Few hobbies have come further faster than droning, and with good reason. The technology is making rapid leaps ahead and making what was once a strictly professionals-only device accessible to all: easier to fly, better cameras, and overall more fun.
There isn’t a bad time to get into drones, but fall is particularly great, especially if you live in prime leaf-peeping areas. It only took our resident drone amateur a couple of weeks of flying time to get pictures like this:
Convinced? Good, because now’s a great time to pick up droning as an awesome new hobby. The market is bursting with superior drones for every experience level and – yes – even every price level. So whether you’re starting at ground level or you’ve already flown and are ready to take the next step up, there’s a drone for you that’s better than anything that was on the market only a few years ago.
A few things first: Regardless of which drone you’re thinking of buying, be sure to read the FAA regulations governing unmanned aircraft systems, along with local regulations – especially if you live near an airport. Many smaller drones do not require FAA registration, and most are equipped with smart software that will prevent you from breaking any rules concerning altitude or proximity to airports or other sensitive areas. But it’s best to be informed regardless.
Also, when you’re drone-shopping, keep these features in mind:
- Battery life: A good flight time on a single fully charged battery is between 12 and 15 minutes. So if you’re imagining a full day of flight, pick up an extra battery or two, and maybe a multi-battery charging hub like this one for the DJI Mavic Air 2.
- Camera: Drone cameras are like any other handheld cameras – the higher the resolution, the better the stills and videos, but also the higher the price. Super-premium drones are equipped with incredible cameras that capture truly astounding images and videos, but you’ll pay a super-premium price. Thankfully if you’re just starting out, even entry-level drones are capable of aerial photography and videos that will amaze you. And, perhaps, even be highly useful: wouldn’t you rather check your gutters for leaves while safely standing on the ground piloting a drone rather than standing on a shaky ladder? The possibilities are endless.
- Integrated GPS: Losing sight of your drone can be like losing sight of hundreds or even thousands of dollars, potentially lost in the ether. You will want to ensure your drone is equipped with an excellent built-in GPS and, ideally, a RTH (Return To Home) command. Many drones have one-button RTH commands which are highly useful when you’re afraid your drone’s range is writing checks your piloting abilities cannot yet cash.
- Range: See above. Some drones have incredible range in terms of distance and altitude. If you’re an experienced pilot, this is a perk. If you’re a novice or just getting started, be sure to not bite off more than you can chew. Stick with the backyard or neighborhood for now.
Okay, you’re still ready to grab the remote and send your favorite new hobby machine skyward. Great — here are our picks for the best drones you can buy in 2021:
1. DJI Mavic Air 2
“Best overall” when it comes to drones is, we admit, highly subjective. When you are dealing with a range in price and quality from fifty-dollar toys to four-figure professional high-altitude flying machines, “best” can mean a great many things. We went with the DJI Mavic Air 2 because it sits squarely in the middle while delivering incredible quality that’s within reasonable reach of novice-level pilots. DJI has clearly taken the lead as the hobbyist’s best friend for a wide range of great drones, and the $800 price tag on the Mavic Air 2 is right where it should be for a drone that’s far more than a toy but less than an elite pro flyer.
The Mavic Air 2 checks off all the boxes: 48MP photography and 4K video, with amazingly stable flight performance to make your photos and videos crystal clear; an impressive 34-minute flight time per full battery; tri-directional obstacle sensing to avoid accidents; and intelligent features like POI 3.0, which tracks moving people and even vehicles for great video shoots. The Mavic Air 2 should not be your first video, but it’s an amazing goal to aspire to.
2. Ryze Tello
BEST FOR BEGINNERS
This is the first drone you should buy, unless you’re shopping strictly for the kids (see below). The Ryze Tello is the ideal entry-level drone: controllable via phone app, or with an optional $29 remote control in case you’d rather use joysticks. The 720p resolution videos are surprisingly good for a basic drone, and the 13 minute flight time is easily and cheaply augmented with extra batteries for $19 each and a 3-battery charging hub for $15.
The Ryze Tello can take off from and land on your hand, do loops, and circle objects. There’s no video card needed as with most other drones — the videos and pics are sent directly to your phone or tablet. There isn’t an RTH command, so keep a close eye on it. Extra feature: The Ryze Tello is compatible with MIT’s Scratch programming language, so your learning drone can also be a STEM and coding learning experience. There is a lot to like here for $99 if you’re new to the game.
