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5 great ways to get into drones, from expensive to free

DJI Phantom: Ready-to-fly drone that does it all ($600 to $1,300)
DJI Phantom: Ready-to-fly drone that does it all ($600 to $1,300)

Some predict it's a multi-billion dollar industry in its infancy. Some do it just for fun.

It can be expensive, it can be cheap, but it's not hard to start building and flying drones.
BlueSprout via Meetup

Getting into flying drones isn't for everyone, and it can cost you a little or a whole lot, depending on which decisions you make.

Here's a list of great ways investigate drones and radio-controlled aircraft and their pros and cons. It's not an exhaustive list, but it will send you in the right direction to find out what this whole drone thing is all about.

DJI Phantom

The DJI Phantom is pretty much to go-to device for people getting into the quadcopter scene. It's a ready-to-fly drone, and even the lowest-end version will come with a pre-tuned copter, a battery and a control unit. For a premium, it can come tricked out with upgraded cameras and GPS capabilities of varying degrees. This is the ultimate plug-and-play drone. It can easily fit into a backpack or small carrying case, and on some models you can stream the HD camera output to your smartphone or tablet for first-person view flying.

Pros: It's crazy easy to use, and even the most inexperienced flyer can fire it up and fly it right out of the box. It also has great range; 984 feet, which is a nice distance if you want to go over trees or down into valleys for that perfect shot. It's also quite the looker with futuristic white housing and distinctive green and red LED lights, giving it a high-tech, high-cool factor and making it a bit of a status symbol. The flight-controller board, even on the lower-end models, is one of the best made, so when you put it in the air it's buttery smooth, responsive and stable as can be. With the GPS navigation of the higher-end models, you can navigate like a pro instantly, make it hover in place and automatically return it to home with the flick of a switch. If you've got the money to spend, this is a fast way to get into the air with no training and take stunning aerial video good enough to make a Hollywood director jealous.

Cons: The Phantom is not cheap; the least expensive model runs about $500, and it comes with no camera and a built-in battery, requiring you to stop flying and charge it when it runs low. Higher-end models, with cameras and GPS systems that will practically fly it for you, run more than $1,300. That's a lot of money to put into the air and fly away from you, potentially forever, especially if you're not an experienced pilot.

In addition, you'll also forever be roped into buying DJI's proprietary "smart" batteries, rather than having the option to buy less-expensive batteries from third-party dealers.

And finally, remember that great 984-foot range? That also means it can—theoretically—go 984 feet straight up, which is way, way beyond the Federal Aviation Administration's 500-foot minimum height for general-aviation aircraft in non-congested areas. Tangling with an airplane or a helicopter could get a pilot into big, big trouble not only with the FAA but also with the general public once your ill-advised beginner's mistakes make the news (and they will make the news).

Even though it's known for ready-to-fly abilities, this is not a toy and can't be treated as one. Doing so can be very dangerous. Though its housing does have a blade-protector, nothing is ever foolproof. If you get hit by one of those propellers going 8,000-to-10,000 RPM, there will be blood and possibly stitches.

The power of the rig combined with ease of use for the rank beginner and is one of the many reasons that DJI Phantoms have been incredibly popular, but also why Phantoms are involved in the vast majority of the news-making misadventures, making them the veritable "poster drone" for bad actors. And if you're looking to hang out with drone community groups, the "status symbol" image the Phantom has a double edge: hardcore hobbyists have seen enough beginners with expensive rigs doing dumb things that you'll have to prove yourself a bit more to earn respect. But if you're long on money and short on time to learn how to fly, this is a great way to jumpstart your aerial photography aspirations.

Parrot AR 2.0

If you really know nothing about drones but you want something fun to fly around the park, the Parrot AR quadcopter is a great way to start. Super light and easily controllable, the Parrot AR is a relatively inexpensive and easy-to-use drone that gets into the air right away. When you open the box, you'll notice something missing: there's no controller. The Parrot AR controls exclusively through smart phones and tablet devices. One mode allows you use the device's accelerometer; tilt the tablet forward to move forward, back to move back, and side to side to glide left and right. This instantly makes even the most uncoordinated beginner look like an expert. It also offers a different control mode with soft-thumbsticks that work similar to the dual-sticks of a conventional controller, but honestly, it's a lot harder to use than the tilt method. The Parrot AR 2.0 responds quickly and easily to its controls, which makes it exceptionally inviting for the never-done-anything-like-this-before beginner. It comes with an on-board 720p HD video camera and the videos can be uploaded to Parrot's cloud storage via Parrot's AR.Freeflight app for iOS and Android.

