So, you want to buy a mini drone, or better yet, you’re looking to start a drone program. You’ve done your research, talked with local experts and seen how effective drones are at bringing STEM to elementary learners — you’re ready to lift-off. But, there’s a problem. Drones operate on an entirely different technological plane, and you’ve only begun scratching at the surface of what’s available to you. With a brand new language, cutting-edge technologies and lots of moving parts, it’s hard to know where to start when you’re starting off on your drone journey. And that’s okay! You have countless questions about where to begin or what’s going to be the best for you and your students, and we’ve got your answers.
The Mini Drone Buyers Guide is your master key to unlocking the skies.
Brushed vs. Brushless Motors
With the number of drones on the market, it’s hard to narrow down exactly what fits, and doesn’t fit, your needs. One of the easiest ways to split your choices down the middle is by separating by the types of motors available — Brushed or Brushless.
Brushless motors are typically meant for experienced piloting and outdoor flight, while brushed are designed for indoor use.
If you’re just starting out or you’ve got a fleet of novice pilots chomping at the bit, it’s best to start with brushed motors. As your beginners won’t yet have the piloting ability to harness all the power available from a brushless motor, start out with brushed. They’re lighter on your pocketbook and still provide the same exciting STEM experience.
If you’re an experienced pilot, brushless motors are the stronger choice, but they’re also a bit more costly, with your money translating to more available and sustained power during outdoor flights.
For those interested, the advanced differences, provided by Think RC, behind Brushed vs. Brushless Motors are:
A Brushed Motor has a rotating set of wound wire coils(armature) which acts as an electromagnet with two poles. A mechanical rotary switch(commutator) reverses the direction of the electric current twice every cycle, to flow through the armature so that the poles of the electromagnet push and pull against the permanent magnets on the outside of the motor. As the poles of the armature electromagnet pass the poles of the permanent magnets, the commutator reverses the polarity of the armature electromagnet. During the instant of switching polarity, inertia keeps the motor going in the proper direction.
A Brushless Motor uses a permanent magnet external rotor, three phases of driving coils, one or more devices to sense the position of the rotor, and the associated drive electronics. The coils are activated, one phase after the other, by the electronic speed controller as cued by the signals from the rotor position sensors.
After you’ve separated your choices by the type of motor you’re interested in, you need to next consider the safety of your pilots. Mini drones as small, but their propellers move quickly, and at top speed, they can leave you with quite a stinger. To protect new pilots, drone manufacturers have started including prop guards along the outer perimeter of their drone propellers. These prop guards act as a barrier, protecting pilots from any collateral damage during a crash.
On the market today, you can find drones with, without and with detachable prop guards. The drones included in Ready, Set, Drone! Camp set safety as the highest priority, so they come ready-to-fly with easily attachable and detachable prop guards.
For your classroom, the deciding factor on whether or not your drone should have this built-in safety feature is dependent on the expertise of your pilots. If they’re brand new or flying indoors, prop guards are a must. If they’re upgrading to high-speed racing drones, the prop guards can stay on the workbench.
There are tons of safety features available, especially with the high-end drones. Take the time to see exactly what you’re getting and weigh those options against your classroom. But, ultimately, your prop guard decision comes down to this:
If you’re just getting started, prop guards are a must.
- Ideal for beginners
- Propeller protection
- Less time & money spent replacing props
- Slower performance
- Not ideal for racing
- Added weight means less maneuverability and faster battery usage
Another angle to consider with your drone choice is the type of material the drone is made of. It might seem like a no-brainer, but the material that makes up your drone has a lot of impact on its performance, and your wallet. For mini drones, your two biggest choices are going to be between plastic and carbon fiber.
- Easy to replace
- Ideal for beginners
- More expensive
- Ideal for racing
- Intended for high performance
Along with prop guards, your material choice comes down to how you or your classroom intends to utilize the mini drone. If you’re looking for a high-performance racing machine, carbon fiber is the obvious choice. If you want to explore the skies for the first time, plastic is probably your best choice.
After you’ve decided on the motors, frame material and prop guard options, it’s time to dive a little deeper into what the drones can provide you.
Some of the most common features available on the market are:
- Take photos or record video.
