Should I buy a drone? Pros and cons, Practicality, Legality

Four to five years ago, action camera like GoPro were a rare breed. Very few people had them. When I was researching for a wide angle lens, it appeared to me that a GoPro would be a better alternative and I bought aHero 3 that cost me close to 40000 INR including shipping, customs etc. Not many had action cameras back then so I would get lots of questions about GoPro from strangers and friends alike. That has changed now. Almost everyone now owns an action camera, along with a DSLR. GoPro or its cheaper competition brands.
Drone being used in a pre-wedding shoot
Selfies and action camera footage no longer excite people. Current trend is Drones. These flying cameras can take captivating photos and videos from the air, offering an otherwise impossible view from top. There’re toy drones available for INR 3000-5000 on Amazon but they are mostly toys only, not practical. Like below one.

Slightly more expensive drones are available for around 20k INR, like this one There're different models ranging all the way up to a lakh. If you check the reviews, most are not very encouraging, usually because of mismatch between expectations and real capabilities of the low value drone purchased.


But a more powerful, capable and professional quality Phantom series of drones cost 1 lakh rupees onwards. Like this one.


These are not an ‘un-affordable’ range for upper middle class/rich people with enough money, so owing a drone is now on the bucket-list of many people. I considered buying a drone at multiple points in past few years but was repeatedly put off by practicality point of view. Recently I met Kartik Kannan who has bought a small drone and is experimenting with it. Do check his blog for some drone photos and footage. I decided to put down my thoughts on owning a drone- does it make sense for us (travelers, bloggers or individuals with some interest in photography, travel) to invest in a drone right now.
At this moment, following drawbacks, hurdles exist that limit the practicality of drone purchase and usage in India

1 Battery life: Battery life of drones are limited. Most drones can’t fly for more than 30-40 minutes. You will have to buy 2-3 extra batteries so that you can manage half a day of idle time including 1 hour flying time. If you’re leaving home/hotel in the morning and returning by evening visiting 3-4 places or doing a day long event/activity, drone can’t keep up. Soon battery will be dry and you’ll have to carry the dead weight with you for rest of the day. It will take a few years before drones get efficient or batteries become powerful so that drones can be practically used for 6 to 8 hours (idle time including few hours of flying)
2 Weight: Bigger drones like Phantom come in their own casing and bigger bags. If you’re traveling, this will be in addition to all other luggage you will have. Drone will have to be declared to customs, will have to be checked in separately, which could mean paying extra for check-in bags and severely hamper your mobility as you travel. Smaller drones will probably fit into a backpack but will have lesser battery life, range and other capabilities. This extra spending and trade off on convenience is worth if you can earn from your drone or take lots of footage that indirectly or indirectly pays off the effort involved in carrying and operating drones. Otherwise, for small scale hobby travelers, it is debatable if the trouble of carrying a big heavy drone bag is worth while traveling.

3. Ban on drones: Many tourist places already have a blanket ban on drones. Ramana Ashrama in Tiruvanmalai has a display banning drones.

Maya Bay, Thailand has a ban on drone usage, many tourist places around the world are banning drones.

This will only get worse with more people buying drones. Drones may give you some great footage but they pose lot of nuisance for others. It can invade people’s privacy, can damage property- if it hits a electric/telephone line or building etc, flying a drone near an airport can force ATC to shut down entire airport (as they can’t risk drone coming in contact with flying aircrafts and cause damage) and get drone operator arrested, there’re several anti-drone techniques being developed which people are deploying to catch or disable a drone. It will be irritating experience to have a few drones buzzing overhead all the time/everywhere we go.

Here's a news of drone pilots being fined around 1000 AUD for dangerous flying, shared by Kethan

4. Display Lag: In cheaper drones, there will be a lag between what camera captures and what is seen in handheld device. This lag implies you can’t control the drone effectively. You are trying to focus on something but by the time you see the subject drone has already drifted a few seconds away- this will need more practice, multiple takes to get used to/capture good footage despite the lag.

