In just the past few years, drones have transformed from a geeky hobbyist affair to a full-on cultural phenomenon. They’re everywhere now, and they’re available in just about any shape, size, or configuration you could ever want. The market is absolutely saturated with them now, even including some fantastic models under $500. so to help you navigate the increasingly large and ever-changing landscape of consumer UAVs, we put together a definitive list of the best drones on the planet right now. So without further ado, here’s the cream of the quadcopter crop.
DJI Mavic Air
Why you should buy this: It has all the features you need in a drone, yet is still compact enough to fit in a backpack or purse
Who it’s for: Anyone looking for a full-featured yet highly portable drone
How much it’ll cost: $799
Why we chose the DJI Mavic Air:
What makes the Mavic Air so amazing is that, despite the fact that it’s one of the most compact and portable drones we’ve ever flown, it’s also one of the most capable and full-featured. It’s equipped with a 4K camera, a 3-axis gimbal, forward/backward/downward obstacle avoidance, tons of autopilot modes, range over four miles, and somehow it still fits in the palm of your hand. It’s living proof that scaling down size doesn’t necessarily mean scaling back on features, and that big things really can come in small packages.
The portability factor is huge. Thanks to a very clever hinge system, the Mavic’s arms fold up into a neat little package just smaller than the dimensions of your average brick, which makes it a breeze to stuff in your backpack or messenger bag and lug along on your adventures. Photographers always say that the best camera is the one you have with you, and the same could definitely be said for drones. If it’s portable, you’re far more likely to have it with you when you need it.
When it comes to portable drones, the Mavic Air has no equal — although the Mavic Pro is still a pretty solid contender. It boasts slightly better camera specs and lasts a bit longer in the air, but it also costs an extra $200.
Our full DJI Mavic Air review
The best drone for beginners
Why you should buy this: Because it’s easy to fly, relatively cheap, reasonably durable, and also provides you with plenty of room to grow and progress as a pilot
Who its for: Novice pilots who want a durable, easy-to-fly drone with a decent camera and a plethora of upgrade options
How much it’ll cost: $200-$230
Why we chose the Yuneec Breeze:
Some people will tell you that beginner pilots should cut their teeth on lower-end drones, but in our expert opinion, that’s nonsense. Why? Crappier drones are harder and less reliable to fly, which means that you’re far more likely to crash and destroy them. We think its a smarter idea to start out with a slightly nicer drone with reliable, responsive controls, a decent warranty, and a design that’s easy to repair or upgrade.
With these goals in mind, Yuneec’s Breeze is a fantastic choice for any greenhorn drone pilot. It is relatively cheap, but not so cheap that you’ll be encouraged to fly carelessly. It also has a pretty decent 4K camera on the undercarriage, and boasts an ultraportable form factor that makes transport, well, a Breeze.
And the best part? You can fly it with your smartphone, or pick up Yuneec’s dedicated controller system if you want tighter, more responsive controls. In other words, if you start with this drone, you’ll be able to learn the ins and outs of piloting a quadcopter — but more importantly, you’ll also be able to upgrade your setup as your skills progress and your needs change.
Our full Yuneec Breeze review
The best cheap drone
Hubsan Desire FPV
Why you should buy this: Despite being under $200 bucks, it boasts all the essential features you need.
Who it’s for: Beginners, anyone who wants an affordable but stable drone
How much it’ll cost: $170
Why we chose the Hubsan Desire FPV:
The problem with most drones in the sub-$200 category is that they don’t have great stabilization and position hold features, so they’re super squirrelly and difficult to fly — but Hubsan’s Desire FPV is a notable exception. This little zipper has onboard GPS, altitude hold, and damn decent auto-stabilization software, which makes it much easier to fly.
As an added bonus, the Desire is also equipped with an wide-angle 720p camera that can record video to an onboard Micro SD card (not included), or just beam live video back to the screen on your controller. There’s even a “follow me” mode that allows you to relinquish control while the autopilot keeps the camera trained on the controller’s position — which is something you usually only find on higher-end drones. If you’re ballin’ on a budget, the Desire FPV should definitely be on your list.
The best drone for filmmakers
DJI Inspire 2
Why you should buy this: Because it’s a professional camera drone that’s ready to fly, straight out of the box
Who its for: Amateur and professional filmmakers who don’t want to build a custom camera drone rig
How much it’ll cost: $3,000
Why we chose the DJI Inspire 2:
There’s a reason you see DJI’s Inspire showing up everywhere from movie sets to Enrique Iglesias concerts — it’s a beast. The Inspire 2 boasts some seriously impressive specs: a controllable range of up to 4.3 miles, a top speed of 67 miles per hour, forward obstacle avoidance, and all the stabilization and autopilot features you could ever ask for in a drone. But the camera is definitely the star of the show.
DJI’s latest Zenmuse cam, the X5S, is a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera made specifically for aerial photography and cinematography. It shoots in 5.2K at 30 frames per second (or 4K at 60), takes 20.4 megapixel stills, and boasts a ridiculously wide ISO range of 100 – 25,600. As an added bonus, this rig is cradled inside a vibration dampened 3-axis gimbal, so your footage comes out silky smooth no matter how crazily you fly.
DJI’s control system is also fantastic. The revamped DJI Go app puts all of the camera’s advanced controls right at your fingertips. Shutter speed, aperture, and ISO can be adjusted with just a few taps, and focus can be set by simply tapping on the subject. With a setup like this, you don’t even need prior film experience or piloting skills to get professional-looking footage.
