Remote control choppers have come a long way since you were a kid.
Today, the industry for small remote control aircraft, or drones, is approaching $100 billion. Beyond toys and other consumer drones, the industry includes military drones, intelligence drones, and commercial drones. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) forecasts the commercial drone market will triple between 2019 and 2023.
The growing demand for airborne video footage alone creates a massive opportunity for hobbyists to convert their hobby into a money-making business. But don’t run out and spend thousands on a drone to write off as a business expense just yet. Learn what you need to know to get started and check out the best drones currently on the market at each price point.
Before You Buy
Like most things, drones break when you drop them out of the sky or crash them into walls. When shopping for your first drone, start with a cheaper drone to learn the basics of piloting.
Ideally, choose a first model with blade protectors, which serve as “guard rails” to shield your propellers in the event of a crash. Otherwise, you run a high risk of breaking a blade in your early flights.
Also, make sure you understand how to pilot your model of choice before buying. Some drones come with a remote control. You use a mobile app to steer others. There are even some you can direct through hand gestures.
If you enjoy flying a cheap drone, upgrade to a fancier model as you set your hobby budget higher – or your business budget if you decide to start a business on the side, such as aerial photography for real estate listings or weddings.
Before You Fly
The FAA requires you to register drones weighing more than 0.55 pounds. That’s the bad news. The good news is it only takes about five minutes and costs $5 for a three-year registration. But if you plan to make any money from your drone hobby, you need a separate commercial drone pilot license.
Before leaving the house, check the weather. Drones do poorly with even light wind, and drone motor circuitry can fry in the rain.
Also, check for any firmware updates your drone requires. Some drones won’t fly if they aren’t updated.
Always do a preflight check before takeoff. Even though it’s not a full-size craft, you should still check that every component of your drone is working before flying it. It takes only seconds compared to the minutes or hours required for a larger aircraft. But it can spare you an expensive crash by catching a mechanical problem before you send your drone 100 feet into the air.
As a beginner, learn the basics of piloting your drone in a wide-open field with no obstacles whatsoever. Controlling an aircraft that moves in three dimensions involves learning how to yaw, bank, and pitch – very different movements from the two-dimensional and unidirectional driving you’re familiar with behind the wheel of a car.
Most drones come with a “headless” mode, which teaches you from the beginning that quadcopters aren’t constricted by the notion of forward. In this setting, the drone’s “forward” is based on its relative orientation to you rather than its own orientation. That way, you don’t have to keep track of which direction the drone is facing. So no matter how many times your drone turns or spins in the air, when you direct it to move to the right, it moves to your right.
Start with headless mode. It makes for a more straightforward introduction to drone piloting.
The Best Drones for Under $200
Looking for a basic hobby drone to start with – one that won’t break the bank?
These drones make for fun flying without risking too much money if your drone crashes and burns. They also make family-friendly drones your children can use (relatively) worry-free.
Top Pick: Altair Aerial 818 Hornet Plus
The AA818 Hornet Plus comes with all the features you want in a lower-cost drone.
For the price point, it has a relatively long flight time at 15 minutes per battery charge. That gives you longer to learn the ropes of drone piloting without the batteries dying as soon as you get airborne.
With its built-in blade protectors, the AA818 Hornet Plus also proves more robust and resilient to crashes. While you shouldn’t test its sturdiness with a full-speed collision, it can stand up to minor bumps and bruises.
But one feature helps you avoid those bumps: an altitude hold, often called hover mode. When you want it to hover in place, flip on that setting. It helps novice drone pilots learn the fundamentals of flying.
The AA818 Hornet Plus also comes with a 720p HD camera equipped with a rubber damper to minimize shakiness and blurring. For a bird’s-eye view, you can switch to first-person perspective. It works on your phone or tablet, of course. But for the best experience, put on a pair of virtual reality (VR) goggles.
Finally, you can control the drone with either the included remote or an app on your smartphone.
