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The Lowdown on High-Flying Drones

Curious about drones? This basic guide will help you understand this growing category in consumer tech.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

I hate to crush your “Top Gun” dreams, but there are some things you’ll want to consider before you buy a drone.

Sure, the latest drones are are a far cry from the unmanned military aircraft that ominously patrol the skies. They’re no longer the ultra-geeky toys that hobbyists build from scratch. Instead, they’re now lightweight, ready to go out of the box, relatively inexpensive and controllable using the smartphone in your pocket.

In fact, 16 self-identified drone companies showed off devices at this year’s International CES in Las Vegas — compared with four at the 2014 CES. And that’s just a portion of the field.

But, what can you do with these things? How do they work? Aren’t there Federal Aviation Administration limits on what you can do with them and where they can fly? How do they get fixed? When will magical drones start dropping packages on my doorstep? And how safe — or dangerous — are they? (I found out firsthand.)

This week, I rounded up answers to these questions and some other basic information to help you learn more about drones.

Design basics

Most personal drones are quadcoptors, a fancy term you can casually drop at your next party as one buzzes past and takes a photo of you and your friends. This means that four rotors lift and move the drone, giving it stability and making it relatively easy to fly.

3D Robotics Iris+
3D Robotics Iris+

Some drones come in mini sizes that fit in your hand, while others measure more than 20 inches long. Their aerodynamic bodies encourage lighter weights, like one I tried that weighed less than a pound. But some are still hefty, at close to seven pounds. They come in a variety of colors, including some that can be modified and changed for fun.

But don’t be fooled: Flying one of these things isn’t as easy as you might expect, and it can be harder depending on the model you’re using.

Some drones work with a remote control with tactile buttons, allowing you to operate the drone without looking down. But others connect to your smartphone or tablet and use an app as the drone’s remote control. While this is a more convenient solution, it can be challenging because you can’t feel different buttons or controls on a glass screen.

I downloaded Parrot’s FreeFlight 3 app to fly the company’s latest drone, the $500 Bebop. This app not only serves as the remote control, but also displays live footage directly from the drone’s camera on your screen — in my case, an iPhone. I had trouble figuring out whether to look up at the drone to make sure it didn’t fly into me or down at the screen to see what it was looking at.

In this particular attack of the drones, I lost: The sweet-sounding Bebop nearly flew into my head before I held up a hand to knock it down. I was left with a cut and bruised finger.

Fun while it lasts

Drones use up a lot of energy in a short amount of time. While some just fly, many of them simultaneously take photos or videos, which are being sent back to another device. Some plug into your phone’s GPS to follow you as you walk along (because that’s not creepy at all, right?). And they continuously connect to apps or handheld remote controls, known as flight controllers or ground stations in personal-drone lingo.

I looked at eight personal drone models from eight different companies, and found that battery life ranged around just 18 to 25 minutes for each device. The Parrot Bebop battery, which lasts for up to 22 minutes, takes an hour to charge. That said, you’ll probably want to buy a drone that comes with an extra battery — or at least look to buy a spare.

Flying within limits

Before you send your flying spy camera off the ground, familiarize yourself with some FAA guidelines, found here. Several of the companies I interviewed have drones that abide by the 400-foot ceiling limit, which stops them from flying above that height.

Yuneec Electric Aviation

Yuneec Electric Aviation, a company at which nearly all of the senior executives are pilots, goes a step further. Its personal drones, including the latest $1,300 Q500 Typhoon model, have a built-in No Fly Database that prevents them from flying within five miles of an airport. And this is turned on by default, not as a mode that you switch into, like some other models.

Regulations vary from state to state. If you’re curious as to whether your state has made any decisions in this arena, check this map. (Yellow means the state has unmanned aircraft systems laws in place.)

What goes up must come down

Keep in mind that if you buy a drone, you’re likely to be paying for some drone repairs in your future. Several drone models are designed with durability in mind, aiming to help prevent excessive repairs. Some have soft rotors that protect the body of the aircraft if you slam it into your neighbor’s fence while taking photos of his new pool. Parrot’s Rolling Spider and Jumping Sumo drones have wheels on their sides that help them move– but also protect them from debilitating crashes.

Repairs could cost very little if, say, you just needed to buy a $6.99 screw or a $11.99 propeller. But something like a new flight recorder could cost several hundred dollars.

 Parrot Jumping Sumo
Parrot Jumping Sumo
Vjeran Pavic for Re/code

Most people won’t know what their drone needs, and will have to get the company to look at it first. This means shipping fees to and from the company, then shipping fees to a different place if repairs aren’t done on-site, as well as the cost of the parts themselves. These repairs could add up to be as much as or more than the drone itself.

So, as you consider a drone model, also consider the company’s repair policies, including where your drone will be sent for repairs, or if the company does this kind of thing in-house. If it’s the former, you could be waiting for shipping to and from China. If it’s the latter, the company may have parts ready for repairs — or might have to send away for them.

BYO camera

There’s a lot to be said for a drone that works out of the box with its own built-in camera. This camera has likely been designed with the drone in mind, like the image stabilization found in Parrot’s Bebop camera, and the Yuneec Q500’s three-axis gimbal that rotates the drone’s camera around to see various angles.

Olivia Merrion for Re/code

Some, but not all, of the drones from 3D Robotics come with cameras. Those that don’t, including the $750 Iris+, are optimized for GoPro cameras. This could be an extra hassle for people who don’t want to buy yet another device. On the other hand, the GoPro camera can be used on its own when it’s not being used with the drone.

At least one drone, the palm-sized Zano, zips into the sky to look back at you and take a selfie — or “dronie,” as the cool kids are calling it. This method is much more impressive than using a selfie stick.

___

As for Amazon’s Prime Air, a drone service that the company wants to use for same-day package delivery, don’t hold your breath. Amazon is waiting for regulatory support to go ahead with its grand vision.

Package deliveries by drone aside, will people find real-life use cases for them? I think drones have become much cooler, and less confusing, in a relatively short time. But there are still barriers to using them, as laid out above, and you need a large space in which to fly them. Half the time, I was terrified of my own drone — and it turned out I had reason to be.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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