How to get into drones for cheap

Looking for a new project for the dog days of summer? Drones, for a few hundred bucks, will appeal to the tech-minded.

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By now, you've probably seen wasp-like model aircrafts buzzing around parks, or in the media, as unmanned aerial vehicles, swooping silently over dust-blown, rocky, insurgent-infested war zones.

Dot-commers are also in on the act, with, in one case, a bizarre promotional video of a future-tech delivery-system drone. It plucks a parcel off a warehouse belt, flies off perkily, and then drops the value-packed purchase, some minutes later, at the feet of a delighted, shiny customer.

Prime Air, the stock-slumping vendor Amazon, calls it.

Well, if you’re seduced, then cheap starter drones with stabilizing gyros are available for less than $50.

I’ve been experimenting with them, and can impart some advice.

Learning to fly

Buy low-priced, sub-hundred-dollar drones first, then move up to a more elaborate kit in the $500 range. You’ll crash often to begin with.

The cheapos, like the highly-regarded, rugged and stable, 6-axis Hubsan X4 H107L (available for about $38 at Amazon), or the camera-wielding 107C, are RTF, or Ready-to-Fly, so you don’t need kit construction. They include the transmitter and will teach you the basics of multi-rotors at a low cost.

Get two or three of the palm-sized quads at the get-go. You will destroy them, over time, while learning flying techniques, like backflips. Then, when you’ve stopped destroying the cheap ones, progress to more expensive drones.

Moving to the next level

Do not buy mid-range drones. Pre-built quadcopters like the DJI Phantom, available for $479 at Amazon, are a waste of time in the long run for geeks because, despite the Go Pro camera hook-up, in this case they aren’t very upgrade-able — you’ll be stuck with a limited payload and chip expansion options down the road, as you expand the hobby.

I plan to get the DJI Flamewheel ARF, or Almost-Ready-to-Fly kit, which has a flat-load platform for customizing the payload, like adding cameras, long-range batteries, or whatever.

It also lets you upgrade flight-controller processors. Jazzed-up processors include auto-pilot chips for hovering and the “Go Home” feature, which sends the craft home via GPS if it strays out of range of the controller.

I’ve seen prices on the DJI Flamewheel range from $300 and up at Helipal to $759 at Amazon. Prices depend on configuration and whether it’s Ready-to-Fly or not, in other words, pre-built. You can start with a cheap one and build it up over time.

Bart, from, has a construction video up at YouTube that will give you an idea as to the job scope. It’s basically a bit of soldering. 

Additional costs

I found that a bunch of spare parts for the Hubsan X4, like extra batteries, prop blades (which break), and motors (which jam), have been helpful. You can import Hubsan parts from China through Shipping takes a few weeks.

In general, watch out for trip-ups, like quadcopters that don’t include the radio set — you need a transmitter (controller) and receiver — which can add to the cost. Extra batteries can also add up.

Getting into the flying

This is a great, fun hobby, but the learning curve is a bit challenging. One of the hardest elements related to flying drones isn’t keeping the thing in the air; it's orientation.

Once you’ve mastered basic flying close-by, you’ll need to learn distance flying. In particular, how to recognize when the spec of a drone is flying towards you or away from you. It can fly away, disappearing like an errant pet, never to be seen again.

YouTube video-maker Quadcopter 101 has a superb video on the subject, where he explains how to avoid flying out of range. He uses a simple eyeballing technique.

I highly recommend you watch that video early in your flying career, unlike what I did. One of my three Hubsans flew off, and despite a concerted, family-wide search and rescue style grid search, straight out of an evening TV news broadcast clip, it was never found. We scoured numerous neighbors’ yards over multiple days.

Which reminds me - if any lawn-service guy is reading this, and has found a weird-looking bug-like device with propellers, get in touch, and I can give you the controller.

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