Best Value: Holy Stone F181C
At a significantly lower price point, the Holy Stone F181C quadcopter packs a lot of features for its low price tag.
It too comes with an altitude hold feature, helping beginners learn to fly. And with four different preset speed settings, it allows beginners to start with slower drone speeds before working their way up to faster handling.
It even has a “return home” function to call it back automatically or when it runs low on batteries.
As with the AA818 Hornet Plus, the Holy Stone F181C comes with a 720p HD camera. But this is where the lower price comes in. It lacks a first-person view option and has no rubber dampener.
The F181C also comes with blade guards to protect against bumps, but they’re flimsier than the AA818 Hornet’s. Once again, learn in an open field, not your backyard.
The yaw, or sideways rotation, is slower than in more expensive drones, which may bother experienced flyers. But it makes the Holy Stone F181C an excellent drone for beginners.
As a final perk, it comes with two battery packs. So even though each battery only lasts seven to 10 minutes, you can swap them out to extend your flying time.
And since it weighs less than 0.55 pounds, you don’t need to register it with the FAA, either.
All in all, it’s hard to beat the Holy Stone F181C quadcopter on value for money.
Hubsan H502S Desire
Another good starter drone, the Hubsan H502S Desire offers limited GPS capability, hover mode, and a 720p camera. It features a return home function, headless mode, and a nifty live camera feed screen on the remote control.
The battery life is reasonable at 10 to 12 minutes. And at 0.34 pounds, the Hubsan H502S Desire doesn’t need to be registered with the FAA either.
Its range beats the Holy Stone F181C, with a 300-meter (984-foot) range versus the F181C’s range of up to 100 meters (328 feet). But don’t expect it to win any races with a max speed of 11 mph.
Despite the similar model name, the Hubsan H501S is a dramatically different drone then the one above.
It offers better performance than its sibling, with speeds topping out at 45 mph. The battery lasts longer too, with up to 20 minutes of flight time. It also comes with GPS flight pattern programming and hover mode.
Part of that better performance and battery life comes from its brushless motors, which are uncommon in drones under $200. Brushless motors are more efficient than classic brushed motors.
The camera offers higher resolution as well, at 1080p and 30 frames per second (fps).
The H501S does not come with propeller guards, making it a more fragile drone. Combined with its higher speeds, that means it offers strong performance but doesn’t necessarily make for the perfect beginner drone.
Best Drones for $200 – $499
Above $200, you start leaving the basic “toy” category of drones behind and getting into the more advanced racing and selfie drones. Whether those count as toys is a point for armchair philosophers to debate.
Top Selfie Drone: DJI Spark
The DJI Spark is a compact drone able to fit in the palm of your hand. The propellers fold in for travel, making the Spark small enough to fit in a large pocket.
While you can fly the Spark like any other drone, where it shines is taking selfies of you. It responds to your hand gestures to take photos and videos, hover, or adjust its positioning.
It even takes off from your palm based on facial recognition. When you hold it up to your face and look into the camera lens, it lifts off.
One way it helps stabilize videos is by using a 4K image sensor – the same type used by the higher-end Mavic Air – even though it only records image pixels at 1080p resolution. While the resolution suffers, the final video looks smooth.
It also comes with a neat feature called TapFly that lets you tap on the camera feed on your phone screen to indicate where you want it to go. It then flies there on its own so you can start shooting from that vantage point.
Some preset camera modes add to the selfie fun. In Rocket mode, the camera faces downward while flying up and away from you. In Dronie mode, it faces you while backing upward and away. Add some vertigo for your viewers with Circle and Helix modes.
The battery lasts about 16 minutes – nothing special, but not terrible either.
Ultimately, the DJI Spark isn’t a particularly fast drone, but it’s small, smart, and a lot of fun for capturing goofy selfies and stunning travel photos.
Top Budget Racing Drone: UVify OOri
For speeds up to 50 mph and plenty of maneuverability, the UVify OOri offers a fast and furious flying experience.
