back to article A drone of one's own: Reg buyers' guide for UAV fanciers

Heard the hype and want to buy a drone — just uncertain which model to pick? Well, forget the hardware, the devil is in the software. Drones are cool, undeniably, but with prices starting at four pints of lager, and running to a small house it's tough to decide what's worth buying. So El Reg has been chatting to some drone …

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Black Helicopters

UAV?

psssst- they are known as RPAS now, at least that's what all the cool kids are calling them...

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Re: UAV?

Shouldn't we be more interested in weaponisation than fitting cameras?

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Flame

Ignore the licence requirements

Ignore the air Navigation Order.

Ignore the fact that you're the pilot in command.

Ignore the rules.

Ignore insurance.

Who needs them?

That would be the people on the ground and the people in the sky.

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Childcatcher

Re: Ignore the licence requirements

Not to mention:

Ignore the big guy with the baseball bat who thinks you're a peeping tom spying on his wife/kids.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

While I agree with the sentiment of your post, it would be worth pointing out that the article author didn't say to ignore the rules or the insurance, only not to bother getting a licence.

Assuming that you had insurance, and were flying responsibly beyond all the required distances from people, buildings and "congested areas" I think it's highly unlikely you'll be prosecuted.

Unless of course something goes wrong and you crash and injure someone, but I doubt having the necessary CAA licence would make the slightest difference in that event, you would likely be prosecuted with similar results regardless.

As an aside, it would be eminently sensible for the rules (or lack there of) regarding the sale of drones to be changed, depending on what the CAA do with their new regulations on the matter.

It wouldn't seem unreasonable to me that you should have to prove, or at least complete a form stating, you hold the necessary licence before being allowed to buy one.

While ignorance of the law is never an excuse as such, the fact that you can walk into high street stores (Maplin did sell the DJI Phantoms) and buy one would not make the average buy think a licence or insurance are required, anymore so than they would be when buying a toy remote control car.

I recently bought a new car (of the normal road-going variety) and was unsurprisingly asked for my driving licence before being allowed to drive off in it, I'm not sure there's any law requiring that but if not there should be.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

@Phil W - I may have been intemperate in my opposition; you are quite correct that the journalist only suggested ignoring the licence. I'd like to acknowledge that the other suggestions are all mine - though they are not suggestions, merely a list of things people might also choose to ignore.

I'm a paraglider pilot.

I'm *terrified* of these things. Too many are driven by people who either don't realise the potentially fatal result of bumping into them - they'll cut the lines I depend on, or at best tangle them; either results in wing deformation and loss of control. They're invisible; daft as it sounds it can be difficult to see another paraglider in the wrong place, and they're ten metres across and usually in bright high-contrast colours. They're capable of flying at high altitude, autonomously, and out of sight of the pilot (er, launcher? Handler? I dunno). They can't see me and take avoiding action; even if they're visible from the ground by their pilot it is notoriously difficult to judge course and distance - and if I'm close to the ground then I have extremely limited options; I'm probably either about to land or have just launched; both are dangerous and unstable phases of flight.

Over the years, model aircraft flyers (usually RC) and paragliders/hang glider pilots have negotiated agreements whereby they keep out of each other's airspace to reduce the risk of accidents - though the still occur occasionally. RC aircraft flyers are well aware of the issues and their managing body includes insurance and operates a structured training regime. But for some reason, these things are - as you point out - not seen in the same class; perhaps because you can pick them off the shelf in the high street (though you can do the same with a ready-to-fly electric RC plane) or perhaps because there is no publicity about it.

One thing to remember - the ANO has to be obeyed by all pilots - from commercial to GA to gliders to models. The rules are there to save the lives of the pilots (and passengers) and of the people they fly over.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

So you are basically saying you have insufficient visibility and poor control of your paraglider so as not to be able to see or avoid obstacles in the sky. Why is it that you are allowed to fly them again? Lets regulate the unsafe vehicle in this scenario of yours, not the highly accurately positioned and stable one!

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

There's a reason steam gives way to sail, and it's nothing to do with the inability of the drivers thereof.

You *can not* stop a glider in mid-flight; you *can not* turn on a sixpence; and while I *can* land on a metre target most times, on a final glide you *can not* make unplanned changes in speed or direction without potentially unfortunate consequences.

