Today we are looking at some of the different terminology you will encounter if you want to buy a drone or quadcopter and more importantly, what to look for when buying one! There are lots of different options out there and it can be confusing deciding what is important and what is worth paying more for, especially if you’re not sure what it all means.
As well as incredibly useful features and interesting designs, you can pay a lot of money for things you simply don’t need. Priorities will be different depending on what you want to use the drone for and how experienced you are.
Table of Contents
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Different Types of Drones/Quadcopters
First thing’s first, the different layouts of drone and the differences between them:
- Tricopter – these are typically laid out in a “Y” shape, with two rotors at the front and a third at the back, on a tilting arm. This third rotor helps control rotation and pitch. Tricopters allow a good camera view of what’s ahead, because the arms can be spread wider. There are less motors and ESCs to buy, so tricopters are cheaper overall, despite having a servo.
- Quadcopter – the most popular of the options we’re looking at, quadcopters use four rotors and the most popular configuration is the “X”, which puts two rotors at the front and two at the back. You can also configure quadcopters in a “plus”, these layouts essentially rotate the layout by 45 degrees, placing a rotor at each of front, back, left and right. “X” is the most popular layout as it provides reasonably clear forward flight video, whereas on a plus layout, you need to work a lot harder not to have a drone arm in your video. The benefit of the plus layout is that you have a definite front arm, making the quad easier to fly by line of sight.
- Hexacopter/Octocopter – you guessed it, these two have six/eight rotors! As each rotor has a limited maximum force it can exert, by adding more rotors you are able to produce more thrust. More thrust equals a higher payload capacity, whilst still maintaining maneuverability. If you look at professional aerial videography drones, you will find that they are almost always hex or octocopters and this is because the cameras used are heavy and simply wouldn’t be lifted by something with fewer rotors. The additional advantage of using a hex or octocopter is that with more than four rotors you have redundancy. Should a motor fail or a prop break off when bumping into a tree, you have enough rotors still going to safely bring the drone back. This is incredibly important when dealing with expensive camera equipment.
Drone Frame Guide
This is fundamental and is primarily determined by what you will be using the drone for. The frame will set the type of layout and number of rotors your drone has, like we discussed above. The frame is what everything else is mounted to, so having something strong but lightweight is important regardless of what you will be doing with your drone.
Most ready to fly toy grade drones will have a plastic frame and shell. For gentle knocks these are great and will hold up well simply because the whole drone is so light. They are cheap, lightweight and reasonably strong, but don’t expect them to last forever. The majority of ready to fly (RTF) drones, including more expensive camera drones with GPS systems utilise a plastic frame, so don’t let this put you off.
The next step up from plastic is glass fibre, which is a reasonably lightweight, stiff material typically found in budget drones. We personally do not recommend glass fibre frames, as the likelihood of breaking in a hard crash is too high for us. We recommend using a full carbon fibre frame instead, as these are much more hard wearing and can take quite a crash without a problem. They are a little bit more expensive, but then you do get what you pay for and will same money in the long run from not replacing broken parts. Carbon fibre is the preferred material when looking towards the higher end.
If you are building from scratch, then you have a lot of different frames to consider and probably already have an idea of the type of frame you like. The main thing worth considering here is how easy the frame will be to repair, if it can be repaired at all. Some frames have a solid single piece bottom plate, which provides great stiffness and strength, but the downside is that if any part of it breaks, you will be replacing the whole thing and effectively rebuilding your drone in the process. The alternative is to select a modular frame, as these typically have replaceable arms, making repairing crash damage much easier. The second thing to consider when building from scratch is the amount of room you will need in order to fit all of your components into the frame. Don’t get caught out and check out other people’s builds before committing to something that could leave you with bits hanging outside the protective frame.
Drone Flight controller (FC)
Not relevant for a lot of drones, which will have a flight controller built into the main board, but if you are looking at building your own drone, then selecting one with the right level of functionality is important. Grabbing an acro FC because it is a lot cheaper that one with GPS is pointless if you are wanting to build a stable camera platform. Equally, buying an expensive FC for a racing drone is simply not necessary. There are flight controllers designed for particular applications and there are more and more being introduced, with features and specifications improving very rapidly. We won’t go into detail about specific flight controllers today, but when selecting one think about what you will be using the drone for (do you really need that GPS module on a racing drone?) and what features are useful. If you are into racing, you will want something with a fast processor, but minimal other bells and whistles. If it’s a stable camera platform you are aiming for, then features like level and GPS hold are key. Keep reading to find out more about these modes and why they are important.
This will be down to your drone or flight controller, but generally you will encounter some of the following basic modes:
- Angle – this is an auto-leveling mode that has a restriction on how far you can tilt the drone in any direction. This is ideal for beginners, who should be taking things slow at first. The auto-leveling means that once you stop pushing your pitch/roll stick and centre it, the quad will go back to level.