Our full DJI Inspire 2 review
The best drone for racing
Lumenier QAV250 Mini FPV Carbon Fiber Edition
Why you should buy this: Because you want a drone you can race and upgrade, but don’t want to build one from scratch
Who its for: Novice and intermediate racing pilots
How much it’ll cost: $434
Why we chose the Lumenier QAV250 Mini FPV Carbon Fiber Edition:
Lumenier’s QAV250 wins our pick for the best racing drone for a few different reasons, but the first and most important is that it is modular and customizable. You can buy it pre-assembled from Lumenier, and while the stock configuration should be more than enough to satisfy pilots who are new to drone racing, you are also not locked in to that configuration forever. If you ever feel like upgrading your drone, you can easily swap out any of the parts for newer, better gear.
This flexibility is crucial. If you look at the winners of most drone races, you’ll notice that most pros fly their own custom drone rigs that can be tweaked and tuned to boost performance. The technology that powers drone racing is progressing at a breakneck pace, and the last thing you want to do is dump a bunch of money into a pre-built racing rig that’ll become obsolete in a few months. The best course of action is to get a rig that’ll get you in the air and racing, but also allow you to evolve — and that’s precisely what the QAV250 will do.
The best drone for kids
Why you should buy this: It’s stable and easy to fly, and it comes with a range of fun attachments.
Who its for: Kids and adults who want a drone that can shoot darts
How much it’ll cost: $120
Why we chose the Parrot Mambo:
Truth be told, you can get a cheaper drone that your kid will probably go bonkers over just the same, but they’ll actually be able to fly this one. There are a boatload of mini drones out there right now that you can get for under $50 — but in our experience, the vast majority of them are too squirrelly and difficult to master for your average kid.
Parrot’s new Mambo is different. Unlike most other mini drones, this one is actually designed specifically for kids. In addition to a boatload of motion sensors and advanced autopilot software that keeps the drone stable, Mambo also comes with a handful of attachments that make it more fun and engaging than a basic quadcopter. Inside the box you’ll find a cannon attachment, 50 foam cannon balls, and a grabber arm that can clamp and carry small objects.
And the best part? Parrot also gives you the option of piloting via smartphone or with a dedicated dual-joystick controller. The Flypad, as it’s called, is sold separately for $40 bucks, but it might be worth the extra dough if you don’t have a spare smartphone lying around and don’t feel like handing your kid your brand new iPhone every time he/she feels like flying.
The best selfie drone
Why you should buy this: Because you want something portable that you can fly without a controller
Who it’s for: Anyone who wants to take epic selfies
How much it’ll cost: $500
Why we chose the DJI Spark:
If there’s one thing DJI is good at, it’s stuffing a ton of features and functionality into increasingly small drones — and nothing showcases this talent more than the Spark. Despite the fact that the drone’s hull is roughly the size of a Twinkie, DJI somehow managed to cram in many of the same goodies you’d find under the hood of the Spark’s bigger, bulkier, and more expensive brothers.
Aside from its tiny and hyper-portable design, the Spark’s biggest feature is arguably its plethora of intelligent flying modes. In addition to DJI’s standard stuff, the Spark sports a handful of brand-new modes, including Rocket, Dronie, Circle, and Helix (more on those in a moment). The drone also comes with gesture recognition abilities, which allow it to be operated without a smartphone or controller.
Another big addition is Spark’s obstacle avoidance system. While the ability to sense and avoid objects is usually a feature reserved for larger drones, DJI went ahead and built one into the hull of the Spark. It’s not quite as robust as what you’ll find on the Phantom 4, or even the Mavic Pro, but it still serves its purpose, and helps you avoid crashes.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the camera. In addition to a 12-megapixel camera that shoots video in 1080p at 30 frames per second, the Spark also sports a two-axis gimbal. This lets it mechanically stabilize the camera and cancel out any jarring, shaky movements — resulting in smoother, better-looking footage. This also gives it a leg up on the competition; most selfie drones only feature single-axis mechanical stabilization.
Read our full DJI Spark review
How we test drones
Build quality & Design
the first thing we do when we get a new drone is beat it up a little bit. We don’t kick it down the stairs or anything, but we’ll give it a few knocks, twists, and shallow drops to assess the build quality and durability. Does it feel flimsy, or does it feel like it could survive a crash landing in the park? We give each review unit a light beating (and usually a couple unintentional crash landings) before we give you a definitive answer on how durable it is.
Flight performance, range, and autonomy
To gauge flight performance, we put the drone through a number of tests to see how the manufacturer’s claims hold up. First we take it to a local football field and see how fast it can clear 100 yards, then do some calculations to get an objective reading on speed in miles per hour. After that, we do a similar test to assess ascent and descent speeds, and all the while, we’re also taking notes on how responsive the controls are, how stable the craft is, how far it can go before it’s out of range, and what the overall piloting experience is like compared to other drones.
Battery life and charge time
After we’ve taken the drone out to play for a while and jotted down a few notes about how long the battery lasts, we put it on the charger and grab a stopwatch to determine recharge time. Then we take it back out and do a hover test. By flying the drone in the least demanding conditions, we can get a sense of what the maximum flight time is. And finally, we take it out a few more good, hard flights to find out how long the battery lasts (on average) under normal conditions.
Camera, accessories, and upgradability
If the drone we’re testing happens to have a camera capable of recording, we capture as much footage as we possibly can. We’ll shoot in dark places, light places, and places with lots of color and contrast. This footage is then compared to all the highlight reels that we filmed with other drones, which helps us get a sense of the camera’s strengths and weaknesses. We also test any accessories that accompany the camera, like lenses, filters, gimbals, or FPV goggles. Finally, we’ll also let you know if the camera setup is upgradable, so you wont be stuck with an outdated shooter in two years.