The guide you’re about to read is the very best micro quadcopter resource on the web. In order to put it together, I relied on help from 4 drone experts. One is a CEO of a drone startup. Another is a chief editor of a news blog about drones. I even chatted with a drone photographer and a quadcopter racer.
I’d like to begin by giving a shout out to DroningOn.co‘s chief editor Ash Ha, Extreme Fliers CEO Vernon Kerswell, drone racer Rick Gunter and photographer Kyle West. Check out the Beginners Drone Racing and DroningOn groups on Facebook if you want to get in touch with them. The paragraphs that follow contain their advice.
- DJI Mavic Review Roundup: Fanboys vs Haters
- The 3 Best Quadcopters Under 50 Dollars
- The 3 Best Quadcopters Under 100 Dollars
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- About Robot Fanatics
- Will 2017 be the year of the drone?
- 6 must-read tips from quadcopter pros
- The best micro quadcopter for beginners
- The best micro quadcopter for casual use
- The total idiot’s guide to DIY quadcopter gear
- The best micro quadcopter FPV goggles
- The best micro quadcopter for photographers
Will 2017 be the year of the drone?
A few months ago, I was convinced that littleBits was going to transform DIY robotics.
But after talking to some quadcopter pros, I’m starting to believe that the robot revolution will begin in the air.
Big companies are pouring big money into drone R&D. A few weeks back, the internet went nuts over the fact that Amazon filed a patent for a flying warehouse.
The main reason for the drone explosion boils down to affordability.
Just a few years ago, you had to spend thousands of dollars to get a decent quad. But rapid advances in drone tech have made it possible to build a high end drone for a couple hundred bucks. Even high end photography quadcopters are affordable now.
With these thoughts in mind, I decided that it was time to dive deep into the micro quadcopter world. So to get up to speed, I spent several hours chatting with drone experts.
Read on to find out what they had to say.
6 must-read tips from quadcopter pros
Here are the 5 major pieces of advice that I learned from the quadcopter pros that I interviewed.
1. Expensive quadcopters are worth the investment (if you’re serious)
Al Palmer– Director of the center for Unmanned Aircraft Systems at the University of North Dakota– recently told CNN Money that drone pilots already make around $50 an hour / $100,000 a year.
But you don’t need to make a big investment to learn how to fly.
Basic indoor “practice” micro quadcopters cost $40. And if you’re willing to spend a bit more, some truly amazing possibilities begin to open up. Here are a just a few interesting things you can do with a high-end drone.
- Experience the “bird’s eye view” of life. If you want your drone to carry your eyes into the skies, you’ll need a camera equipped First Person View (FPV) micro quadcopter and a pair of FPV goggles.
- Join a UAV rescue team and help save lives. Once you’ve got the right skills and gear, you can get qualified to help search and rescue teams deliver emergency supplies to those in need. There are plenty of rescue competitions to enter, too. In 2014, the Australian UAV group CanberraUAV won the UAV Challenge Outback Rescue competition and earned $50,000.
- Become a drone jockey and win a quarter million bucks. Quadcopter competitions are democratic in nature. People of all ages and from all walks of life can compete in them. In 2016, 15-year-old Luke Bannister reeled in a cool $250,000 for winning the World Drone Prix in Dubai.
- Start a new career as a drone photographer. The demand for talented drone photographers keeps going up and up. With the right equipment, you can make a living selling video footage and pictures to real estate agents, miners, engineers and plumbers.
The demand for drone use, in a wide variety of businesses, is absolutely skyrocketing. Drones are transforming industries such as plumbing, mining, trades and even transport and delivery.
– Drone pilot and trainer Mahmood Hussein
2. Performance + value = quadcopter
One of the first questions I wanted to know was: why are quadcopters so popular?
Experts say that quads are very balanced and easy to use. Other types of drones require a significant amount of skill to launch, control and maneuver.
Most quads can automatically stabilize themselves in the air. That’s why it’s easier to pull off difficult tricks with quads.
Also, DIYers prefer quadcopters because they can easily handle extra hardware.
I would say the quadcopter design is the most functional and basic. The hexacopter, octo, tri, and twin copters are more specialized. Most commonly a diy quadcopter is what you will see people flying.
– Drone photographer Kyle West
The more motors you have, the more expensive the drone. Quadcopters represent a good balance between affordability and performance. Super high end photography drones can have 6 or even 8 motors. The extra power allows greater stability and heavier payloads.
