Everyone from real estate agents to amateur photographers is using personal drones these days. These amazing flying machines combine the joys of aerial photography with the feeling of exhilaration many associate with flying model airplanes. A VR drone, a drone combined with a virtual reality (VR) headset, takes the enjoyment provided by ordinary drones to a new and higher level.
Whether you love the thrill of drone racing and want to experience it firsthand via your VR headset or just want the feeling of soaring effortlessly above the clouds, today's VR drones offer more than ever in terms of flexibility of use and accessible pricing.
What Is a VR Drone?
A VR drone, also known as a virtual reality drone, is a drone with a virtual reality headset. Any drone combined with a VR headset may fall in this category, but there are many uses for VR drones. Each type of VR drone has its own specialty although there are also some less specialized versions for general use.
Photography VR Drones
In the past, photographers and videographers using drones to create images and videos would rely on screen images to identify their best shots. With the addition of a VR headset, however, amateurs and professionals can experience every angle and every shot firsthand without the confines of a rectangular, boxy screen. While most users opt to implement this new artistic advantage outside, you can also use a photography VR drone inside to capture unique angles from inside any room.
While any VR headset will create some degree of immersive experience, for drone fliers who want to feel every dip, wiggle, and waggle of the wings, VR drones with video transmission built right into the VR goggles are the way to go. These models have the option to remove the front and rear of the drone from the user's vision, creating the feeling that you, alone, are soaring among the clouds.
Yes, you read that right. Some drones can swim. What better use for a VR drone than using it to look for undersea treasure or admire the aquatic life up close. As with other VR drones, aquatic drones may come with a variety of headset models or goggles for better viewing and a more immersive experience.
A racing VR drone will usually be a quadcopter, meaning it is unmanned, usually quite small, and has four rotors. Unlike other recreational drones, racing drones are built specifically for speed and often do not have settings that would enable them to fly “low and slow,” for example, in order to capture the best images. A racing drone is built to win in a contest of speed and agility. If you are using a VR drone for racing, the odds are good that the camera may be quite good but that it will not serve a dual purpose and shoot attractive videos or still photos.
You might assume that you will be able to wear your glasses with all VR drone models, but that is incorrect. Make sure that regardless of which specialty drone you are using, the headset is labeled “eyeglass compatible” if you want or need to wear glasses while flying.
What Is an FPV Camera?
FPV stands for “first person view.” A VR drone needs an FPV camera in order to give the user the most involved experience with the flight possible. A good FPV camera enables you to see not only where your drone is flying, but also what its camera is “seeing” and recording. In older drone models that were not VR drones, the user might have to send the drone up and fly it around using a tracking system instead of a camera. They would not know exactly what had been filmed until the drone returned and they downloaded the recording. With an FPV camera, this issue becomes a nonissue.
Exterior-Mounted FPV Cameras
If you own a drone without an FPV camera but do not wish to replace your machine, you may choose to purchase an FPV camera and mount it on the outside of your drone. Once the FPV camera is connected to VR goggles or a headset, you have, in effect, a VR drone. The downside of this is that you may experience “latency issues” that create a slight delay between what is happening to your drone and what you experience via the FPV camera.
While the delays are very short, a matter of milliseconds, in a racing drone or any speedy drone this could be a problem. Such a small delay may translate to as much as six feet of flight, easily creating a situation wherein you either hit an obstacle or miss a target.
Built-In FPV Cameras
The more effective option for a VR drone is to invest in a machine with the FPV camera built into the system from the beginning. Latency issues still persist, but with a VR drone with the FPV camera built into the system, you will have less likelihood of damaging your camera in the event that you do collide with an object. VR drones with the FPV camera and VR equipment all installed together also tend to have fewer latency issues and better processing capabilities. With faster, more powerful processing comes lower and lower latency.
Field of View Considerations in Your VR Drone
The field of view (FOV) for your FPV camera will play an important role in your VR drone experience. As you might expect, FOV essentially defines how much of the world you can see around you when you are viewing the world through your VR drone's headset. The human eye has a focal length of just under 3 mm, and FOV for FPV cameras may range from 1.2 mm to 6.0 mm. Depending on how you wish to use your VR drone, you may want something that mimics the visual experience you are used to, or you may want something that will dramatically expand your visual capability.
Everything You Need to Get Started
Now that you have an idea of the potential involved in using a VR drone for racing or photography and videography, you probably cannot wait to get started. However, there are multiple issues to resolve if you are a drone racing aficionado. According to most photographers and videographers, using a VR drone for these pursuits is relatively simple. You simply can purchase a VR drone package specifically for this purpose, then head out for your new flying and artistic experience.
VR Drone Racing Components
For VR drone racing, however, there are a few more considerations, not the least of which is that you will likely smash your drone into things as you master the art of VR racing. Remember that latency issue we mentioned? It can get expensive fast.
You will need four basic things to get started in VR drone racing:
You will want to consider purchasing an FPV drone package to help make sure everything works well together but avoid products that rely on WiFi or a connection to your phone, which exacerbate latency problems. You will also want a camera with a fairly wide FOV to keep your visual range wide open as you race.
Many drone racers recommend starting out with a mini or even micro FPV quad because they are relatively inexpensive, are great for practice, and can even be used indoors. The problem with this option is it will likely only ever be a practical option since you will almost certainly have to mount the FPV camera on the drone yourself.
Slightly larger, more advanced drones may come with cameras installed and, if you have the budget for it and are interested in using it as a training device, this may be a good option for you. If you want to get as close as possible to a real racing drone without the dangers associated with operating a real racing VR drone, then look for a micro or mini quad with a “brushless” motor for higher speed, durability, and something very close to the real racing experience.
Of course, if you are a professional drone racer already, you may wish to invest in a real VR racing drone as your next competitive model.
Getting the Most Out of Your VR Drone
To get the very best experience out of using your VR drone, establish your goals for using the machine before making your purchase. As we mentioned, using a VR drone for recreational experiences, photography, or videography is a very different pursuit than using the VR capabilities of a drone in order to race faster or win more competitions.
You will need to decide for yourself how much issues like latency, cost, and degree of immersion matter to you, then select the model that best fits your needs and your budget. Whether you opt for a micro model and mount your own camera or invest in something with every bell and whistle, VR drones are great for hobbyists and professionals.