Drones come in a wide variety of shapes, sizes, and prices. Depending on what you’re looking for, you can get a nanocopter for a few bucks, or an industrial-strength rig for thousands. We’ve picked out what we think are some of the best options for a variety of budgets and applications. Aside from the sheer fun of hobby flying, photography (and videography) are the most popular application of drones, so we have several of those among our picks. In the commercial market, site surveys, industrial inspections, and architectural research and planning are some typical applications.
For $500: Parrot Bebop 2
Next to DJI, Parrot is one of the most well-known makers of drones, having jump-started the toy drone market with the Parrot AR. Its Bebop and newer Bebop 2 model are more than just toys, and are suitable for someone who wants to learn about drone photography, but isn’t able to spring for a more capable version. Bebop achieves its price point of just over $400 by replacing a stabilized mechanical gimbal with the lightweight and inexpensive option of electronic image stabilization shot through a 180-degree fish-eye lens. Since you control the Bebop with your smartphone, it also eliminates the need for a dedicated remote control. Its camera shoots 1080p video and 12MP still photos during its rated 25-minute flying time. The 1080p video is created by cropping the full resolution 12MP image, so you can actually pan the video digitally around within the field of view of the lens. You can also record a low-resolution live feed on your smartphone, or rely on the 8GB of on-board storage.
Adding a Skycontroller remote control and smartphone-compatible headset will set you back another $250 (or $300 if purchased separately). That combo gives you more flexibility in how you pilot the drone, as well as FPV (First Person View) capability and an extended control range of up to 1 mile. After you read about some of the other drones in this roundup, you may mourn what the Bebop 2 lacks. But if you’re on a budget and want to set started flying, it’s one of the best options out there. Because you can purchase it separately and later add on the Skycontroller capability, it also allows you to get into the hobby over time. In my experience, flying a drone with a mobile phone app is tricky, so if you’re in doubt you’re better off making sure you also purchase the remote control. Unfortunately, Parrot doesn’t seem to be selling the remote control separately any more, so you might need to get it as part of the FPV bundle.
Price: $408 on Amazon ($599 with FPV Kit)
For $1,000: DJI Mavic Pro
Anyone who has lugged a drone into the field or traveled with one an a plane knows they’re awkward to carry. DJI has worked to address that issue with its Mavic Pro. The unit folds down to the size of a water bottle (albeit a largish one) between flights. As to the specs of the drone itself, DJI has taken some popular features from its Phantom product line, and put them in a smaller and slightly less expensive unit. The Mavic Pro has collision avoidance and a 4-mile range, like the Phantom 4 (below), but uses your mobile device for control and has a lower-resolution 12MP sensor. It can still capture 4K video, but only up to 30fps.
Like the Phantom 4 Pro, the Mavic Pro can track objects, which can include people, pets, vehicles, and bike riders, for example. It can capture 1080p video at 96fps, which is fast enough for some slow-motion effects.
Price: $999 on Amazon
For $1,500: DJI Phantom 4 Pro
For serious hobbyists who want the best in a photo and video platform, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is the clear favorite. It captures 3-axis stabilized video at up to 4K resolution, and 20MP stills at up to 14fps. Aspiring filmmakers will appreciate that the unit captures images in the DCI (Digital Cinema Initiatives) colorspace. Even the live video feed is 1080p, although the remote with 1080p display will set you back another $300. The camera also features a mechanical shutter, to avoid the artifacts typical of electronic rolling shutter devices. The 8-element f/2.8 lens is also a step up from what you get with lower-priced drones.
The Pro model of the Phantom 4 also offers an extended control range of up to four miles and an upgraded magnesium alloy hull. Anyone who has ever run a drone into an inconveniently placed tree or power pole will also appreciate that it has obstacle avoidance in addition to some pretty impressive navigation software.
Price: $1,444 on Amazon
For $5,000 (give or take): DJI Matrice M210
At the high-end there are some important design differences in drones, depending whether you’re looking for the best photo and video platform or have an industrial or scientific application in mind. For those who want to do more than take pictures, the DJI Matrice line of drones is one of the most flexible when it comes to mounting scientific and computing equipment. The just-announced new flagship model M210 can even be ordered with centimeter-accurate positioning based on the RTK (Real Time Kinematic) feature of GLONASS. Retail pricing hasn’t been announced yet, but the M210 with RTK is expected to lease for about $500 per month when it is scheduled to be available later this quarter.
Price: TBD, but assume between $4,000 and $8,000 depending on model and options
When price is no object: Freefly Alta 8
The Freefly Alta 8 is designed as a workhorse for videographers with serious cameras. Its eight 18-inch propellers enable it to carry up to 20 pounds of gear — enough for even a high-end RED camera rig. Its $17K+ price tag may be daunting, but it does come with a hard case included. Now that RED has shipped its 8K resolution Helium sensor, combining one with a Freefly should make for some truly amazing aerial footage. Given the $30K starting price for the Helium (closer to $75K fully kitted-out), you’ll want to make sure your equipment insurance is up to date before you try it.
Price: $17,500 on Amazon