It’s small and light, helping it shift direction quickly. But its small size and weight come with a drawback: The battery is small and only allows five minutes of flight time in its fastest mode. Additionally, the range is short at only 100 feet.
But the UVify OOri comes with beginner, intermediate, and racing modes designed to help pilots learn how to handle an agile racing drone. It eases you into the experience and comes with propeller guards to protect against accidents as you learn.
The camera offers first-person view, so you can feel like you’re in the cockpit flying fast over the ground. Though just as you’re getting used to the first-person perspective in your VR goggles, the battery dies on you, at least in the advanced aerobatic mode that chews through the battery in five minutes.
If you’re interested in drone racing, the UVify OOri offers an excellent entry-level racer.
Walkera F210 3D Edition
Another beginner-level racing drone, particularly for learning race flight, the Walkera F210 makes a great alternative to the UVify OOri.
It’s lightweight, agile, and fast, achieving speeds up to 50 mph. The range is far greater than the OOri, up to 800 meters (2,624 feet). The flight time matches the OOri’s, with seven to nine minutes of flight time in standard mode or five minutes in its 3-D aerobatic mode.
With its rugged design, the F210 can stand up to a beating. All core components are well protected within an ionized aluminum frame. And you can replace the other components easily by design. It offers motor guards to protect propellers from minor crashes as well.
Its camera also has a night vision mode. And like most racing drones, it offers first-person view.
Best Drones for $500 – $999
Above $500, you start seeing more premium drones worthy of commercial use. While these can’t compete with the top-of-the-line drones at the highest end of the spectrum, they come close, often for a fraction of the price.
When it comes to commercial-grade drones, DJI dominates the market, claiming most of the top-performing models.
Top Overall: DJI Mavic Pro Platinum
The Mavic Pro Platinum offers an incremental upgrade from the popular Mavic Pro, which is itself an outstanding drone. If there’s a do-everything, one-size-fits-all drone, this is it.
It folds up well for compact travel. It includes a 4K ultra-high-def (UHD) camera. And it’s relatively maneuverable and fun to fly.
At this price point, you get better battery life; the Mavic Pro Platinum delivers 30 minutes of flight time. That’s partly thanks to elegantly engineered propellers with curved tips that are quieter and more efficient than other models’.
You also get full GPS functionality with programmable flight paths at this price point. And the Mavic Pro Platinum can zoom through these paths quickly for a drone not designed for racing. Its speed maxes out at 40 mph.
While it may not be the best in any single niche, the Mavic Pro Platinum makes for a well-rounded drone for just about any task.
Top Fixed-Wing Drone: Parrot Disco
For a unique drone experience, the Parrot Disco is a fixed-wing flyer rather than the standard quadcopter. The fixed-wing design comes with its pros and cons. It can’t take off from the ground; you launch it by throwing it, which is part of the fun.
Since it can’t hover, it needs at least a few feet of “runway” to land. And you can’t expect any stable or slow hovering shots from the Disco.
But the airplane-like wings help it use less energy as it glides through the air, lending it a longer battery life than any quadcopters on the market at 45 minutes. That same aerodynamic shape helps it fly at speeds otherwise seen only in racing drones, up to 50 mph.
Sadly, Parrot Disco’s camera doesn’t match the UHD video resolutions found among the other drones in this price range. For most users, though, the 1080p HD video satisfies just fine.
Where the Disco shines is its immersive first-person view. The smooth fixed-wing flight creates a compelling illusion of flying when viewed in VR goggles, which come included with the Disco.
DJI Mavic Air
At the next price point down the DJI ladder, the DJI Mavic Air also serves as a well-rounded workhorse drone.
Compact, fast, and reliable, the Mavic Air feels like a hybrid between the Spark and the Mavic Pro. It combines many of the fun features of the Spark, but it adds the heft and many of the features of the Mavic Pro for a great balance between value and performance.
