Edit – just for sanity it is important to note that the terms builder, builder drone and drone building kit all mean the same thing and are used interchangeably in the post below!
Regardless of if you become a total drone obsessive and work your way through every drone becoming and expert builder along the way or if you just buy a low cost first drone and play with it once and never touch it again buying your first drone is something that is complicated and you will no doubt have a load of questions about everything from the brand and cost to the remote control transmitter and range. Everyone wants to make sure their first drone is the best one they can get for their budget so pause for a moment, come up with a price range for your first drone and then read on.
With all the complexities around the drone hobby it has been said may times that taking the first step is the most difficult and challenging part of the whole process. The average time between someone deciding they want to buy a drone and actually making the purchase is much longer than in most hobbies with the average time been in excess of two weeks, a large number of people actually talk themselves out of buying a drone at all and walk away when they realise how complex an arena they are playing in.
When buying your first drone it is common to research and then settle on a model but then to learn something about that model that puts you right off. No drone is right for everyone and that can mean you find negative reviews about perfectly good drones because someone else made the wrong decision and left an irresponsible review. That been said, take reviews on board when you are considering your options but if all the other data is pointing you in the direction of one drone don’t let a few bad reviews put you off (fly aways can be the result of a bad handler too despite people never wanting to admit their mistakes!).
The best advice you could have when buying your first drone is to draw up a shortlist and then not allow yourself to be distracted from it, create a shortlist and then look into those drones in detail before picking the option you like the look of.
RTF vs Builder (Drone Building Kits) To Build Or To Buy
To build or to buy, that is the question.
One of the first things you need to consider when buying a drone is if you want to go for the ready to fly option or would you rather build you own? This seems a strange question to a total novice who probably just wants to take a drone and fly it but the more people get into their drones the more they want to understand how they work and the components, this allows them to make their own modifications and tweaks. The build or buy question is really dependent on the type of person you are, do you enjoy making things, will flying a drone you put together yourself be rewarding to you or will taking the time to put it together just be an annoyance to you? If you are after instant fun and the kind of person who just wants to crack open the packaging and take to the skys you can eliminate anything that is not RTF from your shortlist before you even start writing it.
Building your own drone from a kit is going to, once you get over the initial pains associated with building, leave you with a much better understanding of how it actually works.
Repair and Replace
Putting your drone together yourself will mean you know what every part does, why every screw is where it is and why it is there. When the time comes to carry out a repair (and novice pilots often need to carry out repair work!), having built your own drone, you will be much more equip than your RTF counterparts.
When a part needs replacing, perhaps after a particularly brutal crash, you will quickly find that it can be hard to find parts for RTF drones whereas builder parts are much more frequently available. No matter how well people know their drones, just because of the difficulty sourcing parts, people with RTF models often find them sending them off for specialist repair or just discarding cheaper models in favor of buying a new one as the usual repairer of choice would be the manufacturer and quite often they are not based in the same country as the pilot.
On the plus site if you are in the same location as a drone repair center which your warranty will allow you to use and something does go wrong with your RTF drone you can just send it off for repair, no need to look at individual parts or try to work out what is broken. In some rare cases drone manufactures will diagnose faults with RTF drones over the phone and send out a replacement without requesting the return of the faulty unit, if the instances that this happens there is no easier way to get your drone (or replacement drone) into the sky…. But don’t count on getting a replacement without returning your drone every time it breaks, that is more the exception than the rule.
Do I Need A Camera Drone?
This is a simple question with a simple answer, YES! Most buyers guides you will read are really just padded out content and the answer to every question is basically “that’s up to you but here are some pros and cons of the options you are looking into. When it comes to flying a drone the only reason not to have a camera is if you are really trying to work on a budget. No one who has ever piloted a drone has been flying through the air and thought “I wish I went for the no camera option”. One of the most amazing things about the whole drone hobby is been able to see the world from a totally different perspective. Also, your camera drone could come in handy if you ever have a quick odd job that needs doing such as an inspection of the roof of your house. Saying that why would you need a job to justify taking a close up look at the roof of your house? Doesn’t it sound like a cool thing to just check out?