Don't forget the paraglider is not just the pilot and the wing; there's a few hundred metres of finest line between the two in a ten metre fan.

(I have had exactly one mid-air collision - that was with a pheasant which came out of cover as I launched. It's about the size and weight of a small quad, I'd guess - I know it was bloody painful!)

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

@Phil W

" it would be worth pointing out that the article author didn't say to ignore the rules or the insurance, only not to bother getting a licence. "

Right. Now you find me an insurance company that will pay out on an unlicensed individual.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

Note: the licence is only required for 'air work' - commercial work using an aircraft. The general model flier's insurance would cover normal use... provided that you're a member of the association and obey their rules. You don't need a licence to fly a quad; you do need to follow the rules.

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visibility

Most warplanes downed never saw what was knocking them out of the sky, and in the past few decades most of them had on-board radar as well of years of training to look out for the bogeys.

Even something as big as a MiG-21 is surprisingly hard to spot if it's pointing at you - what chance a tiny 'copter?

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

"They're invisible; daft as it sounds it can be difficult to see another paraglider in the wrong place"

After thousands of years of evolution on the savannas of Africa we have exhibit one, the human optical system. Something moving is immediately visible, say the lion running in against the grass. If there is no movement against the background we are apt to ignore what is in our field of view - no danger. An object that is going to collide with you is static against the background* (draw it on graph paper).

A para glider and drone, or two cars and a cross road, or a lion and lunch, are just experimental proof of the limitations of human eyesight.

* Assuming relatively constant velocity - a given in most circumstances.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

"So you are basically saying you have insufficient visibility and poor control of your paraglider so as not to be able to see or avoid obstacles in the sky. Why is it that you are allowed to fly them again? Lets regulate the unsafe vehicle in this scenario of yours, not the highly accurately positioned and stable one"

Air traffic on a collision course is static against the background. A 9 meter long glider, on a perpendicular but intersecting course, at 1000 meters distance (time to impact: 36 seconds) is only a tiny white blip of optically maybe a millimeter big. At 200 meters (time to impact: 7.2 seconds) that is STILL only a few millimeters. What hope in hell do I, as a glider pilot, have of spotting a slender framed drone against a busy background, which appears to be stationary? Paragliders have it a "little" easier, because of lower speeds. But the same thing applies basically. Drones (and birds btw) are often nearly invisible until you are right on top of them. Birds usually have the wit to get out of the way. Drones do not. That "Highly accurately positioned and stable" is exactly the problem most pilots have with drones. The one who decides that position often doesn't have a bloody clue WHERE he is actually positioning the thing in relation to other air traffic and doesn't get it out of the way if there IS such traffic. Any drone flight would be classed as VFR traffic, meaning see-and-avoid rules apply. By definition, FPV and autonomous drone operators are bad airman as they cannot avoid other traffic the same way "normal, ass in cockpit seat" pilots do.

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Re: Ignore the licence requirements

There is a reason that pedestrians arn't allowed to walk on the motorway. Highlighting the lack of safety in paragliding is not really a good argument for unreasonable regulation on drones. As you point out the pheasant is not regulated at all!

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"•And though it's been said before elsewhere — read the f*cking manual: Failing to properly synchronise the navigation software, or connect the GPS, can result in your drone setting off into the sunset to seek out a new life, without you"

Thanks El Reg for the morning chuckle :)

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Coffee/keyboard

"I'm free!"

I think this should have been listed at #1.

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Don't fly over water

Just ... don't. (Have had to rescue a Phantom2 from the bottom of a pond...)

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For kids - gyro stabilised small quadcopters

The current small gyro stabilised quadcopters (e.g. the Hubsan X4) can be flown by complete novices. These are R/C models - not drones so no GPS but the stabilisation is carried out by the quadcopter not the pilot so they are easy to fly. They are also cheap (at under £60) so if a kid does break one it is not the expensive disaster that would be with a high end model at over £1000.

Do not let a kid loose on a big quadcopter until they are good with one of the small models.

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Re: For kids - gyro stabilised small quadcopters

Agreed. We have a Hubsan X4 - it's cheap, it records acceptable video, it's easy to fly and it's a good introduction to all the things you have to consider when owning a drone: maintenance, repairs, batteries, planning flights and so on.

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Re: For kids - gyro stabilised small quadcopters

Second that.

