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.
We've tested dozens of drones, evaluating them based on design, ease of use, camera quality, durability and flight time, to bring you our list of top picks.
Our top pick for the Best Camera Drone is the DJI Mavic Pro, which folds into a compact, portable size, comes with a 4K camera, and which you can control using nothing more than hand gestures. (Be aware that there's a new version of the DJI Mavic Pro available that slightly boosts flight time and costs $100 more.) For kids, we recommend the Aukey Mohawk, which doesn't have a camera, but costs less than $70 and is very easy to fly.
3D Robotics (3DR) is no longer selling a consumer version of the 3DR Solo, but will continue to support the consumer model for the foreseeable future, and is still providing a one-year hardware warranty. As a result, it's pretty inexpensive, even when you factor in the cost of a GoPro camera. Get it while supplies last.
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 Drone News
DJI rolled out an update for its drones that is intended to offer better privacy for government and enterprise customers. Called Local Data Mode, DJI's app will stop sending and receiving data over the Internet. The update will be available on the DJI Pilot app on CrystalSky and for certain Android tablets. This also means that data, such as No Fly Zones, geofencing, and the user's location will not show up in the app.
Although you no longer need to register your drone with the FAA, DJI is requiring owners of its drones running its latest firmware to activate them online through DJI's app. Otherwise, the drone will only be able to fly as high as 98 feet, and in a 164-foot radius. Additionally, other flight functions, including camera streaming, will also be disabled.
For those who like to fly their drones in the dark, Lume Cube will sell a $179 lighting kit for the Mavic Pro, which includes two lights and connectors which snap onto the Mavic's forward arms. Each light, which is water-resistant to 100 feet, is capable of producing up to 1500 lumens, and will last up to 2 hours with the light at 50 percent. The kit is expected to ship in mid- to late September.
See Also : 15 Places To Fly Drones In The Northeast
What You Need to Know Before You Buy and Fly
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.
However, non-commercial drones no longer have to be registered with the FAA. Previously, any drone that weighed between 0.55 pounds and 55 pounds would have to be registered for $5, and you would 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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