Quadcopter Buying Guide and How To Get Into Aerial Imaging

I get asked a few times a day what is the best way to get into the aerial imaging hobby. Here are my recommendations as of April 11, 2014.

Note that all Amazon links on this page are referral links. Any purchases support me and this site, which will continue to encourage me to write about the hobby.

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The best way to get into aerial imaging is to purchase an off-the-shelf quadcopter that can carry a camera. This may seem obvious, but not so long ago, these aircraft didn’t exist for the mainstream. If you could decipher hobby parts lists and solder, you could have built one, but it was effectively out of reach for most people.

These days, you can purchase an aerial-imaging platform that is ready-to-fly (RTF). In January of 2013, DJI release the Phantom quadcopter, the first RTF quadcopter with GPS that was designed to hold a GoPro camera. One could literally be in the air flying with a camera 5 minutes after opening the box. Since then, the landscape has changed a bit, with new players coming out with competitors, but the clear recommendations as of this article date are still made by DJI.

Summary:

For both video and stills, you want the the $959 DJI Phantom 2 with Zenmuse H3-3D gimbal (plus GoPro camera). The Zenmuse H3-3D GoPro gimbal was announced in late March, 2014, and is a full 3-axis brushless gimbal. The older H3-2D worked very well, but only stabilized in 2 axes (the old combo with H3-2D was $869, so you are paying $90 more for additional stabilization in the yaw axis—well worth it). 

For stills only, you want the $1299 DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, which comes with an integrated, stabilized camera (3-axis brushless gimbal), shoots DNG raw, and integrates with iPhones, iPads, and Android devices for first-person view (FPV) and camera control. The older DJI Phantom 2 Vision is also available, and has dropped in price and now sells for $999. It is identical to the newer Vision+, except that it has no camera stabilization and a reduced maximum range.

For the budget-conscious, the $499 DJI Phantom FC40 Quadcopter is still a great choice. It is basically an original Phantom 1 with an integrated camera. For indoor training, you want the $90 Blade Nano QX.

The DJI Phantom 2 Vision+ comes with integrated, stabilized camera, and iOS/Android FPV/telemetry support

Just over a year after release, the DJI Phantom series quadcopters are still the only proven, reliable platform for beginners in this hobby. They all come with a controller, battery, and battery charger, and feature GPS and assisted flight modes that make it easy to fly, even for complete newbies. Of course, if you get excited and jerk the stick around, you will probably crash, so start your journey in a carefully-controlled manner.

The Phantom 2 offers the following changes to the original Phantom:

  • Larger propellers with integrated nuts (just spin them on—takes 5 seconds)
  • Larger, 5200 mAH cartridge battery (measured flight times of around 25 min; no cables to connect)
  • Integrated brushless gimbal support for GoPro (get the Phantom 2 + H3-3D brushless gimbal package, and you’re ready to use your GoPro on a 3-axis stabilized platform)
  • Integrated CAN-Bus expansion port (e.g., for on-screen display support)
  • Auxiliary video cable for FPV (first-person view) upgrade
  • Note: no out-of-the-box GoPro mount unless you use a gimbal

The Phantom 2 Vision+ offers the following changes from the Phantom 2:

  • Integrated, 3-axis stabilized, 14-megapixel, 1080p camera with pitch control (instead of support for the Zenmuse gimbal)
  • iOS and Android apps for FPV (first-person view) and camera control (up to 800 meters range)
  • Radio control on 5.8 Ghz
  • Video and telemetry on 2.4 Ghz Wi-Fi
  • Video capture at 1080p/30, 25, 1080i/60, 720p/60
  • Stills capture in JPG and Adobe DNG raw
  • Note: No brushless gimbal or GoPro mount. Uses integrated camera.

To make your Phantom 2 safer, you might want to consider prop guards (or print them yourself). The stock propellors on Phantoms are made of plastic and are not sharp—it would be difficult to really harm someone unless something extreme happened, but prop guards ensure that spinning props won’t strike any another object (unless you crash at high speed). $170 extra batteries are an absolute must, and a $45 extra battery charger will allow you to charge 2 batteries at once.

Note that the original Phantom used smaller, 2200mAh batteries that can be purchased for as little as $19, but with original Phantom flight times of around 8 minutes (with gimbal and camera), you need quite a few for a day’s worth of shooting.

