The Best Drones for Developers: Are Programmable Drones Any Good?

Last updated: 29th April 2020
Parrot Anafi Base

Parrot Anafi Base

Tello Quadcopter

Tello Quadcopter

Makeblock Airblock

Makeblock Airblock

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Most people see drones as fun toys or useful tools. But, those who know the inner working of what is needed for drone flight need the best drones for developers to spread their intellectual wings and make their drones fly better.

Thankfully, there are multiple drones that have their inner working open for tampering. As the industry is still developing, companies are open to make their software open-source and allow others to develop features further.

With these drones, you will have a lot of options. In some basic models, you will be able to program flight patterns and optimize the drone. As the features of the drone increase, so will your options.

Although the best drones for developers might not always be the best drones on the market, they will always be those that are easiest to access from the inside and change their settings.

Regardless if you are a student or an enthusiast, you can test different codes and structures. Even though results might vary, it will always be educational and very fun.

Finding a drone that you can customize from the inside is not as easy as it seems. Not only should the drone have their coding open to modifications, but they also have access ports where you can connect your computer.

Additionally, there should be some features that you can use apart from motor control. Gyros, barometers, and sensors should have their modules connected to this system to make the drone more exciting to develop.

Advanced features, like GPS or cameras, might make drones harder to customize and clean from virtual bugs. But, these tools will allow any developer to have multiple pathways to the solution they want to incorporate.

Finally, the best drones for developers will always be those that allow for third-party programming languages and development tools to be implemented. Multiple drone development tools have emerged on the market as of late, both proprietary and open-source.

Making the coding easier makes you focus less on the little misclicks and bugs and more on the features you are trying to develop or modify.

The Best Programmable Drones

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Parrot Anafi Base

Create your own apps for the Anafi using Ground SDK, Parrot’s ready-to-compile source code.

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Parrot Anafi Base
  • Flight Time: ~25 minutes
  • Charge Time: ~240 minutes
  • Range: 4000m / 2.5mi
  • Remote Controller: WiFi 5.4GHz & 2.4Ghz (included in the set)
  • Camera: 180° adjustable f/2.4 ASPH lens 4K Camera with 21MP
  • Live Video Transmission Range: 4000m / 2.5mi
  • Weight: 320g / 11.28oz
  • Working Temperature: -10°C to 40°C
  • Rated for indoor and outdoor use

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The Anafi is a fast and agile drone that has a modular design from the outset. Not only are the core settings easy to access and tinker with, there are even physical modules that can be added and combined.

The base Anafi model is an interesting drone by itself. It has a strong motor and multiple auto-pilot options that assist when taking off and landing.

Additionally, Parrot encourage anyone to develop their own apps for Anafi. This spells opportunity for any drone software developer, as you can use the different additions to code the drone into doing exactly what you want.

Finally, the drone is exceptionally easy to fly and behaves as you would expect. This will make your baseline for testing much better defined and will make it easier to perform subsequent testing.

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+ Pros

+ Very portable
+ Excellent GPS features
+ Superb camera
+ Very long range

- Cons

- Somewhat delicate — we recommend that you have some prior drone flying experience
- Reports of customer service related issues

Tello Quadcopter

Although this is an entry-level drone, it’s great for picking up if you’re looking for something programmable.

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Tello Quadcopter
  • Flight Time: 10-15 minutes
  • Charge Time: 75 minutes
  • Range: 100 meters
  • Remote Controller: none included; uses a smartphone app for control
  • Camera: 5 megapixels at 720p HD resolution
  • Weight: 82g
  • Rated for indoor and outdoor use

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This quadcopter provides a nice balance of simplicity and the number of features. It allows everyone to expand their own development capabilities at their own pace.

By using the Tello SDK, you can program and modulate every feature on the drone and have complete access to its inner workings. Even if you are just a junior developer, you can use Scratch to access the modules and change them with relative ease.

The modules on this drone are visibly separated, and the relations are straightforward. Developers focused on a single aspect of the drone can be confident that messing with one module will not influence another too much.

Aside from the power, speed, and height sensors, the Tello also has a good 720p camera that can be used to navigate the camera visually.