The little Hubsan (non camera experience only) is fantastic for teaching things like orientation coordination and the general physics of a quad. If you can fly one to the extremes of it's control range you will either have eyes of a hawk or develop the ability to recognise orientation by flight path, something that could save your bacon in a "fancy quad" GPS failure. When you crash (even convincingly) it's inexpensive to replace bits so you can get on learning straight away. They look like a toy but what is learnt translates well to bigger devices, even other types of vehicle. I had an X4 then got a RC plane, result few problem with controls being reversed or gusts of wind as that is taught at the £30 quad level. If you are one of the many who buy a Phantom at least try Heli-X with the wind set to blow and gusty, to learn control it in the real world well before taking a flying (plastic blade) blender to your mates wedding.

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Re: For kids - gyro stabilised small quadcopters

Strongly agree re the X4 (about £40 from Amazon with spares). I was thinking of buying a Phantom but decided to learn on this. Over the summer I flew it in the grounds of a villa in the Italian countryside & got some grainy but wonderful videos. Took me about 5 flying hours to get reasonably competent (in the process chewing up about 20 propellers). I learned the physics of quad flying, the tricks for staying within a predefined area, and how to carry out picture shoots from afar - all skills needed with an all bells and whistles Phantom.

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Re: For kids - gyro stabilised small quadcopters

For children / Winter flying the Nano QX is small and light enough to fly indoors and it comes with prop guards that will mostly protect the wallpaper from a beginner pilot.

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So... where's the list?

This article has a certain amount of stating the obvious, and could have been written at any time over the last couple of years. How about actually comparing some of the current kit available to buy/build?

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For software, I'm suprised the article doesn't mention ArduPilot (and developments thereof) given LOHAN.

I put together a hexacopter from various chinese bits and pieces for less than £200, loaded up Ardupilot, and now have a fully autonomous (automatic take off and landing) UAV.

I generally use it to take panoramic photographs by allowing it to take off straight up, hover at 50m or 100m, point at 8 compass points for 15 seconds each, and then land. I use a compact camera on auto (using CHDK). Works pretty well.

More complex flight patterns work fine but the simpler they are the easier it is to avoid flyaways.

This one can also be pre-programmed without carrying a laptop into the field.

No licence yet though - volunteering 'for amusement only'. I do adhere to the flight rules - insurance won't cover stupidity.

**much soldering and manual reading required**

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Thanks for great tips for novices. Which is what I am. Could you (or forumites) follow-up with some tips on which specific drones are good/indifferent/bad and at what prices?

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And for something more specific...

Droidworx, right here in NZ, make some pretty spiffy items, well-regarded...

http://aeronavics.com/products/showroom/sky-jib-series/skyjib-8/

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Re: And for something more specific...

At spiffy prices!

:-(

Good if you've got a Hollywood budget and you are replacing an even more expensive helicopter.

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http://www.amazon.co.uk/HUBSAN-X4-H107-Quadcopter-LEDs/dp/B009M1PO7W

£27 without video recording

These will make you a better pilot for your fancy drone than anyone who goes straight to a self hovering, self levelling, gps laden 'proper' quadcopter as you have to understand six axis flight controls without the machine helping you.

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great article - a nice beginners guide

I've been flying quads - big and small, off teh shelf and made from scratch for about 3 years now.

The X4 is indeed a great little item. And I have a few of them (I also fly the big boys).

But I'd recommend you get one of these babies.

1. it's only 18 quid inc postage (mine took about 10 days to arrive)

2. they have 'headless mode' (like the big boys have)

3. it has rubber feet and a better design than tha hubsan protecting the frame and motors from damage even when smashed into ground repeately.

4. it comes with prop guards making it pretty much indestructable (so far anyway!)

headless mode basically means it has a built in compass - so when you activate it pushing forward on the stick for example will always make the quad fly forward by the direction it was originally pointing in when activated (and usually it would be the way you are facing).

so even if the quad rotates/yaws around, forward is still forward. i.e. you don't need to try and keep it pointing away from you and/or learn to fly it coming towards you in reverse, etc.

Plus, it is more stable that the X4 - I've been flying mine all week in my hotel room - it's fecking awesome - in headless mode you can chuck it around the sky like a mentalist.

http://www.hobbywow.com/en-copy-of-cg022-6-axis-led-headless-mode-mini-rc-quadcopter-rtf-2-4ghz-p237632.htm#

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I went for the slightly more expensive Ares QX 130 at £65 on Amazon (Cheaper elsewhere).

