A drone of one's own: Reg buyers' guide for UAV fanciers

Hardware: Check. Software: Huh? Licence: Licence...?

3D Robotics drone in Richard Branson's house

Heard the hype and want to buy a drone — just uncertain which model to pick? Well, forget the hardware, the devil is in the software.

Drones are cool, undeniably, but with prices starting at four pints of lager, and running to a small house it's tough to decide what's worth buying. So El Reg has been chatting to some drone owners, to find out what they wish they'd know before they'd shelled out their cash.

Remote controlled airplanes have always been the preserve of dedicated hobbyists: ready to dismantle a 10cc engine on demand, and willing to risk spinal injury gazing upwards for hours on end. But add a handful of rotors, a camera, and the right kind of software, and everyone can play if they've got the money, and the licence.

How much a drone costs will depend not only on the flying time, and the size, but also the software it runs. That’s because it is the software that really differentiates the kind of drone that’s starting to get in the news from its hobbyist ancestors.

Code flight

Anyone who's bought a cheap drone will know just how frustrating the experience can be. The video on the web shows loops, dives, hops and sweeps, but despite an hour of practice all you can manage is an uncontrolled climb, followed by panicked decent and rotor-snapping collisions with garden furniture. Your problem isn't the drone, it’s the software that's driving it.

The software keeps the drone steady, and moves it in the direction you ask despite the prevailing cross wind. Without stabilising software drone piloting is the preserve of coked-up brain surgeons: the dexterity and reaction required is beyond mere humans, but let the machines take over and flight becomes possible.

The most-basic of drones will attempt it keep itself level, but more money pays for a better flight controls, which provide more autonomy as well as making the task of controlling the drone easier.

With the addition of GPS (standard on all the bigger drones) that autonomy can include waypoint routing and return-to-home capability, allowing the drone to automatically return if it loses radio contact, in theory.

Waypoint routing lets the pilot tap a map to set up waypoints, and the drone will fly between them (recording video or taking snaps) and return home having completed its mission. It's a very useful function, and comes with drones around the thousand-pound mark, but integration with online mapping comes at a price.

The latest Phantom drones, for example, will prevent waypoints being set anywhere near an aerodrome or other restricted airspace. They are clever enough to know where they're not supposed to go, and will refuse to go there, which provides an interesting glimpse of how drones might evolve over time. Right now you can fly a Phantom, on manual, right into the boarding gate at Heathrow Terminal 5, but there might come a time when your drone will just say no.

A drove of drones?

The first question when looking at a drone of your own is how handy you are with a soldering iron, and a screwdriver. Are you prepared to build your flying machine from a kit, or would you prefer to open the box and start chasing clouds? Bear in mind that even the most fully-assembled drone will still come in parts, rotors, batteries and landing gear will need to be assembled on site, and disassembled for storage and shipping.

Even a pre-built drone will require assembly, and tweaking to get the best out of it. Balancing each rotor with special tape, replacing the landing gear with something soft, or swathing your toy with colour-changing LEDs, all require a bit of hands-on time, so don't think a packaged kit will remove the need to own a screwdriver or needle-nosed pliers.

But for those who want to get their hands really dirty the more-expensive "flying platforms" are little more than chassis to which one can bolt batteries, cameras, radio units and (critically) processing power.


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