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How to choose the right drone for you

Popular Science logo Popular Science 5 days ago David Nield

Pick the right drone before takeoff. © Ahmed Saffu/Unsplash Pick the right drone before takeoff. So you've decided to buy a drone. And why wouldn't you? These petite flying machines let you survey your surroundings from on high, and they take magnificent aerial photos and videos. One of the most exciting and innovative bits of tech to emerge in recent years, a decent drone now costs relatively little—so it's never been a better time to take to the skies.

Whether you're upgrading your existing drone or buying your very first model, then you need to know where to start. We'll outline the different types of drone to choose between, the features to consider, and the range of prices you can expect to pay.

Types of drones

When it comes to buying drones, you don't have to consider as many makes and models as you do when you pick up a new smartphone or fitness tracker. In fact, you can put most drones into two broad categories: large camera-bearing fliers and smaller, lighter camera-free ones.

For some consumers, a drone isn't a drone unless it can capture jaw-dropping footage from the skies; other shoppers just want to control a cool airborne machine and don't mind sacrificing the digital view in exchange for a lower price tag. As well as having lower costs, the more compact so-called toy drones can fly around indoors, so you won't have to go outside to play with them.

Smaller drones like the Holy Stone HS170 Predator don't have built-in cameras. © Holy Stone Smaller drones like the Holy Stone HS170 Predator don't have built-in cameras. While some of these tiny indoor drones do come with simple cameras attached—which messes up our categorizations a bit—these cameras can only capture low-quality footage, so they won't make very good contributions to your next movie project.

In addition to size and camera quality, these categories often come with different control systems. If you opt for a larger drone equipped with a camera capable of shooting video at 1080p HD or greater, then it will typically have a separate controller. You usually steer toy drones, on the other hand, through your phone.

Larger drones, like the DJI Phantom 3 SE, can cope with outdoor conditions. © DJI Larger drones, like the DJI Phantom 3 SE, can cope with outdoor conditions. Most beginners will be happy with either a standard camera-equipped drone or a flexible toy one. Although we won't focus too much on other categories, there are two other types of drones worth knowing about. Racing drones, geared toward speed-conscious consumers, often come as kits with disparate parts that the buyers have to assemble. Professional drones, used by broadcasters and filmmakers, cost several thousand dollars but deliver fantastic video quality. These expensive drone categories offer better specs and speeds, but purchasers need to seriously know their drone tech.

Before you start thumbing through spec and feature lists, consider what you'd like to do with a drone, or perhaps how much money you plan to spend. Do you want to have some fun buzzing a little copter around the living room and garden? Or would you prefer to head to the great outdoors and nab sweeping landscape photographs? Once you've decided on a priority, you're ready to start picking a drone.

Features to look for

The sticker price won't give you an exact indicator of a machine's quality, although it does provide a quick, and approximate, assessment of which drones are better than others. In general, more expensive drones will fly longer and farther, take better movies and photos, and come with more bells and whistles. But to make a more informed decision, you'll need to get specific about specs. Here are the features you should know about.

Battery life: Just like a smartphone, a drone will eventually run out of juice. Even on the best models, flight times between charges struggle to surpass 30 minutes. Of course, you can always carry an extra battery—but if you think you might be doing this, make sure to include the cost of spare batteries in the total price of the option that you're considering.

Brushless motors: When perusing a listing, you may come across this term. Brushless motors cost more than brushed ones, but in exchange, they offer quieter operation and possess a longer lifespan, which means you won't have to replace them as often.

Camera: If you want the best-quality footage possible, the camera specs should be a big consideration. So make sure to look for the photo and video resolution of the drone's integrated camera. Most decent-size models—not including toy drones—now come with a built-in camera, but some leave you the option of attaching your own. For more information about the features that let you capture high-res photos and videos, check out our guide to choosing a digital camera.

Not all drone cameras are created equal. © Curate Labs & Magazine/Unsplash Not all drone cameras are created equal. Headless mode: Starting to fly a drone can be tricky, so for beginners, some models offer headless mode. It means that when you press the controller stick in one direction, the drone will move in that direction relative to you, rather than relative to where the joystick is pointing.

