After flying dozens of drones around the sky for countless hours, our top pick for the Best Camera Drone is the DJI Mavic Air, which folds into a compact, portable size, comes with a 4K camera, and which you can control using nothing more than hand gestures. For kids, we recommend the Aukey Mohawk, which doesn't have a camera, but costs less than $70 and is very easy to fly.
Read on to see our choices for different types of flying and budgets. Below our recommendations, you can find our tips on shopping for a drone and what rules you need to follow.
Latest News and Updates (April 2018)
- DJI is releasing a budget drone—sort of. The Tello ($109), which is made with DJI parts, but sold through Ryze, is an entry-level drone designed to teach youngsters about coding using Scratch, a programming language developed by MIT. It has a 720p camera, and can be controlled using a smartphone app, or with a dedicated controller (sold separately)
- Air Hogs, which makes dozens of inexpensive drones for kids, announced the Supernova, its first drone that relies entirely on hand gestures for control. Five sensors detect your hand movements and respond accordingly. The Supernova, designed for children ages 8 and up, will be available for $40 in August.
- After a disastrous launch and lackluster sales, GoPro announced that it is discontinuing production of its Karma drone. GoPro will sell its remaining inventory, and continue to support those Karma drones already sold.
- Racing drone maker Uvify is launching the OOri, a palm-sized racer capable of reaching speeds up to 60 miles per hour. The OOri, designed for those who want to dip their toes into drone racing, comes with a controller, and is also compatible with FPV goggles. It's currently available for pre-order for $389, and will ship by the end of Q1 2018.
How We Test Drones
When we take a new drone out for a spin, we evaluate it based on a number of factors:
- Design: How well is the drone built, and does it look good? If it comes with a controller, we take a look at its ergonomics.
- Durability/Repairability: Face it. You're going to crash your drone at least once, but a good model should be able to survive a few mishaps without a problem. And, if something happens to break (it's usually a rotor), how easy is it to repair?
- Flight Performance: How easy is the drone to fly? Is is stable when hovering, or does it require a lot of stick work? How does it respond to your commands?
- App: How intuitive is the app? What sort of features are available?
- Camera Quality: If the drone has a camera, then how good are the photos and videos it takes?
- Flight time: How long can the drone stay in the air before its battery runs out? This varies a lot based on the size of the drone, but the best drones have batteries that last up to 25-30 minutes.
- Price: Obviously, we don't expect a $50 drone to perform as well as a $1,000 drone, so we take its cost into consideration when rendering a final verdict.
What to Look For When Buying a Drone
Drones aren't just fun to fly. They can let you capture breathtaking footage, some in high-resolution 4K video. They're also more affordable than ever, as quality beginner models now cost less than $60. Good camera drones start at a few hundred dollars. More complex drones, starting at less than $1,000, offer customizable and programmable features, turning them into truly autonomous devices that can make their own decisions. Plus, a new class of racing drones has started hitting the scene.
Drones aren't that complicated, but there are a few key features you should consider when you are shopping. There are also some key rules you need to follow when you take to the air.
FAA has rules you have to follow. The most important two: Never fly around or above people, and always keep your drone in sight. The FAA has a full list of safety guidelines for model aircraft that you should check before you take off. There are also restrictions on where you can fly: For example, within 5 miles of an airport is off limits. Mapbox provides a great interactive map of no-fly areas, and local RC (Remote Control) aircraft clubs may list fields that they use.
Non-commercial drones that weigh between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds have to be registered (there's a $5 fee), and have to carry your license with you while flying the drone.
Most drones use a remote control with two joysticks — a bit like an Xbox or PlayStation controller. One stick controls what's called the attitude of the quadcopter, including roll (tilting left and right) and pitch (tilting up and down). The other stick controls throttle and the rotation of the quadcopter. A good remote control should fit well in the hand, with sticks resting comfortably under your thumbs and providing a smooth, responsive feel that allows you to guide the quadcopter by touch.
Some models skip the remote control, or offer it as an extra-cost feature, and instead use a smartphone connected via Wi-Fi and a flying app. These apps often provide a live video view from the quadcopter camera. However, apps don’t allow the precision of real controllers: It is easier for your thumbs to slip, possibly causing a crash.
Construction and Repair
Despite what the ads tell you, drones crash all the time. A good drone will take an unplanned descent and ground interface (aka: a crash) in stride, without damaging the frame. It will also include shields to protect the rotors and electronics from harm.
Regardless, things still get broken sometimes, particularly racing drones. A good model will offer a ready supply of cheap parts like rotors and struts to replace the broken ones, and will make it easy to swap these parts out when required. The same is true of batteries.
Very few drones offer more than 10 to 20 minutes of battery life, so an easily swapped battery can give you more flying time without hassle. This tends to be a feature of more expensive models, with a spare battery typically costing more than $100. Cheap drones (under about $200) usually have built-in batteries that can't be swapped out.
Want to show off your aerial exploits? A camera, either built-in or add-on, can capture those dramatic vistas for posterity. Most budget models use the equivalent of a cheap webcam, capturing low-resolution video (usually 640 x 480-pixel resolution) to an internal memory card for later viewing.
More sophisticated models offer high-definition video capture or the ability to connect an HD action camera such as a GoPro. Some drones also offer first-person view (FPV), sending a pilot's-eye view from the drone itself to a phone or tablet. Some models offer video goggles for the ultimate pilot-seat flying experience.
Do you still have questions about drones? Or opinions about what does and doesn't belong on this list? Join our drones forum to sound off.
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