We’re hearing the word “drone” more and more in recent times, like Amazon’s plan to use these devices for shipping orders, and even at CES, where some models were presented. These devices cover the full spectrum of prices, with models and kits which go well over the $1000 mark (with professional models going for over $3000), but as with most consumer electronics, there are many budget alternatives to consider.
If you’re new to the world of RC gadgets, then you should know that a drone is typically a UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle) which have some level of autonomy or can be remote controlled. However, drones are not restricted only to the aerial environment, but can also be submersibles or land-based. To differentiate the drones we’re referring to, from cheap toys you can find in any store, you should know that these devices are more expensive and have better performance as well as much more powerful and complex components and in some cases, can work autonomously, without any interference from a pilot.
What are Drones good for?
Drones are in all manner of speaking awesome. They fly, swim or drive and they can do this on their own. Many models have their own AI which acts as an autopilot, but they can be remotely controlled by the user. Drone enthusiasts have found many uses for these gadgets, such as aerial photography or aerial surveillance (underwater exploration for models which operate in this medium) . In terms of research, they can be the focus of students or hard-core programmers who want to make them fully autonomous and experiment with different programs to make them fly better.
But for regular users, the bottom line for these gadgets is that they’re fun. They can make excellent gifts for both kids and adults.
Where to Buy Cheap Drones?
No matter what type of drone you’re looking for, there are a number of online stores from which you can buy some pretty cheap models. Of course, performance is reduced with the price, but if you’re new in this area, buying a cheap model for starters would be a good idea.
Amazon - Amazon offers a wide variety of drones, and depending on the cash you’re willing to part ways with, you’ll most likely find some great models.
HobbyKing – One of the best places to find drones of any kind as well as all the components needed to build your own designs.
Helipal - Similar to HobbyKing, Helipal offers its users both fully built drones as well spare parts and components for DIY lovers.
Kickstarter / Indiegogo – These two crowdfunding sites are increasingly seeing a surge in number of affordable drone projects. We are listing some of them at the end of this article, but do keep an eye on these sites.
Cheap Drones to buy
Walkera QR X350
The bigger brother of the Infra X, the Walkera QR X350 is an awesome looking drone capable of holding a GoPro camera for aerial photography. The drone is very fast and maneuverable, making it perfect for a wide variety of environments. Included with the drone is the DEVO 7 transmitter and at the time of this writing, Helipal is offering an extra battery and a charger for free when buying the Walkera QR X350 drone. But before you buy this gadget, keep in mind that it is designed to be used by experienced users.
Walkera QR Infra X
If you’re interested in drones but never had one, a perfect beginner model is the Infra X drone from Walkera. This little device is perfect for indoor use and thanks to its Crash Avoidance System which allows the drone to dodge obstacles and stay clear of walls and other objects in its way. This small device is powered by a 900 mAh battery and with it, you will find the DEVO 4 transmitter in the box.
The cheapest drone on our list is the little HEX Airbot. After successfully completing their Kickstarter campaign, the team went strait into production and anyone can now order one of the two models. The best thing about this design is that users can use it for other drones than the default one. All they need is some creativity and they can transfer the “brain” of the unit to any other drone, such as a plane, car or anything else. For aerial photography, there is a WiFi model available for $159 which is still very cheap compared to other drones.
Price: Starts from $49
STORM Drone 4
If you’re more into aerial photography, then the Storm Drone 4 is one of the best cheap drones you can find. It allows users to mount a GoPro camera on the drone and fly it around so they can take awesome pictures or shoot HD video. It’s powered by a 2200 mAh battery capable of keeping the drone in the air for 6-8 minutes, which in drone time, is pretty decent. Also, the price includes the DEVO 7 AR Transmitter used to pilot the drone.
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
Probably the best known drone of all, the Parrot AR.Drone’s design is great for both indoor and outdoor use. The device is flexible, allowing users to customize it as he wants and it is controllable via a smartphone app. It has a range of 165 ft and the pilot has a front seat to what the drone sees via the integrated 720p camera which can also record video and take still shots.
Crowdfunded Drone Projects
As we mentioned before, Kickstarter and Indiegogo are a great resource to find affordable drones. Below are some of the projects which caught our interest so far. Some of them are in funding stage, while others are already funded. Go to the developer site to get more details.
Touted as the world’s first multicopter that’s powerful enough to carry a high quality action camera and folds up smaller than a 7in tablet, Pocket Drone is a perfect fit for amateur videographers who wants to try aerial shots. One can pledge right now for $445 with expected delivery in June 2014.
Ziphius is the only non-aerial drone in our list. This app-controlled aquatic drone plays augmented reality games and shows autonomous behaviors. You can get one starting from $199.
Technically, this is not a drone, but a smartphone controlled paper airplane. At $40, this can be a great alternative for an aerial drone. Clearly, one of our favorites here.
Not satisfied with commercial models? DIY is the solution
If you’re not quite happy with commercially available drones, for any reason whatsoever, you can always build your own, to your exact specifications. Although this way isn’t for the faint-hearted, as you will have to spend some time learning how such a device works, calculate all the different parameters, such as motor power, weight or propeller length and more, as well as putting it all together like a very complex jigsaw puzzle.
Starting building drones can be somewhat difficult, and depending how complex is your design, different skills may be required. For instance, creating an autonomous drone will require users to know how to use small factor computers, like the Raspberry Pi or Arduino, and to posses some wicked programming skills for writing the drone’s program. Nevertheless, with time and dedication, this can be achieved.
Obtaining the hardware required isn’t that hard, as there are lots of stores which stock these components. Just to give you an example, here are some examples:
Tutorials are a great way to see what designs are most successful, as well as getting some tips on how is the easiest/best way to build a drone. Another important factor to consider when looking at DIY solutions is the price, and if you’re more interested in powerful, high-tech drones with specialized purposes, building it on your own will have you a pile of money.