5. Additional person needed: Unlike an action camera or selfie stick, it is difficult to travel solo with drone. You may have other stuff to carry besides drone and if you wish to be in the video, then you will have to give the handheld control to someone else and ask them to control the drone as it captures the video. For example you can’t do both driving/riding a car/bike and control the drone simultaneously. You’ve to factor the availability, training and cost of this second person if you're planning to capture some serious drone videos while wanting to be seen inside the video.
6. Compliance with law: Purchasing the drone is the easiest part. You can pick it up from the shop or order online. There’s no restrictions on sales. But if you have to fly a drone you need permission. From what I understand drones that weight less than 250 grams and won’t fly higher than 50 meters don’t need any registration or permission. Other more capable drones need DGCA registration and approval. That is the irony- buying a 300 kmph, 5 crore car is Ok, because government gets 2-3 crores in tax, but drive it beyond 80kmph, police may catch you and fine you. Here’re some latest news related to drone regulations in India - to register you've to get permission/NOC from so many departments-some running around is required.

Remember the Theni forest fire that took life of 16 trekkers? Suddenly forest department woke up to the need of regulating trekking. I suspect same for drones- it will take couple of drone related accidents/incidents before the government machinery wakes up to the potential risks involving drones and the need to have proper process in place so that people can use their drones safely and legally.
7. Risk of loss
As I checked many reviews online, a few have posted "It suddenly lost connection and flew off- I am left with only remote now!".  Most drones have fail safe systems that ensure it returns to base. It is possible that these people were stupid and didn't know how to operate. But we've to admit that there's a small 1% risk of things going wrong- maybe wind was too strong for drone to resist, may be a communication failure occurs with the remote, may be it got hit by a foreign object- like birds- if this happens over a terrain which is not accessible- like river, mountains etc then you can't go and recover your fallen drone and may have to write it off as a total loss.

8. No after-sales service support for Drones in India.
This point is provided by Kartik Kannan- the after-sales support for Drones is almost non existent. Even warranty enforcement is difficult as many damages can be attributed to bad/unsafe handling. In case of major damage you've to buy a new one or try to order parts and fix it yourself.

So what to do? Never buy a drone?
One easy way out will be to rent a drone for few days and experiment. Get used to the controls, check the quality, assess if you really need a drone or having a drone will enhance your creative output. Renting and using will get you first hand experience on various aspects of flying a drone, so you know what to look for when you go out to buy a drone. Else you may end up buying a wrong model that isn’t best suited for your needs and then you will regret. There’re few companies in each major cities who rent drones. Kiruba Shankar said he rented from Klachak.com and found their services great. But I couldn't find drone related details on their website- may be they are yet to update. Their blog says coming soon.

Also operating a drone is more fun and safe if done in a team. Find like-minded friends with whom you can go out practicing/shooting using drones. May be you can even buy a drone by sharing the cost.

If you’re not really serious or pressed for cash, I suggest wait for some time. Let the quality improve a bit and price drop. like with mobiles, action cameras, I am sure over time drones will get smaller in size, better in quality and cheaper to own. You will miss out on the action but you can enjoy your travels better, by indulging in experiencing the destination, than struggling hard to get best drone footage.

If you’re serious about buying a drone, if you’re comfortable with the limitations listed above or if you see a potential in being full time drone pilot/professional then go for it. More and more enterprises now look to hire a drone operator for areal coverage of the events. If you think you can grow in this space by selling drone related services, then now is the time to jump in, as you can leverage early mover advantage. Drone operators charge 10-12k a day plus travel expenses, as far as I know.

Buy from US to save money?
Unlike a camera or laptop which might not attract too much customs scrutiny, having a drone in your check-in back will definitely attract attention of security and customs officials. So you'll have some explaining to do and probably pay customs duty, effectively nullifying any cost advantage of buying abroad.

