Virtual reality cameras are a great way to bring a person into an immersive experience. From something as small as a livestream of kittens, to investigative reports in international conflicts, virtual reality drones brings content to a whole new level.
Yet while videos can be created on the ground, recording from high in the sky takes the next step forward. Because of this, the best virtual reality drones balance between usability and durability, able to take a hit while flying safely.
What is a virtual reality drone?
Virtual reality drones are flying devices that have the capability of filming or streaming immersive content. The content is then viewable in a VR headset. The idea is that people can fly their drones around, have the content recorded, and then viewable later for professional or personal purposes.
It should be noted that virtual reality drone is not viewable or filmable in ‘true’ virtual reality. True VR is what you can expect to see in Oculus Rift S, Oculus Quest, or HTC VIVE units. The footage is much more immersive, allowing people to explore a virtual world. (A lidar unit or photogrammetry can be used to capture 3d space to make it more immersive). When people say virtual reality, what they really mean is 360 video, where people can look around and see the world around them. It is less immersive, but no less powerful.
As people mean 360 videos when they say virtual reality drones, the term will be used throughout this article for the sake of simplicity.
Why racing drones use FPV goggles, not VR
Drone racers use FPV goggles to improve their racing skill. By equipping the drones with a small camera, racers feel like they are piloting at the front of the device. This means they are able to take better turns around a course, without making mistakes by viewing the race from an outside perspective.
While the FPV goggles look like VR headsets, the truth is that they are not. They are rudimentary goggles that display a 2D view of the race, not a 360 experience that can be looked around left and right. Racers also do not need VR; they just need to look ahead, making sure they do not crash.
Because of this, the article will not focus on racing drones or their FPV goggles; though they are still very, very cool, as shown below. What this article will instead focus on is the best drones for filming immersive 360 content.
What types of drones work best for filming?
So let’s start with the first kind, relating to filming drones. For this, I spoke to Ben Huss-Smickler, Head of Immersive at SkyEdge360. He is an expert who has been filming with drones for years, to get his insights into the area.
There are two ways to film, and both come down to quality. Two lens cameras work on a smaller drone, which can fly in the air for longer. The drones are typically easier to transport, quicker to set up, and nimble enough to hover close to their subjects without harming the person or object. But the disadvantage is that the resolution is not as high, reaching 5.7K; high for video, but not good enough for 360 videos. The lenses also shoot at 30fps, when 60fps is preferable.
The second is using a larger drone for shots. These are bulky and difficult to carry, and do not last in the air for as long. While stable, they cannot be near certain targets for filming. But the benefit is that they can carry powerful cameras that can provide the very best quality. An example is the Titan, which can shoot in 11K; far more than what any headset in the market can handle. For quality, this is the one to go for.
These two types are the norm for filmers around the world today. But in the future, there will be a new class which will make filming much easier.
What is the best drone class?
Mr Huss-Smickler notes that an upcoming class of drone is more suitable for filming in virtual reality, called Ciniwhoop. These drones are small, about 250g to 500g, and can usually be 3D-printed for use. These smaller drones are similar to the kind which racers use, such as Promark, though build to carry cameras.
While other types of drones have been retrofitted to work with filming, this class has been designed from the ground-up to work with filming. It is also designed to be under 250g or 500g, which means it circumvents laws in some countries on declaring the drones which can be used for filming.
While this is a little into the future, keen enthusiasts can have a go with their own hands. For those who want to dip their toes into printing their own drones, this resource page outlines everything you need to know on how to start. The page also outlines some groups to access and raise questions, and where hobbyists can dip in to answer. Alternatively, the article will list a few drones which work for the hobbyists who want to dip their toes into the area.
Drone photography in VR
These drones can also be used for photography, not just filming. Taking flight, users can don their FPV goggles and surf above some waves or crest mountains, snapping 360 shots to take back home. Once returned, they can then be used on Facebook to make 360 banners or photos, which can provide an all-encompassing view of a holiday or trip. While films can show more action, a photo taken at the right time can speak volumes.
The drones listed in this article have those same capabilities. Some drones, like the Promark, are good enough. Others, like the DJI Mavic Pro 2, are top in their class. But the best virtual reality drones can also shoot film, for those who want to show the environment in action.
