So you've decided to blow your kids college fund, take out a second mortgage on your house or maybe just having a mid-life crisis and you're looking to put together a top of the range copter, so what are you going to get for your money? Well, depending on just how much you're willing to spend, the sort of features that you're going to get with a premium copter are: GPS waypoint navigation, custom ground station software and enough lifting power to carry a small family pet.
Of course if you've got the money then you can get someone to do the hard work of putting the system together for you, but this does not guarantee success and flying experience isn't something that can be purchased. If you're brand new to multicopters and looking to do aerial work with it, then I highly recommend purchasing a cheap multicopter to learn to fly before jumping in at the deep end.
Let's start by looking at some RTF options.
From the makers of one of the first commercially available multicopters, the draganflyer, comes the Draganfly X-series of multicopters. These are designed for the emergency services for carrying out aerial reconnaissance, so prices are difficult to come by, but I expect that the price will be $30k+
The custom ground control is super cool looking and features real-time telemetry, spoken verbal alarms, camera control, live digital vieo downlink and mapping.
The md4-100 boasts an impressive flight time of 88 minutes (although it's not mentioned if this is whilst carrying a payload), making it ideal aerial inspections and surveys. This is one big machine and is once again primarily designed for emergency services and other government bodies, making prices difficult to come by, but don't expect change from $50k.
Coming back to a slightly more realistic budget, there are a number of RTF packages available for around $10k. For a long time, MikroKopter pretty much had this corner of the market to themselves, offering features that no other platform had. There are a number of stores offering RTF packages featuring the MikroKopter control board at its centre and one of my favourite is the Cinestar 8. The frame is specifically designed with vibration dampening features to allow smooth aerial video to be shot. The basic version retails for just under $10k, but with all the optional extras including camera gimbal then the price could be as high as $20k.
If you have a slightly lower budget and don't mind being restricted to using only one model of camera then perhaps you might like the DJI S800 complete with Zenmuse camera gimbal and WKM flight controller. There were a few reported problems with the initial release of the S800 with some of the ESCs overheating and causing crashes, but I think that those problems have mainly been solved now. The special thing about this combo is the Zenmuse gimbal which uses direct drive brushless motors to provide just about the best camera stabilisation available for multicopters. The only downside is that the Zenmuse is designed specifically for the Sony NEX-5.
There's something quite satisfying about getting a bunch of parts and taking the time to put them together piece by piece until finally you have a complete machine ready for its maiden flight. Building it yourself also means that you have a much greater understanding of the copter, so that if something does go wrong, you'll know how to fix it and like I said earlier, experience can't be purchased.
When it comes to top of the range multicopter chassis, there are so many options to choose from but there are 4 that I think really stand out from the crowd. The Cinestar range of frames that I mentioned in the $10K RTF copter are available as frame only, allowing you to choose the rest of the components yourself.
The second manufacturer whose frames have to be considered is Droidworx. They are a New Zealand based company that produce high quality heavy lift copters. They now offer a retractable landing gear, which is great for 360 degree pans without the landing gear spoiling the photo/video.
The next copter that I think is worth having a look at is the Flexacopter. The special feature of the Flexacopter, apart from the stunning good looks, is the stainless steel wire dampeners which allow you to mount your camera gimbal on a platform that is extremely well isolated from vibration. From the videos that I've seen produced using the Flexacopter, it really does appear to be a great frame for aerial video.
The last frame that I want to talk about is the ECILOP Easy. This was developed Aleksey Zaitsevsky and utilises a radically different form of camera stabilisation. This is a frame and camera stabiliser all in one, therefore saving you a small fortune on the need for a seperate camera gimbal. The stabilisation method is much like a steadicam and uses the weight of the battery to balance the camera and produces astoundingly stable footage. The downside to this design is that it complicates the installation of all the electronics, is only available as a quadcopter (at present) and is limited in the choice of camera that you can use. At only $495 this represents really good value for money and I'm sure that we will see a number of frames incorporating this stabilisation method in the future.
As I said earlier, this is an area that for quite some time had been dominated by MikroKopter, which is still the industry standard by which all others are judged. More recently, dji have released the Wookong-M which boasts many similar features to Mikrokopter but is more aesthetically packaged and has an easier to use interface. The latest newcomer to the market is the YS-X6 from Zero UAV offering a few more features than the dji, but in a very similar package. The MikroKopter has limited range waypoint flying unless you purchase quite an expensive licence, whereas both the Wookong-M and the YS-X6 offer limited waypoints without an expensive license. In order to use many of the additional features you need to purchase a radio data link, which attaches to a computer so that you can do point and click waypoint flying.
Motors, Props & ESC
It's not possible to recommend any one brand for these, but if you stick with the frame manufacturers suggested setup then you can't go wrong.
As far as I'm aware they haven't yet developed a miniature nuclear powered battery and hydrogen fuel cell technology is still not advanced enough for our use, so you're going to be needing some really high capacity Lipo's. My friend, who has recently sold his house to fund one of these copters, tells me that the Turnigy nano-tech 5s 8000mAh Lipo is just the job for this application.
A good camera gimbal can cost more than all of the rest of the components combined and is an absolute necessity if you want to produce high quality video. Unless of course you purchase a frame using the steadicam style system like the one used in the ECILOP, the name of the game nowadays is Direct Drive. This trend was started with the release of the Zenmuse Z15 from dji and looks set to continue with the soon to be released Hero range from PhotoHigher. The AV200 also from Photohigher has been, and to a certain extent still is, the industry standard but it's days look to be numbered.
Licence & Insurance
So you've blown your kids inheritance on building the world's best multicopter, but what can you do with it? Well, if you want to go into business making films or taking aerial photographs then you're going to need a licence and insurance. Depending on where you live in the world makes a big difference as to how complicated and expensive this process is. Make sure that you check the regulations where you live before you invest a small fortune in a business that you can't get off the ground.
In my forthcoming article I am going to be writing about the different regulations around the world and how different aviation authorities regulate the use of multicopter 'drones' for both professional and hobby use, so stay tuned...