Phantoms are extremely durable. They feature minimum prop speed, so if you power down completely, your quadcopter won’t plummet too quickly out of the sky. They also come back to their launch point if they lose contact with the radio. But if you do crash—and, you will—you’ll probably only break a propeller or two. You’ll definitely need $32 extra props (note that the Amazon link also lists fake DJI props for around $12—look at all the vendors, and you’ll find them on Prime for about $32. Always buy from dealers with high ratings). You can also buy 2-packs from authorized dealers like Dronefly.

Hobby King sells cheaper versions of many of these accessories, including Phantom-1-compatible 2200 mAH 3S batteries (e.g., Zippy, Turnigy, Turnigy Nano-tech). They also sell more-advanced chargers that can charge multiple batteries quickly, but no one is selling third-party Phantom 2 batteries or chargers, yet. I buy a lot from Hobby King, but I would NOT recommend buying propellers from them. Always buy brand-name, high-quality props. A broken prop in the air will lead to a crash or total loss, and a badly-balanced prop will yield poor video due to vibrations when rotating.

GoPro Cameras

One of the reasons the Phantom became so popular so quickly is that the original version came with a GoPro HERO camera mount. Any existing GoPro HERO 2, 3, or 3+ can be attached to an original Phantom, and any GoPro HERO 3 or 3+ can be used with the Phantom 2 when the H3-2D gimbal is installed. If you don’t have a gimbal and want to use a GoPro with a Phantom 2, you’ll need to rig up your own mount.

The GoPro HERO3+ camera

GoPro cameras are by far the most popular cameras used in aerial imaging because of their size to performance ratio. They are small, light, and capture high-quality video and stills.

Travel Cases

A travel case is useful, and some manufacturers sell hard cases that are pre-configured to carry a Phantom, GoPro, and accessories. Some of my friends use the $209 Go Professional Phantom 2 or Phantom 2 Vision hard cases because they are sold ready to go. Personally, I use a $148 Nanuk 940 Case with Cubed Foam. It’s slightly larger and more flexibly, but you have to pluck out foam cubes to make space for the things you want to put inside of it (time-consuming!). I can fit a Phantom, gimbal, camera, controller, tools, FPV receiver and monitor, monitor sun shade, extra props, and 5 batteries in my case. Both work well.

The Duratool MJ-139-20.5 Weatherproof Tool Box, if you can find one, is around $40. The Duratool case has virtually the same internal dimensions as the Nanuk 940 and has cubed, pick-and-pluck foam. However, the cubed part of the foam doesn’t reach all the way down, so you have to cut any foam that you can’t pluck. The web says that the Duratool case is 11.5 lbs empty (unverified), so it’s heavier than is the Nanuk. It’s also extremely difficult to find, now.

You can also use older, Phantom 1 cases for the Phantom 2, but two differences make it difficult. First, the Phantom 2 has little foam shock absorbers on its feet, so it’s just a tiny bit taller than is the original Phantom. The props are also larger, making it a harder fit in older cases. These days, I remove the props when I put a Phantom 2 in my case. Luckily, it takes literally 5 seconds to remove or install a prop on the Phantom 2.

The $209 Go Professional case comes ready to carry your Phantom 2 and accessories.

Learning to Fly

The most important skill necessary for capturing aerial imagery is flying skill. You must have all of the controls under your fingertips, and that takes practice. As soon as you have to think during a hairy situation, you will likely crash and/or lose your quad. Even worse, you may hurt someone or damage property. Practice is the only way you will get better.

Because the Phantom is pretty big, you probably aren’t going to want to fly it indoors. If it is windy or raining, you also won’t want to fly. I recommend purchasing one or more toy quadcopters so you can practice inside. These toys are tiny, but fly exactly the same way larger quads fly. It’s also basically impossible to damage anything with one of these things.

Pretty much any “4-channel” RC helicopter will allow you to practice, but I recommend two toy quads in particular.

My top recommendation for an indoor learning quad is the the $90 Blade Nano QX, which weighs just over half an once and has built-in prop guards. You can bounce this thing off of walls and ceilings without damaging the props or the aircraft. It’s also available as a $70 BNF (“bind-and-fly”) version, which which will work with any DSM2-compatible Spektrum controller. I use a Spektrum DX8 DSMX Transmitter. It has enough memory to store settings for 30 models, and will work with any of the Blade RC helicopters. I also use this great protective case for the DX8 (for DX5/6/7/8).

The Blade Nano QX

You are also going to want a few extra $7 150mAh 1S 3.7V batteries for the Nano QX, and either a second $7 USB charger or a $35 4-port charger.

If you want to go cheaper, you can pick up a $36 Syma X1 Quadcopter. This little guy flies stably and is dirt cheap.

