I've always said that mini-quads are the best way to get started with multi-rotors. They provide a low-cost way to learn fundamental piloting skills before you put an expensive flying machine (and innocent bystanders) at risk. Additionally, their small size lets them be flown indoors. So you can hone your skills night and day, regardless of the weather. When I first began advocating the use of mini-quads as trainers, a hobby-quality unit would typically cost $100 or more. The price bar has come way down. Numerous mini-quads can now be had for less than $50. We'll look at a handful of those choices today.
My intent with this article is not to rank the different models, but rather to illustrate the range of options, as well as the limitations that are found at this price point. I think that someone with zero flying experience could be successful with any of the multi-rotors that I tested. With that said, I felt that one of the quads stood out as an exceptional choice for new pilots. You'll have to keep reading to see which one!
I tried to approach my testing with the mindset of a rank beginner. I think that stable hovering and docile control response are the best attributes to facilitate flight training. So I focused heavily on those aspects. Pilots who already have some stick time may put greater emphasis on other qualities such as aerobatic ability or toughness. Decide what factors are most important to you and choose accordingly. Even within this small sample of multi-rotors, I observed significant differences that could impact which is the best fit for different pilots.
The Economics of Ergonomics
The radio transmitters for most larger multi-rotors (i.e. those bigger than mini-quads) are quite standardized in terms of size, form factor and functionality. They follow the decades-old standard that is used for RC airplanes and helicopters. You may have switches and dials for various functions, but the core controls consist of a pair of 2-axis joysticks on the face of a box measuring approximately 6"x6".
If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image.
If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor (and thus, one of these standardized transmitters) it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image. The problem is that most inexpensive mini-quads come with transmitters that are nothing like the norm. Some are ridiculously tiny. Others look like gamepads. Most have thumb rests atop the joysticks, making the common "pinch" grip impractical. Regardless of how well the multi-rotor may fly, using these off-nominal transmitters limits the quad's effectiveness as a training tool. You may even pick up bad habits.
The good news is that an awkward transmitter isn't necessarily a deal-breaker. I have yet to find a transmitter that could not be easily (and cheaply) modified to adequately resemble the standard form factor. In most cases, it's just a matter of attaching the housing to a piece of foam and replacing the thumb rests with aluminum tubing. Of the five quads tested here, I found it "necessary" to modify all but one of them. Three received the foam and aluminum treatment, while one received only aluminum joysticks. See last year's review of the Dromida Kodo for details on my transmitter modification technique.