- Expert – typically only found on toy grade drones, this mode will allow you to tilt further, going faster. It may also give you more throttle to make use of, depending on your model. The drone will go back to level when you release the pitch/roll stick.
- Headless – another great mode for beginners or those who want to focus more on the video being captured than worrying about orientation of the drone. In headless mode the drone will move as though it has no front and instead fly in the direction you push your stick, regardless of which way the drone is facing. This mode is typically encountered on toy grade drones and is not common to see on the more expensive models.
- Acro – in this mode you are the only thing keeping the drone in the sky! Push your stick forward and the drone will tilt accordingly, but move back to centre and the drone will hold its angle until you adjust it by pulling back on the stick. You can think of this as much more like controlling a plane because of the need to level out. Acro is the preferred mode for pilots pulling off stunts as it provides the greatest level of control and removes any interference from the FC.
- Horizon – a halfway house between angle and acro, in horizon mode you can tilt the drone as far as you like, even rolling over fully, but once the sticks are centred the drone will go back to level.
- Level hold – utilises a barometer or optical sensors to maintain a constant height above the ground, allowing you to focus more on the orientation and direction of the drone. Ideal for beginners who are more prone to crashing, but also camera operators who want one less thing to think about.
- GPS hold – the drone will hover over a spot on the ground, maintaining position in wind by tilting into it, allowing you to focus only on orientation and height. This is ideal if you are capturing video from a particular location, but should be used when you have a gimball, to stabilise and level the video. GPS hold and level hold can be combined, allowing you to control just the rotation/yaw or take over the camera gimball. This combination effectively gives you a stable fixed camera platform in the sky.
- Return to home – when all else fails or you are running low on battery, having a return to home feature will help you get your drone back, avoiding lots of searching for a crash site!
Depending on the reason why you want to buy a drone you may want to search for some of these features – be it racing, filming, or leisure.
Most toy grade drones and consumer grade camera drones will come with a transmitter and so you are fairly limited on options. If you are building your own drone, then you will have to select one that fits your needs. Transmitters (even toy grade) typically come in one of two main “modes”, being Mode 1 or Mode 2. Although Mode 3 and Mode 4 exist, they are very uncommon and so we will not be covering them here. Mode 1 has the throttle stick on the right and the elevator or pitch on the left, in Mode 2 this is reversed. The rudder/yaw is on the left and the aileron/roll on the right in both modes 1 and 2. As Mode 2 is the most popular and is what the majority of pilots fly (including ourselves), this is what we recommend to anyone entering the hobby for the first time.
We have a much more complete article covering batteries, but the basic terminology you need to know is detailed below:
- Capacity – this is normally provided in milliamp hours (mAh).
- “C” rating – this is used to calculate the discharge rate for the battery. By multiplying the C rating with the capacity, you will get the instantaneous Amps that your battery can safely provide.
- Cell count/“S” – typically you will be dealing with anything from one to four cells, wired in series to provide a battery pack. Each cell has a nominal voltage of 3.7v, so a 3S or three cells in series pack will have a nominal voltage of 11.1v for example.
When selecting a battery for when you buy a drone, you will need to select something with the right balance of capacity and weight for your usage. A larger battery will generally provide you with a longer flight time, but go too big and you will be maxing your thrust just to get in the air and will actually have a shorter flight time. Go too small and you won’t be in the air very long, and may be overloading your battery unless it has a high C rating.
We strongly recommend reading the full battery guide, as it includes important safety and usage tips to allow you to make the most of your batteries.
Additional Information Before You Buy a Drone
Top tips for flying a drone:
- You will crash at some point. Buy extra props and other spares if they are available so that you can quickly swap these out. We also recommend flying with prop protectors the first few times you use your drone, as these will help reduce the likelihood you will need to replace the props.
- Once you are confident flying, remove your prop protectors. Any additional weight will reduce your flight time.
- Batteries can take an hour to charge depending on the capacity and charger being used. Make sure you get extra batteries for your drone so that you aren’t constantly waiting for a battery to charge.
- Start simple! If you are getting something more than a $20-30 micro quadcopter, consider getting the Hubsan X4 first to learn the basics. The money you save on repairs by crashing this gently, instead of a larger expensive drone, will far outweigh the cost of the X4.
Before you fly your drone
- Make sure you read up on your local drone/UAV laws. Flight is typically restricted to line-of-sight (you must always be able to see your drone) and below 400 feet. Never fly near an airport/airfield or over roads, buildings and people.
- Check your transmitter is powered on before you power your drone.
- Check your drone battery is charged.R
- Check your drone for any damage and ensure props, prop protectors and any camera are attached securely.
Hopefully this information on the terminology, parts, and how-to guides on a drone assists you when it’s time to buy a drone or quadcopter for the first time.