Drone Buying Guide - What is the Best Drone for Me?
There are probably as many reasons for buying a drone as there are different drone models out there.
There are a whole lot of small differences that could affect which drone you buy and how much you enjoy your drone. Get it right, and you'll become addicted to them. Get it wrong, and you may never buy a drone again.
If you've never flown a drone before and you are trying to decide what is the best drone to buy, this guide was made for you. Hopefully, we'll be able to clear up a lot of the confusion and turn you into a happy, confident drone pilot who feels confident that you are purchasing the perfect drone for your needs.
What will you be using the drone for?
People buy drones for all sorts of reasons. Some like to fly, some like to do acrobatic tricks, some like to race and some like to take pictures and video. There are really three major classes of drones:
Toy drones: Some people just like to fly things and make them do tricks. For those people, a toy drone is best. They are relatively cheap and considerably more sturdy than more sophisticated drones that have a whole lot of sensitive microchips and gimbal-mounted cameras on them. If the toy drone does have a camera, it doesn't take world class pictures or video and is static-mounted, making it less likely to suffer damage from a crash, but also providing extremely jumpy video because there is no gimbal to smooth the very bumpy ride. If they do crash and take an especially hard fall, you are not out a whole lot of money with a toy drone if it cannot fly again.
Photography/Video drones: The trend with drones in the past couple of years is to make them more than simple RC devices. Equipping a drone with a high quality camera opens up a world of possibilities for casual users as well as commercial and industrial applications. Camera drones are usually classified as Consumer drones, Commercial drones and Professional Drones.
Consumer Drones: Typically have a very good camera and either a 2-axis or 3-axis gimbal. They can take extremely good 1080P or 4K HD video with excellent 12MP still pictures, but the video is not quite as good as Commercial or Professional drones. They also tend to have a lot of autonomous features built in that allow inexperienced drone pilots to fly their drones and get them to do things that would be much more difficult without those programmed features.
Commercial Drones: The main difference between a commercial drone and a consumer drone is the camera. Commercial drones have cameras that take better still pictures than consumer drones and their video settings offer more frames per second and smaller apertures, both of which leads to even better video quality
- Professional Drones: The most expensive drones of all, commercial drones offer even better video capabilities as well as video file formats and post production editing applications that consumer and commercial drones do not. These are the type of drones used by the film and television industry. They also feature things like 360 degree gimbals and advanced collision avoidance systems that protect the drone from all sides.
Where do you plan on flying the drone?
As drones have become more popular, the number of regulations, both at the federal and state levels, have multiplied.
There are many places where you are simply not allowed to fly drones. If you do, you could be facing some very hefty civil and/or criminal penalties. It is extremely important that you understand the regulations about flying drones in the area that you intend to fly one - not only for the safety of others, but in order to avoid a sizable fine.
We recommend heading over to Know Before You Fly. It is an excellent resource for learning what you need to know before flying your drone for the first time.
What is your drone flying skill level?
This is really the most important question of all. If you have never flown a drone before, there are a whole lot of controls and conditions you may not be prepared for. We certainly do not recommend getting the most expensive commercial or professional drone made as your first drone - even if what you want to use it for dictates you need one of those drones.
If taking high quality photos in not a concern of yours any time down the road, get a toy drone. You'll have fun, learn a whole lot about flying and, if it has a camera, you will learn how to control the camera and the drone at the same time - a skill set that will come in very handy if you ever decide to advance to a higher quality drone.
If you would like to take very good to extremely good video and pictures and want something a little better than a toy drone, we'd recommend starting with either a DJI Spark or a DJI Mavic Pro. By no coincidence, these are the most popular drones on the market today.
The Spark is small, fun, super simple to use and takes amazingly good video and stills for a drone with a 1080P camera and a 2-axis gimbal in the nose of the craft. It's perfect for selfies or blogging and offers tons of autopilot features that make creating great videos super simple. It can be controlled with a transmitter, a phone and even by using hand motions (very Star Wars!). It also can take off and land from the palm of your hand. Starting at only $499, it is certainly less expensive than any other drone with its capabilities and, other than having good, but not great video, the only downside is its limited flight time of 16 minutes and its maximum controllable distance of 1.2 miles.
