Drones

Our first drones test gets off the ground.

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If you predicted a few years ago that for a little over $1000, we’d all soon be able to buy a remote control aircraft that uses satellites to fly, and beams live footage to your mobile phone, it would have sounded like science fiction.

But this is now a reality. We tested a couple of drones that do all that and more, along with four more basic models. We also spoke to aviation authorities about what you need to know before getting airborne. And we talked to privacy experts about your rights on the ground.

Ground rules

While drones are well-established for military, photographic and research use, their popularity among the general public is exploding. Cheap toy drones are a staple of electronic store catalogues, while more advanced models often carry good quality cameras and are capable of high speeds and long-range operation. This has been a nightmare for regulators and the law’s had to play catch-up.

In August last year, the government introduced new rules for unmanned aircraft to manage the safety of manned aircraft, and people and property on the ground. Recent research suggests the aviation world is right to be worried: Virginia Tech College of Engineering found even a small drone would have a catastrophic effect if sucked into a jet engine, far worse than the bird strike most engines are designed to survive.

The rules require flyers to familiarise themselves with aeronautical charts. This sounds daunting, but the Airways Corporation (New Zealand’s air traffic management service) drone hub — airshare.co.nz — provides an easy-to-understand tool, based on Google Maps. This outlines controlled airspace and any areas of New Zealand within a 4km radius of aerodromes, along with other restricted zones such as military operating areas. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) also recommends all users check out the rules available on its website.

If you plan on flying in controlled airspace, and you want to fly outside of the parameters of a shielded operation, you’ll need to submit a flight approval request via the airshare website. If it’s granted (they usually are), you’ll then have to ring Air Traffic Control before take-off and after landing.

That might all sound a bit much for a child who’s been given a toy drone and just wants to do a few circuits down at a sports field. But CAA General Aviation general manager Steve Moore says it’s essential all operators know the rules before they fly, “just like they would talk to their children about the road rules when buying them their first bicycle”.

As for whether the rules are likely to be tightened up, Mr Moore doesn’t think so. If anything, he reckons the law might become more accommodating as “advances in technology allow the integration of unmanned aircraft with manned aircraft”. This means drones and manned aircraft may soon be able to communicate with each other to automatically co-ordinate movements, and stay out of each other’s way.

Dos and don'ts

Unmanned aircraft under 25kg, which is virtually all consumer drones, are covered by Civil Aviation Rule Part 101. This manages risk by keeping civilian drones well away from everything else in the sky. Key requirements include:

  • Get consent from anyone you’re going to be flying directly above. This means if you’re filming a soccer match and want to fly over the field, you need to get permission from all players and spectators. You may also need to get permission from council (as the owner of the park), unless it’s already given permission via its website.

  • Fly only in daylight.

  • Don’t do anything hazardous, such as flying your drone at the limits of its range with low battery.

  • Maintain a direct line of sight with your drone — don’t just rely on a live video feed.

  • Stay below 120m (400ft) from ground level.

  • Know airspace restrictions that apply in your operating area — for this you’ll need to look at airspace maps.

  • Don’t fly within 4km of any aerodrome where Air Traffic Control is not provided (called an unattended aerodrome, which includes helipads) unless conducting a “shielded operation”. This is when your aircraft is within 100 metres of, and below the level of an object that provides a barrier between it and the aerodrome, such as a building, row of trees or earth embankment.

  • Get Air Traffic Control clearance if flying in controlled areas, unless it’s a shielded operation. Most cities are serviced by an airport where Air Traffic Control is in attendance and the controlled airspace around that airport goes down to ground level and is much larger than 4km.

Private eye

That’s all well and good, but what about the silent majority who have no interest in drones? What are your rights if your neighbour starts flying his camera drone above his property, in full compliance with CAA rules, but you’re concerned he’s watching you or your property?

We put this scenario to Charles Mabbett, spokesman for the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. He admits drones are a testing new area for privacy regulators, and says “realistically, there’s little a person can do if a neighbour is using a drone on their property. Under the Privacy Act, if a person is collecting information in their personal capacity, [the Act] does not apply”. He says, from a privacy law perspective, a drone is basically a camera.

That may be true, but most cameras can’t hover hundreds of metres above your neighbourhood giving a bird’s eye view of the entire suburb. We think consumers deserve more protection against being filmed without their consent by a drone, or anything else. In our view, the Privacy Act should be updated to clarify rights in this area.

In public you’ve got even less recourse. The Privacy Act applies to drones when they’re collecting information for commercial purposes, meaning drone operators are required to take “practicable steps” to let people know they’re active and recording in the area.