Integrated GPS: At the premium end of the drone market, you'll find models with integrated GPS, which lets the machines know where they are in the world. This upgrade helps your drone find its way back home—a feature called, aptly, return-to-home or RTH—and improves its general stability and navigational skills. For example, many drones with GPS can easily hover in one place.

Follow-me mode: Some drones equipped with GPS also offer this option: Follow-me mode lets your drone track you across the ground or ocean, so you can concentrate on your mountain biking or kite surfing while your aerial pal tags along recording your progress. Certain drones do this better than others, so check in with user reviews to see how well the mode works in practice.

Some drones can avoid obstacles without your help. © NeONBRAND/Unsplash Some drones can avoid obstacles without your help. Gimbal: As drones go up in price, you'll notice they start having something called an integrated gimbal. This support just keeps the camera steady while it's moving around in high winds and elevated altitudes. (Smaller toy drones won't have this attachment, but they don't really need it, because they're often flown indoors or at lower altitudes.) If you want the best video footage and photos, make sure the drone includes a gimbal.

Obstacle avoidance: A premium feature on some premium drones, obstacle avoidance will cost you money but might just protect your drone from crashing into a tree. As with the follow me mode, some drones do this better than others. So as well as noting whether a model has this ability or not, check the reviews online to see if it actually works as advertised.

Range: A drone's range tells you how far from you it can move before you lose control of it. More expensive professional-level drones have greater ranges. No matter how far your drone can stray, bear in mind that you should be keeping your drone in sight at all times anyway.

A few top picks

We're not going to provide an exhaustive list of all consumer drones in this article, but we will show you a selection of appealing options for potential shoppers, and quote the prices (at the time of writing) so you can get an idea of what's available. If you care to browse through any drone manufacturer's website, you'll find plenty of other models there.

Blade Nano QX

Blade Nano QX © Blade Blade Nano QX At the least expensive end of the market, the Blade Nano QX ($59.99 on Amazon), good for indoor and outdoor use, provides a fun way to jump into drone flying. It doesn't have any of the advanced features we discussed, such as GPS or even a camera, but its robust frame means it can take a few knocks. This option is best for those who want to get started with a drone as quickly and cheaply as possible.

Hubsan X4

Hubsan X4 © Hubsan Hubsan X4 The Hubsan X4 ($250 on Amazon) is an affordable drone for beginners, with a simple camera and up to 20 minutes of flight time. Unlike the Blade Nano QX, the Hubsan X4 has graduated from the toy category, providing its own controller and a camera capable of 1080p HD video recording. In addition, it includes integrated GPS and a headless mode so you can learn the ropes more quickly.

DJI Mavic Pro

DJI Mavic Pro © DJI DJI Mavic Pro Jumping up one more level, you'll find the DJI Mavic Pro ($983.29 on Amazon). It combines excellent internal tech with a folding design and lightweight shell that makes it very portable. If you splash out the cash for this option, you also get goodies like stabilized 4K video footage, obstacle avoidance, and built-in GPS.

GoPro Karma

GoPro Karma © GoPro GoPro Karma GoPro has been supplying cameras to adventurers for years. Now the company is making forays into full drones with the GoPro Karma ($1,090.99 on Amazon with a Hero5 camera). It includes 4K video recording, an integrated gimbal, and the ability to fold up (like the DJI Mavic Pro) for easier carrying. It doesn't have obstacle avoidance though, so keep your eye on it when navigating around obstacles.

DJI Phantom 4 Pro

DJI Phantom 4 Pro © DJI DJI Phantom 4 Pro For those who fall into the broad category between "casual flyer" and "serious moviemaker," the DJI Phantom 4 Pro ($1,499 on Amazon with a carrying backpack) is the go-to choice. In fact, you may well have seen one of these (or the Phantom 3 model that preceded it) in the wild. It includes a camera capable of 4K filming, obstacle avoidance, object tracking on the camera, and many other advanced features.

Whichever drone you end up buying, take your time learning the ins and outs of how it works. And you should also read through the FAA's rules for operating drones, which they also refer to as Unmanned Aircraft Systems. These regulations include instructions to keep the drone in sight at all times and not to fly higher than 400 feet.

Finally, when you first launch your new toy, start off slowly and carefully. This will not only keep the people around you safe, but also protect your new gadget.

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