The Syma X1

Remember to buy extra batteries and props for the little practice quads. You will break props and want to fly longer than 5-10 minutes at a time!

Gimbals and Video Stabilization

Video taken from a quadcopter can be plagued with artifacts called “jello”—a shaking of the video from high-frequency vibrations originating in the motors and propellers. To prevent this, we balance propellers. The best way to learn how to do this is to watch YouTube videos. To balance props, you need a prop balancer. I use the Du-Bro 499 Tru-Spin Prop Balancer, which works well. Note that the Phantom 2’s props are unable to be balanced using traditional prop balancers because there is no way to get a rod all the way through the prop. In practice, this hasn’t been a big deal; they seem to be pretty-well balanced out of the box, and all gimbals incorporate built-in vibration isolators.

For really stable video, you’ll want to put your GoPro into a brushless gimbal. There are a ton of inexpensive gimbals out there that work well, including the Tarot T-2D (~$200). If you go with a third-party gimbal, you are going to need to do your own research to figure out how to install it. There are many installation videos on YouTube for just about every brand of gimbal.

The DJI Zenmuse H3-3D 3-axis brushless gimbal for GoPro is the gimbal I recommend. It is currently sold bundled with the Phantom 2, but they should be available separately in a month or two. In the meantime, the $349 DJI Zenmuse H3-2D Brushless Gimbal for Phantom 2 works out of the box with the Phantom 2 (not the Phantom 2 Vision). It is features 2-axis stabilization instead of the 3-axis stabilization the newer gimbal offers. Both are made for the GoPro HERO 3/3+, and plug right into an 8-pin cable that comes taped to the bottom of the Phantom 2. Installation time is less than 10 minutes.

The gimbals are a great deal when bundled with the Phantom 2. As of this article date, the 2-axis H3-2D gimbal is very hard to find in stock, and the H3-3D is not yet available as a stand-alone purchase.

The 2-axis Zenmuse H3-2D Brushless Gimbal for GoPro HERO3

For me, the best reason to use the DJI-branded gimbal is that the controller board is built into the main Phantom 2 board. This makes the DJI gimbal the lightest and lowest-profile gimbal for the Phantom 2. You can use the standard landing gear and have plenty of clearance for the gimbal and camera. Third-party gimbals require that you extend the landing gear, which is easily done, but is not ideal.

First Person View (FPV)

Once you’ve mastered flight and have a stable camera via a brushless gimbal, you’re ready for first-person view (FPV). By using a video transmitter on the quadcopter and a video receiver connected to a monitor or goggles, you can see exactly what the camera on your quadcopter is seeing, in real time. I won’t get into FPV components in this article, but you can reference an older post I wrote called DJI Phantom Quadcopter FPV Deconstruction. The parts in that article work, but these days, I use a $70 5.8 Ghz Boscam TS353 transmitter with a $200 Black Pearl 7” LCD with integrated 5.8 Ghz diversity receiver and battery. Installation on a Phantom 2 is dead simple, but you do need to solder to make it work. If you are going to extend your landing gear, I recommend this gear by simensays. Buy it, and standard 6mm carbon-fiber tubing, and you’re set.

Hobby Quadcopters

I learned to fly aggressively on the Witespy / Ready to Fly Quads “The Flip”, which costs $299 assembled from Paul Baxter.  It is pretty much indestructible, and if you buy it with a bunch of extra plastic props, it will last you a long, long time. The Flip has no GPS mode if you buy it stock, but it has a ton of power and is really fun to fly. You can buy it bundled and RTF with a Spektrum DX8 radio, which is a great controller. Note that Witespy’s version “ready to fly” is not really ready to fly. You should be technical and handy if you want a Flip.

I use a Futaba 14SG radio, which I really like. If you are technical and want the best deal and flexibility in radios, the FrSky Taranis is probably the way to go.

These are my recommendations for beginners as of now, but this hobby is changing really quickly. The hobby is exploding, and while most of the products emerging for hobbyists aren’t suitable for beginners, what happens there is starting to quickly trickle into polished products targeted at the mainstream (e.g., the Phantom). The $470 Blade 350 QX RTF is a Phantom clone—a polished quad with a GoPro mount. I’m glad that competition has arrived, but you never see anyone flying one. I won’t vouch for it. 3D Robotics is shipping the Iris, a mainstream quadcopter with autonomy in mind. It, and all 3D Robotics aircraft, harness the power of a huge, open-source software community.

These recommendations are likely to change every few months. If you have questions, please feel free to ask here on Skypixel, or contact me directly.

Happy flying!

See more of my aerial projects at my Vimeo channel.