Best virtual reality drones
When considering the best virtual reality drones for filming, then the user should balance between usability, price, and quality. Drones can range from under £100 to over £1000, designed for hobbyists or professionals.
Here is a list of the best virtual reality drones currently in the market:
Xtreme Aerial Quadcopter Drone
At 1.3 pounds, the Xtreme Aerial Quadcopter Drone is one of the lightest on offer. With its light frame, it is easy to transport to a field and let fly with its remote controls and bundled VR headset. Users slot in their phone, grab the controller, and let fly the product. It is also easy to take photos and shoot films with an included 16GB memory card.
With its low price comes a weak battery. Users can expect to fly around for a couple of hours before it needs to land and be recharged. It is also difficult to control as there is a significant lag between what is seen through the Xtreme Aerial Quadcopter Drone camera, making it difficult to control and handle.
In other words, this is the most cost-effective drone for those who want a fun gift for Christmas. However, with its cheap design comes technical setbacks which keep back hardcore drone enthusiasts.
Promark Virtual Reality Drone
One of the best virtual reality drones out there, the Promark Virtual Reality Drone is great value for money. The drone comes with goggles that connect directly to the drone, which is equipped with a 720p camera. The drone is designed for the explorer, equipped with recording and streaming capabilities for capturing moments for everyone to see. While several times heavier than the Xtreme Aerial Quadcopter Drone at 5.5 pounds, it comes with much better tech for the passionate user.
The Promark Virtual Reality Drone is one of the best starter drones out there, best for beginners looking to try out the technology. While it is not a sophisticated as the top-level kind of drones, it is one of the best for those dipping their toes to test the waters.
DJI Mavic Air
So far, two cheaper drone models have been explored, which are normally suited for Christmas gatherings. The DJI Mavic Air takes a step beyond with a high-quality – and expensive – alternative.
The drone is foldable, making it easy to transport, and comes equipped with a 4K camera. It also comes with a set of goggles, letting users look around the world as they fly around. Combined with high speeds, tracking, slow-motion shots, and decent flight time, and the DJI Mavic Air is one of the best virtual reality drones in the market. If users want the best, this is it.
What country regulations should people be aware of?
It is one thing to own a drone; it is quite another to be allowed to fly it. With the spate of high-profile drone incidents around the world, countries have placed regulations to ensure that they cannot be flown unless certain conditions are set. These rules differ from country to country, even within the European Union.
The first step every person should take is to contact the country’s Civil Aviation Authority. The aviation regulators provide advice and steps to take in order to gain permission in each country, and can guide people in the right direction.
From there, the flyer would typically need to get permission for aerial work, otherwise known as a PFAW. In the UK’s case, flyers would need to take a theory test, write an operations manual, and take practical tests. Such tests are extensive and time-consuming, but are necessary to ensure the safety of areas being filmed. (PFAW is only necessary for commercial work, if it is recreational it is not necessary).
Once acquired, there are still restrictions on what a PFAW can allow. For example, certain locations – such as sites of historical interest – are banned unless an additional layer of permission is granted. Further, there is a general rule that a drone cannot be within 50 meters of a person or object outside of the crew’s control. An aeronautical map can show where is restricted airspace. In order to gain access, flyers also need a NOTAM.
These rules are complex and restrictive, but are there to ensure that virtual reality drones do not overstep their boundaries. In any case, the best first case is to contact the Civil Aviation Authority and take the necessary steps.
What is the future of virtual reality drones?
The future will likely bring further iterations of virtual reality drones, while becoming more accessible for consumers with lower costs.
Currently, virtual reality drones are largely dominated by hobbyists and professionals who use the capabilities for multiple activities, from filming films to racing around courses. Buying them is relatively easy but, using them well takes time and effort. Given time, drones will decrease in costs allowing more people to buy them, and resources are more accessible so more people can play with them.
Another potential innovation is the use of augmented reality (AR). By using the drones’ internal GPS system and trackers placed on the ground, race courses could be overlaid via AR, with floating virtual targets to hit as drones fly around. While this is not directly related to virtual reality drones, the use of AR will impact the way drones could be controlled and used, improving the user experience.