The Mavic Air is lighter than the Mavic Pro and can achieve a slightly faster max speed of 42.5 mph. And costing significantly more than the Spark, it takes hand gesture direction even better for fun hands-free operation.
As you’d expect, The Mavic Air’s battery lasts longer than the Spark’s but not as long as the Mavic Pro’s. Expect about 21 minutes of flight time.
Like the more expensive Mavic Pro, it shoots at 4K resolution and records at 100 Mbps for outstanding video quality. Gimbal dampers help add to the steadiness of video shots and crispness of stills.
Ultimately, the DJI Mavic Air makes for a solid compromise between value and performance.
Autel VOOCO X-Star Premium
Autel’s VOOCO X-Star Premium gives the similarly priced DJI Mavic Air a run for its money.
It too shoots at 4K UHD video, with a three-axis gimbal stabilizer for smooth shooting. As with most drones in this price range, it offers full GPS capability, first-person view, spare parts to keep you airborne, and a battery that can recharge in as little as one hour.
The GPS works alongside GLONASS satellite navigation for even safer flying. And it includes a patented SecureFly feature to resist magnetic interference that sometimes causes flight problems over longer distances.
On battery life, it beats the Mavic Air, lasting 25 minutes. It also boasts an outstanding 1.2-mile range for long-distance flying. Even over those distances, live-streaming HD video to your mobile device works like a charm.
Finally, Autel has a gleaming reputation for customer service and delivers on their promise to be there for you seven days a week if you need them.
Best Drones for $1,000 & Up
At the high end of the market, commercial drone operators and hardcore enthusiasts can buy the best of the best – and pay accordingly.
Best Overall Drone: DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro does everything the Mavic Pro Platinum does, but better.
It can reach near-racing speeds of 44 mph, and its battery lasts a whopping 31 minutes. And while not quite as maneuverable as a racing drone, it still feels nimble in the air.
The camera shoots in 4K UHD with superb image quality thanks to stabilizing gimbals. Resolution aside, its sizeable 1-inch image sensor just plain takes better images than competing drones, which use 1/2.3-inch sensors. Unless you’re shooting Hollywood action flicks, the video quality stands up to professional shooting gigs.
The Mavic 2 Pro does all the other neat tricks you’d expect, from first-person view to VR to programmable flight paths. You can control it by remote, smartphone, or hand gestures.
With smart GPS and obstacle avoidance, the Mavic 2 Pro won’t crash into anything unless you really want it to. And when the time comes to put it away, it folds up well for easy travel.
In short, it’s a nearly perfect drone.
Best Pro Cinematography: DJI Inspire 2
What if you do want to shoot Hollywood action flicks?
For the best video quality available in a drone today, look to the DJI Inspire 2. It boasts spectacular 5.2K UHD video through a high-end 1-inch image sensor and can shoot up to 60 fps. It also offers several premium-quality lens options.
In fact, it’s designed to be operated by not one but two people: a pilot and a cinematographer. While the pilot weaves and yaws, the cinematographer can change the camera angle, swivel, and zoom. They each use separate remotes and can stand up to 100 meters (328 feet) apart.
The drone itself can move with the best of them, achieving speeds of up to 69 mph in Sport mode. But it’s not a racing drone and isn’t designed to turn on a dime – or to survive crashes, for that matter. However, it does have a respectable 27-minute battery life.
With a price tag nearly double that of the Mavic 2 Pro, the Inspire 2 serves as a niche drone for professional cinematographers.
Whether you’re looking to have fun with the kids or start an aerial photography business, to spend $70 or $3,000, there’s a drone for you in the marketplace.
And while you get what you pay for, you can still find excellent value and ever-improving features even at the lower end of the price spectrum. If you’ve never flown a drone before, start there, and work your way into more premium drones as needed.
You might even find you love flying so much you can make some extra money doing it on the side.
What have you used drones for in the past? What features most appeal to you in your hunt for the perfect drone?