3. Forget “readymade” quads. DIY is the way to go
All the pros I chatted with advised me to get a DIY quadcopter kit.
Quadcopter technology moves fast. New and better parts come out all the time. With the exception of specialty photography quadcopter makers like DJI, manufacturers that sell so-called RTF (Ready To Fly) quadcopters just can’t keep up with the changes. That’s why most RTF quadcopters aren’t as advanced as DIY ones.
DIY quadcopter kits are not hard to build. Just like desktop computers, DIY quadcopter parts are interchangeable. It’s very easy to upgrade and tweak a DIY quadcopter. Readymade quadcopters are harder to upgrade because most aren’t compatible with universal DIY parts.TBS Vendetta, for example, is a zippy (but pricey) readymade quadcopter. But if you want to upgrade it with a new part, you have to wait for the manufacturer to make a TBS Vendetta version of the component.
4. If you want to win cash, be prepared to practice
Some quadcopter jocks make a lot of money. But getting the skills you need to compete in tournaments requires a lot of hard work and effort.
The best quadcopter pilots practice every single day.
Quadcopter tournaments require competitors to use uniform equipment. So, you can’t just buy your way into 1st place by buying expensive gear.
If you’re thinking about becoming a serious quadcopter racer, here are some YouTube channels to check out:
5. A good frame is key
As a starter pilot you need to have the toughest frame available because your going to crash a lot. I went down that road when I first started and it isn’t pretty. I had to learn the hard way.
– Drone expert Rick Gunter
Even though quadcopters are super stable, they aren’t by any means uncrashable. Beginners make mistakes. And those mistakes can be very costly if you don’t invest in a decent frame.
Top quadcopters are capable of hitting speeds in excess of 50 MPH. If you hit a tree at that speed with a cheap frame, you’re toast. But if you have a solid, sturdy frame there’s a chance that your quad will simply bounce off the tree and stay in the air.
6. DJI is head and shoulders above other photography quadcopter brands
Kyle West and all the other photography oriented quadcopter pros I chatted with all told me that a Chinese company called DJI has the very best photography drones. DJI is where iRobot was back in the early 2000s. When the first Roomba robotic vacuums came out, no other brand could compete.
The best DJI quadcopter right now is Mavic. Mavic is not only smaller than any other DJI quad, it’s also better in just about every way– and not as expensive as I thought it would be. Scroll down for the full Mavic review, or check the price on Amazon.
The best micro quadcopter for beginners
The Eachine E50
If you don’t care about learning how to build a drone and simply want to pick up some UAV piloting skills, few drones can compare to the Eachine E50.
The most impressive thing about this shockingly inexpensive quad is that it has full First Person View (FPV) capability.
The E50 app allows you to use your smartphone as a control station. You can even view what it’s looking at via a live video stream.
Pros and cons
- Professional FPV (First Person View) ability. If you’re serious about becoming an UAV pilot, this could be your first step.
- ABS components. You’d have to fly this quad off of a skyscraper to crack its resilient, rubbery shell.
- HD camera. This RTF quad is equipped with a 720p cam.
- Eachine quality. The pros I chatted with told me that Eachine makes good stuff.
- USB charging. Pop out the batteries and recharge them with any USB port.
- Battery expansion available. If you need more than just 15 minutes of flight time, you can buy a few extra batteries.
- Headless mode. Headless mode tells the E50 to move left or right relative you instead of relative to its camera “head.” (If you’re trying to do stuff like fly through hoops you should use “head” mode, but headless mode is the best mode to use for just flying around for fun.)
- Pocket ready. You can fold up its arms and stick it in your pocket.
- Selfie mode. Command the E50 to take selfies from above.
- If you buy a readymade RTF (Ready-to-Fly) quad like this one, you’ll miss out on an opportunity to learn how to build and customize your very own drone.
- Like all budget quadcopters, you can only use the E50 for a few minutes before it runs out of battery power.
The best micro quadcopter for casual use
This itsy bitsy budget quadcopter from Hubsan will give you a little taste of what quadcopters are all about.
The H002 is not DIY customizable, but it is cheap– and it will help you gain some basic quadcopter piloting skills.
Pros and cons
- Ready to fly. Just plug it into a USB port until it’s fully charged up, then get to flying this surprisingly agile little quad.
- Ultra portable. Because the H002 is so incredibly light and you can take it with you anywhere you go.
- Controller included. The box comes with everything you need to get this quad flying.