It has pretty good stability even in light wind - as well as a great range of accessories available (from bubble blower to grappling hook as well as a 60fps camera)

Batteries are nice and cheap as well - around £4-6 on ebay with a flight time of around 10 mins each.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: commercial license

The obvious thing to do is to upsell the fancy frame that the 'free' artsy pic is mounted in.

;-)

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Insert usual grumble about the term Drone

Seems to be an assumption that the only reason to fly a multi rotor is to take photos and make use of GPS functionality all the time.

I have a fat quad (450mm DJI) with Ardupilot, GPS et al and simply don't fly it, all my time is spent on a little 250mm machine with a £19 flight controller (Acro Naze) with expensive motors it was still sub £200, with cheaper motors it would be under £140.

Why prefer the simple machine, because I actually have to fly the thing rather than having the flight controller doing all the work (the quad copter equivalent of script kiddies), though the fact that hitting a rugby post at 30+ mph and the repair costing less than £2 may also have it's appeal ;)

I suspect activities such as the following may point to why multirotors appeal to people (more than simply ambling around under computer control anyway)

hxxps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fYtw17i_CXU&list=UUkous_8XKjZkKiK5Qe13BXw

hxxps://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XE2SKxKVX18&list=UU_ln1TA-w4bahRI7yN0TcJA

The Hubsan x4 is a fine trainer for anybody considering a larger machine, and a Blade Nano QX is an even better choice and are excellent in their own right as indoor entertainment.

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Re: Insert usual grumble about the term Drone

Couldn't agree more. As much as I love my tricked out Phantom and its capabilities, my Hubsan gets many hours more use day to day.

The Phantom only comes out on special occasions, when I can really be bothered - it feels more like work, more of a chore.

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Re: Insert usual grumble about the term Drone

It is for me.

The less entertainment, the better!

Anyway, flying things around is not new - RC has been around for 80 years. Things flying themselves around - that's different.

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Anonymous Coward

Units!

"...with prices starting at four pints of lager, and running to a small house..."

Oi El Reg, care to clarify your units? Are we talking London prices for lager or "oop North" prices (my mistake, lager is a Southern-softies drink)? Premium lager or nats-p*ss lager?

And as to "small house"... that will be about £gazillion if we're talking London, and £3.57 for a cardboard box in the North.

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This seems like a bit of an odd guide - it doesn't really say a great deal. I own and fly a drone so a buyer's guide is not something I'd find useful myself but where are the comparisons of flight controllers or the difference between radios? Where are some example airframes?

Despite some of the bad press that drones have garnered (whether it be because of paranoid journalists or idiot pilots ignoring not just the law but common sense as well) they are really quite fascinating. My aged neighbour loves coming out to watch the drone flying and is enthralled by it, as are my neighbours on the other side. My neighbour's son was fascinated when I explained to him the workings and so on.

To me, my drone combines my love of photography, kit building, radio-controlled models and technology in general. As a disabled person who has limited physical ability a drone gives me a compelling hobby, a great conversation starter and who knows - maybe an avenue to support myself financially in the future?

Although there is clearly a risk of drones being used carelessly the same could be said for a swathe of hobbyist items. I honestly and sincerely hope that their responsible use will become more commonplace in the future.

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Trollface

"My neighbour's son was fascinated when I explained to him the workings and so on."

I bet he was fascinated, just thinking of all the girls bedroom windows he can peak through!

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Up here in the Highlands it's more likely to be sheep that you encounter - though I suppose that has its own advantages to gentlemen of certain persuasions!

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You were doing so well until the general advice too.

The CAA aren't planning to change the rules. You do need a license to carry out any commercial work. You won't be able to get any valid insurance without one and you will be fined if the CAA catch up with you.

Don't rush to update your software until it's tested out as fine. It's the same as with any tech, first adopters often suffer but in this instance it usually means re-acquainting yourself with the laws of gravity.

Another vote for the Hubsan X4 btw

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Yup - ignore knowing you are in restricted airspace or within 1 mile of a nuclear reactor. Or that, when you drop the copter on the M4, you'll be politely asked about your insurance.

