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Best of 2015: Notable Quadcopters and Drones

         

Although it was in 2013 that radio-controlled multi-copters really became something more than a highly niche hobbyist pursuit, 2015 was arguably the year of the drone. Not only was there a blooming of new models but, as the year closes, we are finally starting to see some clarity regarding where UAVs stand legally, and whether they can be used commercially. In particular, this year we’ve seen a lot of great innovation targeting the videographer—professional and hardcore amateur alike. This includes improvements to flight-control software in ways that benefit the shooter, as well as significant strides forward in acquisition hardware—gimbals and airborne cameras.

Though drones come in all shapes in sizes—gliders, planes, helis—the sweet spot this year by far was quadcopters in the size range of 350 or slightly larger—the perfect size, it turns out, for transporting a GoPro along with motorized gimbal. While a GoPro is pretty much an ideal companion for a compact aircraft, this year has seen quite a number of proprietary camera offerings, especially aerial-specific “gimbal cameras.” These hybrids meld the camera—usually with action camera-comparable specs—with a perfectly matched 3-axis gimbal to create a unified system. Gimbal cameras benefit the user by integrating camera control with the rest of the flight control system, in most cases supported an app for live monitoring and changing settings beyond those available on the controller (transmitter in RC lingo) itself.

Yuneec GB603 Gimbal for Panasonic GH4

Ground station software, a technology once exclusive to an elite subset of enthusiasts, has reached the general population this year. Ground station software typically allows you to plan autonomous “missions.” Mission courses are defined on a map or over a satellite image via pushpins called “waypoints.” In flight, the software provides a view for real-time telemetry data, and often waypoints can be updated or the drone can be recalled prematurely. For camera-equipped drones, the ground station may additionally support a video feed. To use, in most cases, you simply need to link up an Android or iOS tablet to USB or a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi extender on the controller. Tethering a laptop to bulky, power-hungry transceiver equipment is a thing of the past. Many controllers—more than just dumb transmitters—even have Android-based ground station devices built in.

Mid-size quads aren’t the whole story, of course. For the hobby and general consumer base, we have seen some of the smallest drones yet, with nano scale drones, such as the UDI RC U839, pushing miniaturization ever further. And for the spendy: several new, mostly ready-to-fly cinematography UAVs have entered the space—in particular, gimbal maker Freefly’s Alta Hexa-copter.

An offshoot of the RC hobby sector is racing quads. The benefit of multi-rotors over fixed wing is vertical takeoff and landing and the ability to hover, while stability and ease of flying is their benefit, compared to helis. Generally, these features mean multi-rotors aren’t breaking any speed records. But in spite of initial stigma, respect for quad pilots is rapidly growing on the racing circuit. To accommodate entrants into this new genre—Walkera with the Runner 250, Blade with the Mach 25, and ImmersionRC with the Vortex—each introduced offerings this year for those who want a complete racing starter kit rather than a complete DIY build.

Let’s turn now and take a look back at some of the hottest drones to come out this year.

DJI

From DJI, we saw a bunch of new models; to start, the all-new Inspire 1. Though announced in late 2014, shipping began early in 2015. Featuring the Zenmuse X3 gimbal camera, the Inspire 1 was one of the first quadcopters to offer what might be considered a profession-grade dedicated camera system. And it was the first period to offer a 4K aerial camera. It also led the way in bringing full ground station access to quadcopters. The Inspire 1 takes DJI’s Lightbridge system, with control and an HD video downlink in addition to the ground station stuff, and scales it down so that the ground-end hardware packs in a controller about size of the Phantom’s controller. To use the ground station features, a tablet connects via USB to the controller, avoiding the inconstancy of a Wi-Fi extender. While the tablet itself can show a video feed, there is also an HDMI port on the controller for a dedicated monitor or FPV goggles. A second controller can even be employed, dedicated to camera and gimbal operation.

The Inspire 1 features retractable landing gear, affording the 3-axis gimbal an unobstructed view in every direction. Furthermore, the Inspire 1 introduced DJI’s Vision Positioning technology, a proprietary optical flow implementation that is augmented by ultrasonic sonar. With Vision Positioning, autonomous flying is possible when the Inspire 1 is close to the ground and GPS is unavailable.

