Drones have been around for a very long time, but it’s safe to say that today’s unmanned vehicles are a bit more sophisticated than the bomb-filled balloons the Austrians used to attack Venice in the mid-1800s.
The technological advances that make today’s military drones so terrifying can also be used for more peaceful projects – and as the tech gets better and the price plummets, drones could become an increasingly common sight in our skies as they do everything from filming to delivering products.
You can join the drone revolution right now, and it’ll cost less than you think. But if you go for a flying drone it’s important to stay within the law.
In the UK, drones over 20kg are illegal in almost all civilian airspaces and smaller drones can’t fly within 150m of “large assemblies” or within 50m of people or buildings. Drones must remain in view (streaming video doesn’t count) and you must be licensed by the CAA if you’ll be using the drone for commercial purchases.
The reason for the rules are simple enough: a drone falling from a great height onto a person could do serious damage.
1. Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
Parrot’s AR.Drone 2.0 is probably the best known of all the consumer drones, and the second iteration of this smartphone or tablet-controlled quadricopter is happy indoors or out. Twin batteries deliver an impressive 36 minutes of flying time, the built-in camera offers live HD video streaming and the 30m range is far enough to get some impressive aerial footage. There’s an even more impressive Parrot drone on the way, the Bebop, but for now the2.0 is Parrot’s flagship drone.
2. Parrot Jumping Sumo
In addition to its aerial drones Parrot offers “minidrones” including the excellently named Jumping Sumo. It’s a rolling robot that can travel up to 4.5mph and jump 80cm, and its wide-angle camera streams live video to your smartphone or tablet (Windows, iOS or Android).
3. Parrot Rolling Spider
Parrot’s second minidrone is the Rolling Spider, a tiny quadricopter whose removable wheels mean it’s a hoot on the ground as well as in the air. This one’s best kept inside, as its diminutive dimensions mean it doesn’t take much of a breeze to blow it away and the battery only delivers around six minutes of flying time, but it’s a lot of fun while it lasts.
4. Hubsan X4 H107 with LEDs
Amazon UK is currently offering Hubsan’s H107 for less than half of the RRP, and while most customers are happy with it, it does seem to have encountered a few quality control problems. The H107 is a cheap and cheerful way to explore the world of drones, but it’s a good idea to hang on to the receipt just in case.
5. GAUI 330X-S Quad Flyer
The Quad Flyer from Gaui comes in two versions: a kit for intermediate users who supply their own radio, and a ready-to-fly version for beginners. It’s good for 12 minutes of flight time or 20 minutes with an optional high-capacity battery and can carry a payload of up to 700g (1.5lb) including its battery. It works just like a remote control helicopter but with the wind resistance and maneuverability of a quadricopter.
6. Walkera QR Ladybird V2
At just 3cm high and 8.5cm across the Walkera Ladybird is hardly much bigger than its natural namesake, and the price tag isn’t massive either. With a flight time of up to 10 minutes and a range of up to 100m it isn’t as powerful as pro-level drones, but then it costs a fraction of what they do. It’s fairly damage-proof, with flexible plastic rotors that should retain their shape even if they get bent or twisted. It’s definitely one to consider if you’re new to flying drones.
7. Walkera Dragonfly Infra X
Price: £168 (transmitter/controller not included)
If the Ladybird is a little basic but you don’t want to shell out really big money for a quadcopter, Walkera’s Dragonfly is well worth a look. It boasts a GPS autopilot, up to 15 minutes flight time, self-stabilisation and an anti-vibration camera mount for the ubiquitous GoPro, although you’ll need to buy the controller separately.
8. DJI Phantom 2 Vision+
Price: €1099 (about £880)
DJI’s drones are well liked by users, and the Phantom 2 Vision Plus offers an easy to setup with easy to fly all-in-one system for aerial photography and filming. The camera shoots stabilised full HD video at 1080p at 30fps (60fps in interlaced mode) and takes 14MP still shots, you can even adjust the camera settings from the iOS app. It looks fantastic too.
Price: $1,295 (about £780)
It won’t ship until December, but Airdog is currently accepting pre-orders for its auto-follow drone for GoPro cameras. The drone connects wirelessly to the included Airleash box, which not only controls the device but acts as a beacon it can follow automatically – so for example you might get it to follow you as you plummet down the side of a mountain on a bike or snowboard. Although it is limited to 40mph it has a good for up to 20 minutes of flight time depending on how fast you fly it, and the Airleash has a range of up to 300m.
Price: $129 (about £78)
Romo may look like a toy, but the friendly-faced iPhone-powered robot is also an excellent platform for modders, a fun telepresence robot and something that’ll delight the kids as they make it roam around the house. There are two versions, one with a 30-pin connector (which can connect to the iPhone 4, 4S and iPod 4) and one with a Lightning connector (which connects to the iPhone 5, 5S and iPod 5).