What is a Drone / Was that a Drone ?

Was that a Drone?



9 times out of 10 when I fly my Multirotors  ( A 3DR Iris+ or DJI Inspire 1) in a public location (Beach, Park) I will be approached by interested public to see what I am doing and what am I flying. It is quite possible you are now here reading this as you have met me flying one, and Ive pointed you here. Most are curious, somewhat excited and sometimes a little apprehensive.

I can almost guarantee that the first question they ask is “Was that a Drone?”.

Well… was it? The answer in some ways depends on the perception of the person asking the question.

This article will attempt to answer some of the more basic questions you may have after seeing a Drone of for the first time, or just wondering what the fuss is about.


Drones in the Media

The media in general has placed a negative perception on the word Drone. For last number of years the name “Drone” has been synonymous with “Military Drone”, an unmanned, remotely guided missile launching machine that is able to inflict death on its enemies from the sky. Unfortunately, but understandably that is what a large population relate the term “Drone” to.

For the general public that do not reside in a war zone, they were usually happy to ignore drones as they did not effect them personally. However the new wave of “Drones” that are now being sighted more and more often above our public parks and beaches and on local news has placed a new interest and concern in locals like never before.


The term “Drone” is now more often than not, actually referring to a small remotely controlled vehicles, either fixed wing plane, or multirotor copter. Once only found in local RC clubs, that used to fly mainly planes and replica vehicles, Drones are now accessible to anyone who has a few hundred dollars available.

These vehicles are actually more accurately refered to as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) , or Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). Infact to train those reading this I will now refer to these vehicles as UAVs for the rest of this document, to inforce that the term Drone is not necessarily an accurate description of these vehicles.

You may be surprised, but many UAV operators really do not appreciate the term “Drone”. They are very aware it is negatively associated with violence or unlawful activity. UAV much more accurately describes what they are using. If you use the term UAV with an operator they may appreciate that you have a better understanding about what the technology is that they are using.

However, most UAV operators have resigned themselves to the fact that the term “Drone” is probably here to stay.

That White Quadcopter


phantomProbably the most common UAV at the moment for the public, is the DJI Phantom series. This is a small white quadcopter that will often have a GoPro or similar sized camera underneath. You’ve probably seen them all over youtube in “Drone” videos. They are reasonably inexpensive for the technology they provide, and are available in many electronic and photography stores now. They are quite easy for a novice to use, although I would recommend starting smaller first.


DJI is a chinese company that is a leader in the Radio Controlled UAV market at the moment. They also sell much larger Multicopters for larger video and photographic uses.

3D Robotics is another growing company, leading technology in the Drone industry.


An UAV whether Plane or Copter consists of a few main parts. Without going into detail:

  • Radio Controller/Transmitter, for the operator on the ground to control the vehicle.
  • Flight Controller, mounted to the UAV itself, this controls the vehicles motors, and movement. It receives information from the Radio Controller, processes them and updates the UAV to respond accordingly. Some Flight controllers have the ability to perform autonomous actions, like GPS positioning and predefined wypoint following.
  • Motors and ESCs (Electronic Speed Controllers) , mounted to the UAV provide power,thrust, lift and force to move and keep in the air.
  • Batteries, mounted on the UAV provide the required power to the ESCs and motors.
  • Camera and Video systems. Often a camera on board the UAV sends a signal via a video transmitter to a unit at the operators position. This may be to a display monitor or FPV (First person view) googles.
  • Task specific hardware. Depending on what the purpose of the UAV is, there may be some custom gear on board. Farmers and Vineyard owners have been developing techniques for UAVs to automate what used to be manual tasks. For example crop spraying, cattle counting, remotely controlled property inspection.

Aerial Industry

It is very common now to see a UAV quadcopter with a camera below it taking photos or videos out on a beach or park, or even in an urban environment.

There are a huge amount of uses for these vehicle that industries are expanding rapidly to take advantage of them. In particular Aerial photography. Uses such as:

  • Real estate photography
  • Weddings
  • Radio and other Tower maintenance and inspection
  • Nature photography and video
  • Onset Film and Commercial video shooting
  • Search and Rescue
  • Conservation research and inspection
  • Agriculture

Are you spying on me?



A common misconception is that UAVs are usually owned by individuals who want to spy on other people. Though I could not rule this out 100%, my guess is this is extremely rare. I will explain why:

Firstly, the cameras on most UAV are wide angle and low resolution. This means it is very hard to get a closeup detail of a person without being a few metres away. Most UAVs you see are most likely 30 metres/ 90 feet  in the air or higher, at which point a person looks like a dot on the screen. A spy would have more success on the ground with a much better camera than using a UAV.