Seriously, unless you are buying a toy grade drone for a young child as a toy then go with a camera option.
It is worth saying that a camera can later be added to kit drones but not to RTF models.
Tuning And Tweaking
One area in which RFT undoubtable have the advantage is that they are very well tuned out of the box whereas builder drone usually require some tuning as one of the final stages of the build.
If you are a hands on type of person and would like to actually fine tune your drones, you guessed it, you will need to be working with a builder drone. Even attempting to tune or interfere with your RTF drone in any way could well invalidate the warranty.
Time To Upgrade
The bottom line on upgrades is that RTF models cannot really be upgraded, they are designed and built to fly out of the box and tampering with the drone will likely invalidate your warranty.
People new to drones might question if they would ever want to upgrade or modify drone, it might seem like the kind of thing an over the top hobbyist would do and totally unnecessary, however, consider the practicality and perhaps desire to add a camera to your drone – that would count as a modification.
If you are not sure if you will want a camera in the future but don’t need one to start with you will need to opt for a builder drone if you want to this to be a viable option, or you may get away with an NRTF.
It is not just cameras that you would be able to add, on builder drones you can swap out any component you want:
- Batteries (a RTF specific battery is usually at least double the price of a battery for a builder drone)
- Landing gear
- And of course as we already stated, cameras
Upgrading Your Drones Software
Drones, sort of like mobile phones, contain a load of different components that all have to work together and these components require software which is also known as firmware. You may have heard about people flashing the firmware on their mobile phones and a comparison could be made to drones.
You have more than likely installed an update on your mobile phone, upgrading a drone is a similar concept in theory but it will usually require you to connect the drone to your computer were as a phone can be upgraded as a standalone because they have their own Internet connection, who knows if in the future Internet of things drones will be “always on” and able to upgrade themselves? That would make thing a lot simpler.
For now a RTF drone is easier to carry out firmware updates on because the firmware is released by the manufacturer as a single update for each drone covering all components. You can even subscribe to be informed when upgrades come out for specific drones.
Drone kit or builder drones, especially if you have strayed from the given setup with a few customizations will require more effort to upgrade. You will find you need to upgrade the firmware related to each component within the drone.
The bottom line with firmware updates is that once you have done them once you wont have any problems doing them again, they are pretty standard but doing them the 1st time can be a little scary. Having to do them 1st time on 4+ different components is just 4x as scary but you will get there.
The Drone Community
Although the number of people interested in drone flying (and building) is growing it is still, at the time of writing a niche hobby. Generally speaking it is easier to find people and communities online around the RFT drones than it is for the builders. Builder drone communities do exist but they are relatively quiet. In our opinion there is still a lot of room for an authority drone community to make a footprint in cyberspace, maybe it is something we will look at doing in the future. If you would be interested in having a drone forum added to this site please leave a comment below, if there is enough interest then it might happen!
A good drone community is much more than just a place to shoot the breeze, there are lots of good forums such as:
If you have an issue with your drone or need help with anything, even choosing your first drone some one to one or one to many engagement on a forum can really help you make up your mind.
Speaking of forums, once you have drawn up your drone shortlist why not run it past some more experienced pilots on one of the forums above, or all of them?! You may even pick up a cheap used drone when you first signup.
A Bit Of A Summary Builder Drone vs Ready To Fly
The bottom line, any you might not see this written anywhere else, is that, generally a builder drone is going to be better:
- They are upgradable
- It is easier to carry out your own repairs
- You can customize them
- You will get more for your money
- You are more likely to make friends online with an RTF
The Ultimate Decision
People do like to make a case for RTF drones and there is definitely an appeal there especially for new pilots, however, our recommendation is that they are best avoided unless you are really buying the drone to use as a toy, the age of the person playing with it does not matter! So long as it is a toy and it will always be a toy go with a RTF unless the community aspect referred to above really appeals to you.
