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Reach dizzying new heights and see the world from the point of view of a cyber starling
or most people, the first time they heard about drones (assuming an ignorance of the world of the apiculture) was when the US military started piloting its Predators around Afghanistan in a bid to hunt down Bin Laden.
Officially known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), the idea of non-lethal drones took off (ahem) in a big way in the civvy world when some bright spark had the brainwave of mating the world of quad-gyroscope remote-control aircraft with that of the smartphone, resulting in the creation of their beautiful, illegitimate child, the consumer drone.
Now in common use across many industries, ranging from construction and civil engineering to land management and agriculture, drones are big business, and with constant chatter of using drones for ecommerce delivery from the likes of Amazon, it looks like we’ll be droning on about drones for the foreseeable future.
But, while they can be a vital weapon in the arsenal of many forms of high-falutin business, many hobbyists are now also seeing the value in being able to soar through the sky with airborne abandon, taking a literal bird’s eye view on the world below and getting a fresh look at the environment around them.
Now, we all remember the chaos one man and his drone caused at Gatwick Airport back in 2018, so unless you want the police hunting you down and thousands of stranded holidaymakers wishing you an early demise, drone usage comes with the old Spider-man adage attached, that with great (drone) power comes great (drone) responsibility, so don’t go poking it where it doesn’t belong.
There are, also, of course, many different types of drones available and even a classification system which dictates whether your drone is seen as a harmless ‘toy’ or as a serious piece of potentially dodgy espionage accoutrement. The difference being that if it falls into the ‘0’ category (unless it has a camera), you’re free to fly, but if it is anything from ‘1’ to ‘4’, you’re going to need to register for both a Flyer ID and an Operator ID or risk a run-in with The Authorities, which will bring you back down to earth with a savage bump.
There are also other rules to take into account. Firstly, no matter how high your drone can soar, the UK legal max height is 120m (400ft), and no matter what range you drone boasts, you must always have it within sight. Also never ever fly your done near an airport!
But, of course, drone ownership, or dronership as I’m now dubbing it, should be about fun, so now that we’ve got the background and the boring legal stuff out of the way let’s – to quote surprisingly still around British pop septet sensation S Club 7 – reach for the Stars!
Okay, I said quite categorically in my intro that drones should not be used for any morally questionable purposes, such as, you know, espionage, but when it comes to the epically long list of almost ineffably cool features that the Parrot ANAFI offers up, it would be very easy to see how one might be seduced into the idea of dabbling in a little James Bond-like spycraft, just don’t, right?
Sent the ANAFI FPV kit to review, which consists of a comfortable and compact backpack containing the drone itself, the smartphone-holder RC Skycontroller, USB Type-C charging lead, an SD card and even a virtual reality headset which you can slip your smartphone into to really get your head in the game. The FreeFlight 6 app is available as a free download for Android and Apple phones.
A 1.5-hour charge will give you up to 25-minutes of flight time – but what flight time! Topping out at about 34mph horizontally, the ANAFI can screech vertically up at 4m/s to a service ceiling of 4500m above sea level, while also being perfectly capable of battling wind speeds of up to 31mph, wind gusts of up to 50mph and – making it absolutely mission-ready – extremes of +40°C humid heat, +50°C dry heat, and -10°C in the cold.
Piloted via either your smartphone, the RC Skycontroller and phone, or the VR goggles and RC Skycontroller (Immersion Flight), there are a range of flight modes available to play around with, all of which will make you squeal with delight, including ‘Cameraman’ which allows you tag an onscreen image of, oh I don’t know, a person or vehicle, thus defining it as a point of interest, which your drone will then follow continuously, the camera trained as the GPS lets you track.
And speaking of the camera, here we have a module featuring a 1/2.4-inch Sony CMOS low-dispersion aspherical lens, with an aperture of f/2.4, a 35mm format equivalent focal length (23-69mm for photos, 26-78mm for videos), a depth of field of 1.5m, an electronic shutter speed of 1 to 1/10000s, and an ISO range of 100-3200. Is anybody else feeling hot or is it just me.
This camera array comes housed in a module stabilised on 5x axes (x2 mechanical axes and 3x electronic axes) that laughs off vibration to take wonderfully clear images, while the x3 zoom and 180° camera tilt keeps you eye thoroughly on the prize. Photo resolution comes in at 21MP (Wide) or 16MP (Rectilinear) and you can save in either JPEG or Adobe DNG (RAW) formats.
