Even if you’ve never considered buying a drone, it’s hard to forget the fact that they’re pretty cool. If you’ve ever pondered spending your hard earned money on a quadcopter, but still haven’t, there’s good news: the technology has come a long way in a short amount of time. There are some models available now that makes last year’s copters look pathetic in terms of stabilization and video quality.
There is still some bad news. Like many other things, you get what you pay for, and if you want to be able to capture stunning footage, you’ll need to be ready to spend a decent amount of money. With that being said, it definitely pays to do your research before you decide to buy one. We’ve tested many ready-to-fly options on the market to help you determine what’s important to look for, and the best models available.
There are many affordable drones available on the market, but you’ll be looking at spending around $500 to get a well-built model that comes with an excellent integrated camera. The DJI Phantom 3 is definitely an option that meets those requirements. It captures 2.7K video, although the operating range isn’t as great as the Phantom 3 Advanced. The Xiro Xplorer V can also be purchased for about $500, but the 1080p camera is a little disappointing compared to the Phantom’s 2.7K video.
If you’re looking to spend less, the Parrot Bebop, selling for around $350, is a great choice. Just keep in mind that there are some limitations that come with the lower price tag. It’s not a fast, high flyer, but it’s definitely still fun if you’re looking for a small quadcopter that can do stunts such as rolls and flips. Furthermore, you will have to fly the Bebop with your tablet or smartphone, unless you want to spend more money on the Bebop configuration with the Skycontroller remote – but at that price, you might as well buy a more capable drone. The Bebop 2 is also available now and comes in both the Skycontroller and tablet configurations, however it sells for around $550 for the Bebop2 by itself and around $800 when purchased with the Skycontroller.
The drones that we review are ready-to-fly models, meaning you can fly them right out of the box. Usually, you’ll have to have your own iOS or Android device to view the camera feed in real-time. However, we also plan on reviewing the a few options that have an Android tablet built into the remote control, such as the Typoon G, Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K, and the Blade Chroma. Eventually we may also review models that will require you to solder and install flight control systems and custom gimbals that can utilize a mirrorless or SLR camera.
SAFETY AND REGULATIONS
Many of the models we review have built-in safety features. The Bebop for example, isn’t built for long-distance flight, but it includes GPS and an automatic return-to-home feature. If your controllers signal is interrupted, or if the battery gets down to an alarming level, your drone will start to fly back to its starting point and land. If you’re concerned about losing your drone to a flyaway you can add your own GPS tracker. The Flytrex Live 3G is available for many popular models and it sends a continuous signal to the cloud containing location data via a 3G connection. Keep in mind that flyaways are always a possibility and a quick Google search will have you reading some horror stories on various discussion forums. Obviously, the negative experiences of others are easier to find in this context because uneventful flights that don’t end in a missing drone simply aren’t as interesting to read.
If you plan on flying your drone in the United States, you should be aware of FAA guidelines, or be prepared to face potential fines. There are no-fly zones set forth by the FAA, so make sure not to fly near an airport without contacting the control tower first. Even if you’re out in the middle of nowhere, don’t fly your drone above 400 feet. Most drones are limited to flying below 400 feet out of the box, but flying a quadcopter is much like driving a car – even if you happen to miss the speed limit sign, you’re still responsible for paying the speeding ticket.
Please make sure to read the current FAA guidelines before your purchase a drone. Furthermore, if your drone weighs more than half a pound, it will need to be registered with the FAA.
RACING AND TOY QUADCOPTERS
There are many products available that are labeled and sold as drones, but don’t quite fit the bill. Remote-controlled aircraft have been around for many years. But with the recent mainstream popularity of drones, many quadcopters that would normally be sold as RC products are now being labeled as drones. These products typically will not include return-to-home functionality, GPS stabilization, and other automated flight modes.
We do not discriminate, especially since the RC products are usually very affordable and still give someone the experience of flying and they don’t have to worry about destroying a $500 drone while still learning the hobby. Therefore, we will still occasionally review these products, so keep your eyes tuned for those reviews.
DJI models are currently favored by us, and there’s a good reason for that. Currently, the company is steps ahead of the competition, and its product catalog contains models at various prices which all rate very good in our reviews. They improved the Phantom 2 Vision+ with the Phantom 3 line. They improved flight stability, ease of use, and video quality. The Phantom 4 is even better because it features an obstacle avoidance system. It always seems that the Phantom line is constantly improving with each model developed.
