Dan Baker/Digital Trends
For years, consumer drones were essentially separated into two groups. There are the super-cheap (and also super flimsy) drones that will fly for about five minutes on a full charge, and then the more hardcore-oriented drones that cost upward of $1,000, but are fully stocked with all the features you’d want including HD camera, GPS, and long-range radio controllers. These days, there are more options on the market, and even cheaper drones have lots of cool features. The best drones under $500 boast stuff like 4K cameras, obstacle avoidance systems, and indoor tracking.
If you’re a novice to droning — or if you’re looking to buy for someone who fits that description — chances are you don’t need to drop thousands on a top-shelf model. We’ve found tons of cheaper selections that’ll make for perfect introductions to the field, or just fun toys for weekend use. We’ll also make recommendations based on different user types and drone activities, so you can rest assured you’ll find the best drone available for what you’re looking to do. Enjoy!
Why should you buy this: It shoots fantastic pics and videos, and is also highly portable.
Who’s it for: Those looking for a photography-focused UAV
How much will it cost: ~$390
Why we picked the Yuneec Breeze:
The Breeze is a smaller, lighter, and cheaper version of Yuneec’s popular Typhoon line. While it doesn’t have near the functionality of its bigger brethren, we think this is one of the best drones for the price when it comes to photography. Features like real-time live streaming back to your phone while in flight and autonomous filming modes such as Orbit, Follow Me, and Selfie are features you’ll not find on many drones at this price point.
The Breeze is outfitted with a 4K camera, which is something few drones under $1,000 can boast — let alone under $500. It’s ultra-portable, too, which is perfect for photogs; there are few things worse than leaving your gear at home before experiencing a true Kodak moment.
We also found super-cool features like GPS including indoor tracking useful for flying indoors (some more expensive drones we’ve tested haven’t flown as reliably indoors as we’ve liked) and despite its plasticky feel, the Breeze is surprisingly durable.
Add to this flight times that closely matched Yuneec’s 12 minute claims (24, if you consider that the Breeze comes with two batteries), and easy control via a companion app for both iOS and Android, and you just can’t do any better than the Breeze at this price point.
The best cheap drone for beginners
Parrot Bebop 2
Why should you buy this: Simple flight controls and outstanding durability makes this a great pick for novice pilots.
Who’s it for: Anybody looking for a drone that flies well and can take a beating
How much will it cost: $400-$550
Why we picked the Parrot Bebop 2:
The Parrot Bebop 2 is on the high end of the drones in our list, but we’ve started to notice some retailers selling the drones at about $500, with a few refurbished models selling for about $100 less. Several Digital Trends staffers are proud Bebop owners, and our own Drew Prindle gave the original Bebop a glowing review more than a year ago.
Like the original Bebop, the new model excels in simplicity, durability, and a really enjoyable flying experience. Instead of using a traditional joystick controller, the Bebop takes commands from your smartphone or tablet — which is limiting at first, but also pretty fun and approachable for beginners. A wireless connection provides you with a first-person view of what the drone sees, and you simply tilt your phone to steer it around.
The second-gen Bebop extends the flight time from 22 to 25 minutes, and adds a fish-eye lens and a flashing LED on the rear to increase visibility in darker scenarios, making it a better choice even though you’ll be able to grab the original model for around $350 at most places.
The best selfie drone
Rich Shibley/Digital Trends
Why should you buy this: It flies reliably, with tons of useful flight modes and a gimbal for stabilization.
Who’s it for: Adventurous pilots and selfie fiends searching for a drone that can do it all
How much will it cost: ~$499
Why we picked the DJI Spark:
DJI is the world’s premier drone manufacturer at this point; its Phantom 4 Pro is our favorite drone of all time, and the company boasts a lineup full of models that blend awesome features with reliable controls and quality cameras. DJI’s most recent release, the Spark, offers pilots an opportunity to cut their teeth with a drone that’s got a lot of cool tricks without a lot of zeroes on its price tag.
