For any true gadget fan, drones are hot business. Not only do they satisfy the radio-controlled plane desires you had as a kid (and probably still do) but they go one step further by offering the ability to take some great aerial photos and videos. Once limited to high-end pro options, there are now a massive range of quadcopters (their proper name) on the market. We check out some of the best.
The Drone — Hero or Villain?
With any great gadget comes great responsibility. Drones are contentious copters and have divided opinion the world over. On the one hand, they’ve played their part in producing some incredible aerial footage, showing us Hong Kong from new heights.
Drones have also aided search and rescue operations, in fact a new report issued by the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology DJI reveals that at least 65 people have been rescued by drones in the last year across five continents. In these cases, drones have been used to drop buoys to struggling swimmers in Australia and Brazil, spot unconscious victims in sub-freezing weather in England and America, and found stranded people in fields, rivers, and mountains.
In one case, police in Lincolnshire, England responded to a car crash on a dark rural road on a cold night but were unable to find the driver. A drone with a thermal imaging camera spotted the driver in a ditch away from the crash scene, and captured the dramatic moments when it guided officers to find him. Check out DJI’s video below.
While there is definitely a strong argument for the value of droning, on the other hand, there are growing concerns that existing legislation is not robust enough to apply to the rapidly advancing technology. When used inappropriately, drones can pose risks to public safety, air traffic, and breach numerous privacy laws. As drones have become more popular, the restrictions on where you can fly them have become more stringent.
In Hong Kong, the Civil Aviation Department offers some guidelines for use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, and any drone weighing over 7kg must be registered. There are no-fly zones in Victoria Harbour, country parks, the airport, military sites, prisons, and in government leisure facilities, but many still flout the law. According to UAV Systems International, you must keep your drone below 300 feet at all times, only in the daytime, and within visual sight.
Try Before You Fly – What You Need to Know
When considering which drone to go for, make sure you know what you plan to do with it, as this will affect your choice. If you want to make high-quality films, make sure the camera is up to it. And if you’ve never flown one before, consider a cheaper ‘practice model’ to learn the ropes — flying mistakes can be expensive! But, we’re not ones to drone on, so if you’re successfully clued-up and regulation ready, there should be nothing stopping you from taking flight! We’ve put together a handy buyer’s guide to drones to help you narrow down your search.
Learning to Fly (Beginner Drones)
Parrot Minidrones Bebop 2 – $4,398
Small, affordable, and agile, the Bebop 2 is Parrot’s prime offering for entry level pilots. It offers a 25-minute fly time and a fixed 1080p/14MP fisheye camera. The Bebop 2 is controlled from your smartphone, using its accelerometer and touchscreen. It features GPS and visual tracking to allow it to follow you and film you automatically, as well as to return home when the battery is getting low. There are also add-on packs with a gamepad style controller and headset for full immersive flying.
Altair Aerial AA108 – $862 (US$110)
Altair are based in Lincoln, Nebraska and offer a range of low-cost quadcopters that make for a great learning drone. The Aerial features a seven-minute flight time and wide-angle 720p fixed front-mounted camera and three speed modes – depending on your experience. It comes with a controller, complete with optional phone mounting (you can fly without one), one button take-off and landing and an altitude hold mode, for aerial photography. Available on Amazon or through the company’s website for Hong Kong delivery.
Flying with Vision (Photo/Video Drones)
DJI Mavic Air – $6,299
The Mavic Air is a new addition to DJI’s extensive range of drones. It is a lighter, more compact version of the Mavic Pro, featuring the same three-axis mechanical gimbal for camera movement, 4K video and 12MP stills, but with an improved 100 frames per second recording. Battery life is slightly less, at 20 minutes, but it does offer the added bonus of 8GB internal storage. The included controller features a phone holder to view the live feed, and the unit folds up for easy storage. There are gesture controls for take-off and landing, and for taking selfie photos and videos. It can track up to 16 subjects and has a range of six QuickShots (including Rocket, Circle and Boomerang) to set the device on a predefined course.