Pros: If you want a ready-to-fly drone that will get you in the air with little or no training, the AR Parrot 2.0's $300 price tag drives a hard bargain. Its controls are so easy to use that children can fly it, making it a great "family" drone for around the park. If you do crack up, most parts are available, so breaking an arm doesn't make it a total loss. As a very lightweight drone, it also can be easily flown indoors, especially when using its removable styrofoam indoor propeller guard. The Parrot AR 2.0 feels slightly more than a toy and slightly less than a full-blown drone, but it still has many of the features users want from drone flying, including HD video. And with a range of about 200 feet, you probably won't be getting yourself into sticky situations with neighbors or the law.

Cons: While a great first step into drones, it's not a place you'll stay very long if the hobby gets into your blood, and within a few short weeks you may be kicking this $300 device to the curb. It has no GPS, unless you pay an extra $100, so without caution, your first foray into the outdoors could easily be your last. And while you could theoretically fly it using FPV with the on-board camera, doing so with a smart phone is nearly impossible. It's too slow for racing, not powerful enough to carry a camera gimbal for true aerial photography and not robust enough for fighting. It does a lot for the price, but it doesn't do it well enough to be considered much more than a toy. And though underpowered enough to make it (relatively) safe for indoor use, it's still pretty big, so it may not be great for small rooms.

The other big downside: You will be flying a lot but not learning how to fly. The tablet device navigation makes it easy to use, but you'll be learning absolutely zero about how to use stick controls. The soft-thumbsticks are a way to begin, in theory, but in practical use they just don't help, so you'll be tossing it even sooner than you think. Or worse, you'll get too hooked on the crutch of tablet flying and never take the next step.

Hubsan X4 Microdrone

The Hubsan X4 microdrone, which can be picked up for under $40, looks like a toy and, honestly, it is. But don't let the diminutive size and price fool you, it flies exactly like the big drones, making it a great choice for a beginner who wants to learn how to fly without shelling out hundreds of bucks. Out of the box, it comes with a drone, a controller, a battery and a charger. The least expensive model has no camera, but for a few bucks more you can get one outfitted with a small pinhole camera that saves to a micro-SD card. This isn't anything you'll want to get for aerial photography, but its a fantastic way to practice flying and make some cool videos as proof. It's so small you can fly it easily indoors, flinging it from room to room and chasing roommates and house pets. Because its controller uses a standard configuration (left stick throttle and yaw; right stick pitch and roll), you may have some challenging moments the first few times you try it, but you will get the hang of it with a little practice. It's a perfect entry drone for someone who wants to have a lot of fun flying without spending a serious chunk of change.

Pros: If you don't want to box your skills into a corner with GPS-assist or tablet-based flying, this can put you on the right path without having to unlearn bad habits. They're small, cheap and fun, and being so small, they'll hurt but won't break skin if you put your hand in the wrong place at the wrong time. At only 3.5 ounces, flying them indoors is as about as safe as you can get with drone flying, especially using the removable propeller guard. Even the most advanced pilots usually have one or two in their stable of drones and have been known to pull them out just for fun. It uses a standard battery for many mini- and microdrones, so finding replacement batteries is easy; you'll want to have lots of those, as you'll only get about 7 to 10 minutes from a single charge. The X4 comes with a few replacement blades and a cute little wrench to remove broken ones, but you'll want to pick up a "crash pack" for about $20 with a lot more blades and a replacement housing. All in all, it's a heck of a lot of drone-flying fun.

Cons: The Hubsan X4 is a good training tool but it is, in no uncertain terms, a toy. That may appeal to you if that's what you're looking for, but it is not in any reasonable way going to be your end-game drone. If you spend your early days flying it inside, you'll feel pretty good with your skills, and when you take it outside you'll be tempted to take it up, up, up. With a 328-foot range, you can easily do that. Don't. It's so light, a small breeze on the ground will be strong enough at 25 feet that your Hubsan will disappear quicker than you can say, "I should have bought a Phantom." And it's so small, it's easy to lose sight of. The propellers are notoriously easy to lose, and because they're so tiny you'll likely only find them again by accidentally stepping on one in the middle of the night with bare feet. Because it's a toy, the motors do eventually burn out. You can buy replacements and solder another one in, but for a $40 toy, it may not seem worth the trouble, making it a disposable drone. So if you buy a Hubsan X4, know that it'll end up in a landfill somewhere. Hopefully you'll have skilled up to a standard-sized drone by then.