The Phantom 4 is rather expensive, so the Phantom 3 is still a great option for people on a budget. Even if you can’t afford the Phantom 4, you can get the Phantom 3 4K, which has the same Wi-Fi control systems and the Standard, but touts a video resolution of 4K. Another alternative is the Phantom 3 Advanced which record video at up to 2.7K and still has the Lightbridge streaming and control system found on the Phantom 3 Professional and Phantom 4.
We also really like the DJI Inspire 1. It was designed with more serious use in mind. The camera can swing around in any direction and is made from carbon fiber. It also features dual-operator control – one person flies while another person controls the camera. We tested a version which included a 4K camera that matches the Phantom 3 Professional in quality, sells for $2,900 and comes with a single remote control. Or, for $3,300 you can buy the dual-operator version with the second remote.
BIG DRONES & SMALL DRONES
For quite some time, the DJI Phantom series was pretty much as small as you could go If you wanted to have a full-featured that included good safety features and maintains stability in the air. However, that is changing. We tested the Xiro Xplorer V and we noted that it was a little rough around the edges in terms of the software and it did have an outdated video camera. But, it showed everyone that the Phantom form factor could be shrunk down.
Now with models such as the Vantage Robotics Snap and DHI’s tiny Mavic Pro, things are moving in the right direct as far as smaller size is concerned. The Snap uses magnets for attaching the main chassis to a set of folding propellers, making it extremely easy to break down and transport. The Mavic Pro sports rotor arms that fold into the body so you can easily transport it in a small backpack if desired.
As of now, Yuneec is DJI’s main competition. The Typhoon series, most notably the Q500 4K, as gained popularity with many pilots. We found that the Q500 is a little rough around the edges during testing, but there’s still hope. The recently announced Typhoon H is Yuneec’s looks very promising. It features six-rotors that can keep flying if it loses an engine or propeller. It also features an integrated collision avoidance system. At a starting price of $1,299 with the standard obstacle avoidance system and $1,899 with the more advanced avoidance system powered by Intel’s RealSense technology.
GoPro launched the Karma drone in late 2016, however not soon after its release they pulled it off of the market. The reason being that the Karma drones kept falling out the sky during flight due to losing power mid-flight. That just goes to show you that manufacturing a safe and reliable drone is not an easy task.
PowerVision is another competitor in the US market. They’re responsible for the consumer-friendly PowerEgg and the pro-grade PowerEye. Unfortunately, as of now we have not been able to test either of them yet.
Another up and coming company in the US is Autel Robotics. Their X-Star drones look like DJI Phantoms that have been painted bright orange. As with the PowerVision models, we have not had the joy of testing out the X-Stars yet. However, they not only compare to the DJIs in appearance but also in price.
Some sad news, a worthy competitor, 3D Robotics, has reportedly cut staff and is focusing on the corporate market. Their Solo drone revealed some very innovative features and would be an awesome choice for the GoPro Action Cam users. The only downside to the Solo was its poor battery life and a GPS that’s slow to connect to satellites. The Solo is a very tempting impulse buy for consumers because of its low price, but we wouldn’t suggest buying one. We foresee it being difficult to find spare batteries in the near future and the Phantom 3 is definitely a better option for those looking for a more affordable option.
The DJI Inspire 2 is geared toward professional cinematographers, independent filmmakers, and news organizations. With a professional quality drone, you can also expect the price to reflect that. Starting at $3,000 without a camera, you definitely have to be a professional to afford this one. You do have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera or a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, both support 5.2K video capturing capability when used with the Inspire 2.
Yuneec also has a model with a Micro Four Thirds camera. The Tornado H920 is a very large drone with six rotors and room to hold three batteries. The three batteries give it an awesome 42-minute flight capability. The CGO4 camera is basically a modified version of the Panasonic GH4. It doesn’t record uncompressed video like the Inspire 1 Raw, but with a price of $4,999, it’s a few thousand dollars less expensive.
Ultimately, you can’t go wrong with any of the models we have discussed here. Be sure to check out our other reviews.
Here’s a quick infographic that covers the basics: