Drones are increasingly finding their way into society. No surprise: flying is fun, great shots are easily taken with modern camera technology and the small aircrafts are now affordable for private use. Many people are interested in quadrocopters but have some questions like “How much do drones cost?” or “How long do drones fly? Especially in Germany, many people interested in drones are also unsure about what is legally allowed and what is not. For this reason, in this article we compile frequently asked questions and provide the appropriate answers.
What are Drones?
In a broader context, drones are nothing more than unmanned aircrafts – in English “Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” or UAVs for short. The military, in particular, relies on the ability to observe an area without danger or define targets for missile attacks. On this blog, however, we will focus on the entertainment aspect that drones offer. Quadrocopters are especially popular.
Quadrocopters use four propellers to float in the air and are usually equipped with gyroscopes, GPS and visual positioning systems to ensure a stable and safe flight. In the article “What are drones?” we answer this question in more detail.
Do I need a drone license plate?
There is no general obligation to attach stickers to all drones, on which the name and address of the pilot is written. However in Germany, if the drone has a take-off weight of at least 250 grams, it is legally required to permanently affix a visible, fireproof license plate. The purpose behind this is to enable the owner to be quickly identified in the event of an accident.
However, there is an advantage to attaching a drone tag to a quadrocopter. If the drone gets lost, for example because the battery fails and the pilot can no longer find the drone, the drone can return to its owner if an honest finder sees the sticker.
How long does a drone fly?
The flight time of a drone depends strongly on the model you want to buy. Top models such as the DJI Mavic 2 Pro achieve an impressive flight time of up to 31 minutes. A very affordable model called “Ryze Tello” (a link to our review) flies up to 13 minutes. But also the flying style and external influences like wind force influence the flight time.
In general it is recommended to take spare batteries with you on flights with drones. This way you can fly as long as you want.
How are drones controlled?
Drones with a camera have a significant advantage over models that are not equipped with a camera: You can track what the drone is currently seeing. There are three common ways of doing this: The live image of the drone is transmitted either to a smartphone, a controller or to so-called FPV glasses (short for “First Person View”). Often the smartphone is also plugged into a controller and then serves as a screen.
In the case of the smartphone option, the control takes place with the help of an app. The manufacturers make their apps available for drone users to download free of charge. If the smartphone is not inserted into a controller, virtual joysticks are located on the left and right of the screen, allowing the drone to be moved in all directions. Many settings are also possible via the app. These include speed, maximum range and altitude, camera options and various flight modes (stunts, camera movements, etc.).
However, it is recommended to use a remote control. These are similar in appearance to controllers that are also used for video games. Many drones come with a controller. The advantage is that the control is much safer and more precise. A controller is easier to hold in your hand and is much more comfortable than a simple smartphone app, especially during long drone flights.
FPV glasses are an exciting experience: as if you were immersed in a virtual reality, you put on the glasses and see the world from the perspective of the drone.
How does image stabilization work with drones? What is a gimbal?
Drones are exposed to strong external influences. These include the wind and the – occasionally wild – way the pilot flies. Often, however, the best shots are taken high in the air, where the wind is strongest. And that’s where the aerial shots taken with the drone should naturally not be blurred, distorted or out of focus. For this reason, drone manufacturers have come up with two ways of stabilizing the image of drones in order to achieve perfect pictures and videos.
Cheaper drones usually only use digital image stabilization. Here the image is processed with the help of software to “rescue” blurred images in a special way. However, the technology has its limits and with videos it doesn’t help much.
Mechanical image stabilization using a gimbal is much more effective. A gimbal ensures that the camera hangs loosely on the drone and is not rigidly fixed. Built-in motors in the gimbal then compensate for any wild movements of the drone and ensure that the camera always holds the same position.
Where can I fly a drone and where can I not?
No worries: More is allowed than one might think at first. However, it is important to know some rules so as not to disturb anyone and to comply with the (German) law:
- You must not fly out of sight and not above 100 meters.
- Do not fly in and over sensitive areas such as places of operation, hospitals, crowds of people, JVAs, nature reserves, industrial plants.
- You must not fly over residential areas without permission.
- Do not fly in control zones of airfields and airports.
The app of the German Air Traffic Control (Deutsche Flugsicherung/DFS) is also highly recommended. With this app you can set parameters like flight range and altitude of the planned flight and weight of your own drone. Then you can click on any location on a map of the area and see if a flight is allowed or prohibited and if any restrictions have to be observed. Here you can be really sure that you are not doing anything wrong.
How high do drones fly?
The maximum flight altitude of drones as well as the maximum flight time depends on manufacturer and model. In the following video the YouTuber “B live it” flew with the drone DJI Mavic Pro an incredible 2.500 meters / 1.55 miles high. On the one hand you can get great shots so far in the air, on the other hand you run the risk of endangering air traffic. You could also lose your drone if the battery runs out of power at such a high altitude, or if winds shake the drone so much that you lose control. To eliminate at least this risk, the YouTuber has checked the wind strengths with a website that shows the wind speeds for different altitudes.
Very light drones like the Ryze Tello can reach altitudes of about 30 meters until the wind force increases to such an extent that control of the drone is hardly possible. Some drones like the Xiaomi FIMI X8 SE or most drones have a flight altitude limit of 500 meters built into their software, which can be circumvented naturally with tricks.
In Germany, hobby pilots are allowed to fly at a maximum altitude of 100 meters / 328 ft. One should in any case keep to this limit. Airplanes rely on drones flying only that high, and to avoid endangering other people, it is important to observe this limit.
How far do drones fly?
The maximum range of drones also varies from model to model. Some drones set up a WiFi network to which you connect your smartphone and transmit the control signals. The Ryze Tello, for example, is flown in this way. With drones flying with this technology, the signal usually reaches about 100 meters / 328 ft. The range can be extended, for example, by using a WiFi repeater operated via a power bank. We have written a detailed manual on how this works.
Drones, which are somewhat more expensive, are often controlled via a radio connection. Antennas are attached to the controller, which can transmit control commands to the drone over several miles. It is important to ensure that there are as few obstacles in the way as possible that could interfere with the signal. If, for example, you are standing behind a tree and the drone is flying behind it, the signal is already enormously disturbed. As an example we will again have a look at the Xiaomi FIMI X8 SE. The manufacturer Fimi states the maximum range of the X8 SE at 5 kilometers / 3.1 miles. In the following video, however, someone manages to fly 8 kilometers / 5 miles with the drone:
During such tests, one should definitely consider the possible scenario that the drone loses radio contact with the controller. For such cases, a so-called “Return To Home” function should be configured in the settings beforehand. Return To Home, which is already supported by many inexpensive drones, ensures that the drone automatically returns to the take-off point without the need to control the drone. A minimum flight altitude can often be set, for example to prevent the drone from flying into a tree.
Is it hard to fly drones?
To answer this question, in the case of the most common drones for private use today we can say: No, it is not hard and also suitable for children. Drones often have a visual positioning system (VPS for short), which uses sensors to detect the ground and ensures that the drone hovers in one place. If a breeze pushes it to the side, the VPS compensates for the movement of the drone. GPS also provides support and ensures a safe return flight for long flights.
What security functions do drones have?
Very basic safety functions trigger where the crash has already happened. In the inexpensive Ryze Tello drone, for example, the rotors immediately stop their movement if they detect a collision. This prevents engine damage if a propeller gets caught in a small branch or blade of grass, for example.
Of course there are also preventive safety techniques for drones. Many drones, such as the DJI Mavic 2 Pro, have collision sensors at the front, rear, bottom, top and sides that can detect obstacles and automatically avoid them.
A GPS function is another safety feature, as the drone always knows where it is and where the take-off point was, so that it can automatically return to it in an emergency (battery empty, loss of signal, etc.) (“Return To Home”).
How do I find the best drone for me?
First of all you should get an overview of the different models and price ranges. You can do this for example well with the articles on our blog. YouTube videos often help too, as they show great aerial shots that you can take with different models. On YouTube you can also find extensive test reports.
You should set a budget that you can spend on your drone purchase. It is also useful to search for drones at Amazon. Many models are available there.
In our article on mini drones we list inexpensive entry-level drones that make it easy to enter the world of drones without the risk of spending a lot of money.
Can you fly drones in the rain?
In most cases we have to say unfortunately: It is not a good idea to fly with drones in rain or snow. A few drops usually don’t matter, but the sensitive electronics are often not protected against the intrusion of large amounts of water. Furthermore: When it rains, the camera lens of the drone is covered with drops and can no longer provide nice aerial pictures and videos.
Even in fog it is difficult for the visual positioning system to find the ground. Flying above clouds is not a good idea either: Your drone might recognize a cloud as ground during descent and automatically refuse to fly down further.
If it is important to you to be able to fly in the rain, there are a few waterproof models on the market.
Can you fly a drone at night?
If you own a model that supports GPS, the answer is: Yes, no problem! Thanks to GPS satellites, the drone can maintain its position at night and knows where it is at all times. However, the visual positioning system will fail if there is not enough light. This means that collision detection, for example, may not function reliably. The camera settings will most likely have to be changed to make sure that the pictures and videos you take still look good.
There are also (usually cheaper) drones like the Ryze Tello, which work exclusively with visual positioning. Here you should fly very carefully, as there are no support systems available to make the flight comfortable and safe for you.
How much do drones cost?
The prices for very cheap drones start at 30€ – 40€. However, these drones have a very small range of functions and a short flight time. It is recommended to invest at least about 100€ for starters. The Ryze Tello (here you can find our test report) for example you can also get in this price range. With this drone you can take great photos. The video function is also well suited for first aerial shots from a bird’s eye view. The flight time for this price is an amazing 13 minutes.
Another drone that impresses us with its price-performance ratio is the Xiaomi FIMI X8 SE (here our review). You can get it already for about 450€. For this price you already get 4K video, GPS, an external controller, many professional camera modes for cinema-quality recordings and a safe flight experience including Return To Home.
The drones of well-known brands like DJI or Parrot are also recommended. The top model Anafi from Parrot is currently available for 699€, the Mavic 2 Pro from DJI costs 1499€. Both drone-manufacturers also offer drones in the low and medium price segment.