If just saying the word “drone” makes your eyes light up and your lips involuntarily whisper, “I want one,” you’re living in the right times.
These small, unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), as the Federal Aviation Administration calls them, are undoubtedly the latest in must-have tech. But holy kid-in-a-candy-store, Batman, why did the market saturate itself so quickly with such a plethora of options?
Figuring out what to buy is not easy. There are a ton of things to consider: manufacturer, size and shape, the number of propellers, if it has brushless motors, GPS or a camera (and its specs), what type of transmitter it has, and so on.
Most advanced operators will tell you to start off with something relatively cheap in order to build confidence while having fun. This way, when you do crash, which you will, you’re not breaking an expensive investment. There’s no shame in starting out with a toy drone in the $80-150 range, like the Blade Nano QX, Syma X8C or Hubsan H107D. They’ve been out for a few years now and can be found online for cheap.
Here are some of the key things you should consider as you launch your next life as a drone-wielding moviemaker.
4K is the loneliest number
When purchasing a drone, realize that it’s almost like buying a new car—it’s going to immediately depreciate in value, and the next week they will introduce a better one that you will wish you had. So when considering the right drone, you have to think long term. You’re investing in something that you want to last. If something costs $1,000 but lasts 10 years, that’s only $100 per year, or less than $9 a month. All the drones in this list have a minimum 4K Ultra High-Definition 3840x2160p mounted camera. For many, that’s a no-brainer long-term feature that should be invested in.
Gimbals (not gumballs!)
A gimbal is essential to an object’s rotation and support. Each gimbal is a single axis that allows for movement—in this case, the movement is a mounted camera positioned underneath the drone. The more gimbals present, the more control you have during operation. We made sure each of the following drones had at least two gimbals of camera support.
GPS and autopilot
If you’re serious about aerial photos and video, it’s essential to own a drone with some sort of GPS or autopilot system. Manual piloting will never be able to achieve the flight accuracy of an autopilot system, which can monitor its locations thousands of time per second. A drone with features like the ability to follow a subject, or to GPS-lock, allows an operator to program a route so you can concentrate on capturing the image. Each drone below offers at least one GPS-styled feature.
How long you can fly your drone—a.k.a. flight time—is one of the big questions to ask when buying a drone. It’s key to your enjoyment and to learning a drone’s capabilities. We only included drones that provided at least an 18-minute flight time.
It’s true—like cars, some drones just have a cool factor to them, whether it’s their size, technical ability or something else. We looked at each drone’s bottom line; what you’re actually getting for your investment. There are other 4K drones out there, like Walkera Voyager 3 GoPro, but at $1,999, it might be stretching your budget a little. (If you are working on a bigger budget, and looking for an unmanned aircraft with more advanced capabilities—like the ability to carry a heavier payload—we suggest checking out the Freefly ALTA, DJI’s Spreading Wing series, the Black Armored Drone or Intuitive Aerial’s Aerigon Mk II.)
This newly dropped quadcopter from DJI gives you everything you need right out of the box. It’s great for beginners. Two of our favorite features are TapFly, whereby operators can tap on a map in the DJI GO app and the Phantom 4 will calculate the best route to that point, and ActiveTrack, which allows you to select an object for the quadcopter to lock on and follow. There’s also a Sport Mode, in which the drone can travel up to 44 mph. DJI extended the battery life of its Phantom series to 28 minutes, and included a 4K 4096×2160 camera that can record at 24/25fps and 120fps at 1920×1080. With Phantom 4, an advanced Obstacle Sensing System makes it easier to keep your drone in check, and the Smart Return Home feature allows the Phantom to fly home with a push of a button. Yes, it’s a little pricey, but a great investment.