Whatever you do, definitely don't make sure you know how to operate a flying lawnmower safely and how to pilot it when all your electronic aids go tits up due to some bozo operating a WiFi repeater at 1000watts.

Most of all, don't worry about the 400ft legal restriction the CAA slap on all UAVs or SUSA (to give them the official designator). Why would you want to be concerned about smacking your craft into an aircraft ... what's the worst that can happen eh.

BTW Sir .. did you know you are flying in an area with a NOTAM on it? Those men in black suits want to have a word as you flew your craft in a very sensitive area and they really don't have a sense of humour ....

And no, the CAA are not about to lift the restrictions on commercial SUSA use (though they are looking to be a bit more sensible when your craft is under 7Kg).

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400 feet rule

Aircraft can fly lower than 400 feet... I can fly 5 feet above the ground if I want. provided I do not fly within 500 feet of any person/building/structure.

As a paramotor pilot I regularly fly much much lower than 400 feet.

the 400 ft limit - just for CAP 722 UAS is a weird one and has really more to do with the history of UAs than now.

Arguably, provided your quadcopter cannot fly autonomously, and you do not fly 'remotely' - i.e. via FPV - then it is simply a regular old RC plane. And therefore covered entirely by CAP 393 - no specific height limit - you are covered by CAP 393 'visual range' - and it is left to you to interpret that appropriately based on conditions, weather, aircraft type, eyesight, etc, etc.

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Black Helicopters

Re: 400 feet rule

I nearly fell off a set of ladders whilst painting my father's bungalow's eves as an A10 warthog flew so low, the sudden noise overhead making me duck. The A10 only just missed the tops of nearby trees. I could see the pilots face it was that low. Certainly lower than 400ft!

Mind you, if he'd seen a drone in his path I'm sure a quick flick on the fire-button of the 30mm cannon would have sorted the problem out!

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Silver badge

Re: 400 feet rule

Nice to see I'm not the only one here with a wing, Stu.

Doesn't FPV require a second person to be with the pilot and in visual contact with the plane? Which would carry the same limits as CAP393 anyway.

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Re: 400 feet rule

FPV does yes - and if FPV then you are under 722 for sure - therefore 400 feet maximum.

But as I say, still not safe from colliding with 'real' aircraft was my point.

If you are not flying in an autonomous mode, and not flying 'remotely' (which I interpret as FPV), then I interpret 722 as not applying at all -since it only applies to 'UAS's which are defined as

-remoted piloted or autonomous aircraft.

FPV org has a similar view to me:

http://www.fpvuk.org/fpv-law/

So you have 393 to adhere too. So you've got to stay 50m away from other people.

But if you have eyes like a hawk and want to fly up to 2500 feet (which i did a few weeks ago) with your quadcopter - provided you DONT fly FPV, and DONT let it fly autonomously, this is within the law of CAP393 I believe since CAP393 specifies no maximum AGL - simply that the operator must be able to clearly be able to see the aircraft 'visual line of sight' to control it.

I mean, yer not gonna make a habit of it probably - so just an anal point really.

The main thing is dispelling this 'you don't need to worry about aircraft below 400 feet' rumour.

Also stating the obvious - that you are subject to exactly the same airlaw as any other aircraft - and therefore if you live in an area which has no CLASS G airspace, then I believe you will be breaking the law flying ? i.e. this would include london in it's entirety.

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Re: 400 feet rule

The 400 feet rule does not apply to flying machines below 7kg, if your machine is heavier than 7kg then the 400 feet is measured from the launch point, which could be the top of mt Snowdon.

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Re: 400 feet rule

@stu 4 If my drone is within 400ft of me, then you can't possibly crash into my drone without being within 500ft of me (a person). Therefore you must be breaking flight regulations.

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No licence required for sporting/recreational use, only commercial use.

Worth pointing out the legal position for sporting/recreational use.

See http://www.bmfa.org/Multi-Rotors for a guide to what you need to know.

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You mean Lithium Polymer not Lithium Ion. Thats the one used in laptops.

Poor quality article in general. :(

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Anonymous Coward

Flying on manual

"Right now you can fly a Phantom, on manual, right into the boarding gate at Heathrow Terminal 5, "

Phantom + C4 (explosive not car) = Al qaeda wet dream.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Flying on manual

I didn't see the 'have you purchased your C4?' option on Amazon at the checkout. Am I missing something?

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