This was put to the test last year when Sky TV used a drone to film a sports stadium during a game. A man in a nearby apartment complained to the Privacy Commissioner that it flew close to his window as it made its way to the stadium, and he hadn’t given consent to be filmed. The complaint wasn’t upheld, as Sky TV said its drones didn’t record footage when they were moving into position. But this case raises difficult questions about how the public is meant to know if a drone is recording footage or not.

If you’re concerned about someone’s drone use, you can complain to the CAA (if you think they’re flying illegally) or the Office of the Privacy Commissioner (if you think you’re being recorded without proper consent).

What's in a name?

What's in a name?

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What's in a name?

The CAA’s overarching term used in its new rules is “Remotely Piloted Aircraft System” (RPAS), which includes the aircraft itself, known as an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV), with everything else involved in its operation, such as remote controls, software and monitors. RPAS encompasses everything from classic fixed-wing model planes, to single rotor radio controlled helicopters, through to multi-copters, which have multiple propellers. “Drone” gained currency as a term for combat UAVs and has emerged as the catch-all term for UAVs.

In full flight

For our test, we got our hands on six ready-to-fly quadcopters, meaning they all had four rotors and required no assembly apart from attaching the propellers, feet and hull guards.

Our test site was Westpac Stadium in Wellington. The large open area allowed us to assess raw flight performance and judge how easy each drone was to fly. We also looked at the performance of their automatic flight control systems, if any, and the quality of footage from their on-board camera. Our test pilot Mike Falkner has years of experience as a drone photography contractor, and is one of New Zealand’s leading “Rotorcross” (drone racing) pilots. But we also got Consumer staffers with little to no experience of drone flying to verify how easy each model was for a beginner to control.

The view from 120m, the maximum permissible altitude under the CAA’s new drone rules. Photo taken from the DJI Phantom 3 Standard flying above Westpac Stadium.

The stadium served as a good test of the new drone rules. Below the height of the stadium’s roof, our flights were a “shielded operation”, meaning we didn’t need to notify Air Traffic Control. However we wanted to fly to 120m, more than 90m above the stadium’s roof. This meant we had to log a flight on airshare.co.nz five days before our test, then 15 minutes before take-off we had to ring the control tower to confirm our flight, and ring again after landing. Apart from having to plan a long way ahead, we found it easy. Confirming our flights with the tower never took more than a minute.

Two drones costing $1300 - $1400 with fully stabilised camera mounts and packed with GPS tech vied for the title of best advanced/photographic model. These are designed primarily as photography platforms and are best thought of as flying tripods for on-board cameras.

To determine the top recreational drone, we put four lower-priced models to the test. These are the best choice if you’re after a toy for racing about the backyard, or want to learn how to fly without the risk of crashing a grand’s worth of tech.

We recommend

DJI PHANTOM 3 STANDARD

Score: 85%
Price: $1399
Availability: Hobby/model stores, Noel Leeming, PB Tech, Heathcotes

The standout performer in the advanced/photographic category. Its GPS stabilisation makes it easy for a beginner to take-off, fly and land. When the controls are released the drone quickly snaps into a hover, staying locked in one place even in windy conditions. One seasoned pilot described it as the “Apple of drones” due to its ease of use out of the box, and complained it was so easy to set up and fly that he found it boring. It’s the fastest and most agile drone in our test, clocking in at more than 40km/h. The built-in camera captures high-quality video and still images (2.7K, 12MP), and you can independently control the camera’s pitch quickly and accurately. The only issue is the automatic return-to-home feature, which is slow and takes the drone to a disconcertingly high altitude before landing, but it is accurate. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the best option if you’re after an easy-to-fly drone that takes stunning aerial photographs, but don’t want to spend over $1400.

Beginner/recreational drones

HUBSAN H107D

Score: 79%
Price: $278
Availability: www.hobbystation.co.nz

The smallest toy drone in our test, the Hubsan H107D is also the most exciting. It offers a live first-person view (FPV) video feed via its controller’s built-in video display, with the ability to record video while flying (albeit grainy 640x480 footage). We were impressed with its flight performance: in high-speed mode it’s fast and agile. Control and video-link never dropped out within 100m, impressive for a drone of its class. It has basic accelerometer- and gyro-stabilisation, so a beginner will initially struggle controlling it, but after practice you’ll be zooming about with ease. Its short flight time (just under six minutes), and weak and fiddly connection between the charger and the battery are its only major failings. We think this is a great beginner FPV camera drone, which combines good performance and exciting features into a tiny package.

