IT’S NO EXAGGERATION to say that drones have changed the way we view the world. They’ve taken once difficult and expensive moviemaking techniques and made them accessible to anyone. Videos that once required a camera crew, expensive cranes, and hours of filming can now be done in minutes by the best drones with the tap of a single Auto Takeoff button.
Drones aren’t just flying cameras, though; they’re also the modern version of remote-controlled vehicles. And again, they’ve made flying easier and more accessible, thanks to intelligent collision sensors that protect your investment from mishaps. There are a dizzying array of drones available, but there is a basic division to be aware of—cheaper drones, while fun, will never fly as well or deliver the kind of video and photo results possible with more expensive models. You get what you pay for. That said, if you’re not worried about wowing YouTube with your sweeping panoramic masterpiece, you don’t have to spend a fortune to get a good, fun drone. Here are the best drones I’ve tested for every budget.
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.
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.
MORE: How to Register Your Drone with the FAA
Most drones use a remote control with two joysticks — a bit like one of the best PC game controllers. 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 less expensive 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.
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.
Most drones will last between 20 to 30 minutes on a charge, and are designed so that you can quickly swap out batteries. To ensure that you can keep filming, it’s a good idea to purchase extra batteries. Just make sure to charge them beforehand!
Want to show off your aerial exploits? A camera, either built-in or add-on, can capture those dramatic vistas for posterity. The best drones will have cameras that can record video at resolutions of 4K or higher, but even budget models are getting better, able to capture video at 1080p. However, they tend to use smaller image sensors, so the quality won’t be as good.
While not covered in this guide, there are professional drones which let you attach mirrorless or DSLR cameras, which provide even greater image quality that built-in cameras. However, these drones typically cost upwards of $2,000.
The best camera drones will also mount their cameras on a gimbal, so that your image stays steady as the drone is flying around. If video is your priority, look for a drone that has a three-axis gimbal; that will give you the most stable image.
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.
Drones are getting smarter; now, instead of just flying around based on manual inputs, you can program drones to fly pre-programmed routes, or even follow specific objects, such as people and vehicles. Depending on your needs, it’s worth examining what features a drone has before buying one.
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 st