Let me guess: You’re thinking about buying a drone?
You’ve double tapped countless drone photos on Instagram, you’ve re-watched a million different drone videos on YouTube, and you’ve already planned out the first dozen places you’re going to fly!
But then you started to look at prices, and tried to compare features, and stumbled across a DIY post that promised you could easily build an amazing drone for 1/2 the price, and… you got stuck.
What drone is right for me?
Do I really need those advanced features?
Should I really spend $1,000+ on something that might fly into the nearest lake?
All valid questions, which is why I decided to put together this buyer’s guide. I recently went through the exact same thought process, and did countless hours of research and hands-on testing to help weed through the options and figure out what drone is right for different needs and budget.
For most people, a ready-to-fly (RTF) drone is going to be the best option. You don’t need to worry about complicated DIY instructions, assembling compatible parts, soldering, or programming, which means you can start flying in just minutes.
It also means that a big company paid a lot of smart people to make the drone as easy to use and as foolproof as possible, which you definitely can’t say about that DIY option!
Plus if something breaks, of if you can’t figure out how to use a feature, there are going to be more options for parts, service, and Q&A if you go with one of the more popular drones.
So if you’re thinking about buying a drone, either just for fun, as a new way to take photos and videos, or even as a professional drone-for-hire, this buyer’s guide will help you find the best drone for your needs:
JUST FOR FUN:
AUKEY Mini Drone
The AUKEY Mini Drone is a fun toy to get started with.
With enough technology to make learning how to fly and control a drone a whole lot of fun, the AUKEY Mini Drone the perfect drone for beginners, or even more advanced flyers that want a drone to play around with in their spare time.
The Mini Drone features 5 minutes of continuous flight time, and needs just 30 minutes to recharge, so you don’t have to wait long before flying again. It can fly up to 82 feet away, and while it’s certainly not the most advanced drone available, it does have 6-axis gyro stabilization, three speeds, one button takeoff and landing, and a pre-programmed “trick-mode” to help you get started.
Perhaps the biggest selling feature of the AUKEY Mini Drone is the 24 month warranty. There are 100s of companies that sell a version of this drone, and they all pretty much come from the same factory in China. However, most of these companies either offer no warranty, or make it very difficult to contact them if you have a warranty claim. AUKEY is a trusted brand that has been around for a long time, selling a wide range of electronics, and I’ve heard nothing but praise for their warranty process.
UPDATE: For other great beginner drones, check out my list of the Best Drones Under $150.
LEARNING TO FLY:
If you want to get started flying a drone, but don’t want to make a huge investment before you know whether or not you’re going to like flying, the DJI Spark is the way to go.
The DJI Spark is redefining what’s possible with an entry-level drone, and packs all of DJI’s signature technologies info a mini drone body. Intelligent flight control options, a mechanical gimbal, and a camera with impressive image quality make Spark the perfect way to get started with flying a drone and capturing aerial imagery.
Getting started with the Spark is easy, and you’ll be flying around taking pictures and shooting video in no time. One of the most innovative things about the Spark is that you can fly it without a remote control. Using the FaceAware Quick Launch feature, Spark recognizes your face, and then takes off from your hand and hovers in place within seconds of powering on. Then you can control the Spark, and even tell it to take a photo using just hand gestures, without the need for a remote controller or mobile device.
When you’re ready to do more with the Spark, just connect your mobile device and the Intelligent Flight Modes and intuitive controls help you create cinematic aerial videos with just a few taps. Or add a physical remote controller and get precise control over the drone’s movement, giving you the ability to fly with the same twin-stick control system that larger drones like the Phantom 4 use.
Some of the more advanced features include the ability to take a Dronie where the Spark will automatically fly backwards and upwards while staying locked on your subject, TapFly mode where you tap the screen on your mobile device and automatically fly to that spot, ActiveTrack that automatically recognizes objects of different shapes and sizes (like bicycles or people) and then tracks them according to what they are and how fast they move, and PalmControl mode where you make a frame with your fingers to signal your Spark that it should take a photo.
As for hardware, the camera takes 12 megapixel photos and 1080p HD video, and the 2-axis gimbal stabilization and UltraSmooth technology help to dramatically reduce shake and the rolling shutter effect, keeping shots stable and detailed no matter how you fly. The battery on the Spark is great, giving you up to 16 minutes of flight time on a single charge, which allows you to take full advantage of the 1.2 mile flight range.
For worry-free flight, Spark’s FlightAutonomy system uses the main camera, vision positioning system, 3D sensing system, dual-band GPS, and high-precision inertial measurement unit to sense its surroundings and automatically avoid obstacles that may be in the way. And if the battery gets too low or the drone loses connection with your controller, Spark automatically flies back to a preset home point while sensing obstacles in its path, and then lands safely.
DJI Phantom 4
If you’re serious about shooting photos and videos (anyone with a nice dSLR and a few lenses falls into this category) then the DJI Phantom 4 is the way to go.
The new Phantom 4 is slightly more expensive than the Phantom 3, but it includes some amazing new features that make this one of the most capable drones on the market, and helps future-proof your investment since it will still be one of the best drones available for years to come.