Finally, as it is possible to fly the Tello with your smartphone, this opens a lot of options for developers when it comes to autonomous flight. You can use the SDK to make whole flight plans, provided that you have enough information.

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+ Pros

+ Remarkably lightweight
+ Great for training drone flying skills
+ Completely programmable meaning you can extend the drone's functionality
+ Affordable price
+ HD video recording

- Cons

- Scratch programming language isn't very robust
- Unusable in low-light conditions

Makeblock Airblock

This programmable drone is certainly more than meets the eye!

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Makeblock Airblock
  • Flight Time: ~7 minutes
  • Charge Time: ~45 minutes
  • Range: 10m / 33ft
  • Remote Controller: Bluetooth (included in the set)
  • Camera: N/A
  • Live Video Transmission Range: N/A
  • Weight: 150g / 5.29oz
  • Working Temperature: 0°C to ~ 40°C
  • Rated for indoor and outdoor use

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Anything that can be said about this drone will always be a half-truth. This is because the end look, design, and features will depend on the user customizing it.

The kit comes with a controller box, where most of the sensors are placed as well, and eight enclosed rotors that can be easily connected and disconnected.

The visual similarity with LEGO is to be expected, as this company had a lot to do with the development of the Airblock.

Aside from being a stable and versatile flying drone, it can also become a hovercraft or any other contraption that you can think of. As controls on this machine are completely open and customizable, there is no real limit of what you can make it do.

Additionally, no real programming experience is needed to change the settings. Using the Makeblock app, anyone can adjust features and make new ones by simply tinkering with the controls and power.

Finally, those that have experience will be able to enter the APK panel and explore the inner workings of the functions, possible finding something that even the manufacturers didn’t think of.

With multiple prizes won, it is obvious why the Makeblock Airblock is considered one of the best drones for developers that are just starting their craft.

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+ Pros

+ Easily adjustable
+ Lightweight
+ Easy to program
+ Multifunctional

- Cons

- Low range with regular Bluetooth
- Boxy design
- No camera

Sky Viper e1700

With its low weight and high agility, this developer drone can flip and turn over a short bend, while still remaining stable.

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Sky Viper e1700
  • Flight Time: ~8 minutes
  • Charge Time: ~60 minutes
  • Range: 30m / 100ft
  • Remote Controller: WiFi 2.4 GHz (included in the set)
  • Camera: N/A
  • Live Video Transmission Range: N/A
  • Weight: 75g / 2.64oz
  • Working Temperature: 5°C to ~ 40°C
  • Rated for indoor and outdoor use

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For developers, the most interesting thing about the Viper e1700 is the ViperFlight 5 control firmware that is often used for drone racing. By tapping into this system, a capable programmer can make the drone do all kinds of feats on its own.

Additionally, you won’t need to search line after line of code to find what you are looking for. With the Builder app, you will have a clear count of all features and how they work.

As the whole drone can be picked apart and reassembled, there is a possibility to add features and modules on the inside, provided they are not too heavy.

Finally, developers will be delighted to tinker with the Viper’s controller. There is a number of buttons that can be used for dedicated maneuvers that you have programmed into the drone.

With trial and error, this can become a superior drone that can fly and twist in anyone’s hands, as if they are a professional.

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Drones for Developers: Buyer’s Guide

While the type of drone you will want to purchase will heavily depend on your level of skill.

For schools and colleges, it will be best to go with as many features as possible. This will give the students enough chance to experience different aspects of how drones work and have a more detailed education in the end.

But, for individuals, knowing which skill you have and which you can develop will be crucial.

There are tools that can assist you in any aspect where you are lacking, but not all drones are capable of allowing those tools. You will need to make an inventory of what you have in your assortment before you buy anything.

Additionally, you might be someone interested in the hardware as well as the software. In these cases, you will need to take note of any hardware mod you want to be installed and make the same assessment.

Finally, you might want to pose yourself with a challenge, which is admirable. In that case, simply going for the biggest number of features offered by the drone will always be the best and most exciting way to go.

Are Drones Programmable?

A helicopter, thus also a quadcopter, is not an easy thing to fly reliably. There is a lot of physics and even more mechanics involved.

Whoever spoke about ‘nuclear science’ as a difficult subject never heard about fluid dynamics. And in this case, the air is definitely a fluid.

