Flying R/C vehicles used to be the exclusive domain of dedicated hobbyists. There was a time when there were only few choices such as an expensive R/C helicopter or a prop-driven plane. Thanks to recent technological advancements, a new type of flying R/C machine called the quadrotor has become the most popular choice for newbie and professional flyers. Sometimes used interchangeably with quadcopters, drones are quadcopters with some form of autonomy and can fly via computer-controlled guidance. Some quadcopters have auto takeoff and auto landing, collision avoidance as well as the ability to follow pre-set GPS waypoints.
Quadcopters come in different sizes. The smallest one such as the ProtoX from Estes is no bigger than a matchbox. The largest quad for consumer use has a carrying capacity of several kilos for mounting professional video equipment. (The sweeping romantic shots in those viral wedding videos, shot by drones.) They are made from a combination of light materials such as plastic, styrofoam, aluminum, and carbon fiber. The rotors can measure from a few millimeters to several centimeters.
The quads are powered by rechargeable lithium polymer battery which are either built-in the chassis or swappable, depending on the model. Flight time can also vary from five minutes for smaller quads to 25 minutes to bigger ones. As you may have guessed, they can cost anywhere from a few thousand pesos to more than a few hundred thousand. More advanced quadcopters such as those used for racing have first-person view. The user can have a real-time view from the quad’s camera using an FPV monitor or headset. Some also have independent camera controls.
Now that you know all that, we're guessing you're thinking of two things right now: 1) "They're too damn expensive. But if ever I hit the Lotto jackpot, what's the best one out there?"; 2) "I really wanna buy one, which one should I get?" We can help you with both.
For novice flyers, it is highly recommended that they familiarize themselves with smaller and cheaper drones first to get the hang of the controls and flight dynamics. Most small drones are designed to be easy to fly and are quite crash resistant. Just remember to keep the prop guards attached. The basic two-stick configuration can be easy to master. One stick is designated as the throttle which controls the vertical motion of the quad including hovering as well as the craft’s rotation. The other stick controls the forward, back, and side to side movement. A quad usually has lights or different colored rotors to designate the front or the head of the craft.
For anyone who needs help in choosing the right quadcopter, we’ve made a handy guide on several models for any skill level.
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
Hubsan X4 H107C
The palm-sized Hubsan X4 H07C is an ideal indoor flyer with two flying modes: easy and advanced. In easy mode, it flies smoothly and slowly for those just getting a hang of the controls. Activate the high-rate mode and it immediately responds to the slightest control input. It may not be the fastest flyer or the most agile quad out there, but it can still zip around and do some flips once you’re confident enough for advanced moves. Unlike other cheap quads, almost all the parts that can get worn down or damaged such as the body shell, rotor, prop guards, motherboard, and motors can be replaced. Extra batteries and multi-chargers are also available for longer flying times.
Shop: Toy Kingdom
The Syma X5C-SW is another beginner-friendly quad with advanced features. With a design that’s reminiscent of a larger and more expensive quad, the X5C-SW adds first-person view using a smartphone. A clamp on the remote control allows you to mount your iOS or Android smartphone. Because of its larger size, it flies well enough outdoors in light winds. The Syma’s fairly large rotors and precise gearing allows it to rapidly ascend, fly really fast, and do quick maneuvers. Flight time is around six minutes using the standard battery with the camera on. The quad is also fairly durable and can survive a few crashes.
BEST FOR ENTHUSIASTS
Shop: Lowdog Hobby Shop (www.lowdoghobby.net)
Like Hubsan and Syma, Cheerson is a well-known brand that makes several quadcopter models. The CX-20 is their semi-professional model that’s targeted towards advanced hobbyists. The quad is very modular and has several upgradeable components such as a stable camera gimbal mount and FPV system. Out of the box, it has a GPS receiver that enables it to automatically return home and land by itself. With a standard battery, it can continuously stay in the air for around 15 minutes. The CX-20 has enough power to carry small cameras such as a GoPro. Because of the camera mount and stable airframe, the CX-20 is suitable as a basic aerial photography and video drone.
BEST FOR EXPERTS
DJI Phantom 3 Advanced
Shop: Hobby Dynamics
The DJI Phantom 3 Advanced is an expert level quadcopter from the world’s market leader in drones. The Phantom 3 Advanced is the midrange model in the Phantom 3 series. It can capture up to 2.7K HD video. That’s not the only great thing about it though since the quad has GPS navigation and sensors for stable outdoor and indoor flight. Advanced features include auto takeoff and landing, and auto follow. It can fly for around 23 minutes on a full charge. A mount on the remote controller is flexible enough to accommodate a tablet.
The motorized camera is extremely stable and takes excellent HD video which can even be live streamed and viewed in first person. There’s a ton of accessories and replacement parts available so you never have to worry about the drone being obsolete. Constant software and firmware updates further enhance the Phantom 3’s usability over time and grows with the user’s level of expertise.
Photos via Hubsan, Syma, Cheerson, DJI