Turnigy Micro-X Quadcopter DSM2

If you're handy with a soldering gun and enjoy the excitement of seeing something you built work, the Turnigy Micro-X Quadcopter is a great place to start. Think of it as a Hubsan X4 that you have to build yourself. But this microdrone has all the guts of a serious hobbyist's drone, just really, really small. The kit comes out of the box with a board, motors, propellers, two batteries, a charger and a USB-interface cable. Snap the legs out of the board, mount the motors and solder them in, attach the legs, and you're done. It comes pre-loaded and tuned with Multi-Wii, flight-control software that's used in many bigger drones. With the USB cable, you can adjust your tuning with the Multi-Wii GUI via your computer—which means it's also hackable. There's no camera, but with a price of $53, it's the most inexpensive way to get into the nuts and bolts of drone building. It's also crazy fun to fly.

Pros: This is a "maker's" microdrone. Stripped down to its basics, it's a great evening project for a parent to undertake with a curious child—with a huge payout of being able to fly it when you're done. And like the Hubsan, it's small enough that flying it around the house is no big thing. Being hackable, it's also a way to get your feet wet with tinkering around with Multi-Wii, the widely used Arduino-based open-source software originally created to support Nintendo Wii gyroscope and accelerometers. If you can get soldering and Multi-Wii under your belt, you can build pretty much anything you want. If you can get Multi-Wii coding under your belt, you can get yourself a really cool job in the drone industry.

Cons: This is a job strictly for someone with basic electronics experience. If you've never soldered or tinkered with programming, don't even think about it. Even if you get someone to build it with you, the Turnigy Micro-X is stripped down; no camera, no GPS, it doesn't even come with a controller. Yes, you read that right; it has no controller. You will have to buy a programable DSM2-compatible transmitter, which can run $50 to $300, depending on what you get. It doesn't even come with a propeller protector, so flying it around the house has a greater chance of doing some damage to itself or others, because even little blades really smart when they hit you.

Drone Fly-Ins

By far the cheapest way to investigate the drone phenomenon is to go a "fly-in," where drone builders and pilots get together to fly, socialize, and swap stories and tips. These may be impromptu gatherings at a local open space or something more formal in an indoor space. The best such fly-in in the Bay Area happens monthly at Oakland manufacturing-incubator BlueSprout. It's usually filled with 20 to 30 drone enthusiasts who are excited to talk about what they're doing. These will cost you nothing, and moreover, you'll hook into a network of people with lots of experience. You can find a group in your area by signing up for Meetup and searching for groups for "drones" or "RC aircraft."

Pros: There's nothing cheaper than free, and going to these events can be great fun for adults and children who just want to watch and ask questions. If you say you're really interested and want your own drone, more often than not you'll find someone who will offer further advice via email and maybe even meet up with you later to help you build or fly. Some even bring along a Hubsan or two, and if you get into a conversation with one, he or she may offer to let you try your hand. When you finally do get your first drone, you'll already be in touch with the network of gatherings that happen in your area. And when you break your first drone, you'll know who to call for help or a spare part on hand.

Cons: You'll get a lot of differing opinions, which can be very confusing. Not all drone pilots have the same focus; some build for racing, some for acrobatics, some for photography, some for fighting. You'll have to figure out what you like best and gravitate to enthusiasts who have the same goals. If you do find a drone Meetup group, it will also require you to do some driving around and talking to strangers. If you don't live in an area with Meetup activity, you may not find a group at all. Even if you are successful with finding a group and talking to pilots, you also won't have a drone yet. And, as a warning, don't ask to fly someone's drone. It's like asking a race-car driver if you can take a spin. These people have usually spend hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars on their equipment and put dozens of hours into building and tuning them. If a pilot offers to let you try one, that's a rare treat, but the drones you'll see aren't for public use.

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