The Mavic Pro is definitely larger than a Spark is, but is still considered a small drone. It offers a better 4K HD video camera than the Spark and most of the same autonomous features the Spark does. Although you cannot control it with hand gestures, you can use your cell phone or the drone's transmitter. Because it is larger and built with a 3-axis gimbal that hangs below it, the camera can be more easily damaged from a crash or hard landing than a Spark's camera can. Although you could get away with using for commercial video, there are drones with better cameras out there that are better suited for paid jobs. At $999, it is definitely the best drone you can buy that shoots 4K video. It can be controlled from up to 4.3 miles away and has a 27 minute maximum flight time.
Although you can certainly start with a considerably more expensive drone with a more powerful camera, we don't recommend it. Flying a drone is not as simple as seasoned operators make it look; there are a lot of controls being used simultaneously.
Purchasing drone insurance is something we would consider mandatory if you want to start with anything in the high price range. In fact, we recommend purchasing it for anything but a toy drone - especially if you are brand new to flying drones.
If you've flown drones of various shapes and sizes in the past and are a proficient drone pilot, the sky's the limit for you (literally). We have a drone for pretty much anything you can think of!
What is the drone's maximum flight time?
How long a drone will stay in the air before you have to bring it home safely is definitely an important consideration. You certainly don't want to watch in utter horror as your drone falls out of the sky thousands of feet from you!
Some toy drones can only stay in the air for 6 minutes and higher end drones can last for up to a half hour before having to land. If you plan on sending your drone out into the wild blue yonder far, far away, just remember that it might not make it home before having to land, so plan accordingly.
Fortunately, all DJI drones have microprocessors on them that alert you that they need to land and are programmed to do just that unless you choose to override that built in safety feature. As long a you "listen" to your drone and don't think you are smarter than it, you should avoid disaster.
Regardless of whether your drone can fly for a quarter hour or a half hour, you certainly do not want to cut your day short because of those relatively short flight times. That's why every experienced drone pilot will tell you to buy extra batteries - lots of them - so that you can enjoy hours of fun with your drone, even if it has to come home for a new battery every now and then between flights.
What is the drone's flight distance?
While some toy drones can only travel as few as 30 yards, some of the more expensive drones can fly up to 4.3 miles away from the transmitter. Unlike flight time, the distance a drone can travel is not as important as many people seem to believe it is. One of the reasons for that is tied to the battery.
Sure, you may be able to fly a drone as far as 4 miles away but if you do not immediately return home, your drone may not have the battery power to make it back. If you are flying it anywhere but in a very open area, you could end up having to emergency land it in a place that is less than desirable.
Although FPV view makes it possible to pilot your drone even if you can no longer see it, FAA regulations do not permit licensed drone pilots to fly a drone out of unassisted line of sight. This means that you must keep your drone visible to the naked eye. They do permit a spotter but still state that even with a visual observer/assistant, the drone pilot must be able to see the drone well enough to react to unexpected occurrences.
Of course, hobbyists (i.e. those who do not use their drones to make money in any way) who are not bound by those restrictions can do what they want, but those rules are in place for a pretty good reason - FPV view does not allow you to see what is happening around your drone (think of using a pair of binoculars and how you cannot see what is happening on either side of you). Also, even if you could see everything happening around the drone, FPV mode is never going to let you see the wind, which can wreak havoc on controlling a drone - especially when you cannot actually see the drone.
It may seem cool to fly a drone super far away, but a whole lot can go wrong and if you cannot physically see your drone well enough, what started out as cool and fun could quickly turn into disaster.
How fast can the done fly?
If you are using a drone for filming, this is probably the last thing you care about. In fact, the slower you can maneuver a drone, the more smooth the video will be.
Even if you bought a drone strictly for video, sometimes it's fun to just fly them and like many things, the faster, the better (especially in FPV view).
