Are you thinking about buying a used drone? Here are some things you should consider before plunking down several hundred dollars on a used piece of technology. I’m not against the idea and in fact one of my most reliable units, a DJI Inspire 1, was purchased from a friend who knew his stuff. I had the advantage of knowing something about the drone’s history and how it had been cared for.
Even though I had a good experience, not everyone I have met has shared my good luck. I run a repair center and numerous drones have made their way to my workshop. Some of these drones are used rigs that the customer thought was a great deal only to discover hidden problems that required additional expense to correct.
Risks of buying a used drone
- There may be hidden problems that are not easily detected
- The drone could be stolen
- The drone may be operating normally but nearing the end of its service life
- Batteries may not have been properly maintained and could suffer unexpected power loss
Sources for used drones
- Craig’s list
- Local classified ads
- A friend or acquaintance
- Factory refurbished
- Third party retailer refurb
- Other online marketplaces like https://dronetradr.com
- Online forums like RC groups or Facebook groups
As you can see there is no shortage of of sources for used drones and you can imagine some of these sources are riskier than others. So, when making your decision whether or not to buy a used drone you should do a cost-benefit analysis. High risk marketplaces should offer a much lower selling price. Marketplaces like such as craigslist have you dealing with complete strangers with little opportunity for recourse after the sale. Online auctions such as eBay offer the buyer some protections may fetch a higher price. Being able to examine the drone personally is obviously more desirable. Probably the best source is a friend you know and trust.
You may be able to gauge the reliability of the seller by asking a few questions and making some observations. Does the seller own any other drones? Can the seller provide a maintenance history? How long ago did the seller buy the drone? Did they buy it used or new? What is the seller’s motivation for selling the drone? Has the unit been kept in a case? Is it clean and well maintained? Just like buying a used car, asking a few questions should give you a better read on the person you are dealing with.
Recognizing a Good Deal
The 3DR Solo once retailed for over $1,200. Since black Friday, Best Buy has been selling new units for $299. While writing this article I checked online and located a used 3DR Solo listed for $600. Sellers often base their selling price by how much they have into it rather than looking at the market price. Do your research and base your decision on the current market price, not the original retail value. Like every piece of technology, it starts high and drops quickly.
Inspecting the Drone
If you are able to arrange an inspection what should you look for? First, inspect the drone for damage. Even small cracks, fractures, protruding tabs on the airframe may be a sign the drone was in a crash. While damage may look minor, there could be more serious issues inside the shell. For example the DJI Phantom 3 is a very reliable aircraft but even a minor collision may cause the shell to flex at a point near a critical connector on the flight control board. The flexing can bend or even break connectors. Bent connectors may still function but the stress on solder joints will likely cause a failure at a later date. The result could be a flyaway or a crash.
Next, have a close look at the camera. If the drone is equipped with a gimbal like the DJI Phantom, check the gimbal arms for bends, fractures and torn ribbon cables. A bent gimbal arm will not function correctly can add additional expense to your purchase to correct.
Power the unit on. Does it connect to the control interface? Does the gimbal level out? Does it move freely? Is the video signal clean and strong? Does the unit detect GPS signal? Does it display a compass error? Does the control interface display any other error messages? ESC errors and IMU errors are deal breakers.
Will the seller allow a test flight? Finally, take a test photo and video. After all, you are buying a flying camera so don’t forget to to check the camera’s function.
If you are buying online look for disclosures like, “minor damage” or “cosmetic damage”. I would stay away from this unless you are looking to buy up a unit for parts.
Flight Logs and Battery History
One way to verify the seller’s claims is to have a look at the flight logs. Drones like the 3DR Solo, Yuneec and DJI products offer this feature. Like the odometer of a car, you may be able to estimate the hours of service and number of flights. It is possible for the seller to delete these files but most people don’t bother. Lipo batteries require care and maintenance. A look at the battery logs can reveal how many times the battery has been charged and discharged.
The FAA requires that any aircraft weighing more than 8.8 ounces be registered. If you are buying a drone that was previously registered as a “recreational aircraft” just remove any registration markings prior to flight and apply your own. If the aircraft was registered as a “commercial aircraft” the owner will need to login to their FAA account and unregister the aircraft. (Commercial aircraft are registered by serial number while recreational aircraft are not.) https://registermyuas.faa.gov
If you are buying a DJI product, the aircraft was registered to the original owner through a cloud based service however, you are still able to change the name of the aircraft through the DJI Go app. Future flights will record normally and be saved to your cloud account provided you are signed in and synchronizing regularly. Check to see if this is a feature of the drone you plan to buy or you may be stuck with the naming scheme of the previous owner.
With all of the new drones hitting the market this holiday season, lots of previous drone owners are motivated to sell their older units to buy the latest innovations. Sellers in this instance are understandably trying to recoup as much of their investment as possible so “good deals” may be hard to come by. You may get lucky and come across a motivated seller who has taken good care of the aircraft.
But, buyer beware; the seller may be having troubles or trying to offload their problems. Minimize your risk by vetting the seller. If you are buying online, you won’t have the opportunity to inspect it which means you are taking the seller at their word. Read seller feedback and stay away from newcomers who have not yet established an online reputation. Use online payment methods like PayPal to receive some buyer protections. If you are buying locally, thoroughly inspect the drone and ask lots of questions. Don’t forget, batteries make up a significant part of the cost so if they have not been properly maintained, you may be plunking down extra cash to get airborn. A friend of mine once said, “A good deal is like a bus; one comes around every 15 minutes”