Then there’s the Parrot ANAFI’s video capabilities, which allow you to film in glorious 4K Cinema format (4096 x 2160, 24fps), 4K UHD (3840 x 2160, 24/25/30fps), or FHD (1920x 1080, 24/25/30/48/50/60fps), and if that doesn’t have you feverishly reaching for your bank card right now, you’re simply not human.
Child’s play to set-up, too, with a few simple steps to follow, both drone and Skycontroller can be charged via the bundled USB-C lead, meaning that after your 25 minutes of awesomeness – at which point, sensing critical battery, your drone will automatically return to you – you can plug it in anywhere with a socket while you plan your next airborne escapade.
Cooler than a cryogenic cucumber and more fun that a whole barrel full of RC monkeys, the Parrot ANAFI is the drone to own.
£729 | Currys
Flying full-tilt into the ‘toy’ category with all the gung-ho attitude of a gamer with extra lives to give away, this Call of Duty inspired offering is a quad with a calling and that calling is to fight.
Perfectly capable of flying, turning, flipping and rolling though 360° on its lonesome, the real fun starts when you bring others of its Call of Duty ilk into the action and combat commences. Yes, capable of carving up the sky with an unlimited number of other CoD Battle Drones, instead of a camera, this flying machine utilises interactive IR recognition to let you open fire on your friends while also registering the hits you take in turn.
With a control range of 150 metres, three speed modes to choose from, a one-key return feature and a ‘Headless’ mode that gives you precision control over your drone for incredible top gun-esque manoeuvrability, you have four hits in which to take out your opponents’ drones or, after taking light-based lead four times itself, your drone will quietly retire itself from the battle, self-landing nearby.
If all this sounds like the kind of jolly larks you’d like to get up to with your – aged 14+ – pals, then 40-minutes of USB charging will give you six minutes of playtime, which may not seem like a lot, but 360-seconds of intense aerobatic engagement deserves a 40-minute break afterwards.
Coming complete with a spare set of propellers, a screwdriver to attach them with, a USB lead, a rechargeable drone battery and an instruction book on how calibrate and control your drone, all you need to add is 3x AA batteries in the remote control and some rad flight skills.
£23 | Zavvi
Not everyone needs a super-drone that can combat the extremes of the elements and pipe home baking hot 4K video content while surreptitiously tailing a ‘suspicious’ vehicle; in fact, come to think of it most people don’t. So, for those who just want to a) enjoy the experience of piloting a drone, and b) want to get a few overhead snaps, there is the very accessibly priced A20W from Potensic.
Dinky enough to fit in the palm of your hand and with a controller equally scaled to be able to suit more miniature mitts, the A20W manages to pack a lot of features into its diminutive dimensions, including the ability to direct your drone via the controller or using your smartphone’s gyroscope just be tilting it in the direction you want to go, the pre-flight option to trace a flight plan on your phone screen for the drone to follow automatically,
FPV real-time live video streamed directly from your phone, One Key Take-off and Landing to ensure more gentle and less disastrous flight beginnings and endings, and an Altitude Hold mode which locks the A20W at a specific height, stabilising the camera for the kind of aerial images and video everyone wants.
Then there’s the camera itself, which offers 720p resolution for HD piccies and video and which, obviously at this price point, is fixed, so you’re going to have to master pointing your drone in the right direction.
Bundled with three drone batteries that give a combined (although clearly not continuous) flight time of up to 12 minutes, alongside a USB charging cable, transmitter/controller, spare props for that inevitable moment drone meets wall, and an instruction manual, for those new to the dominion of drones and kids alike, the Potensic A20W is a cheap yet feature-packed entry option.
£55.99 | Amazon
So, you want all the bells and whistles of the big boy drones, but don’t want to have to part with too much of your hard-earned cash to cover the expense? Well, there is an excellent answer to this quandary in the slick, air-slipping shape of the Mini 2 from Chinese drone specialists DJI.
