You want to buy a quality drone with a camera and everything, but this will be your first drone. Admittedly, you’re not exactly sure where to start. Camera specs give you a headache, and what the heck is an electronic speed controller anyway?
You can gloss right over the technical information if you want to, and still absolutely enjoy buying and flying your first drone. But educating yourself just a tiny bit on drones can go a long way toward helping you understand what you’re buying!
When buying a drone for the first time, learn a bit about the parts of a drone and how they work. Next, set yourself a budget, and look for a durable, easy-to-fly drone that fits within your budget. Then shop around to find the best deals on your preferred beginner drone.
In this guide, we’ll help you understand everything you need to know about UAVs. First, we’ll go over the parts of a drone so you can make sense of those. Then we’ll discuss the qualities a beginner drone should have. We’ll even recommend a few easy-to-use drones to get you started!
Drone Anatomy 101
A drone, also referred to as an unmanned aerial vehicle or UAV, can be used for recreational and commercial purposes alike. Your drone is comprised of many parts, so let’s start by talking about those. This way, the next time you look at a product description for a drone, you’ll understand what your money would get you.
As an FYI, some drones might include other features than those we’re about to cover. These are the basics though.
The frame is the drone’s body. Inexpensive drones might feature a plastic frame whereas many higher-end, costlier models use more durable but lightweight carbon fiber for the frame. Most frames are in the shape of an X, as the four arms that are equidistant to one another allow the drone’s propellers (more on these in a moment) to reliably keep the drone up in the air.
Not only do the arms of the drone support the propellers, but within the frame are camera components, the power distribution board, and the battery. It’s a lot more important than it looks, and there’s a lot going on under the surface!
Some people call the propellers the rotors, but many more drone enthusiasts refer to them as props, which is a short-hand way of saying propeller. The propellers allow for drone liftoff and keep your drone floating in the air until you bring it back down.
How many props your drone will include depends on its type. Some drones are single-prop style with one arm and one propeller. Tricopters have only three arms and thus three propellers. The most common, however, the quadcopter, is the standard X-shaped drone with four arms and one prop per arm.
A drone with six arms and just as many props is known as a hexacopter. Although you won’t come across them often, octocopter drones do indeed exist. Yes, they have eight arms!
The shape and length of the propellers vary by drone manufacturer and the type of drone. The materials used to make props run the gamut from stainless titanium to fiberglass, nylon, carbon fiber, or plastic.
Your drone props can come off, whether through wear and tear or if your drone takes a rough landing. You can always buy replacement props through your drone manufacturer of choice so your UAV can soon fly the skies again.
In fact, your drone will often come with a couple of spare propellers, just assuming that they will be the part of the drone that gets the most wear and tear.
How do the propellers spin? A motor within the drone housing powers the rotational motion. The standard motor for drones is a brushless out-motor runner but depending on how much money you spend on your drone, it could have another type of motor. Each arm of the drone will have one motor to turn the propeller, so a quadcopter will have four total motors.
Most drone owners, especially beginners, won’t touch the motor. Maybe you’ll occasionally open the housing of your drone to check out the interior components like the motor and ensure they’re not dirty. Otherwise, you can leave the motor alone.
The motor won’t last forever, of course. If the motor is suddenly very noisy when it usually isn’t, or if it typically makes sounds but it’s gotten even louder, those are signs that you should contact a drone repair technician. The motor is probably going to fail soon.
Electronic Speed Controller
Your drone will have an electronic speed controller or ESC as well. As the name tells you, the ESC keeps each drone motor from spinning too quickly or slowly. How does this happen, you ask? The ESC communicates with your drone’s flight controller (more on this next).
The flight controller tells the ESC to increase the voltage to a particular motor or pair of motors to get the drone to yaw, pitch, or roll. Basically, an increase in speed on one side or other of the propellers will get the drone to move in different directions.
For each motor in your drone, your UAV will have one ESC. Four-in-one ESCs are an option as well, but not for your first drone and possibly not the second one either.
If ESCs seem a bit confusing to you, that’s okay. There shouldn’t be any need for you to tinker with the ESC as a beginner drone owner. You’d know something is wrong with yours if your drone is traveling faster or slower than you command it to.