- Incredibly tiny. The H002 is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
- Sturdy construction. Even though this quadcopter looks kind of like a toy, the guys I chatted with said that it’s actually quite durable.
- Multiple flight modes. Expert, Stunt and Headless modes allow you to customize the way the H002 flies.
- Built-in camera. Most quadcopters at this price range don’t have a camera at all, but this one allows you to record or take pictures in 480p.
- Super low price. The H002 is one of the least expensive quadcopters I’ve seen so far. Check the price on Amazon.
- The H002’s main weakness is that it’s built-in battery pack doesn’t last very long. After about 7 minutes of fun, it’ll be time to plug it back for a recharge.
- Readymade quadcopters like the H002 can’t be improved or enhanced with hardware upgrades.
The total idiot’s guide to DIY quadcopter gear
If you want to become a real DIY quadcopter hobbyist, here’s a list of basic components that you’ll need to get your quad off the ground. Make sure you check the parts list and compare it to this list of essentials before you buy.
4 essential components
- Frame kit. A frame holds all the components together and protects them from damage when you crash. Most — but not all — frame kits come with:
- 1 battery strap. Quad battery strap are usually velcro. They keep the battery from falling off during flight.
- 4 electronic speed controllers. An Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) converts remote control signals into electrical pulses that motors can understand.
- 4 motors. Motors turn your quad’s propellers and allow it to take flight.
- 4 propellers. Propellers (aka “props”) come in all different shapes and sizes and can dramatically affect your quadcopter’s performance.
- 1 power distribution board. A Power Distribution Board (PDB) takes power from the battery and distributes it to all your quad’s components.
- Flight controller. A flight controller is your quadcopter’s brain. They are equipped with sensors that help your quad navigate– gyroscopes, accelerometers, GPS receivers, etc.
- 1 flight controller receiver. Flight controller recievers plug into the flight controller. Most flight controller kits come with a receiver, but many do not.
- LiPo battery + charger. Quadcopters run on powerful Lithium Polymer (LiPo) batteries. Large capacity batteries last longer, but they’re also heavier compared to low capacity ones. Because you can’t plug LiPo batteries directly into an outlet, you’ll need to get a special LiPo charger with your LiPo battery.
- Remote controller. Remote controls send radio signals to your quad that tell it where to go. Most quad remote control kits come with a receiver that snaps into your quad’s flight controller.
- Lost plane finder. This simple but useful component is a beeper than you can trigger if you ever lose track of your quadcopter.
- Low voltage alarm. This alarm goes off when power is low.
- Camera. If your quad has an onboard camera, it’ll be able to take pictures and record videos.
- First person view goggle. First Person View (FPV) goggles allow you to experience the thrill of flight firsthand. Many FPV goggles don’t come with a receiver, so be sure to check the parts list before you buy.
The best micro quadcopter DIY base kit
By far the most frequently recommended build-it-yourself kit is TargetHobby’s QAV210. It’s an affordable base micro quadcopter kit that you can easily customize and upgrade. Like almost all DIY quad kits, this one does not come with a flight controller, a battery, a camera or a controller.
- Super strong. Fans of this DIY quadcopter kit say that its sturdy frame and well-built components are virtually indestructible.
- Customizable. The QAV210 is super easy to upgrade and enhance.
- Lots of components. The kit contains a basic set of propellers, an Electronic Speed Control (ESC), 4 decent motors, 4 motor protectors, a rugged carbon fiber frame and a high quality Power Distribution Board (PDB).
- Large battery slot. The QAV210 is small enough to qualify as a micro quadcopter, but its battery compartment is large enough to accommodate heavy duty 1500mah LiPo batteries.
- GoPro compatible. If you already have a GoPro, you can easily mount it on your QAV210.
- Simple assembly. Everyone raves about how easy it is to snap the QAV210 together.
- Great value. For the price of about 3 “toy” quadcopters, you can get this professional quality one instead. Check the price on Amazon.
- If you get this kit you’ll have to buy a few extra parts (a flight controller, a receiver and a LiPo battery) to get the QAV210 off the ground. You’ll also need to buy a camera if you plan on taking pictures or recording videos.
The best micro quadcopter flight controller
When I asked about flight controllers, everyone advised me to go with an F4 because F4 flight controllers are much faster than F3s. This F4 from Crazepony comes with a power hookup that attaches directly to the main battery. Some flight controllers require you to attach an extra battery to your frame, but this one does not.