DJI Inspire 1 Quadcopter

For the prosumer and enthusiast, the iconic Phantom line got a refresh with the Phantom 3 Professional and Advanced, released in the spring. The company introduced Lightbridge’s app-based HD monitoring technology, a new high-resolution gimbal camera, and Vision Positioning to the Phantom series. The Professional shoots 4K video, while the Advanced is limited to 1080p60. Both take 12MP still photos.

DJI Phantom 3 Professional Quadcopter with 4K Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal

But a whole new series of quad plus two new Phantoms wasn’t nearly enough. A third Phantom was revealed over the summer, the Phantom 3 Standard. In many ways, it can be seen as an update to the Phantom 2 Vision+, the camera receiving a boost in resolution from Full HD to 2.7K video. It’s a no-frills option for getting great video and photos. Unlike the Phantom 3 Professional and Advanced, there is no Lightbridge integration, nor Vision Positioning. In place of Lightbridge’s all-digital, HD-capable feed, the Phantom 3 Standard features an SD 2.4G Wi-Fi video feed for monitoring on a mobile device. There is a separate 5.8G control signal. 5.8G avoids interference with the 2.4G signal the app uses, but is a more directional signal, resulting in reduced effective range compared to what you typically see with controllers that use 2.4G radios. 

DJI Phantom 3 Standard with 2.7K Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal

Though not new aircraft, a couple of other DJI products are worth noting—two new gimbal cameras for the Inspire 1 sporting Micro Four Thirds sensors and compatible with select MFT prime lenses. They are the Zenmuse X5, which shoots H.264-compressed 4K, and  the Zenmuse X5R, which adds CinemaDNG raw video plus SSD recording to accommodate the monstrous bit-rates of 4K RAW. At the moment, the cameras work with the Panasonic Lumix 15mm f/1.7, DJI’s own version of the same lens, and the Olympus M. ED 12mm f/2.0 lens. Since it would be great to use your investment for more than just aerial shots, the Osmo Handle Kit conveniently converts a Zenmuse gimbal camera—including the original X3 model—into a handheld, fully stabilized micro rig. There is also a complete Osmo system that includes a black version of the X3 camera, which features closer close-focusing than the white X3 model included with the Inspire 1.

DJI Zenmuse X5 Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal with 15mm f/1.7 Lens


3DR (3D Robotics)

In time for the NAB convention, 3DR brought to the fold the Solo. Committed to making a solution for the GoPro, 3DR designed its new quadcopter around a 3-axis gimbal for a GoPro HERO3+ or HERO4. Solo distinguishes itself by offering several highly video-centric intelligent autopilot features. These include Cable Cam for easily creating aerial tracking shots, and Selfie Mode, which starts close on the subject, pulling back for a dramatic reveal. It also features subject tracking and Orbit Mode, features not unique to the Solo, but quite useful all the same. Solo is also the first and, so far, only platform that supports direct control of a GoPro via its controller. This means you can start and stop recording and change camera settings in flight.

3DR Solo Quadcopter (No Gimbal)


Blade

Blade brought us a new quadcopter, the Chroma. The Chroma comes bundled either with the 4K CGO3 gimbal camera, the Full HD CGO2+ gimbal camera, or sans camera for those preferring to use a GoPro. It features Blade’s latest intelligent flight control system, SAFE Plus. SAFE is a well-known, widely used Blade technology designed to make it safe and easy for beginners to get started flying, while politely stepping out of the way to let experienced pilots get the most from their hardware. With SAFE Plus, when using the Chroma with the optional ST-10+, a controller/ground station hybrid with 5.5" screen, Follow Me subject tracking mode can be enabled. The ST-10+ is included in select bundles for those looking for a ready-to-fly package. Alternatively, there is a BNF (Bind-n-Fly), camera-free bundle perfect for those with an existing Spektrum DSMX transmitter to pair it with.