Secondly, if you have witnessed a UAV, most likely you heard it before you saw it. Multicopters sound like a giant swam of angry bees. They are not designed for stealth and definately not secretly spying on people.

Of course, there are always those that will use any technology to do unlawful activity. This is true of any technology from computers to firearms, but do not assume that a UAV operator is doing something dodgy. All the UAV operators I know personally do it for business, or nature photography hobby.

Usually a UAV operator will be happy to talk to you about what they are doing, as most professional operators would like the public to feel comfortable with this industry. If you wish to talk to them, I suggest first you allow them to finish what ever tasks they are performing and allowing the vehicle to come back and land. Stay a distance away from the operator and vehicle in the mean time, as there are dangerous spinning propellers on a copter and plane. Even if it is on the ground stationary, those motors can power up at any time. Let the operator completely shut it down, and come to you.

As an operator it is our responsibility to maintain safety of ourselves, our gear and the public around us. Often Ive had to cut a mission short as interested public (often children) approach and start getting to close. This means quickly landing and disarming the motors.

Is this legal?

That depends on your country.

Many countries are country regulating the use of UAVs, as governments are aware that the UAV technology will provide great revenue for multiple industries. Aviation authorities in each country will set rules for such usage, including height limitations, and resricted fly zones around airports etc and many countries are currently in the process of setting safety rules. In USA their FAA is in charge of these rules.

In New Zealand we have the CAA, who have created a UAV web portal AirShare to allow ease of communication between UAV operators and CAA, Air Traffic control and other parties.

For more information search for you country’s Administration of Aviation (FAA or CAA etc) on their website it will likely refer to UAVs if you search for it (or “Drone”)


How do I start?hubsanMini

Its an exciting technology and hobby. There are so many avenues to start. However if you are interested in multicopter UAVs the safest place to start is with a mini copter. These are about the size of your hand and can be flown indoors without much risk of damage or injury.

A good example is the Hubsan X4

You should buy and use one of these until you are completely comfortable with 3d flying (ie flying in all directions, and all orientations). You’ll discover  very quickly that once a copter turns from facing away from you, to facing towards you that your perception control changes. (Suddenly forward is left, and left is backwards etc) It is disorientating at first. You WILL crash at some point, and it is much better to crash a $50 mini than a $700 or $2000 quadcopter

Within a few days week of practicing each day you should become much more confident.

Then it may be time to…..

Level Up!




My recommendation for the next step up is something like the 3dr Iris+ copter (The DriftVFX 3DR Iris+ seen here with Sony rx100M3 attached).

It is a similar size and cost to the common DJI Phantom. It is large enough to carry a goPro style camera, or small compact camera and very easy to control. It’s software allows for automatic missions based on a google map style view. We at Drift VFX use 3D Robotics copters and flight controllers (Pixhawk) . The reasons why I recommend 3dr over other popular makers:


EDIT: As June the 3dr Solo has been released. This is an advanced step up over the Iris to give more control for aerial video, with goPro 4 cameras.

DJI have also released their range of Phantom 3 series Drones. These are comparable to the 3dr Solo



  • Support is key!! 3DR value their customers and the support is amazing
  • Community. The Iris+ facebook channel is a great community for additional help. As is diydrones.com.
  • Mission Planner: This is the open source software that interfaces with Pixhawk, the flight controller for all 3DR vehicles. It is very powerful…and free!!
  • Price. The Iris+ is very reasonable price, and just works out of the box.
  • Functionality. The Iris+ or X8+ are very capable of carrying cameras and gear. They are also very easy to modify and add other items to. This is not so easy on other brand machines where the closed surface makes it hard to mount any additional gear.
  • Peripherals.  You will need to by batteries and parts for any UAV. 3DR Iris+use generic RC connections which means you can by off the shelf RC parts and have a huge variety to choose from at varying prices. You are not stuck with the UAV’s branded gear at its dictated price.

Be Inspired!

Our newest purchase at DriftVFX is the DJI Inspire 1. This is an incredible video platform, which provides 4k video, at a a less wide lens than a standard goPro, avoiding the fish eye look.


The Drone is very solid and stable, and has a live HD link from the drone to your ipad (which sits on the controller).

This Drone far exceeded our expectations and we recommend to anyone wanting to seriously get into this industry, as a step

before committing to a heavy lift platform for a DSLR style camera.

The downside is, it is considerably more expensive than say the 3dr Solo.

There is an abundance of information about multicopters and fixed wing UAVs that I will not cover it here, but will list a few links.



3D Robotics

Hobby King

Foxtech FPV

UAV related forums and news

DIY Drones

RC Groups

Suas News

Facebook Iris Owners group

The Multirotor Podcast

RC Model Reviews


If you have any questions that have not been covered please Ask me and I will try to answer you.



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