- Experience a birds-eye-view with First-Person View through FPV goggles or video displays.
- Does the drone require some form of manual configuration before it’s ready to fly? Or is it ready to fly as soon as you power up your equipment?
- Some are capable of autonomous flight and mission planning while others operate solely off manual input from the pilot.
You’ll also want to keep an eye out for drones that shave off precious preparation time and save you from hidden costs by including add-ons like:
- Radio Controller
- Extra Batteries
- Battery Charger
- Extra Props - lots of them
- Any tools needed
By finding the right package now, you’re saving yourself time and money down the road.
If you’re looking for a drone that flies First-Person View (FPV), take into consideration the additional items you’ll need to make it happen. Does the drone come with goggles or a video display? What would it cost to assemble these tertiary devices? If you’re looking for a drone that is ready to go, right out of the box, make sure it does just that!
Another difference in feature to consider is how you intend to teach with the drone. If the lessons are meant to be a tool for coding, you’ll want a drone that’s programmeable. If you’re looking to teach piloting skills and UAV technology, a ready-to-fly FPV drone is your best bet.
Part 15, FAA and FCC considerations
One thing that a lot of beginner pilots don’t consider are the laws surrounding drone flight. Drones fly by communicating with their radio controller and transmitting video feed from their camera, which means their operation is under control of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), primarily concerning Part 15 which regulates radio frequency devices — by controlling how, when and where radio devices can be used, the FCC can stop unlawful and accidental interference.
So what do you need to know about your drone choice to make sure you’re not breaking any laws?
- Is your drone Part 15 Certified? Most commercial drones are already FCC certified, but if yours isn’t, you’ll need to look into acquiring your ham radio license. For more information, visit: http://www.modelaircraft.org/files/FPVFCC.pdf
The drone laws in your area. These laws vary from state to state, and even county to county, so it’s best to review any local laws before taking flight. The federal drone guidelines say:
For more information on flying lawfully, head to http://knowbeforeyoufly.org/
Note: If you’re flying inside, you won’t need to register with the AMA or notify air traffic control when you’re flying. Drones that weigh less than .55lbs aren’t required to be registered with the FAA.
Along with FCC compliance, you’ll want to consider how your drone communicates with its radio. Drones can transmit either digital or analog data, which has a big effect on your experience as a pilot.
- Transmission via WiFi isn’t just inexpensive to produce, but also affordable to implement because almost every person on the internet has a smartphone or tablet, which can be used as digital drone controllers.
- Not the greatest range
- Holds a small lag between what the drone sees and what you see
- Preferred by hobbyists and professionals
- Less latency
- Improved range
- Can require purchasing of additional gear, such as radio controllers and FPV goggles designed for drone piloting
~Dronewallah, Drone Arena
The simplest way to learn how your drone transmits is by looking at how you control it. if your drones use a smartphone or tablet as a controller or FPV monitor, it's probably operating over wifi. If your drone has a radio controller and FPV goggles, it's probably analog.
There’s a lot more to choosing your mini drone than just sticker shopping. From the drone’s functionality and design to its safety features and broadcast frequencies, your drone package needs to fit your needs to a T.
Will your choice provide students with the best drone experience possible?
To continue being on the front line of the Mini Drone Revolution, tune into the completely free Ready, Set, Drone! Webinar on January 31st!
ARC Advisory Group, Sinotech. (2014, June 17). BLDC Motors vs. Brush DC Motors. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from https://www.infographicsarchive.com/bldc-motors-vs-brush-dc-motors-understanding-differences/
Drone Arena, D. (2016, March 15). WiFi FPV vs 5.8GHz FPV vs 2.4GHz FPV: Ultimate Guide. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from http://www.rcdronearena.com/2016/03/15/wifi-fpv-vs-5-8ghz-fpv-vs-2-4ghz-fpv-explained/
Techno FAQ. (2017, January 18). Brushed vs Brushless Motors: A Beginner's Guide. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from https://technofaq.org/posts/2017/01/brushed-vs-brushless-motors-a-beginners-guide/
Think RC. (n.d.). Brushed vs Brushless Motors. Retrieved January 16, 2018, from http://www.thinkrc.com/faq/brushless-motors.php