Before you spend hundreds of dollars on your first drone, you might want to buy something a little less expensive. You'll get the hang of flying, and it'll ease the sting when you inevitably crash it into a tree. But budget drones also make great gifts for kids who want to learn the basics of flight. We've tested dozens of drones, most under $100, that would be great to fly in your backyard, on the beach, in the countryside, or even indoors. We reviewed all of these drones, evaluating them based on design, ease of use, features and overall fun.
All of the drones are small and light, so you don't need to register them with the FAA. But they aren't light on features: many include a camera that can capture video and stills, and companion apps that bring the video to your phone or tablet. There's even a couple on our list that let you fly the drone with just your hands. Any of them would also be a great introduction to drone flying for the aspiring pilot.
Some people may be fine with paying $20 for a fancy sandwich, but what about a drone? Laying down a Jackson will get you this no-frills drone. At just over 4 inches wide, it's tiny but surprisingly tough, with blade protectors around the rotors and a 3-minute flight time from the tiny, 190-mAh rechargeable battery. The drone comes with a spare set of rotor blades, two lithium-ion batteries and a charger, while its diminutive remote is powered by three AAA batteries. It's a fun drone to fly, with a decent amount of speed and maneuverability. It is bare-bones, though: There's no camera, only a few simple stunts and no GPS. It does include a feature called "return-to-home," but that's just a fancy name for a mode that sets the drone to fly in only one direction and then return when you push the right stick up. Still, it's a fun little drone, and for $20, there won't be too many tears if it gets lost up a tree.
Flight Time: 3 minutes
Size: 3.3 x 3.3 x 1.2 inches
What do you get if you stick a small quadcopter inside an airplane? You get the TaoTronics TT-DR001, a cheap drone that pulls double duty as both a quadcopter and a small plane. In quadcopter mode, it's a pretty standard small drone, complete with a snap-on protective frame that shields the small rotors from bumps and hard landings. The TT-DR001 flies well, with a good amount of speed and maneuverability, although the sticks of the small, 2.4-GHz controller are rather sensitive.
Mount the quadcopter inside a push-together foam airplane frame, and the TT-DR001 turns into a small craft that you launch by throwing it into the air. You'll need more space in this flight mode, though. Because it lacks ailerons and other flight surfaces, the TT-DR001 turns slowly. Fortunately, it flies slowly as well, so keeping it within the 20- to 30-foot range of the controller isn't hard.
Because of its size in quadcopter mode, this drone is easily blown around by even a light breeze. Still, for less than $30, you get two flying options, both of which are fun to fly.
Flight Time: 6-8 minutes
Size: 13.1 x 9.2 x 4.1 inches (airplane mode)
The Blade Nano QX is fast and maneuverable, yet tough enough to withstand crashes; the included blade guards help. The included controller is very sensitive, so you can precisely fly the Nano once you get the hang of it. It's a little too light to fly outdoors, but will zip around your house with ease. There's no camera, though.
Flight Time: 7 minutes
Size: 5.5 x 5.5 x 1.97 inches
What do you get if you cross a snowboard, a paraglider and a drone? The Air Hogs Extreme Air Board. It's a combination of all three that flies like a snowboard (but in the air) when you clip the figure on the top of the board, or flies as a paraglider when you hang the figure underneath and attach the plastic paraglider wing.
It's simple to convert the drone from one to the other. Just make sure that you set the switch on the remote to the right mode for the drone setup, or it will be a short flight: The drone crashes immediately if you are in the wrong mode.
In both modes, the drone is simple to control: Tap the takeoff button and the four rotors (two contra-rotating blades on each side) whir into life, and the drone takes off and hovers about three feet in the air. You then use the small control sticks to maneuver. The shoulder button puts it into stunt mode: Click this and push the right control stick up, and it will do a backside flip in snowboard mode or a move called the cyclone in paraglider mode. Overall, it's a simple, fun drone to fly that offers some interesting tricks, with the two different flight modes adding to the fun of the flight.
Credit: Air Hogs
Flight Time: 4-5 minutes
Size: 5 x 3.8 x 2 inches
The Force is with the Start Wars-themed drone, which initially cost nearly $200, but now is less than $50. The controller that comes with the TIE X1 not only lets you perform flips and other tricks, but has a number of sound effects and audio clips from the original trilogy. Infrared lights and sensors let you battle with other Propel Star Wars drones, too.
Flight time: 5 minutes
The X708W Cyclone lives up to the name: It's a nippy little drone that can turn and move at a considerable speed. That means it requires a light touch on the sticks of the large included remote: Move too fast, and the drone could easily zoom out of control. The X708W's camera captures either video or still images and a Wi-Fi connection. The drone's app, available for iOS and Android devices, lets you preview or record the video from this camera on your phone, although the video is somewhat blurry and grainy when the drone is moving. You can fly the drone either from this app or the remote control.
Camera: 640 x 480
Flight Time: 5 minutes
Size: 6.8 x 6.8 x 2.2 inches
For $179, the Parrot Mambo delivers not just the drone, but a controller and a pair of first-person googles, too. Video 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 (not included). 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. Plus, you can teach your kids how to code by creating programs for the Mambo using Tynker and other programming languages.
Flight Time: 10 minutes
Size: 7.1 x 7.1 x 2 inches