will have up to twenty environmental sensors on-board, including dual cameras with stereoscopic vision.

Hexacopters, Octopters

More blades usually means more stability and more lift. Octocopters are often the choice for aerial cinematography where the highest standards are expected.

The presentation from Red Epic below features a DJI Spreading Wings S1000 octocopter. It has retractable landing gear to allow full 360 degree camera rotation.

Are Camera Drones Legal?

Before you rush out and spend money on a drone it is worth taking on board a few of the legal issues.

The simple fact is that the US FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) has not worked out which rules should be applied to drones just yet. To date, the FAA has only given express legal permission for a few drones to fly in the Arctic Circle in order to monitor oil pipelines.

Be aware though, any drone you buy will eventually be subject to the FAA's rules. The FAA reserves the right to regulate any aircraft, flying at any height in the US and it defines an aircraft as 'any contrivance invented, used, or designed to navigate or fly in the air'.

Your drone will never be a toy in the eyes of the law!

http://www.faa.gov/news/updates/?newsId=76381

Current FAA Advice

Includes:

  • Avoid flying anywhere near manned aircraft
  • Keep drone/model in sight at all times.
  • A machine of 55 lbs or more should be certified by an aeromodeling organization

Best not to over fly military bases.
Best not to over fly military bases.

In the UK

People have already been prosecuted and fined for flying camera drones in a way that the authorities disapprove of.

One man flew his drone over a nuclear submarine base (that is bound to upset someone). He was fined £800 ($1200).

Another, flew too close to fairground rides. I suppose a face full of drone on a rollercoaster would be very upsetting too.

The UK's Civil Aviation Authority will allow trained and insured individuals, such as photojournalists, to operate 'Small Unmanned Aircraft' (drones) in a commercial way.

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