The Best Beginner’s Drone for Your Child
One of my earliest memories of a favorite toy was my 1969 Apollo 11 ‘LEM” lunar lander. It was actually a simple balloon my father inflated that was nestled on top of a circular plastic frame with pod legs and a NASA logo. When I tossed my balloon spaceship into the air, it floated down faster with the extra base weight.
(Helium not included)
However, the toy’s other half was a ground-based fan powered by four size D batteries. The fan looked like a satellite dish and swiveled around so I could blow the balloon about. The goal was to try to direct my spaceship towards a cardboard ‘landing pad’ using the fan as a directional guide.
It was completely impossible to do, but I was absolutely delighted with the idea that I was “flying” my toy.
Fast forward a few decades and the ongoing technology revolution…
Now, little flying helicopters and drones are so common you can almost find one at the bottom of a cereal box.
So I figured it was time to get my five-year-old son his own flying contraption for the holidays. A radio-controlled helicopter? Maybe a quadcopter?
Our needs were simple: I wanted a model that was easy enough for my son to fly and could also take an inevitable licking.
My little boy and his drone… How cool would that be?!
Do You Know a Good Pilot?
I know you must be experiencing a little déjà vu, because last week I went through the same exercise to buy him a radio-controlled toy car. But there’s a big difference between choosing a sturdy car to handle a few accidental impacts into our living room wall and handing my boy the keys to his new flying ‘Millenium Falcon.’
In fact, my little Han Solo in-training has no idea how to control a flying toy in 3D space, even if it’s only a few feet off the ground. But I figured if I introduced him to the basics of RC helicopter flying, maybe he could get the hang of it.
There’s only one problem…
I didn’t know the basics.
(Other than how to move a balloon around with a fan)
Fortunately, the good news is a little Googling can quickly change up that equation…
And unfortunately, it can also send you simultaneously down a rabbit hole…
The Search Begins…
My early research sent me to a few websites that seemed to own the RC helicopter conversation:
These ‘experts’ promote indoor radio-controlled helicopters over RC quadcopters as an entry-level toy because ‘RC’ helicopters are easier to handle. So I focused my attention on that category.
For those who need a quick primer… there are two general types of RC helicopters-
Cheap Toy RC Helicopters
- They typically cost $20 or less.
- Have ‘2 channels’ of control.
- Designed with a main rotor up front and a tail rotor.
That gives you front up/down power and rear ‘yaw ‘for turning.
(The heli’s forward weight simply drifts the body forward.)
- Provides relatively short flight times on one battery charge. (5-6 minutes)
- No replacement parts. When your chopper breaks, you throw it in the trash.
Hobby Grade Quality Helicopters
- These generally run $100… up to several hundred bucks.
- Have ‘3 channels’ of control and up.
(Although some would say that 3 channels isn’t the ‘real deal.’)
- The 3rd channel gives you forward and back control.
- A 4th channel would provide side-to-side control.
- Longer flight times on a battery charge.
- An extra charged battery can be swapped in.
- When a critical piece breaks off after a big ‘crash,’ there are usually replacement parts available.
Look at Coaxial RTF RC Helicopters
The consensus out there is a hobby-grade, 3-channel ‘co-axial’ heli is the way to go for beginners-
- Coaxial means two stacked, counter-rotating main rotors in front. This design is more stable and negates the need for a rear blade to handle torque.
- More conventional-looking single rotor RC helis with one rotor in front and a tail rotor (to prevent torque) are generally harder to fly.
- Tiny helis in the ‘micro’ category have a smaller mass and so are less likely to break on crash impact.
(But that doesn’t always speak to build quality.)
- And micro helis usually need to stay indoors, as they don’t have enough power to handle outside wind.
Okay… So I wanted a micro 3 channel co-axial RTF heli.
(RTF means ready to fly.)
My problem was there are still a mind-crushing number of choices out there in this category. But I found two that seemed to dominate the hive consciousness…
- $49.99 on Amazon and elsewhere.
- ‘Toy grade’ pricing (almost) with hobby grade product.
- Uses more advanced 2.4GHz radio control.
- Weighs 3/8 oz.
- You can pop in a spare battery.
- ‘Blade’ is a well-regarded brand in hobby circles.
- Recommended minimum age: 8 years.
The Blade has been around for a few years and incorporates more advanced stabilization technologies to make it easier to fly. Lots of a reviewers love it. But adoration is not universal.
(Is it ever?)
- It runs around $20.
- The remote is infrared.
(Not as advanced as a radio-based unit. Sunlight can interfere.)
- It weighs 1.25 oz… heavier than the Blade.
(More weight creates bigger crashes?)
- You can’t swap out the battery with a fresh one.
(So you’ve got to wait to charge it back up.)
Yet, it’s more advanced than other choices for the money.
- Technically, it has 3.5 channels of control. The extra .5 channel powers an onboard light.
- You can get replacement parts, which is unusual at this price point.
- It has a rear blade for more proportional tail control.