Okay, so what is the flight controller? Hint: we’re not talking about the remote control. Think of it like your drone’s brain. It’s a box within the drone’s frame that runs software. Before your drone does anything, the flight controller oversees the actions.
As we touched on earlier, the flight controller can receive and send signals. The signals are then converted into a motion, such as your drone ascending, speeding up, slowing down, or coming to a landing, done through initiating speed changes in the relevant motors.
Even steering your drone or turning on the camera involves the flight controller. It’s among the most important parts of the drone, arguably the most important. Without the flight controller, your drone does nothing.
Power Distribution Board
The next part of a drone is the power distribution board or PDB. It’s a circuit board housed within the drone frame. As the name alludes to, the PDB sends power to the various parts of your drone that need it, such as the motor, the camera, or the propellers.
Some drones feature the PDB as part of the flight controller rather than as a separate component. You’re more likely to see this if your drone is new or only a couple of years old. The flight controller can now track how much power your drone uses with the PDB when they’re bundled together, so the inclusion is beneficial.
Like a lot of tech these days, drones run on a battery. How much time you get out of your drone battery before it needs recharging varies depending on the manufacturer, the drone model, and the conditions the drone is built to withstand. For instance, in windy conditions, your drone has to work harder, which depletes its battery faster.
Almost all drones use lithium-ion polymer or LiPo batteries (read our article here to learn more about LiPo batteries). DJI, which is the most popular (and among the most expensive) drone manufacturers, includes Intelligent Flight Batteries with their drones. Other drone brands might use smart drone batteries as well.
While some of the drone features we’ve talked about to this point are those that you can largely ignore, you’ll have to get to know your drone’s batteries well, as you’ll recharge them all the time. Fortunately, this isn’t hard to do!
The drone receiver is another integral feature. The receiver takes electrical signals from the radio transmitter and sends them to the flight controller for interpretation. To do that, many receivers feature an antenna, while in some cases they’re hidden within the frame.
The receiver allows you to direct the drone’s yaw, throttle, roll, and pitch. Yaw is your drone’s pivot action, rotating in a counterclockwise or clockwise motion. Throttle dictates your drone’s motion up or down.
Rolling refers to your drone’s right or left motion. You can think of it as a sliding side-step. Finally, there’s drone pitch, which is plain and simple backward or forward motion.
Although not every drone has a camera, most do, so we have to talk about this feature. A cheaper drone camera might only shoot photos whereas a more expensive one will take videos as well. The drone camera features a sensor that determines the dynamic range, depth of field, low-light abilities, resolution, and image size.
Although it’s the flight controller that technically moves your drone, your drone will include a remote that you can use to command it. The most basic drone remotes only have buttons and some joysticks. More expensive drone models might include a remote with a built-in display screen, or one that connects to your smartphone to allow you to see the drone’s camera feed and flight controls through an app.
The screen will tell you pertinent information about your drone, such as its location, speed, and battery percentage.
What to look for in a beginner drone?
Now that you understand what the parts of a drone are, you can begin researching your options. With a multitude of drones on the market, how do you choose? Here are the features of a beginner-friendly drone.
You’re new to piloting a drone, so you’re bound to make mistakes. Your drone should be able to handle crashing or narrowly missing hitting a tree. Its housing must be built tough, as should its other components. If it breaks after one use, you’ll replace your drone too often, or give up before you’ve even gotten started.
Propeller guards are a safety feature that we highly recommend for beginners. The guards cover each propeller so you don’t have to directly touch the prop. With prop guards, you can pull your drone out of the air with your hands. You also don’t have to worry about getting cut up by the props.
Another added benefit of propeller guards is that they increase the longevity of the props. If your drone does crash, the props are protected from the brunt of the impact so they might survive to be used another day.
If your drone doesn’t come with propeller guards, you can always buy them separately.
Automated Flight Modes
We also recommend a beginner drone with automated flight modes. With the push of a button or the touch of your finger, you can send your drone on a predetermined path that’s mapped out automatically.
