Q: What low-cost drone do you recommend for an older child?
A: Drones, also known as quadcopters or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles), are expected to be one of the hottest holiday gifts this year.
There are dozens of lower-cost devices that look a lot like the expensive models from companies such as DJI, but they don’t operate the same way.
It’s important to understand that even though they often look like toys, they’re really not, and shouldn’t be treated as such. Not only do you need to be concerned about potential damage that can be caused by an errant flight; there are privacy issues and restrictions on where you can fly them.
Keep in mind, there’s a bit of a backlash against UAVs from those who don’t own them, so it’s really important that you fly responsibly and in areas where others don’t perceive you to be spying on them.
A recent FAA ruling will require all UAV owners to register their devices starting on Dec. 21, 2015, with potential civil and criminal penalties if you don’t.
Any flying craft that’s controlled by a transmitter that weighs .55 pounds up to 55 pounds will be required to be registered with the FAA, so this also includes traditional, fixed-wing model aircraft.
You might want to consider liability insurance, as a large number of first-time pilots experience less-than-perfect flights in the early going.
One way to get specific liability coverage for a UAV is by joining the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which provides up to $2.5 million in personal liability coverage.
Low-cost UAVs generally have a much shorter battery life (5-8 minutes) and a much shorter flight range (typically 100 feet), so it’s critical to understand these limitations.
They’re also often very light, so they don’t do very well in windy conditions.
As long as parents and beginner pilots understand how and where to fly their craft, they can be very enjoyable and safe.
One of the more popular UAVs for beginners is the UDI 818A, which is durable and has protective rings around the propellers.
There are several models with different camera options, ranging from standard resolution to HD video. They sell for $70 to $160.
The more expensive model, the UDI 818A HD+, has the HD camera as well as the “return home function” and advanced controls that make flying the device much easier.
Less-expensive options such as the Syma X5SW ($60) have the First Person Video (FPV) feature, which streams live video back to a smartphone. That seems attractive, but there are drawbacks to consider: The video quality is pretty low, and the delays in the real-time video make the feature less useful.
FPV can also be distracting, because the pilot can lose sight of where the craft is in the air, which can result in the battery running out before you figure out where it went.
Regardless of which model you purchase, make sure you buy at least one extra battery (they often take two hours to recharge and only last a few minutes) and extra blades for the inevitable broken-prop scenario.