BLADE BLH7600 NANO QX

Score: 77%
Price: $169
Availability: Hobby/model stores

If you’re a beginner looking for a toy drone, and you’re not fussed about having an on-board camera, then we recommend the Blade BLH76000 Nano QX. Its “SAFE” flight control system contains altitude sensors that make it automatically hover and land if controls are released or turned off, and limits its pitch angle to minimise the risk of losing control. That's unique for a drone at this price. But once you’ve got to grips with how it flies, you can disable the SAFE system, which dramatically improves its speed and agility making it on-par with the Hubsan, but with a lower controller range (about 60m). Like the Hubsan, it also has a short flight time (just under seven minutes), but its battery charges in only half an hour.

Also tested

YUNEEC TYPHOON G

Score: 74%
Price: $1299 + $699 for GoPro Hero 4
Availability: www.yuneecdrones.co.nz

We had issues testing this drone as its built-in GPS lockout prevents it flying within 4km of any aerodrome, which is much of Wellington City. We don’t recommend this model if you live within 4km of an aerodrome and are planning on conducting shielded operations (note: many other drones are starting to come with this feature, so it’s essential to check before you buy). Once airborne, its performance isn’t a match for the DJI Phantom 3 Standard. It’s slower, less agile, and its auto-hover isn’t as wind-resistant. The worst part is the short range of its video transmission to the controller’s monitor, which cut out at 40m. One feature we did like was the follow-me/watch-me mode, which maintains the drone at a set altitude and follows/watches the user, but this is now also available with the DJI Phantom 3 Standard following a software update. In addition, the Yuneec doesn’t come with a camera, requiring a GoPro Hero 3 or 4 to be purchased separately (it doesn’t take any other types of camera).

Beginner/recreational drones

KAISER BASS ALPHA DRONE

Score: 66%
Price: $277
Availability: PB Tech, JB Hi-Fi, Heathcotes

The Kaiser Baas Alpha Drone is a promising toy drone that’s let down by some range issues and its ease of use. It has good flight performance, and in high-speed mode is as fast and agile as the Hubsan, but control starts to falter at about 50m. The on-board camera takes video and still images (of grainy quality). While you can turn recording on and take pictures using the controller, it’s difficult to know if you’re recording as there’s no feedback except for a tiny LED on the drone. It also has a poorly designed battery hatch, which is very difficult to open without potentially damaging the drone, and the battery connection is weak and fiddly. It’s good fun, but for the price there are better drones available.

PARROT AR 2.0

Score: 58%
Price: $500
Availability: PB Tech, hobby/model stores

The only drone in our test that didn’t come with a controller, the AR 2.0 is flown via your phone or tablet with an app. The app looks promising at first; it offers a live first-person view sent to your device, and you control the drone either by tilting the phone/tablet or via on-screen joysticks. However, we found the controls laggy and imprecise, which made accurately flying the drone difficult – and almost impossible in any sort of wind. Its only saving grace is the automatic take-off, landing and hover, which works well (if there’s not a breath of wind). There are far better recreational drones available for the price.

Test results

Brand/model Price ($) Overall score (%) Flight performance (/10) Ease of use (/10) Camera performance (/10) Flight control systems (/10) Control range (m) FPV range (m) Top speed (km/h) Flight time (mm:ss) Charge time (mins)
Advanced/photographic
DJI Phantom 3 Standard 1399 85 8.8 8.8 8.0 8.3 1000C 120 44 22:19 73
Yuneec Typhoon G 1299A 74 7.5 7.6 6.4 8.0 800C 40 26 17:10 146
Beginner/recreational
Hubsan H107D 278 79B 7.2 7.6 6.1 n/a 100 100 19 5:47 66
Blade BLH7600 NANO QX 169 77 7.0 8.4 n/a 7.0 60 n/a 18 6:50 30
Kaiser Baas Alpha Drone 277 66 6.8 6.5 5.8 n/a 50 n/a 21 5.23 48
Parrot AR Drone 2.0 500 58 4.8 6.7 4.8 7.3 40 40 n/aD 6.31 57

GUIDE TO THE TABLE BRAND/MODEL = recommended. PRICE is based on a price survey from April 2016 and does not include shipping or credit card fees. APrice excludes cost of GoPro Hero 4 ($699) or GoPro Hero 3 ($568), which have to be purchased separately and are the only cameras that fit the Yuneec. OVERALL SCORE Advanced/photographic Flight performance (30%). Ease of use (30%). Camera performance (20%). Flight control system (20%). Beginner/recreational Flight performance (50%). Ease of use (50%). BHubsan received 5 point bonus for convenience of FPV on a drone of its class. SCORES OUT OF 10 Flight performance includes hovering stability, maximum speed, variable speed performance, wind resistance, control range, performance in other modes and flight time. Ease of use includes ease-of-flying by sight, comfort of controls, control lag/inaccuracy and ease of landing. Camera performance includes quality of footage, FPV video transmission range, ease of use, recording options, field of view and the quality of still photos. Flight control systems includes the performance of any automated control in addition to the base level gyro stabilisation, including auto-hover, return to home auto take-off, auto-landing and follow-me modes. Control range CControl never dropped in our test, figure is manufacturer’s stated range. Top speed DThe AR Parrot couldn’t stay on a straight enough course to accurately measure speed.