Your drone might even be able to do automated flips and other tricks which will surely impress your friends.
Sensors are an obstacle avoidance feature, so the more your drone has, the better. You can prevent your drone from hitting a bird or a building even if you’re having a hard time spotting your drone because it’s that high up.
A beginner drone might be your first UAV, but it won’t be your last. You don’t want to spend an arm and a leg on your first drone, especially if you’re using it to practice flying.
Save your money for a more expensive second or third drone.
How much money should you spend on a beginner drone?
To ensure you budget properly, exactly how much money should you pour into a beginner drone?
As we covered in the last section, it’s best to keep them low-cost. If you can find a quality drone that checks the above boxes and retails for less than $100, then buy it. More than likely though, you’ll spend between $100 and $200 on your first drone.
Within this price range, your beginner drone should feature a quality camera and automated features like follow me mode and more.
Once you graduate to your second drone and you feel more like an intermediate, you might spend up to $500 on a drone. Professional-level drones are $600 to $700 and higher.
Shop around for deals
You don’t have to click and buy the first drone model you land on. Shop around on the web for the best prices, or package deals that may offer you more accessories for a bargain. Or consider going to box stores (remember them?) where you can sometimes find great beginner drones on sale.
» MORE: Check out our article on the Best Places to Buy a Drone for more ideas on places to look for good drone deals.
You can also wait for special sales events like Black Friday or Cyber Monday or other shopping hotspots throughout the year to find some really super prices on beginner drones.
Our 3 favorite beginner drone models
For now, of course, you need a drone that’s not too complex and falls in the right price range. Here are three UAV models that fit the bill.
Tello Quadcopter Drone
The Tello is right within our recommended price range of $100 to $200, as it retails for $99. Even at that low price, Tello includes a camera with an image processor. EZ Shots allow you to record videos using modes like Up & Away, 360, or Circle so you look like a pro.
To use Tello, all you have to do is throw it in the air and it will begin flying. The Tello doesn’t come with a remote, but instead, you control it with an app from your smartphone. Easy touch commands allow you to make this drone perform nearly any trick or stunt your heart desires.
Dual antennae provide stable video transmission. Get a VR headset to watch where your Tello flies so you can experience its flight path in first-person view.
Holy Stone HS165
Holy Stone produces drones for beginners and seasoned drone pilots alike. The HS165 is a quality beginner quadcopter drone with a 2K camera that features a 90-degree lens. That’s not bad at all for $150!
The HS165 also features several intelligent flight modes such as follow me, circle fly and tap fly – usually only available in much higher-priced drones. Single-button takeoff and landing make it easy for beginner drone owners to figure out how to get their UAV in the air and back on the ground.
You also get GPS and return-to-home features, which are great for beginners, and a headless mode making it easier to get started with flying. When it’s time to stop flying, the drone folds for easy portability. It also comes with a carrying case.
The 880 mAh battery lets you fly for periods of 14 minutes at a time.
DJI Mavic Mini
Okay, so the DJI Mavic Mini is a little more expensive than the amount of money we suggested you spend on your first drone, as it costs $350 or more. For a DJI drone though, that’s about as cheap as it gets.
The Mavic Mini includes a 2.7K camera to capture quality HD video and 12MP photos. The three-axis gimbal, which is motorized, stabilizes the camera when in flight so your images and videos come out in clear quality.
The inclusion of 360-degree propeller guards is a nice beginner feature. Also nice for beginners is QuickShot mode, which lets you use modes such as Rocket, Helix, Circle, and Dronie for taking impressive drone footage.
The Mavic Mini boasts up to 30 minutes of consecutive flight time. By downloading the DJI Fly app, you can do even more with your Mavic Mini. For instance, you can edit your videos on the go or access the Flight Tutorial whenever you need a refresher.
» MORE: For more ideas on beginner drones that won’t break the bank, check out our article on the Top 9 Budget-Friendly Beginner Drones.
As a beginner, drones can be confusing, but they don’t have to be. Beginner-friendly drones make it easy to find your footing and increase your confidence. We hope the information in this guide helps you buy and operate your first drone. Good luck!
Image Credit: Holy Stone, DJI