The Solo comes with a variety of purchasing options, but we chose the model with the attached gimbal. The reason was simple: if you’re serious about image composition, you’ll want to have one. The Solo flies exceptionally well, with a stellar feature set allowing the operator to capture stunning images. Advanced modes—or what 3DR calls “Smart Shots”—like Orbit, Follow Me, Cablecam and Selfie allow the operator to concentrate on image capturing while the drone does the flying for you. With Solo, you’ll get about 20 minutes of flying time with maximum speeds up to 55 mph. The one caveat when considering Solo is that you’ll need to buy a separate 4K GoPro camera, which adds to the cost. Solo is popular, so check out nearby rental houses for a test flight first before you buy.
Yuneec offers a wide variety of drone products, but the Typhoon Q500 4K stands out. Similar to the Phantom 4, you get everything you need right out of the box. Like most drones, there’s some assembly required, but when you’re ready to fly, the Yuneec is rock-solid. Its integrated three-axis gimbal provides great image stability while recording on the CG03 4K 3840×2160 camera at 30fps. It even records 120fps at 1080p. The drone has the standard features like Follow Me and Return Home, but it also has some smart safety features that prevent it from flying into no-fly zones or at unrestricted heights. Another feature on the Typhoon worth noting is Watch Me. When enabled, the camera stays pointed at the pilot no matter how the drone is flown. With the ST10+, you get a 5.5” touch screen where you can adjust the camera’s white balance, light exposure, ISO, shutter speed, video resolution and more. With a flight time of about 25 minutes, you’ll be able to capture plenty of footage with ease.
It’s hard to mention the Typhoon without mentioning the Blade Chroma 4K—the two are identical it terms of camera and controller. The Chroma is a little bit smaller and a little bit cheaper than the Typhoon, which makes it easy to take apart for travel. It carries a Smart Mode, where a GPS signal is used for both Follow Me and Tracking Modes, and it has a camera capable of recording 4K 3840×2160 at 30fps and 1920×1080 up to 120fps. Unlike the Typhoon, you’re not going to get no-fly zone features, but you will have a Return Home option. As for flight time, you’ll max out around 20 minutes.
The Phantom 3 Professional is a great choice for its price. A favorite before the Phantom 4 was released, it still has everything we like in a drone. 4K video recording? GPS-assisted hover? Easily to fly and land? Integrated app? 20-plus minutes of flight time? Stunning images? Check to all. So if you’re looking for a cheaper option than the Phantom 4, try the Phantom 3 Professional.
On the Horizon
The Lily Camera won’t be released until summer 2016, but it’s a flying camera worth noting. At $999, it’s the world’s first throw-and-shoot camera. Using GPS tracking and computer vision technology, the Lily Camera follows your every move using a watch-sized transmitter you can attach to your wrist. Throw it in the air, and go. (How cool would it be to record yourself running through your neighborhood?) Providing 20 minutes of flight time, it’s capable of recording video at 1080p 60fps or 720p at 120fps and images at 12 megapixels. Weighing less than three pounds, it can easily be stored in a backpack, and both the transmitter and camera are completely waterproof. It even floats on water. Be sure to check out lily.camera for updates.
Drones Under $350
The perfect drone for beginners, the H501S X4 is a First-Person-View (FPV) quadcopter with brushless motors and multiple remote control options. It packs a 20 minute flight time with features like Follow Mode, Return Home, and a 1920x1080p mounted camera. Weighing less than 15 ounces, it’s available in two colors (white or black).
The Elite Edition updates the classic AR.Drone 2.0 with features like improved stabilization, Return Home, Director’s Mode, increased flying time and a 1280x720p camera for video and images. Better yet, you can now control it via iOS or Android devices, tablets, Windows 8 PC or NVIDIA Shield.
If you’re familiar with Syma’s ever-popular X8C model (often named one of the best drones you can buy for $100), the X8HG is an upgrade, and another great drone for beginners. The X8HG features a six-axis gyro, a 2.4ghz remote control, a 720p camera and a flight time of about seven minutes. MM
This article appears in MovieMaker‘s Spring 2016 issue, on newsstands now.
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