Specifications

Brand/model Auto-hover[tick] Flight control systems Camera[tick] Gimbal[tick] FPV (First person view/live view) [tick] Video quality (max) Still image size (MP) Rotors Battery (mAh/V) Dimensions (cm) Weight (g)
Advanced/photographic
DJI Phantom 3 Standard Yes GPS Yes 3 axis + PC (app) 2.7K 12 4 2600/15.2 49 x 49 x 20 1216
Yuneec Typhoon G Yes GPS E 3 axis + PC (contr.) 4KF 12 4 5400/11.1 70 x 70 x 24.5 1700
Beginner/recreational
Hubsan H107D No None Yes No (contr.) 640x480 n/a 4 380/3.7 13 x 13 x 3.5 363
Blade BLH7600 NANO QX No Sensor No No No n/a n/a 4 150/3.7 14 x 14 x 3.0 17
Kaiser Baas Alpha Drone No None Yes No No 720p 2 4 550/3.7 33 x 33 x 8 109
Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Yes Sensor Yes No (app) 720p n/a 4 1000/11.1 51 x 51 x 11.5 420

GUIDE TO THE TABLE BRAND/MODEL = recommended. Camera EGoPro Hero 3 or 4 purchased separately. Video quality and still image size Ffigures are for GoPro Hero 4. FPV app = video feed sent to smartphone/tablet app and controlled via app, contr. = video feed sent to inbuilt monitor in controller. Gimbal PC = pitch control in one axis.

Behind-the-scenes footage

[DRONES]

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What to look for

  • First-person view (FPV) drones provide a live video feed from their on-board camera to your smart device and/or a monitor built into the controller. However, CAA rules prohibit relying on FPV alone while flying.
  • Flight-control systems: in addition to the basic gyro and accelerometer stabilisation common to most drones, some models feature compasses, barometers, and altitude sensors. More advanced drones feature built-in GPS systems that allow the aircraft to do more of the flying for you, e.g.
    • Auto-hover: when you release the controls the drone locks into a hover. Most quadcopters have a gyro and accelerometer which brings the drone back to level when the controls are released, but a GPS means it can remain fixed at one altitude while adjusting for wind.
    • Return-to-home: on command, or when the battery is running low, the drone returns to the control point or a fixed “home” location.
    • Follow-me/watch me: The drone stays at a fixed altitude and distance from the operator, and flies after the pilot as they move.
    • Smart/headless/compass mode: When you pull back on the controller, the drone returns to the operator, removing the need to be constantly aware of the drone’s orientation.
    • Cameras range from fixed, low-quality (720p) examples on cheap toy drones to high-performance (4K) cameras that can be moved independently of the aircraft.
    • Gimbals are camera mounts that keep the camera steady to counteract the effect of the drone pitching and yawing. Essential for quality video footage, especially in windy conditions.
    • Speed is often quoted in metres per second. This can be important if you want to get a range of shots during the drone’s limited flight time. Check ascent speed as well as forward speed.
    • Flight time is one of the biggest gripes for some, especially when two hours of charging only gives 20 minutes in the air. Battery technology is always improving, but it pays to invest in extra batteries.
    • Rotor guards are a good way of keeping your props safe and reducing the risk of your drone causing serious damage, as crashes can be common when you’re getting started.
    • Control range is difficult to measure as it gradually drops out, but most toy drones have ranges of 100m or less, while more advanced models can be flown up to 1km away. High levels of WiFi or other radio signals can also affect range.

Airspace map

Restricted and controlled airspace in the lower North Island, as seen on airshare’s dynamic map.

  • The red areas are control zones managed by Air Traffic Control. They extend to ground level.
  • The blue areas are within 4km of an aerodrome.
  • The orange areas are Low Flying Zones, where drone use is prohibited.
  • The green areas are Military Operating Areas, where permission from the Administering Authority is required.
  • The bright blue areas are restricted areas, often located above areas of ecological significance. Permission from the Administering Authority is required.

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