BLADE Chroma Camera Drone with CGO3-GB 4K Camera and ST-10+ Ground Station (RTF)

Meanwhile, on the racing front, Blade is breaking the sound barrier with the Mach 25. A 250-size racing quad, the Mach 25 features a DSMX receiver for use with a range of BNF transmitters and includes a 25mw FPV camera. The camera is a perfect companion for a headset like the Fat Shark Teleporter V4. It comes fully assembled, and is housed in an aerodynamic shell with multi-colored LEDs to make it stand out from the crowd.

Spektrum Teleporter V4 Video Headset with Head Tracking

On the compact quadcopter side, Blade released two notable additions this year, the Glimpse and Inductrix. The Inductrix styles itself as a beginner quad, with integrated propeller guards and LED orientation indicators to light up the night. The Glimpse is a notch up in size, and incorporates a 720p / 1MP flight camera with microSD recording. Both quads are available in RTF configuration with basic transmitter included, or BNF for those with an existing Spektrum transmitter to use.

Yuneec

Yuneec extended the Typhoon series, its quadcopter flagship. Sharing many technologies with Blade, including SAFE, the Typhoon Q500 4K incorporates Yuneec’s version of the CGO3 camera gimbal and comes ready to fly with the ST-10+ smart controller. This controller is more of an all-in-one tool, boasting an integrated Android device and 5.5" screen for ground station and live monitoring. Not to neglect the GoPro user, Yuneec offers the Typhoon G. Thanks to the ST-10+, subject tracking is possible whether using one of the CGO cameras or a GoPro.

YUNEEC Q500 4K Typhoon Quadcopter with CGO3-GB Camera, Steady Grip, and Camera Aluminum Case (RTF)

To help you get shots from land as great as ones in the air, the SteadyGrip accessory handle is a must, whether you are using a CGO camera or Yuneec’s GoPro gimbal. A smartphone holder means monitoring is no problem.

Targeting the higher end of the market, Yuneec released the six-rotor Tornado. This hexa-copter is suitable for flying a compact mirrorless camera with a short prime lens—a perfect option for Panasonic GH4 shooters. For stabilization, the company offers the GB603 3D gimbal separately for a Panasonic GH4. The gimbal includes 5.8G video transmitter, a smartphone clip, and a SteadyGrip handle for terrestrial use.

YUNEEC Tornado H920 Hexa-Copter with ST24 Transmitter 


Hubsan

Hubsan wants to be known for more than just palmable nano-quads and toy helicopters. The H109S X4 Pro is a 370-sized quadcopter for GoPro users, or is available with Hubsan’s own 1080p action camera. For ground station access, it is available bundled with an Android-based 7" touch screen controller. There is also a conventional “FPV” controller with analog 5.8G video receiver where all you need is monitoring but not mission planning or other ground station functionality. There are two body configurations; the HE, featuring longer legs to accommodate a 3-axis gimbal, and the LE, with short legs, for use with a static camera mount or without a camera.

HUBSAN X4 Pro High Edition Quadcopter with 1080p Camera and 3-Axis Gimbal

For the enthusiast not filming or snapping picks, Hubsan came out with the H109 X4. It sports a similar body style to the H109S X4 Pro, minus the landing skids, which aren’t needed since it won’t be carrying a camera payload. It comes ready to fly with a 4-channel transmitter.

HUBSAN X4 Pro Low Edition Quadcopter with 1080p Camera and 1-Axis Gimbals


Walkera

Walkera’s Scout X4 is currently one of the few GoPro/action camera-carrying drones to feature retractable landing gear. Different bundles are available. In the most complete configuration, you receive an FPV controller, BT datalink for ground station, 5.8G video downlink, and a 3D GoPro gimbal. There is also an option for the iLook+ 1080p action camera for those not using a GoPro.