- Advanced F4 capabilities. F4 flight controllers like this one are faster than the F3 flight controllers that came before.
- Preloaded software. The Crazepony Raceflight F4 comes with RaceFlight software pre-installed.
- Doesn’t need a separate battery. You don’t need a separate battery to use this flight controller. It has a built-in Battery Elimination Circuit (BEC) that allows it to draw power from the main battery.
- Default “cruise control” PID settings work perfectly. The Raceflight F4’s PID (Proportional-Integral-Derivative) algorithm works quite well without tuning, allowing you to instantly enjoy “cruise control” mode the first time you test out your quadcopter.
- Quick and responsive. This flight controller reacts quickly to your commands, allowing you to pull off sharp turns and navigate around obstacles with ease.
- Reasonable price. Even though the Crazepony Raceflight F4 is top-of-the-line, it’s actually not that expensive. Check the price on Amazon.
The process for deleting the Crazepony Raceflight F4’s pre-installed software and replacing it with an upgraded or different version is a bit complicated.
The best micro quadcopter remote controller
- Universal compatibility. This remote controller is fully compatible with a wide range of different DIY quadcopters, including the QAV210.
- Fast signal processing. Most controllers require 20 milliseconds to process commands, but this one responds in 9 milliseconds.
- Displays location data. The panel displays your quad’s longitude, latitude and altitude.
- Easy to update. Just plug this controller into an USB port to download the latest software patches.
- Beginner friendly. Though this controller is packed with advanced features, it’s easy for beginners to pick up and use.
- Anti-glare screen. The display is easy to read, even in direct sunlight.
- Great range. Operate your quadcopter from up to a kilometer and a half away.
- Comes with a receiver. After you plug the receiver into your flight controller, you’ll be ready for takeoff.
- This controller is a bit pricey. However, because it’s quick and compatible with just about everything it’s the only one you’ll ever have to buy.
The best micro quadcopter battery
Tattu makes cheap, well-made batteries that can be recharged many times before they begin to give out.
- Brand has good reputation. The quadcopter pros I chatted with said that Tattu is their favorite battery brand.
- Many recharges. This high quality battery from Tattu can be recharged over 150 times.
- Longer flights. This battery will allow you to fly a QAV210 for 12 to 15 minutes straight, depending on your setup and how windy it is outside.
- XT60 plug type. It will work with any LiPo charger that has XT60 connectors.
- Though 155o capacity LiPo batteries last a lot longer than other quadcopter battery types, they are also quite a bit heavier and not as good for racing.
The best micro quadcopter battery charger
This “copycat” charger is just as good as the iMAX B6 charger that it emulates, only it’s significantly cheaper. HobbyMate is known for making good quadcopter stuff, and this LiPo charger is no exception.
- Cheaper, but just as good. This charger is basically the same as the iMAX B6, only it was manufactured by HobbyMate instead of SkyRC.
- XT60 connectors. This charger will power up Tattu brand LiPo batteries, or any other battery type that has a XT60 style plug.
- 1 year warranty. If this charger breaks within a year after you purchase it, HobbyMate will send you a replacement.
- Rapid charging. Crank the current up to 5 amps to quickly charge up your LiPo batteries.
- Comes with wall plug & AC adapter. Most chargers don’t come with wall adapters, but this one does.
- This charger comes with a North American style wall charger. If you live in a different part of the world, you’ll have to get an adapter to use this product.
The best micro quadcopter camera
Most quadcopter DIYers prefer analog over digital because analog cams don’t lag like digital ones often do. 1200TVL analog quadcopter cameras output slightly better looking video, but they have the same performance issues that plague digital quadcopter cams. The experts I chatted with advised me to go with Crazepony’s RunCam Swift 600TVL.
Here’s a video of a QAV250 pilot testing out a RunCam swift 600TVL:
- First Person View compatible. The RunCam Swift 600TVL is the camera the pros use with their FPV quadcopters.
- 16×9 widescreen video. Most cameras output 4×3 video, but this cam can handle 16×9 widescreen.
- Excellent video output. To my eyes, 600TVL video is not as good but comparable to 720p.
- Glare filtration. This camera is equipped with IR blocking, which allows you to get a much better picture when you fly your quadcopter during the day.
- Wind resistant. Racers like the RunCam Swift because it doesn’t slow down their high performance quads.
- Lightweight and small. The orange part of the camera is only about as big as a quarter, and the lens itself is smaller than that.
