1.Safety and Regulations
Flyaways still happen, and there are horror stories on various web discussion forums. Of course, negative experiences are amplified in this context, simply because uneventful flights that don’t result in a crash or missing drone aren’t hot topics for discussion.
All of the models featured here have some safety features. Even the Bebop 2, which isn’t built for long-distance flight, includes a GPS and automatic Return-to-Home functionality. If your control signal is interrupted, or if the battery gets down too low (most drones can only fly for about 20 minutes on a single battery charge), you drone will start to head back to its takeoff point and land.
If you’re flying within the United States, you need to take heed of FAA guidelines—or be prepared to face potential fines or jail time. There are no-fly zones set by the FAA, so don’t take off if you’re near an airport without notifying the control tower first. And, even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, don’t take your drone above 400 feet. Most drones are set to obey these regulations out of the box, but controlling a quadcopter is just like driving a car—even if you missed seeing that speed limit sign, you’re still liable to pay the ticket.
Be sure to read up on the current FAA guidelines before buying. At press time, a court ruling states you don’t have to pay to register your drone with the FAA, but that can change with an appeal. Even if you don’t have an FAA number attached to your aircraft, be careful out there.
2.Good Drones Gonna be Costly
And now the bad news. You get what you pay for, and if you want an aerial video platform that can capture stunning footage, you need to be ready to spend some cash. Because drones are such pricey propositions, it pays to do your research before buying one. We’ve tested many of the ready-to-fly models on the market to determine what’s important to look for, and the best models available.
Even if you have no good reason to justify buying one, you have to admit that drones are cool. Some models out there are glorified tech toys, but the ones we highlight here are fit for use in imaging and cinematic applications small and large. If you think you can use a flying camera in your next project, there’s some good news—the tech has come a long way in a very short time. There are models on the market now that put earlier copters to shame in terms of video quality and stabilization.
There are low-cost drones on the market (we’ve rounded some of the top-rated options under $100 on Amazon), but you’re still looking at spending around $500 to get a solid model that’s stable in flight with an excellent integrated camera. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is our favorite budget model, and while it doesn’t support 4K capture, its 2.7K video capability is better than 1080p and leaves some room to crop footage for HD projects. You’ll be hard pressed to find a quadcopter that delivers the video quality of the Phantom 3 Standard for less money.
The drones we review are ready-to-fly models, so you can use them right out of the box. In most cases you’ll need to bring your own Android or iOS device to view the camera feed in real-time, but we’ve reviewed a few models that have an Android tablet built into the remote control. We haven’t delved into covering true pro models, which require you to get out a soldering iron and install flight control systems and custom gimbals that can accommodate an SLR or mirrorless camera.
For a long time, the DJI Phantom series was about as small as you could go if you wanted to get a full-featured drone that maintains stability in the air and includes strong safety features. That’s changing. Hikers and travel photographers appreciate a small, light kit, and they can now can now get a drone that fits into a backpack. We’ve got a couple small models in our top ten, and expect to add a few more as the space develops further.
Of course, not every small drone is a top flyer. Some are barely capable of getting off the ground and require you to use your smartphone as a remote control, which makes for a sloppy control experience. Make sure to read reviews before spending hard-earned cash on a compact quadcopter.
4.Racing and Toy Drones
There are a number of products on the market that are sold as drones, but don’t quite fit the bill. Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for ages. But with the recent surge in popularity, quadcopters that would simply be sold as RC products are now being tagged as drones. These products don’t include GPS stabilization, return-to-home functionality, and other automated flight modes that make a drone a drone.
DJI models currently dominate our top picks, and there’s a good reason for that. The company is simply a few steps ahead of its competition right now, and has a product catalog with models at various price points, which take up a good number of the slots in our top ten. It made huge improvements with its Phantom 3 series, and has continued to refine form and function with the Phantom 4, and produces the best small drone on the market in the form of the Mavic Pro and Mavic Pro Platinum.
DJI’s pro line is dubbed Inspire, and is currently in its second generation. Inspire models offer functionality well beyond what you get with a Phantom, including dual-operator support—one person flying and the other working the camera—as well as interchangeable lenses and camera modules, a Raw cinema workflow, and retractable landing gear.
Yuneec is DJI’s major competition in the consumer market. Its Typhoon series competes with DJI’s Phantom line and offers some features that Phantoms don’t provide, including a freely rotating camera on the Typhoon H and H Plus. It also has a smaller model, the Breeze Best Price at Amazon, to appeal to pilots who want a more user-friendly, casual drone experience.
GoPro made a drone, the Karma ($599.00 at Amazon). But after a rocky launch, which involved a massive recall, and underwhelming performance in the market, the company decided to pull the plug on drone development. You can still buy a Karma while supplies last (at a discount), but there are better options out there.
3D Robotics, which took a swing with its Solo drone, has exited the consumer market—the Solo is now only on sale at closeout prices. That’s a shame, as the Solo delivers a lot of innovative features and would be a stellar choice for GoPro users if it weren’t hampered by subpar battery life and a GPS that’s slow to lock on to satellites. The Solo can be had for a little more than $200 without a camera or gimbal, making it a solid platform for DIY hobbyists.
The DJI Inspire 2 is aimed at professional cinematographers, news organizations, and independent filmmakers. And it’s priced as such—its $3,000 MSRP doesn’t include a camera. You have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera, a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, or a Super35mm cinema mount with its own proprietary lens system and support for 6K video capture.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of the models listed here. For the latest field-tested drone reviews, check out our Drones Product Guide.