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You may have read about companies using drones for grocery delivery, surveillance and even speed racing, but you actually don’t need to be a professional to own and operate your own drone. Most modern-day drones are easy to maneuver and can be used by anyone. Most people use drones for photography, said Alan Perlman, CEO at UAV Coach, a drone training and research group. Increasingly Improving camera stabilization technology in recent years has made it possible to fly a drone hundreds of feet in the air and take clear, high-resolution photos and videos.
Finding the right drone can be difficult for beginners, however, especially when there are so many models and features out there — not to mention they can be pricey. Higher-end models can cost hundreds or even thousands of dollars, a big investment. To help you find the best drone for you, we consulted experts on the best types of drones, what features to look out for, and got some recommendations, to boot.
Best drone for you
It’s natural to be nervous about flying a drone for the first time, but most beginner models are very easy to use, thanks to an abundance of safety features. Most drones equip sensors,including an inertial measurement unit (IMU), compass and GPS, helping them maintain level flight and hold a position and altitude for a period of time without any input, said Nicholas Horbaczewski, CEO and founder of the Drone Racing League. In other words, if you let go of the controls, the drone will just stop moving mid-air and keep steady, awaiting your next command
“This makes it pretty simple for beginners to learn the basics of flying the drone without having to worry about losing control once in the air,” explained Jason Damman, a commercial airline pilot and owner of V1DroneMedia, a drone provider in Ohio.
Drones can come with dozens of different features and add-ons, depending on what you want to use your model for. But almost all drones will come with basic safety features, like sensors that help it avoid obstacles and a “return-to-home” function that automatically brings the drone back to its launch point with the click of a button. Another feature includes tracking, which automatically follows individuals or vehicles, which can be used for both surveillance and videography. Some models allow for night vision and let you snap thermal pictures from above. You may also be able to attach different cameras to your model.
Drones can be categorized by their use (commercial or consumer) and how they’re built. Recreational drones can range from $100 to over $1,000, depending on their quality and the quality of footage they can capture. The most common consumer drone is the multi-rotor drone, defined by the number of propellers it uses to fly. Most multi-rotor drones are quadcopters, meaning they use four propellers. These drones are typically used for photography and video surveillance, and are often easier to maneuver and more affordable than other types of recreational drones, said Horbaczewski.Other types of consumer drones include toy drones and racing drones.
- Toy drones, which are typically the smallest and cheapest type of drone and often made of light plastic. They often come with no camera or a very low quality camera.
- First-person view drones, or racing drones, drop obstacle avoidance features and require constant ‘input’ from the driver. These drones can reach speeds of 90+ miles per hour and often require a much higher level of skill to fly.
When shopping for the right drone, Perlman recommended starting small. If you’re new to flying, there’s a likelihood you may suffer a few crashes, so you may be better off getting a cheaper model to start, and most experts recommend starting out with a multi-rotor drone. “I’d suggest focusing on learning how to fly as inexpensively as possible, and then investing in a nicer drone that you won’t outgrow quickly,” said Horbaczewski.
Best drones for beginners in 2021
Ready to get airborne? Here are our top picks for drones for beginners, following our expert guidance above.
Best drone overall: DJI
This easy-to-use drone is a multi-rotor quadcopter weighing under a pound. It’s incredibly compact and features 4K video, 12-megapixel photo and a 10-kilometer video transmission. It has a 31-minute flight time and can resist winds up to 38 kilometers per hour. It sports simple controls and pre-programmed moves, making it perfect for beginners flying for the first time.
Best affordable drone: Tello
If you want to get into drones without shelling out too much, the Ryze is the right model for you. This multi-rotor drone is much more affordable than other models and weighs only 80 grams, making it easy to take with you wherever you go. But the lower price does come with some trade-offs: The camera and video quality is a bit lower, and the Ryze won’t last as long in the air, with a maximum flight time of 13 minutes.
Best high-end drone: DJI
This high-end, multi-rotor drone is pricier than other models, but comes with fancier features including a better-quality camera and sharper video, including an adjustable aperture, making this model ideal for novice and expert photographers alike. Like the Mini 2, the Mavic 2 Pro has a 31-minute maximum flight time, 10-kilometer transmission and obstacle sensing.
Best durable drone: PowerVision
What makes this multi-rotor drone unique is its ability to fly in rain and land on water. It sports a sleek design, and has a battery life of up to 3.5 hours and a maximum flight time of 30 minutes. This model has a transmission range of six kilometers and a camera resolution of 12 megapixels.
Best racing drone: Parrot
This racing drone comes with glasses to connect to the camera, giving you an immersive, first-person experience flying your drone. Users can continuously control the drone with a remote control — and can capture 4K video and high-quality images. This model can transmit up to four kilometers and fly up to 26 minutes.
Best toy drone: SNAPTAIN
This quadcopter, highly-rated on Amazon, can take off and land at the press of a button and comes with safety features not often seen on toy drones, including altitude hold and gravity sensors. It’s voice controlled and comes with a wide-angle lens camera for capturing photos and video. Users can connect their phones directly to the drone via Wi-Fi, within 80 meters, and instantly upload footage to social media.
Flying tips for beginners
Flying a drone can be exciting — but there are some basic safety tips and legal rules to follow. First, understand the law. The Federal Aviation Administration is in charge of drone laws and regulations, and is somewhat strict about where you can and can’t fly. You may not realize it, but flying a drone even one foot off the ground outside in your backyard is considered entering the FAA’s airspace, said Javid Bayandor, PhD, an aerospace engineering professor at the University of Buffalo whose research focuses on drones.
If your drone weighs over 55 pounds, you must register it with the FAA — and if you’re using your drone for business (like taking photos for a real estate agency or inspecting a property), you’ll also need to get a drone license. The FAA also lists out common times where you can’t fly:
- Around airports, typically within a 5-mile radius
- During temporary flight restrictions, which includes sporting events or disaster areas. You can check on the FAA's website if a restriction is in place at any given time.
- Around first responder activity, as you may be mistaken for a threat.
- Most national and state parks have their own rules and regulations prohibiting drone use, which makes it important to check their specific website before you go out.
- Damman said it’s typically off-limits to flying over highly-trafficked or busy areas: “Think about what could happen if your drone has an issue, like battery failure, and the drone comes tumbling out of the sky. If it strikes something or someone, you could be liable for any or all damages incurred.”
While this all may sound complicated, most drones have built-in software that allows beginners to see restricted flight areas, explained Perlman. There’s also a free app called OpenSky, which lets you see on a map where it’s safe and unsafe to fly your drone. You can also set pre-planned flights in the app to make sure you aren’t entering illegal airspace, and get airspace approvals.
When flying for the first time, Damman recommended going to a wide and open area outside so you have plenty of room to practice with no distractions. This will give you a chance to really get a feel for the controls and how the drone behaves, he said. And while most drones will have that obstacle avoidance feature, don’t rely on it alone, he said. Your drone may not be able to pick up objects with a small surface area, like tree branches.