At just over 400 smackers, the Mini 2 delivers a lot of drone, including full GPS and the ability to record 4K video and snap 12MP pics while shooting through the sky at a maximum sped of 16m/s. It also boasts the power to ascend into he clouds at 5m/s and bob back down at 3.5m/s, with a service ceiling (remember the law though) of some 4000m above sea level.
Featuring a 3-axis motorised gimbal, the Mini 2 comes with a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor with an 83° FOV (field of view), and a 35mm format equivalent lens with an aperture of f/2.8, a focus range of 1m to ∞ and a shutter speed of 4-1/8000 s.
Video-wise, you can choose to shoot in 4K (3840 x 2160, 24/25/30fps), 2.7K (2720 x 1530, 24/25/30/48/50/60fps) or FHD (1920 x 1080, 24/25/30/48/50/60fps), with 2x, 3x and 4x zoom available respectively.
With a maximum flight time of up to 31 minutes, there is plenty of opportunity to compose your shots, and with the ability to withstand 29-38kph winds, you won’t have to worry so much about the weather whilst doing so.
Helping those pics still further, the DJI Fly app utilises intelligent, built-in photo optimisation to enhance image quality, giving all your downloaded pics the ultimate edge.
Extraordinarily agile to operate when up in the open air, for those still finding their feet, the Mini 2 helpfully includes automatic take-off, precise hovering and Smart Return to Home features to keep things simple.
A feature-packed grown-up drone at a very reasonable price, the DJI may be Mini, but it is mighty.
£419 | Very
You don’t want a ‘toy’, but then you don’t want all the expense and registration faff of owning a pro-drone. Hell, you’re not even sure that droning is for you at all and you just want to give it a go. Well, as luck would have it, there’s an inexpensive option at your fingertips that will allow you all the fun of flying without all the officialdom and outlay: the Ryze Tello.
VR headset compatible and featuring quality DJI components to ensure flight stability, the Ryze offers a top speed of 8m/s, a range of up to 100m, a service ceiling of 30m, and a flight time of up to 13-minutes.
But it’s more about what you can do in those minutes that matter. From it’s ‘throw and go’ launching, to it ‘slide on screen’ aerial stunt ability, to its 720p camera (complete with Electronic Image Stabilisation) capable of capturing 5MP photos and video, it even comes packing automatic take-off and landing, a vision position system for precision hovering, and even an alert for when your battery is taking a dive, all in a until that weighs just 80g and cost less than £100.
For me, the Tello Ryze is the obvious toe-dip point for those considering moving on to bigger drone action on the future, and even if they don’t move on this thing is worth the fee just for all the fun it is.
£93.95 | Amazon
Whilst many of you may have baulked at the price tag attached to this handsome, ocean-going example of the drone art, I think it important at this point to draw your attention to the fact that drone prices go much higher that this, into their thousands and even tens of thousands. So, while this seems – and is – steep, by comparison with others, its actually peanuts.
So, what does this big sack of cash get you? For starters an IP67-rated fully waterproof drone with a night spotlight camera that can move at a terrifying at a 40mph for up to 23-minutes, and which, reminiscent of a remorseless Terminator, can self-right itself after landing upside down in water using its ‘Power-Flip’ manoeuvre.
And it’s flexible, capable of being coupled-up with several different payloads such as a whole host of waterproof gimbal 4K, HD and low-light cameras depending on what your watery drone work requires.
Incredibly precise control is allowed via the custom-designed, fully integrated remote controller, which comes maximised for ease-of-use and featuring a handy high-brightness 5-inch FPV screen for live video and flight data, with payload release also a button press away.
With images snapped at 2MP and video at 1080p (36fps) via the onboard camera, the Splash Drone 3+ features a range of 1600m, auto take-off and landing, a very natty ‘follow me’ mode, and all manner of optional accessories to cover, pretty much, every aqua-based drone adventure.
£1699 | Drones Direct
I’ve looked at a diverse cross-section of the drone-iverse here, from the playthings of children and teens to the absolute insanity of tech that probably shouldn’t be left alone in civvy hands, but in terms of pure flight pleasure and exhilaration married up with image and video quality, plus absolute ease of set-up, my personal choice would be the Parrot ANAFI. Okay, I have to give my info to ‘the man’ in order to legally play with it and, yes, the cost of entry is quite high, but if you’re going to set the skies ablaze you may as well do it in absolute style!
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