The slowest toy drones have a maximum speed of about 10 MPH, the mid-level consumer/commercial drones can get up to 45 MPH and high end professional drones can get into almost racing drone speeds of up to 60 MPH.
Just remember why you are really buying a drone and factor in flying speed accordingly.
What are the drone camera specs?
Once you get beyond toy drones, this is where drones really separate themselves. Although many drones offer 4K HD video, there are other camera specs that make the difference between great video and truly professional, cinematic quality footage.
Things that separate the higher end drone cameras from one another are the sensor size, aperture size, the number of frames per second it records at, the video compression codec and, of course, its still photo MP and ISO settings.
Many people scratch their heads, trying to figure out why a DJI Phantom 4 Pro costs 50% more than a DJI Mavic Pro. In all of the above, the camera specs are better on the Phantom 4. It's got a smaller sensor and aperture size and it shoots more frames per second in UHD, 4K and FHD video recording modes. Every one of those things leads to better video quality. As far as the still camera shots go, the Phantom 4 has almost double the megapixels (20MP vs 12 MP) and its ISO settings put those of the Mavic Pro to shame (12,800 vs. 1,600).
Better than even the Phantom 4 Pro is the DJI Inspire 2 with ZenMuse X5S camera. Of course, at $6,200 it better be significantly better! This is truly the drone for cinematographers or news teams. It is capable of recording video in Cinema DNG and Apple ProRes, and other common formats for filmmaking post-production. Also supported are FAT32/exFAT file systems, which allow fast copying of files direct from the CINESSD without additional software. If you know what any or all of that means, this might be the drone you need!
Bottom Line: Pay very close attention to the camera specs. They are almost always the reason that one drone costs more than another seemingly identical drone.
What kind of gimbal does the drone have?
They say that a picture is worth a thousand words (or in this case, a video). There is no better way of explaining the difference a gimbal makes than to simply show you.
Although we couldn't find a single great comparison video made from a drone - with and without a gimbal - here is one made from an electric skateboard where the rider is wearing a camera. The one on the left has a gimbal and is clearly a much more steady video than the one on the right where the camera had no gimbal:
As you can see, a gimbal keeps the camera level at all times. With the banking, winds and constant up/down motion of a drone, your video is going to look extremely shaky if your drone does not have a gimbal.
Assuming they have a camera at all, toy drones don't have a gimbal, so expect the video quality to be pretty unsteady. If you are buying something other than a toy drone, there are two kinds of gimbals your drone could have - a 2-axis gimbal or a 3-axis gimbal.
A 3-axis gimbal has leveling for roll, pitch and yaw, whereas a 2-axis gimbal only has leveling for roll and pitch. The easiest way to explain what roll, pitch and yaw are is to hold your arm straight out in front of you with your palm facing flat to the ground:
Roll is rotation around the front/back axis. Twist your arm back and forth from the shoulder, clockwise and counterclockwise, to simulate roll.
Pitch is rotation around the right/left axis. Move your arm up and down from the shoulder to simulate pitch.
Yaw is rotation around the up/down vertical axis. Move your arm left and right from the shoulder to simulate yaw.
Obviously, a 3-axis gimbal is better than a 2-axis one, but a 2-axis gimbal is still going to provide an extremely smooth shot. Casual users and bloggers will be extremely happy with the footage and smooth video from a drone with a 2-axis gimbal and for a lot of drone footage, you would not be able to tell the difference between a drone with a 2-axis or 3-axis gimbal. If you are a commercial or professional drone videographer, however, you should make sure the drone has a 3-axis gimbal.
What special autopilot flight features does the drone have?
This is where things get fun! Many drones have special programs or apps that allow you to accomplish things that it would normally take a pair of drone pilots considerable time to master. Not only that, but some autonomous features allow you to fly your drone more safely and avoid disaster.
Aerial Acrobatics: This is something only seen in toy drones. Special buttons cause the drone to to things like rolls, flips and loops without having to master the skill like a real drone pilot would.
