Even if you have no good reasons to justify buying one, you have to admit that drones are cool. And if you’ve ever thought about dropping money on a quadcopter, but you’ve managed to wait this long, good news: the tech has come a long way in a very short time. There are models on the market now that put last year’s copters to shame in terms of video quality and stabilization.
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 prepared to spend some serious cash. Because drones are such a pricey proposition, 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.
There are low-cost drones on the market, 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 certainly fits that bill. It captures 2.7K video that’s similar in quality to the pricier Phantom 3 Advanced, although its operating range isn’t quite as great. The Xiro Xplorer V$499.98 at Amazon can also be had for $500 or so, but its 1080p camera leaves a bit to be desired when compared with the Phantom.
If you’re looking to spend less, the Parrot Bebop, which sells for around $350, is a good choice, as long as you understand its limitations. It’s not a high, fast flyer, but it can be fun if you’re interested in a small quad that can perform flips and rolls. It’s a fun, durable option. You will have to fly with your smartphone or tablet, unless you decide to spend a lot more money on the Bebop configuration with theSkycontroller£299.99 at Amazon remote—but at that price, you’re better off getting a more capable drone. The Bebop 2 is out now, available in both tablet and Skycontroller configurations, but it sells for signficantly more—around $550 for the Bebop 2 by itself, and $800 when bought with the Skycontroller.
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, including the Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K, Typhoon G, and Blade Chroma, 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.
Safety and Regulations
All of the models featured here have some safety features. Even the Bebop, 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 really concerned about losing your copter to a flyaway you can add a GPS tracker. TheFlytrex Live 3G is available for a number of popular models and constantly sends location data to the cloud via a 3G cellular connection. Flyaways still happen, and there are horror stories on various Internet 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.
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. If your new drone weighs more than half a pound, you’ll need to register with the FAA.
Racing and Toy Quadcopters
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. (Check out this clip from Magnum, P.I. if you don’t believe me, or just want to see Tom Selleck in a bathrobe.) But with the recent popularity of drones, 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.
We’ve reviewed a handful of these products and placed them in our Toys review category. If you’re interested in something that you can use on the International Drone Racing Association circuit, like the Horizon Hobby Blade Nano QX2 FPV BNF£126.99 at Amazon, or just want to tool around with a tiny remote copter like the Aerius, keep your eyes tuned there for reviews.
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 at this point in time. It made huge improvements to the older Phantom 2 Vision+$649.00 at Amazonwith the Phantom 3 line—in video quality, flight stability, and ease of use. And the latest Phantom 4, the first drone to received a five-star rating from PCMag, adds an obstacle avoidance system. We awarded Editors’ Choice honors to the Phantom 2 when we reviewed it, but newer models offer such vast improvements that we don’t recommend buying the aging quadcopter at this point in time.
But the Phantom 4 is pricey at $1,400, so the Phantom 3 series is still on the radar of many a drone shopper. There’s the aforementioned Standard model for entry-level shoppers. You can step up to the Phantom 3 4K, which sells for around $800 and uses the same Wi-Fi control system as the Standard—but ups the video resolution to 4K. Also selling in that price range is the Phantom 3 Advanced, which records video at up to 2.7K but offers the same rock-solid Lightbridge streaming and control system found on the Phantom 3 Professional and Phantom 4.
Another Editors’ Choice winner is the DJI Inspire 1. It’s designed for more serious use than Phantom models. Carbon fiber construction, a camera that can swing around in any direction, and dual-operator control—one person flies while another controls the camera—set it apart from consumer models. The version we flew, which includes a 4K camera that matches the Phantom 3 Professional in quality, sells for $2,900 with a single remote control, or for $3,300 for the dual-operator version with the second remote.
3D Robotics and Yuneec are the DJI’s major competition. 3DR’s Solo, which has enjoyed some price cuts since it launched last year, doesn’t have its own camera. Instead it uses a GoPro Hero3$429.95 at Amazon or Hero4Best Price at Amazon. The Solo is currently the only drone on the market to allow pilots to fully control a GoPro while in flight, and it offers a number of pre-programmed Smart Shots that will make cinematographers happy. But it’s not without issue—spotty GPS and short battery life keep it from getting a higher rating.
Yuneec’s Typhoon series, including the current generation Q500 4K, has gained traction with many pilots. I found the Q500 to be a little rough around the edges when testing it in the field, but its successor looks promising. Announced at CES, the Typhoon H is a six-rotor model that can keep flying even if it loses a propeller or engine, with an integrated collision avoidance system. We haven’t reviewed it yet, but it can be had for $1,299 with standard obstacle avoidance or for $1,899 with a more advanced avoidance system powered by Intel’s RealSense tech.
The DJI Inspire 1 Pro ($4,449) and the Inspire 1 Raw ($7,999) are intended for use by professional videographers, and are priced as such. They have the same flight hardware as the original version, but use an interchangebale lens camera with a big Micro Four Thirds image sensor and a bundled 15mm f/1.7 lens. The Pro records 4K video that’s compressed (albeit at a high bit rate), and the Raw manages to do the same without any compression for true cinema-grade video. Existing Inspire 1 owners can upgrade to the new cameras without buying the flight hardware—the Pro camera and lens combo sells for $2,199, and the Raw is $5,499.
Thermal Camera Drones
Horus Dynamics Zero drone, seems to be best professional drone with thermal camera on market in 2016. The price starting from ($3.784 without thermal camera) are in line with competitor Dji’s product is really low if we consider the made in Italy manifacture, possibility of personalizatione and expecially the FlirA65 radiometric thermal camera. The dedicated software seems to be the only one capable of record .fff radiometric video on drone actually.