The Spark has several unique flight modes, including Rocket, Dronie, Circle, and Helix, and its gesture recognition system means you can control it (kind of) with just your hand. The Spark’s obstacle avoidance system will prevent it from running into trees and buildings, too — though the sensors are only in the front, so it could theoretically crash while moving sideways or back.
The 1080p, 12-megapixel camera isn’t spectacular, but it is mounted on a 2-axis gimbal, so video won’t be wobbly, and most amateur pilots probably don’t need 4K capabilities anyway. The Spark is super sturdy and super compact, and its ~13 minute battery life is second to none within the price range. You can even get it in several different colors (though we prefer the white and black).
The Spark is right up there with Yuneec’s Breeze as the best beginner drones, and if you want one that you can control with gestures, it’s just about the only choice.
The best cheap drone for kids
Why should you buy this: It’s stable and easy to fly, and it comes with a range of fun attachments.
Who’s it for: Kids and adults who want a drone that can shoot darts
How much will it cost: $120
Why we picked 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 for GoPro owners
Why should you buy this: GoPro owners should look no further than 3DR for great drone video.
Who’s it for: Aspiring drone pilots who already own a GoPro, and want something that works with it
How much will it cost: ~$410
Why we picked the 3DR Solo:
Our suggestions so far have essentially included some type of camera system on board. But if you’re a GoPro owner, there’s really no need for you to purchase a drone with another camera – the GoPro is a pretty good camera in and of itself.
For these folks, we suggest the 3DR Solo, which is specifically aimed at aerial photography. It has a range of flight modes including Selfie, Cable Cam, Orbit, and Follow, and the fact that you don’t have a built in camera means that once newer GoPro’s come out, all you need to do is swap out the old GoPro from the drone mount. We’re not complaining about the 20 minute average flight time either.
We were impressed with the manual flight controls, which should be sufficient for even the most experienced pilots, and a top speed of 55mph – one of the fastest consumer drones we’ve tested. Oh by the way, if you decide to fly this thing like a bat out of hell, it’s durable too. And if for some reason it malfunctions and crashes, 3DR will replace the drone AND your GoPro if it’s damaged. That’s great peace of mind.
The best cheap racing drone
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’s it for: Novice and intermediate racing pilots
How much will it cost: ~$420
Why we picked the Lumenier QAV250:
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 most portable
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Why you should buy this: Because you want a drone you can take anywhere
Who it’s for: Selfie hounds, adventurers, and people who like to pack light
How much it will cost: ~$350
Why we picked the Hover Camera Passport:
There’s an old adage that photographers often use: “The best camera is the one you have with you.” The same could be said for drones. What good is a selfie drone if you forget to bring it along? Well, that’s precisely the problem that ZeroZero Robotics aims to fix with the Hover Camera Passport. It’s a quadcopter that, thanks to a super-clever design, is able to fold up like a book and fit inside a super slim case. The idea is that, if you can easily fit it inside your backpack and carry it wherever you go, you’ll never find yourself in a situation where you don’t have a camera drone at your disposal.
To sweeten the deal, the Hover Camera also boasts a handful of high-end features. In addition to a camera that can shoot 4K videos and 13 megapixel stills, the Passport comes with an impressive suite of autonomous flying/filming modes. On top of standard ones like Orbit and Follow, it has a 360 Panorama function you can activate with the touch of a button, as well as a thing called Beast Mode, which lets you turn off the drone’s software-imposed motor limitations for those times when you need to follow really fast objects.
Our favorite feature, however, is definitely the caged props. Since they’re fully enclosed from all sides, not only is the drone more resistant to crashing and damage sustained from falls, but its also more user friendly. You can launch it from your hand, and pluck it out of the sky when you’re done flying — all without worrying that your hand will get whacked with a spinning propellor
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.
We also do our research
When we don’t have the ability to test things ourselves, we start with a full assessment of the product’s specs. After that we’ll comb through any available reviews and forum posts online to check for outstanding problems, and usually try to find at least two videos of the product in action. We cannot physically review every drone yet, but we’re committed to helping you find a great quadcopter, regardless