Return Home: A very important feature, a return to home button causes the drone to stop what it is doing and immediately come back and land where it took off from. This autopilot feature is a great one to have when you realize your drone is low on battery power or you have received an error message from the on board diagnostics.
Collision Avoidance: Another important safety feature, collision avoidance allows your drone to automatically avoid large objects (like a wall or tree) that may be in its path that you did not see, for whatever reason. It does not help to avoid small things like birds, however. Most drones that have collision avoidance only have front-facing avoidance, which means the drone could still crash into something it did not "see" on the sides of it. More expensive advanced drones also have collision avoidance on the side, the rear and even on the bottom.
Gesture Mode: Allows you to control your drone with gestures instead of using a remote.
Selfie Mode: With the click of a button or a gesture, selfie mode tells the drone to take your picture.
Hover Mode: Hit this, and your drone stops in place - great if you have a leg cramp, need to sneeze or just need to collect your thoughts.
Level Mode: Keeps your drone flying at the same vertical height.
- QuickShot Modes: QuickShots are programmed flight patterns that would normally take a drone pilot a considerable amount of time to master in anything resembling the smooth way that these great autopilot programs do it. They include:
- Rocket - Ascending vertically straight up while the camera faces down on the subject
- Dronie - Flying backward and upward with the camera locked in on the subject
- Circle - Flying in a circular pattern around the subject, filming from every side
- Helix - Flying upward while spiraling around and filming the subject
ActiveTrack: This autopilot mode allows the drone to lock in on a subject and follow it, wherever that subject goes. Use it to follow a vehicle, person or even an animal.
- Programmable Flight Paths: Using apps, like the DJI Go app, you can program waypoints that your drone flies to. This allows you to concentrate on the camera and not have to worry about where the drone is flying. Other apps like Litchi and Autopilot give you even more flight path flexibility and you can even program the camera. You can also set up safe zones to keep your drone from going into places that could cause it or something else harm.
How do I control the done?
There are three different ways a drone can be controlled, although not every drone can be controlled with all three methods:
Transmitter/Controller: Many drones come with a transmitter that allows you to control the drone. They typically have two sets of joysticks for controlling the drone as well as another set of controls for the camera (if equipped).
A controller is the best way of controlling your drone because it has a much better range than a cell phone. You can control your drone from much farther away with one.
Controllers are also not prone to disconnections like we all know happens with a cell phone. Imagine the horror of your drone flying away and losing connection with it because of bad communication with a cell tower!
Some controllers have a built in screen and others pair with your cell phone or tablet for the video screen.
If you did not get a controller with your drone and one is available for it, we highly recommend purchasing one.
Cell Phone or Tablet: Pretty much every drone except for toy drones can be controlled with a cell phone or a tablet after you pair it with the drone.
The advantage of using a tablet or cell phone is that there are several pretty cool apps that can be used with your drone that allow you to do all sorts of advanced things, like pre-programming a flight path.
The disadvantage to using a tablet or phone to control your drone is that the signal is significantly weaker than the signal from a real drone transmitter, meaning you may only be able to fly half the distance or less with a phone versus a controller. And, as mentioned above, you are always a lost signal away from losing control of your drone with a phone or tablet.
Gestures: This is a feature that is only available with the DJI Spark drone. Gesture control allows you to control your drone using simple hand gestures, so you don't really need a controller at all.
You power your Spark on and wait a moment until it indicates that it has recognized your face (you don't want just anybody being able to control it). The rotors will start turning and then you simply release the drone and it begins to hover.
The Spark allows you to control a lot of things with just gestures. You can tell it to move right and left, up and down, fly away, come back, take a selfie and even land in the palm of your hand. True Jedi stuff!
Does the drone offer FPV view?
One of the coolest things about owning a drone is experiencing flight as a pilot instead of simply as someone on the ground making something fly. If you ever wondered what it would be like to be a bird, this is it!
FPV (First Person View) allows you to do just that. Flying with FPV means that you are looking through the camera of your drone and controlling it just like a real pilot would. You can view the world through the "eyes" of your drone on your smart phone/tablet or controller with a built in monitor.