Inside most modern drones, there is a flight controller that regulates the speed of the rotor blades, as well as any additional features the drone might have. This chip will process all of the information it receives and respond depending on its coding.

For developers, this response is what can be tinkered with and adjusted to have some interesting results.

You will be able to change everything from the logic to the commands used, making the drone act differently in various situations. By connecting input from various features, you can even create completely new commands that the drone manufacturer didn’t even realize possible.

What Can Be Programmed into a Drone?

Theoretically? Everything.

Depending on the features already coded in and the strength of the processor, you will be able to install almost any command and process imaginable. Only your creativity and skill is the limit.

For basic drones, this will be the speed optimization and agility of the drone. Making different blades work at varying speeds can make the drone go faster than what was the capability of the motor alone.

But, when you pass on to more advanced models that have sensors, cameras, and other tools that go with the contraption, the number of modification skyrocket.

By using the most advanced hardware, you can even develop the AI of the drone to work almost autonomously. With proximity sensors and a good camera, drones can even use computer learning to recognize problems and solve them.

There is no debate that any software development is a slow and difficult task. But, when it comes to drones, it can be really fun and exciting. 

Even when the software fails and your little drone crashes the consequences as fun and even more learning opportunities.

What to Look For In a Programmable Drone

When buying a drone you want to program and develop its software, there are two main pathways where you can go.

Primarily, you can use already developed drones that have a lot of features and a lot of options. In these cases, you will want to familiarize yourself with the inner workings of the drone first and then work on further development.

When it comes to building your drone ‘from the bottom up,’ you will want to go with more rudimentary models. Here you won’t have all of the drone’s existing back processes interfering with your work. 

Finally, there are also kits where you can work on the software and hardware at the same time. 

Drone building is slightly easier than drone software development, and if you can make both processes work, you might get something at the end that is way better than the mere sum of its parts.

Do You Have To Be a Developer To Use Them?

If it comes to flying alone, even though some of the models are made specifically for developers and students, everyone can fly them.

But, even if you only implement some already finished changes or plug-ins into the drone, you are already technically a drone developer. You don’t need to be an electrical engineer to modify and code for drones.

Even with the apps available online for free, you will have many options open. This way, you will start your drone modding journey and see where it takes you.

By applying different software solutions and subsequently testing your drone, you can understand how some features work, and why. As with all science, you build on prior results and failures and progress further.

Even for someone starting today, there is a universe of possibilities that waits to be uncovered. There is no way of knowing who will get what.

Easiest Apps to Program Drones

Most drone manufacturing companies will have their own dedicated app to help you formulate your code and implement it. These apps have an intuitive UI and are usually very easy to work with, even if you are a beginner.

Experienced developers, especially those who can honestly claim that they are full-stack, will notice that all of the apps work on a familiar basis.

Every app designed for Android or iOS will have the APK basis modeled into the features. This will make it quite easy to program and build on existing coding.

In other cases, you can use C++ directly to form your own logic and develop the software ‘from scratch’. While doing this alone sounds like a colossal job, there is a whole community of drone enthusiasts and developers that will help you by sharing their data.

Finally, if you opt for the best drones for developers, you will usually have some assistance from the website of the drone manufacturer you have purchased from. They will assist you with any data, information, and mechanics that you need.

Conclusion

Drones are fun, any way you look at it. From the outside, they are interesting to fly and take pictures with, but on the inside, they become a magnificent mix of math, physics, and engineering.

Those with existing knowledge of programming languages and maybe even drone programming will love having some of the best drones for developers out there where they can test the limits of their skills.

Beginners will be delighted that there are multiple tools that can assist them in their learning curve and help them become better developers faster, joining the expert group in testing what is possible. 

Finally, every group, regardless of skill or area of interest, will have a lot of fun flying these drones, even if they end up making only a few changes.

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Parrot Anafi Base

Parrot Anafi Base

GPS, 4K video and a staggering 21 MP camera allows for some of the most beautiful drone shots imaginable.

Tello Quadcopter

Tello Quadcopter

The Tello Quadcopter is our value pick due to great features and a budget-friendly pricepoint.

Makeblock Airblock

Makeblock Airblock

This programmable drone is certainly more than meets the eye!