Walkera RUNNER 250 Racing Quadcopter with Camera and OSD (RTF)

Walkera entered the racing market this year with the RUNNER 250. A modular design philosophy with an industrial feel, this quad is about maximizing speed while cutting weight wherever possible. It is available bundled with the DEVO 7 transmitter and features a 5.8G FPV camera. There is also a damped camera platform for a third-party action camera, such as a GoPro. Headlights and tail lights mean you’ll have no trouble telling your nose from your tail, even in the heat of a race.

xFold

XFold is a new kid on the block, and has the professional squarely in mind. For the high-end cinema production, the company offers two highly configurable multi-rotor platforms: the Dragon and Cinema. They come in a number of bundles, and work in both x8 and x12 rotor configurations, giving you lots of flexibility to adapt, depending on factors such as desired payload capacity and top speed. At the larger end of the UAV scale, these platforms are ideal for DSLRs, mirrorless cameras, and compact cinema cameras like the Red EPIC. 

xFold Cinema x12 Multi-Rotor (RTF, U7 Motor)


Freefly

Freefly got its start making the renowned MoVI gimbal stabilizer for DSLRs and cinema cameras, so it’s only natural the company decided there should be a drone to go with it. The Alta features Freefly's proprietary Toad in the Hole mounting system, allowing you to transition camera and gimbal quickly from aircraft to handheld shooting. The Alta notably allows the gimbal to be mounted top or bottom for some truly unique perspectives.  

FREEFLY MOVI M5 3-Axis Motorized Gimbal Stabilizer


Hobby Zone

For something that isn’t a ’copter at all, consider the hobbyist-oriented Sport Cub S. This scale replica of a Cub Crafters Sport Cub is a fixed-wing electric airplane that is available FPV-ready or kitted out with the Spektrum VA1100 wireless camera and Fat Shark Teleporter V4 FPV Headset with head-tracking technology. The Sport Cub S features Blade SAFE technology with panic and recovery modes to help you out of a pinch.

Hobby Zone Sport Cub S with SAFE Technology (RTF)


ImmersionRC

The Vortex Race Quad from ImmersionRC aims to satiate your need for speed. A slim carbon fiber frame with injected plastic parts keeps weight down, which translates to more power pushing the quad forward. Since FPV is essential to really put you in the driving seat, a 40-Channel, 5.8 GHz video transmitter is included.

ImmersionRC Vortex Race Quad with 5.8 GHz Video Transmitter


Estes

The Proto X FPV from Estes is a ready-to-fly mini quad that features a complete FPV system. A live feed from its camera can be viewed on the controller’s 4.5" screen. Plus, there is an SD card, so you can make a 720p HD quality record to show off to friends or share online. Beginner and expert flight modes make it great for fliers of all skill levels, and you can perform flips at the touch of a button.

Estes Proto-X FPV Quadcopter


Riviera

The Riviera 32" Shuttle Cam Helicopter is a dual main rotor helicopter with an integrated HD camera for recording your aerial adventures. It comes ready to fly with a 2.4 GHz, 4-channel transmitter and offers fully proportional servos.

Riviera 32" Shuttle Cam Helicopter (Purple)


UDI RC

Offering some serious RC fun, there’s UDI RC’s nano quad, the U839. Ready-to-fly with all you need, it includes a controller and USB-rechargeable battery. Beginner and expert flight modes make it great for all skill levels.

UDI RC U839 Nano Quadcopter (Green)

With so many new drones to come out this year, one can only hope to scrape the surface. These are just a few of the highlights. One thing is sure: wherever your interests lie, if taking to skies sounds like a tempting prospect, there is sure to be something that fills the bill, from Riviera’s conventional 32" heli to the latest in autonomous flying from the 3DR’s Solo. If you're curious and would like to learn more, the aerial imaging section of the B&H website is a great place to start.

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Thank you for such a great article on all the drones out there. I really love the yuneec Q500 Typhoon and am looking to buy one for myself very soon.

Lots of good info here, but I'd really like to know how they stack up and rate against each other (separated by class of course)

While I appreciate the thoughtful and extensive review of every different drone and quadcopter model known to man, a "Best Of/Comparison Chart" for each category would have been EXTREMELY helpful.

Great job guys putting everything in perspective.  It was nice to see the upper end models listed.

Excellent review resource! Good Job BH!

GW

The article is incorrect when it states the Phantom 3 Advanced is limited to 1080p60.

Very good review of the current models, well done.