- Comes with mounting hardware. The kit comes with everything you need to attach the camera to your quadcopter, including two different styles of brackets to try out.
- Depending how you want to mount this cam, you might need to find some longer screws. The screws that come with this camera aren’t quite long enough for some setups.
The best micro quadcopter frame for racing
Quad expert Rick Gunter told me that if I was serious about racing drones, the first thing I should do is invest in a racing frame. Quadcopter frame technology advances at a much slower pace compared to component tech. The best quadcopter frame out there right now is the Formula One 220X. If you’re interested in racing and you don’t have a quad yet, get a QAV210 and swap out its stock frame for this one.
- Incredibly light. The 220x frame is durable yet extremely light and perfect for racing.
- Used by racing champs. Drone racer Spook FPV used a 220X frame to win the RCX Drone Championship in 2016.
- Ultimate crash resistance. All over the internet, quadcopter racers are raving about how durable this frame is.
- Nice and roomy. This frame has plenty of surface area for mounting extra equipment.
- Very reasonable price tag. Surprisingly, the Formula One 220X doesn’t cost that much more than an ordinary quadcopter frame. Check the price on Amazon.
- Most frames come with a few extra parts, but all you get with this one is the frame– and that’s it. You have to buy everything else (velcro strap, Power Distribution Board, etc.) separately.
The best micro quadcopter FPV goggles
Immersive First Person View (FPV) technology moves fast, but everyone I talked to said that FatShark is way ahead of the game. FatShark’s Dominator V3 makes you feel like you’re sitting right on top of your quad when you fly it around.
- Mind-blowing flying experience. Find out first-hand what it’s like to be a bird with the Dominator V3.
- 16×9 widescreen video. The immersive widescreen 16×9 display is a giant leap up in quality from most FPV goggles, which can only output 4×3 video.
- “Future proof” digital and analog support. The pros I chatted with said that digital cams aren’t ready for prime time yet because they are too laggy. But when DIY compatible digital cams do replace analog ones, your FatShark will be able to pipe in 720p digital video.
- Pairs well with Swift 600TVL cameras. This FPV goggle can handle the 16×9 widescreen 600TVL footage you get with a Swift 600TVL cam.
- Comes with a NextWave RF receiver. This kit costs just a smidgen more than a bare bones Dominator V3 kit, and it includes a receiver that’ll allow you to get up and running immediately.
- The stock antenna that comes with the NextWave RF receiver isn’t very good. For better reception, check out this circular polarized antenna from Foxeer.
The best micro quadcopter for photographers
When I talked to photographers about quadcopters, they all recommended the same brand: DJI. The proprietary tech inside of state-of-the-art DJI quads is more advanced than the DIY components that you find on the shelf of your local hobby shop.
DJI’s first-ever compact micro quadcopter– the DJI Mavic– wasn’t nearly as expensive as I thought it was going to be after I watched the commercial for it.
If you plan on becoming a pro drone photographer, this micro quadcopter has everything you need. It comes with a controller, batteries, a charger, and a carrying case.
The DJI Mavic blows away other photography quadcopter on the market– including DJI’s own Phantom 4. That’s why a lot of people who bought Phantom 4s are selling them.
Until I find something better, the Mavic Pro is what I’d buy if I had decently deep pockets and seriously wanted to get into the quadcopter game.
- Amazing 4K video. Record in 4k at 30 FPS.
- Automatically tracks what you want to film. Activate ActiveTrack when you want to film a moving target.
- Insane range. Most DIY quadcopters can fly 1 kilometer away from the pilot, but the Mavic can record in HD from up to 7 kilometers away.
- Extra long battery life. This quad can travel at full speed for 27 minutes. Plus, this kit comes with 3 batteries– so if you swap them out, you can use the Mavic for an hour and a half before you need to recharge.
- Automatic obstacle avoidance. The Mavic is equipped with sensors that keep it out of harm’s way.
- Stable and precise. This quadcopter is so stable that it’s actually a little bit creepy to watch it hover in mid-air.
- Speedy. The Mavic can travel as fast as 40 MPH.
- Understands human gestures. Order Mavic to take a selfie by waving your hand.
- Super small. When its fully collapsed, the Mavic is about as tiny as a bottle of water.
- DJI is lightyears ahead of other drone makers, but their achilles heel is their technical support. Ray of DC Rainmaker compared interacting with DJI’s support team to “talking to Siri when both you and her are drunk.”