After flying dozens of drones around the sky for countless hours, our top pick 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. We also like the DJI Mavic 2 if you want a drone capable of taking the best photos and videos from the air. 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.
The DJI Mavic Air is one of the most compact drones around, yet takes excellent 4K video and fantastic photos. It's a cinch to fly, can avoid objects, and can be controlled using nothing more than hand gestures. We especially liked some of its novel features, such as the ability to take 360-degree photos. Battery life is a little short at 20 minutes, but the Air's battery can be swapped out in a cinch, and the whole package—including the controller—packs away into a neat little bag.
If your aerial photography needs are a little more complex, another DJI drone can get the job done for you. The DJi Mavic 2 is available in two versions: the $1,449 Mavic 2 Pro offers a 1-inch Hasselblad sensor for capturing high-quality photos and video, while the $1,249 Mavic 2 Zoom features a 2X optical zoom lens. Either version is a good choice, though the Zoom proved a little more versatile in our tests. Whichever Mavic 2 you opt for, you can count on an easy-to-fly drone that now features 360-degree obstacle avoidance.
Learning to fly a drone begins with learning how not to crash. That process begins with mishaps, so an aspiring pilot needs a drone that is tough, but also cheap enough that losing it in a tree won't bankrupt them. The UDI U818A has a great range of features for the price, and it's easy to fly. The four-loop style frame protects the large rotors in crashes, and the rotors are cheap (under $3 a set) and easy to replace if they don't survive. A bonus for beginners is the included 640 x 480-pixel video camera attached to the body. It won't produce the work of Stanley Kubrick, but it will give you a whole new outlook on flying.
For $179, the Parrot Mambo delivers not just the drone, but a controller and a pair of first-person googles, too. Video from the Mambo's camera is just 720p, but the camera is detachable, and can be swapped out for a grabber or a cannon that shoots out small green balls. Insert your smartphone into the FPV goggles, and you can get a look at what the drone is seeing. It's easy to fly, and is small enough to be used indoors or outdoors.
So you've bought a cheap drone, learned how to fly, and want more. The Blade Nano QX is for you, offering a great selection of features for the flier who wants more without spending too much. Prices start under $100 for the basic, no-frills Blade Nano QX RTF model, and go over $300 for the Nano QX FPV RTF model, which includes a first-person-view headset that shows you the drone's perspective of the world. The Blade QX is faster and more maneuverable than cheaper models, but won't break the bank if you do happen to misjudge the top of a tree and get it stuck out of reach.
The second version of the Aerix Black Talon features a much-improved camera. This makes for an even more immersive experience with the included FPV goggles, which drive home that in-the-action feeling as you zip around a track. Aspiring racers will love this drone's speed and maneuverability, and that it's super-easy to learn to fly. However, you'll want to spring for the optional battery pack, as this drone's endurance is a very short 4 minutes.
The force has awakened with Propel's new Star Wars drones, including the X-Wing, a TIE Interceptor, and an Imperial speeder bike (complete with Stormtrooper). All the drones are outfitted with IR blasters and receivers, so you can do battle with each other. The drones' controllers play a number of sound effects and music from the Star Wars movies. Each drone is hand-painted and numbered, too. Only a limited number will be released in 2016.
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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