The word “drone” evokes many feelings in many people. In the news, drones are deadly weapons of mass destruction. Yet in the technical world, drones are the future and an enabler of better, and more affordable, modes of transportation. These tiny hovering objects are also an obsessive fascination for hobbyists, such as myself. Drones are no longer just a morbid object of war that only the government can control. Drones are now firmly entrenched in the consumer world, in businesses and at homes.
The consumer drone market is a lucrative and thriving one. A consumer drone can cost as little as $50, or as much as $1,500. Many people are attracted to the idea of flying a drone, so drones right now are selling like proverbial hot cakes. People buy $300 quadcopters for training, and buy their little ones $40 smartphone-linked drones like the ones on this list for playing. Pair a drone with a virtual reality device and you can experience your backyard several feet off the ground, like a bird.
I was one of those people who bought a cheap, $80 drone for “training.” The cheaper the drone is, the smaller it is. The FAA does not require pilot permits for flying tiny drones in the backyard. My first drone was a small, multicolor quadcopter. It hovered well over my head above the ground and made quiet noises like a bee. It couldn’t stay on air for more than 10 minutes, but that amount of time was just enough to spark a lifelong obsession.
Flying a drone should be simple, like flying a toy plane. My first drone came with a remote controller, like the ones kids get for toys with antennas. The remote had dual analogue stick controls and a radio unit to connect with the drone in air. It could be synced to a smartphone app as well. I could “see” what the drone was seeing from my phone. With a VR headset, I was the drone.
Quadcopters are designed in a symmetrical manner. Therefore, it’s difficult to say which way the drone is “facing.” It’s not like flying a plane. You can say where the nose is. But with quadcopter drones, the distinguishing is not so easy. It’s rather like learning to fly a saucer in the air. The controls have to be maneuvered left, right in all other directions to find the right balance. A small gust of wind could knock my little drone off the air. Even more dangerous was the lithium-ion battery, which could run out of charge and pummel my drone to earth.
Despite the danger, my budget drone was immensely exhilarating to fly. Later, I bought a more expensive one with a camera, so I can take aerial photographs of my house. The future, indeed, seems to be hovering in air. Us hobbyists have high hopes for the future of drones. Drones may one day replace parcel post and perhaps even delivery trucks. Amazon has already launched a drone delivery service. While commercial uses for drones are immense, so are consumer uses. Perhaps in the coming five years, we will be taking aerial photographs on our vacations.
Eduardo Bridges is a software engineer and tech enthusiast. In his spare time, he researches and shares guides to the best low-cost tech gadgets on his site, bestcheaptech.com