The biggest new feature is visual object avoidance.. There are small sensors in the front and bottom of the drone that allow it to ‘see’ and understand the environment around it, automatically avoiding obstacles, and tracking objects as they move around. These sensors also help keep the drone steady and oriented while flying, making silky smooth photos and videos easier than ever before.
The new front obstacle sensors and advanced computer vision and processing allow for new features like TapFly, where you simply tap on the live view screen to send the drone flying in that direction while automatically avoiding obstacles, and ActiveTrack, where the Phantom 4 will recognize your subject, follow them naturally, and keep them in the frame with no GPS bracelet, tracker, or beacon required.
The camera shoots 4K video, or 1080p video at 120 frames per second for epic slow motion shots. The camera is mounted to one of DJI’s most advanced 3-axis gimbals, with motors on both sides of the camera which helps smooth out unwanted movements in flight, and makes it sturdier for transport.
For a truly immersive experience, pick up a pair of DJI Goggles and the Phantom 4’s camera will send live video back to the large ultra-high quality screens in the Goggles. You see what the Phantom 4 sees, and you can even control the Phantom 4 by tiling your head, and using the touchpad on the side of the Goggles to select an Intelligent Flight Mode or snap a photo.
The Phantom 4 also now features dual compass modules and dual Inertial Measurement Units (IMUs) that allow it to constantly check and verify the data it receives, and isolate and ignore incorrect data without affecting your flight. (Or sending your uncontrollable drone off towards the horizon!)
The new battery gives you up to 28 minutes of flight time, an increase of 25% from the Phantom 3 Professional, and you’re going to need it, since the Phantom 4 can fly up to 3.1 miles away while streaming back 720p video to help you control the drone and aim the camera.
For extra fun there’s even a new Sport Mode that increases the maximum speed by 25%, and takes advantage of the new magnesium core, integrated gimbal, and battery placement to give you more agility, while the new object avoidance systems ensure you don’t just use that extra speed to smash into the closest immovable object.
The Phantom 4 is a serious investment, but it’s also a seriously fun and capable drone that has features only found in $3,000+ drones less than a year ago. You can’t go wrong with DJI, and if you’re looking for a great way to get started with drone photography, the Phantom 4 is the drone to get.
UPDATE: If you decide to get the Phantom 4, make sure to check out my guide to the best Phantom 4 Accessories.
FOR THE FREQUENT TRAVELER:
DJI Mavic Pro
The DJI Mavic Pro is unlike any other drone on the market, and folds into a compact shape so you’ll always have your drone with you and ready to fly.
If you’re looking for a drone that you can fold up and take with you when you travel, or a drone that you can take hiking, or just a drone to keep in the back of the car for impromptu adventures, the Mavic Pro is the drone to get. It’s just 1/6th the size of the Phantom 4, but still has the same features as its bigger brother, giving you full-size drone capabilities in a compact drone body.
Thanks to DJI’s new OcuSync technology in the remote controller, the Mavic Pro has a range of up to 4.3 miles, and with 27 minutes of flight time, you can stay in the air longer to get the shot you’re looking for.
The camera on the Mavic Pro is impressive, shooting 4K video at 30fps and 12-megapixel photos, and the miniaturized, ultra-precise 3-axis gimbal means you’ll get smooth video and sharp photos, even when you’re flying around at high speeds and making quick maneuvers.
To improve reliability, DJI has included two sets of flight control systems in the Mavic Pro, and if one has issues, the other kicks in automatically to take its place.
Like other DJI drones, the Mavic Pro has a ton of advanced features, including the ability to fly with just your phone, FlightAutonomy to sense and avoid obstacles as it flies around, ActiveTrack to automatically track subjects and keep them in frame, and even Dual Remote Controller Mode where two people can control the aircraft and the gimbal at the same time.
DJI Inspire 2
The DJI Inspire 2 is an amazing drone, and basically defines the category of professional-level drones.
While a hobbiest could certainly get an Inspire 2 and enjoy it, you get the most out of the Inspire 2 when you fly it with two people and two controllers, one controlling the drone, and one controlling the camera.
The Inspire 2 is also significantly larger than the Phantom, which allows it to lift larger cameras and stay in the air longer, but attracts a lot more attention every time you fly it.
If you’re serious about aerial imaging, and want to do it professionally at some point, the Inspire 2 is a great option. But when you consider the cost and complexity, it’s probably better to get a cheaper drone first, learn to fly it well, and then upgrade to the Inspire 2 once you feel more confident in your skills.
5 drones, 5 price points, and 5 levels of features. Whether you’re just getting started, or looking to go pro, one of these drones should be a great match for your needs.
Keep in mind that most of these drone companies are on their 2nd, 3rd, or even 4th generation of drones, so this isn’t some unproven technology that’s going to change in a week.
Drones advanced quickly in the early years, but now they’re relatively stable, with predictable upgrades, and marginal improvements.
If you buy a drone now, there may be a new feature or small improvement that hits the market in a year or two, but it’s probably not going to be something that you can’t live without, so now is a great time to jump in and get started with flying a drone!