If you’re buying a drone, following aspects should be kept in mind
1. Battery life-how long drone can stay in air

2. Camera spec- HD/4k, Resolution, Stabilization etc
Remember older/cheaper mobiles having 2MP/5MP front cameras- do you like their picture quality compared to main camera/DSLR? Budget drones with 2MP/5MP cameras will have similar low quality footage- which may disappoint you if you have high expectations.

Check for drones which support detachable cameras or have gimbal to attach GoPro.

3. Image stabilization is a critical function while capturing drone footage. Drone will keep moving/shaking in different directions, so it is important for video/photo to be steady enough. Most budget drones do electronic image stabilization, which is usually a compromise on resolution/image quality. More expensive drones with a gimbal, which can absorb say a vertical/horizontal shake (pitch/yaw movements) of the main body of the drone and keep camera steady. A cheaper drone without these features will result in a poor quality/unprofessional video which you may regret. This is why getting some hands first hand experience/feedback is very important and renting is one way to do it.

4. Weight of the drone with camera, Size of the box- smaller n lighter the better

5. Range (how far and how high it can fly)

6. Safety features- can it auto return to home before battery dries completely, can it detect obstacles and avoid them, does it have visual indicators (like green/red lights) so that from a distance you can figure out if there's a trouble etc)

You should also learn how to fly a drone safely and ethically- never fly over private properties, do not spy on people, ensure not to hit anything- like electric wires, do not fly near airports.

These are my thoughts at the moment. Do share yours.

Disclaimer: I am not a drone expert. I don’t own one. These are my observations and opinions only. Please use your discretion or take second opinion from a more qualified person.
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16 comments:

  1. Srinidhi- Buying a drone is a very personal question apart from the legalities. I dont recall any travel blogger having it in their arsenal yet, but it depends how important photography is as part of their travel. I usually am of the habit of documenting the trip for my own personal memories from the last 12 years, so I feel a drone gives a new angle and a new way/perspective to seeing a place. It also helps that I have been writing a travel blog in the last couple of years, it fits in with the strategy of different perspectives or angles. Given the focus of video for travel story telling, it makes a strong case, but as you rightly say, its not like a selfie device that can cover you like a go pro or a phone and that also is a bummer, since you are dependent on others to get you covered.

    Coming to the part of headache. Yes it is. Lugging an SLR, a drone, mobile and worrying about re-charging them calls for 45 minutes every day of planning. It's a bit like coming out of your dream, working and hoping to go back to sleep trying to login the same dream. It feels like a bummer, but these are early days and maybe worth an experiment.

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    1. Thanks KK for your detailed comments. Will keep an eye on your blog to see how your drone adventures are coming out.

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  2. Eventually all tourist destination might end up banning drones or might levy a huge fees on Drone shooting. They might give limited access for Drone shooting. Secondly licensing process might be cumbersome with police verification etc Thirdly if any lawyer files invasion of privacy and attempt to murder case one might find it difficult to wriggle out, even if one wriggles one might end up spending a fortune. Fourthly if it is used for commercial purpose than it perfectly ok ! One can afford to undertake the risk. For marriage, conference, conventions, exhibitions it is perfect because there is revenue generation which can recover the cost of Drone....For blogging purpose unless it is linked with travel agency drone may not really serve the purpose.

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    1. Thanks Umesh. Yes, if you can earn from your drone then there's nothing like that.

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  3. I would love to get a drone. I had to laugh though at this line - I suddenly lost connection and it flew off - I am left with only remote now. Sad for her but hilarious, the way it has been phrased.
    http://www.kalpanaawrites.com

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    1. :) Hopefully they learn their lessons the hard way..

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  4. Having a drone in your check-in might invite attention..I like the dryness of the statement. After this article you are truly Drone-acharya.

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  5. I feel, having a drone for blogging/traveling purpose alone, might not be a great idea - at their current prices. Probably drones might pay off sooner for professional wedding/event photographers and people in related lines. Besides, knowing and keeping up with the legalities is a headache.

    Destination Infinity

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  6. Buying drone in Malaysia is cheaper compare to most of the countries within this region. I am referring to DJI products.

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