Go Pro Karma – $4,800 (plus camera)
Go Pro’s drone offering keeps the cost down by making it compatible with its Hero 5 and Hero 6 models, which fit into the three-axis gimbal. If you don’t already own a GoPro however, you’ll need to factor in this extra cost, as it needs the camera to fly. Using the latest Hero 6 you’ll get 4k video at up to 60 frames per second and 12MP. The Karma has a 20-minute flight time and a distance of up to 3km. It will automatically follow the controller unit, which features its own fold-out screen. The camera can also be operated separately from a mobile device if needed.
Your Personal Paparazzi (Selfie Drones)
DJI Spark – $3,199
The first ‘mini-drone’ from DJI, the Spark is smaller, lighter and cheaper than the company’s other offerings. It features a two-axis gimbal carrying a 1080p, 12MP camera. Flight time is 16 minutes with a distance of 100m from a mobile or up to 2km with the optional remote controller. There’s obstacle sensing on-board to avoid crashes and gesture control to take pictures and video with hand signals. There’s also a series of intelligent flight modes, including ActiveTrack, QuickShot and Tripod.
Hover Camera Passport – $2,998 (promo)
This unique looking drone has a number of advantages for those looking for a flying selfie machine. Its design includes a carbon fibre cage around the propellers, making it easy to catch and release, and also protects them in case of a crash. It offers a 4k, 13MP camera, with easy tracking modes (face and body) as well as orbit and 360 panorama modes, and folds up for easy carrying. The fly time is just eight minutes but it does come with two batteries and can use in-camera stabilising when shooting in 1080p.
Professional Pilots Only (Pro Drones)
DJI Phantom 4 Pro – $11,999
If you’re really serious about your drone photography or filmmaking, the Phantom 4 Pro is a great place to start. This solid quadcopter features a 4k, 20MP camera capable of some serious image quality, mounted on a three-axis gimbal. The Phantom 4 Pro features object avoidance sensors on all four sides and on the bottom, and a flight time of around 30 minutes, allowing a decent amount of flying time per battery, and a 7km range. There are a range of flight modes allowing for speed (up to 72km/h), altitude control and auto scenes such as tracking and obstacle avoidance. The device also includes a high-end remote controller, with a built-in screen. The camera can also be controlled separately via a smartphone app.
DJI Inspire 2 – $23,399 ($32,199-$158,399 with camera)
The Inspire is DJI’s pro range of drones and the Inspire 2 is the latest incarnation. This is designed for professional filmmaking and is sold without the camera unit or in bundles, allowing you to pick from three camera modules: the 4k, 20MP Zenmuse X4S, similar to that on the Phantom 4 Pro; the removable lens (Micro Four-Thirds mount) Zenmuse X5S, and the 6k, 24MP Zenmuse X7. The device features sensors for terrain detection and object avoidance at up to 30 metres ahead, when flying at up to 55km/h. At full speed, the Inspire 2 can reach up to 93km/h and fly for up to 27 minutes. There are a range of intelligent flight modes, including the new Spotlight Pro to accurately track during flight.
On Your Marks (Racing Drones)
TBS Vendetta II – $3,900 (US$499 plus receiver and controller)
There is another use for drones, other than taking pictures and videos, and that’s racing. This new sport sees drones raced against each other and has become big news, even filling stadiums in the UK and US. One of the best off-the-shelf First Person View (FPV) racing models right now is the TBS Vendetta II. This is specifically designed as a racer and is capable of speeds in excess of 113km/h. The body has a modular design, with no soldering needed to replace parts, and a carbon fibre chassis that is 30g lighter than the original Vendetta. Flight time is three to five minutes per charge with a range of 3km. You need to buy the controller and receiver separately (also available online) – as many racers will have a preferred model.
EACHINE Wizard X220S – $2,579 (US$329 RTF including controller)
Considered one of the best budget racing drones, the Wizard X220S comes either ready to fly (RTF) or for you to assemble your own (ARF) – the preference of many racers. It’s a durable drone with a carbon fibre body and capable of speeds of up to 109km/h straight out of the box. Flight time is up to 12 minutes per charge, it features a small fixed 1080p camera and also has a mount for a Runcam 3 or GoPro Session.
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