Although technically not permissible by the FAA - especially for commercial pilots - flying a drone with FPV allows you to pilot the drone when it is no longer possible to do it by line of sight from the ground.
In addition to the totally immersive experience that FPV affords drone pilots, flying with FPV allows you to see exactly what your camera is recording, so you know you are always getting the shot you want.
If you want to take FPV to the next level, grab a set of FPV goggles and shut the rest of the world out, seeing nothing but the view from your drone. Even better, get a pair with head tracking which enables you to adjust the camera angle based on your head movements, allowing you to look up,down, left and right.
Does the drone have a headless mode (and do I really want it)?
Confusion often occurs when flying a drone for the first time because, while turning left and right is easy enough when the drone is flying away from you, it becomes just the opposite when flying toward you because the drone is now facing the opposite way.
Many toy drones have something called "headless mode", which gets rid of that confusion. No matter which direction the drone is facing, left will always move it to your left and right will always move it to your right.
While this may seem like an excellent thing, it really makes transitioning to a more expensive drone much more difficult because none of the consumer, commercial or professional drones have a headless mode.
Flying a drone is supposed to be an experience that mimics being a pilot that is sitting inside of the drone, looking out the front window of the aircraft. That is why the normal reaction to a joystick pointing left is to take the drone left in the direction it is facing - not the direction that the person on the ground is facing.
In our opinion, even if your toy drone does offer headless mode, we recommend NOT using it so that you learn to fly a drone the proper way and don't get really confused when you step up to a proper drone.
Does the drone have GPS?
Unless it is a toy drone, most drones have GPS tracking built into them. This allows the drone to use global positioning satellites to do a whole lot of advanced things that they would not otherwise be able to do.
Without GPS, the only way you would be able to control a drone is using line of site and a transmitter. You could not have it hold and hover, return to home or any of the autopilot functions that we mentioned earlier in this guide. You also would not be able to use apps to pre-program flight patterns and none of the built in safety features like obstacle avoidance would work.
If your drone does not have GPS, you better be a good pilot because from take off to landing and everything in between, it is 100% up to your skill as a pilot.
Does the drone have "optical flow" (vision positioning)?
Optical flow, or vision positioning is something that you usually only hear being discussed with drones that people need to use indoors.
Because GPS seldom works inside, pilots often want a way to control their drones without having to rely on super steady hands and skill when there is no GPS signal.
Drones with optical flow have a separate camera and/or other sensors that are used to ensure that the drone is not getting too close to the floor. This is the type of drone somebody shooting real estate video of the interior of a house might want. The vision positioning keeps the drone at a consistent level and from bouncing into things in close quarters.
Keep in mind that for optical flow to work, the floor area must be completely clear, devoid of any objects that could throw off the sensors.
Do I need drone insurance?
Whether it is for a car, a boat or your home, insurance is something you don't really want to pay for, hope you'll never use and are awfully glad you have when you need it.
Frankly, unless you are buying a cheap toy drone, we think it is crazy to buy a drone without also purchasing insurance. Even the most experienced drone pilots have had more drone crashes than they can remember.
Sometimes it is a pilot steering error, sometimes it is a battery running out of power before you realize it and sometimes electronic components fail. Regardless of the reason, drone warranties do not cover anything if your drone crashes.
Purchasing drone insurance not only gives you the peace of mind, knowing that if you crash your drone, it will be repaired or replaced, but it also extends the manufacturer's warranty to all components and even includes things like water damage - something manufacturer's warranties definitely do not cover (just like your cell phone manufacturer doesn't).
We offer one year and two year drone insurance policies. Most people purchase the two year policies because, not only do they at least double your drone's warranty coverage period, but they are only a little more expensive than the one year policies.
What accessories do I need?
Everyone has different wants that don't necessarily translate into actual needs. It's no different with drones. Here, we list accessories that we think you actually NEED:
- Done Insurance - We said enough about drone insurance in the previous question. Safe or sorry; your choice!
- Extra Batteries - There is not a drone pilot that doesn't want more batteries so that they can have a longer day of flying.