3. PowerVision PowerEgg X Wizard
Droning is for the most part a fair-weather pastime. Wind and rain usually means you’re grounded for the day. Unless, of course, you have the PowerVision PowerEgg X Wizard, which is armed with waterproof housing and enough power and flight stability thanks to its large propellers to battle moderate or even strong wind and rain. The PowerEgg X even floats on water, so if you’re thinking of a drone you can take out on a boat ride or fly over a lake or pond without fear of losing it, this is your huckleberry.
The added value here, aside from being seaworthy, is that it also doubles as a handheld camera. With the propellers removed it can be mounted to a tripod, or held with a handstrap for use as a standard video camera. This is a truly unique drone, but the weatherproofing alone makes it worth exploring.
4. DJI Mavic Pro 2
Another great small foldable drone from DJI hits the list for its breathtaking still and video photography powers. Frankly, the Mavic Pro 2 was thisclose to taking the Best Overall slot, but the price is a little high and the learning curve is a little steep before you’re ready to pilot the Mavic Pro 2.
But that camera … the Mavic Pro 2’s 1-inch imager is about four times the size of DJI’s other folding drones, and it gives you amazing 4K footage at 100Mbps, and for stills it can shoot at as high as 12800 ISO for amazing brightness and clarity. As for the drone itself, it’s no slouch — in Sport mode it can hit nearly 45 mph, and the 27-minute flight time on a single battery is outstanding. This is a videographer or aerial photographer’s dream machine.
5. Potensic A20 Mini Drone
BEST INDOOR DRONE
Not every drone is meant to pierce the skies and chase birds at high speeds. (Pro tip: hawks and other raptors do NOT like drones and are very capable of snatching them and tearing them to pieces mid-flight.) The Potensic A20 is one to enjoy indoors with the kids or just with yourself. It’s pocket-sized, super lightweight, comes with propeller guards, and is exceptionally durable for those inevitable bumps against walls and ceilings. Probably more durable than your paint, so keep that in mind.
The ease of operation is a big selling point here. One-key takeoffs and landings, altitude hold so you can hover, headless mode to take away the worry of knowing which end of the drone is facing forward, three speed modes, and a kid-friendly remote control with a bare minimum of buttons. There’s no camera here, and while the Potensic A20 is perfectly capable of outdoor flight, it really shines as an indoor toy.
6. DJI FPV Combo
There’s nothing beginner or kid-like about the DJI FPV Combo. This sleek little beast, which bears an unsettling resemblance to the Imperial TIE Fighters from Star Wars, is built for pure, mind-boggling speed — up to 87 mph. Cut this one a wide berth if you’re a beginner or even a novice. But if you know your way around fast drones well and you’re ready to take the next step toward racing, this is an unbeatable package.
The FPV Combo comes with FPV goggles and a remote, and you do not need your smartphone or tablet to fly it. The 4K camera comes with electronic stabilization, but that’s purely for your FPV view and not for photography — this is not an imaging drone. You legally need a partner acting as a spotter in order to fly this – FAA rules. The headset leaves room for eyeglasses, and the first-person video is crisp and clear, and downright thrilling. If you are up to the challenge of a pure speed machine, the DJI FPV is ready to fly right out of the box. But seriously consider adding DJIs Care Refresh extended warranty for one year ($199) or two ($319), because it’s not hard to crash this beast.
7. DJI Inspire 2
Money’s not an object? Good for you. We certainly wish we were hanging out in your tax bracket, but in the meantime, accept our recommendation for an excellent place to drop a pile of your filthy lucre. The DJI Inspire 2 is the gold standard of consumer droning. It’s not small (12 x 16 x 16 inches), it’s not especially light (over 7 pounds, so it will need to be registered with the FAA), and it’s not going to fold up in your pocket, but every feature about the Inspire 2 screams high-end performance.
Start with the cameras – yes, plural. The fixed built-in forward-facing camera provides forward video feed to the pilot at all times. The video-capture camera, which requires a separate remote and a separate operator (!!), hangs beneath the body. That one’s interchangeable and can be upgraded as high as you care to spend.
To call the Inspire 2 a hobbyist drone is a stretch — if you’re looking to get into professional video production, this will be your go-to drone. But the quality of the construction, the flight ability, and the video capture capabilities makes it extremely tempting for a deep-pocketed experienced amateur pilot.