December 7, 2022

Even if you do not have sufficient reason to justify the purchase, you must admit that the drones are cool. If you ever thought about giving up the money four-axis aircraft, but you wait so long, the good news: Technology has gone a long way in a very short time. Now there are models on the market that put last year’s helicopter shame on the quality and stability of the video.

Now this bad news. You get paid for if you want an aerial video platform that can capture stunning shots and you need to be prepared to spend some serious cash. Because an unmanned aerial vehicle is such an expensive option, doing one of your research before buying is worth it. We tested many models on the market that can fly to identify important models, and the best.

Price Matters

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 can also be had for $500 or so, but its 1080p camera leaves a lot 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. You will have to fly with your smartphone or tablet, unless you decide to spend a lot more money on the Bebop configuration with the Skycontroller 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.

Best Drones of 2017

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. The Flytrex 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.  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 you can use on the International Drone Racing Association circuit, like the Horizon Hobby Blade Nano QX2 FPV BNF, or just want to tool around with a tiny remote copter like the Aerius, keep your eyes tuned there for reviews.

DJI’s Dominance

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 right now, and has a product catalog with models at various price points, which take up a good number of the slots in our top ten. It made huge improvements to the older Phantom 2 Vision+with the Phantom 3 line—in video quality, flight stability, and ease of use. And the Phantom 4, the first drone to receive 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, 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 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.

Big Drones, Small Drones

For a long time, the Mirage Collection series is about as small as you can if you want to get a full-featured unmanned aerial vehicle flying in the air, maintaining stability, including strong security features. This is change. First we reviewed the small unmanned aircraft, Xiro Ixto had a bit of a rough edge of the software, and there was an outdated camera, but the display phantom shape size could shrink.

Recent models, including the favorable robot adsorption and the collection of minimal Mavic specialty, have been studied further. Advance with a magnet to its main chassis a set of folding propellers, so it is easy to break down and transport. Mavic Pro rotor arm, folded into the body, so it is easy to throw into a small backpack.

The Competition

Yuneec is DJI’s major competition in the consumer market. Its Typhoon series, including the 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 Yuneec’s only current entry in our top ten. It’s a six-rotor model that can keep flying even if it loses a propeller or engine, with an integrated collision avoidance system. 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.

GoPro launched its Karma drone in late 2016, but quickly pulled it from the market. The reason? Karma drones were falling from the sky due to mid-flight power loss. It goes to show that making a reliable, safe drone isn’t easy, even for a seasoned hardware manufacturer.

PowerVision is a new player in the US market. It’s announced two copters—the consumer-friendly PowerEgg and the pro-grade PowerEye. We haven’t been able to test either as of yet.

Also making headway in the US is Autel Robotics. Its line of X-Star drones look like DJI Phantoms that have been dipped in bright orange paint. We’ve not yet had the opportunity to review them, but they compare favorably with DJI models in terms of price.

3D Robotics, which took a swing with its Solo drone, has reportedly cut staff and is concentrating on the corporate market. That’s a shame, as the Solo delivers a lot of innovative features and would be a stellar choice for GoPro action cam users if it weren’t hampered by subpar battery life and a GPS that’s slow to lock on to satellites. The Solo is attractive due to its current bargain-rate pricing, but I’d be hesitant to buy one. I doubt that you’ll be able to get batteries for it in the distant future, and the Phantom 3 Standard is a better option for bargain hunters.


Pro Models

The DJI Inspire 2 is aimed at professional cinematographers, news organizations, and independent filmmakers. And it’s priced as such—its $3,000 price doesn’t include a camera. You have the option of adding a 1-inch sensor fixed-lens camera or a Micro Four Thirds interchangeable lens model, both of which support 5.2K video capture when paired with the Inspire 2.

Yuneec also has a model with a Micro Four Thirds camera. Its Tornado H920 is a huge drone with six rotors and room to hold three batteries, giving it an unheard-of 42-minute flight capability. Its CGO4 camera is essentially a custom version of the Panasonic GH4, a favorite of many a terrestrial videographer. It doesn’t record uncompressed video like the Inspire 1 Raw, but at $4,999 it’s a few thousand dollars less expensive.