- Extra Propellers - When your drone clips things or crashes, the first thing to snap is a propeller.
- Propeller guards - These help protect your propellers (and your fingers) from damage when they hit objects.
Also nice to have are:
- Car Charger - The only thing worse than a dead battery is not having a way to charge it. This solves that problem.
- Multi-Battery Charger - The easiest way of ensuring you have plenty of charged batteries is having a charger that can charge several at once.
- FPV Goggles - The most immersive experience possible. See the world from the air like a real pilot does.
- Travel Case/Backpack - Transporting your drone safely can be a real challenge. Whether on an airplane or hiking up a mountain, a protective case or backpack ensures your drone gets to your flying destination in one piece.
Do I need to register with the FAA or get a drone license?
All drones that are more than .55 pounds must be registered with the FAA. That means pretty much every drone except for the smallest toy drones. It only costs $5 to register a drone and you can do that here.
If you make money in any way with your drone, the FAA requires you to obtain a Remote Pilot Certificate (also referred to by some as a "drone license"). That means if you are doing wedding or real estate photography, selling drone pictures or video from a website, delivering packages - ANYTHING where your drone aids you in making money, you ARE REQUIRED to get this license.
You need to take an exam in order to obtain your remote pilot certificate and the cost of that exam is $150, whether you pass or fail it. You may be surprised to learn that it is not exactly an easy exam, so it is highly unlikely that you will pass the test if you don't know what to study and study hard.
You can learn more about the process for getting a drone license and how to study for it by clicking here.
Is the drone RTF, BNF or ARF?
The drone world has its own little language and you will frequently hear that drones are ARF, BNF or RTF.
ARF means "Almost Ready To Fly". In other words, some assembly is required and there may be other parts that you need to buy in order to build the drone. Although it is probably a great way of learning what makes a drone "tick", ARF drones certainly do not come with any warranty, you cannot buy insurance for them and if you do something wrong, it could lead to tragic results.
BNF means "Bind and Fly". These drones do not come with controllers but can be binded with compatible controllers, saving you money. If you buy a BNF drone, please make sure that the controller you have is compatible with the drone. They usually only work with a few models. BNF drones include a factory warranty and you can certainly obtain drone insurance for BNF drones, since the insurance only covers the drone anyway.
RTF means "Ready To Fly" and are what the majority of drones you see are. No extra parts, accessories or controllers are needed with an RTF drone (except a cell phone/tablet with some drones). ALL of the drones on this website are RTF, come with factory warranties and are fully insurable.
How much does the drone cost?
We saved this question for last because, as I'm sure you can now see, there are a whole lot of more important factors to consider before you even begin to think about a drone's cost.
It wouldn't do much good to list every single drone we have on the website here. Instead, we have listed what our picks are for the best drone in each price range:
Best Drone Under $500: The DJI Spark is the clear winner here. It provides extremely good video and still pictures and is so easy to use, an absolute beginner can look like a seasoned veteran drone pilot almost instantly. Add in its extremely small, portable size and there is no competition for the Spark.
Best Drone Under $1,000: There is a clear winner here and it is the DJI Mavic Pro. You aren't going to find a better drone with the camera specs and ease of use that the Mavic Pro has for anything close to $1,000.
Best Drone Under $1,500: Another clear winner by DJI, the Phantom 4 Quadcopter takes the prize in this category. Superior obstacle avoidance and even better video quality than the Mavic Pro make the Phantom 4 a commercial quality drone at a consumer level price.
Best Drone At Any Price: If money is no object, the clear winner at this point in time is the DJI Inspire 2 with ZenMuse X5S camera. No drone has better object avoidance, a better built in camera or a better gimbal system. The video formats and post production capabilities make this the ideal drone for anyone in the movie making or television industries. That said, give it a year and I'm sure there will be an even better drone on the market. The drone industry is getting more inventive every year!
Still not sure which drone to buy?
If you're still unsure which drone to buy, by all means Contact Us. Tell us what it is that you want the drone for and what the most important things are to you and we'll be happy to make a recommendation!