- The blades are breakaways that fold on contact.
- It’s supposed to cost twenty bucks, but Amazon’s pricing ranges from $19.78 to $29.95 for the newer green version.
(Apparently there are a lot of fakes on the market… so you’ve got to wonder if the cheaper ones are clones.)
- Recommended minimum age: 14 years.
So the Syma isn’t quite as advanced as the Blade, but it does have a few design advantages. And hey… what do you expect anyway for only twenty bucks?!
Many say it’s a great starter heli…
(Even though the S107G has been around for a number of years, there’s also an earlier version… the Syma S107 that’s still out there. It’s okay, but as you’d expect, not as advanced as the S107G.)
The one major concern the S107G choice left me with was the counterfeit question. I didn’t know how to prevent getting stuck with an inferior lookalike via Amazon…
So my decision stalled.
My Son Is Not Quite a Teenager Yet
Another issue I couldn’t shake is the advanced age ratings for these gadgets…
- The Syma is 8 years.
- The Blade is 14 years!
My son is 5.
I ran across this YouTube video comparing the Blade Scout to the Syma S107G.
At the end, the dad handed over the controls to his five year old son.
It wasn’t pretty.
I began to question the intelligence behind my entire heli search. But before I allowed myself to fall down another bottomless rabbit hole, I thought I might benefit from a little more perspective…
Entering the Hobby Store World
So I went down to my local hobby shop in an attempt to break through all of my confusion…
As I walked in, I spotted the salesman (I’ll call him Fred) tinkering at the counter. He looked like he’d been flying RC helicopters for half a century. He seemed a friendly type… so I figured I’d pick his brain.
Fred immediately confirmed the superior build quality of Blade products.
He turned my attention away from the Blade Scout and towards the 4-channel Blade mCX2 RTF.
This one cost twice as much as the Scout.
(Though it’s built tougher.)
Then, I brought up my quadcopter question to confirm that they were indeed harder to learn to fly on…
He firmly disagreed.
(Ah ha! Maybe this was the game-changer moment I was looking for…)
And in fact, it was.
The turn in conversation gave him a new idea…
He suggested I look a new, entry-level quadcopter drone called
the Blade Inductrix.
Meet the Blade Inductrix
He claimed the Inductrix is a cinch to fly and almost unbreakable.
And indeed, this little flying tank looked pretty tough…
- 4 channel 2.4 GHz controller.
- Flying weight – .67 oz.
- Uses ‘SAFE’ technology to create a more stable flight.
- You can swap out the battery, which charges up in just a few minutes.
- You can purchase replacement parts should you need them.
- It’s $70 with the controller.
- Or $50 without the controller.
(If you already have one that can ‘bind’ to the Inductrix)
Looks, good, right?!
But then I began to waffle again with Fred.
“Are you sure 4 channels of control isn’t too much for my five year old? All the websites I read said 3 channels are easier to learn with.”
A customer (we’ll call him Joe) who was listening into our conversation disagreed. He stepped forward…
“Do you want to teach your boy to fly?”
(I suddenly felt like a caveman trying to teach my boy the basics of hunting.)
“Then start him off the right way with 4 channels. You don’t want him to have to relearn everything when you upgrade from 3 channels.”
Joe had a point. Plus this guy proclaimed to have 30 years of RC helicopter flying experience.
(His perspective was probably worth more than some of the heli bloggers I found who are barely just past puberty…)
Okay… I was sold.
I pulled out my wallet, and Fred handed me my very own customer number along with my new Blade Inductrix.
As I walked out, I spotted Joe playing with the demo Inductrix on the counter.
My gut told me I had made the right choice….
Yes, I broke a fundamental rule I usually follow and made my purchase in the hobby shop… a brick and mortar store!
(What universal life force had taken over my web-based shopping savvy in that moment?)
Well, it seemed like the logical thing to do, as Fred sells all of the replacement parts that I’ll ever need.
(Though this tiny drone is supposed to be almost bullet proof)
And this cluttered store designed to delight the kid in all of us felt like a safe haven from all of my online research confusion and the real risk of buying a counterfeit product.
I know it may seem a little unusual for me to shy away from a challenge. But there’s nothing wrong with shopping smart. Bottom line pricing isn’t always the only consideration.
And as it turns out, the Inductrix wasn’t available online for less.
(Yes, of course I checked as soon as I got home…)
Changing Up the Shopping Groove
I rather enjoyed practicing a little old-fashioned 18th century commerce.
(Fred threw in an extra battery for free…)
Plus I was able to focus on the newest quadcopter choice out there.
(Pouring through website reviews that are years old sometimes has its limitations.)
Finally, I’m really happy I’ve brought home a flying machine designed for indoor use only. I don’t want it crashing into my neighbor’s house kitchen window.
(That said, Fred said it would successfully fly outdoors when there’s no wind.)
There’s only one question left that remains…
Can my young pilot in training fly the Inductrix?
Joe: “Oh yeah!
Barrett: “Clear away all of the breakables.”
Here we go….!