The upgradability of builder drones just adds so much flexibility and your if you go with a builder not only will you get a bit more for your money but you will also likely be able to keep your first drone and have it evolve with you on your drone journey as you want to do more creative and advanced things, many of our writers still use their first builder drones with customizations. Remember even adding a camera to an RTF that comes without one is impossible.
Regardless of which drone you opt for take good care of it, this may sound strange for such a new technology but one day your first drone could well become an antique.
Just How Hard Are Builder Drones/Drone Kits To Put Together?
Generally anyone with any sort of engineering or practical skills will have a huge advantage here but with a little patience any competent person should be able to assemble a drone from a drone building kit.
The best approach is a slow one, especially if you are building your first drone. You need to view the build process as part of the experience and not just something you want to get out of the way so that you can take to the sky.
As a total novice the best approach would be to view building and flying your drone for the first time as a weekend project:
- The week before the weekend on which you plan to start building sign up to an online drone community forum and introduce yourself, this will be your support network if and when things get tough,
- Open the builder kit on Friday night, have a quick look at everything and lay out the parts, examine everything but don’t start assembly. Plan to build the drone on Saturday,
- On Saturday take your time and work through the drone builder kit, put everything together and make sure your battery is charged. Once you have finished building make sure you test the drone takes off before telling yourself the job is done but show some restraint and don’t go out for a flight just yet.
Remember one rule, no rushing or stressing when it comes to building because building is as much a part of the fun as taking off for the first time.
- On Sunday you can take to the sky and call yourself a pilot.
Take time to read everything that comes in your builder kit but remember as you start to put the thing (or the fucking thing as they are often referred to after a few hours “building” with very little progress) together that building a drone, especially for the first time is just not an easy process.
Brace yourself for the worst-case scenario and if you do manage flight the same day you start building you will feel even better about yourself.
At the time of writing specialist long flight drones can maintain a flight time of 25 minutes but as discussed in several places on this site some low end toy grade drone have a flight time of 10-15 minutes. Note that when a manufacturer gives you a flight time of 15 minutes you will probably get less and people flying at high elevation will get even less time.
Because of the relatively short flight times (that feeling you get when your phone is on 10% battery and you know you need to charge it is nothing in comparison) you are advised to have at least 2 but probably 3 batteries when you go on a flying session.
This is another thing that plays into the hands of a drone kit or builder (read not a RTF). This is because you can pick up additional batteries for kit drones fairly cheaply, however, RTF drones have specialist battery requirements, often specific to the drone or the manufacturer and that means you usually end up paying at least double for a battery for a RTF vs a kit but prices for builder drones could be 3x or 4x what you expect to pay for the RTF equivalent.
But What About Your Second Drone?
Okay so this sections is made a little in jest but people really do outgrow their drones and this can happen really quickly.
Usually people outgrow a drone because they went for a basic toy grade FTF and quickly decided that wanted to add a camera, have more range or even longer flight times as lots of low end drones only have 10-20 minutes flight time in good conditions.
When you are ready to buy drone 2 you should be pretty confident and you are on your own this time around!
A Bit About Brands – What Is The Best Brand Of Drone
Even though the drone marketplace and droning hobby is still relatively new there are a lot of manufacturers out there although it would be difficult to say that there was a best brand of drone at the moment there are some serious contenders.Competition is good for any market if you are approaching it from a consumer or buyers perspective as an end user as it means
- Competition on prices
- More choice
- Quicker innovation
At this point its important to stress that this post, and this site in general has no loyalty to any brand in general. Every drone we test, every comment we make and every review out there is based on our experience with that drone and that drone alone, we review drones as it they were totally unbranded.
Most people have a favorite drone brand be it one they have had a good experience with or a brand they will stay away from but in reality you want to look for a drone that delivers what you want. Not everyone has to (nor does) agree on the best brand, in the next few days there will be a post on this site comparing drone manufacturers.