After 25 hours of research and several days of real-world flight and photography with nine leading models, we’ve found that the DJI Mavic Pro is the best drone for most aspiring aerial photographers and videographers. It matches or beats similarly priced competitors in image quality, ease of flight, and autopilot modes, but it really stands out for its portability—it’s smaller and lighter than a full 1-liter water bottle, so it’ll fit in almost any bag.
The best camera is always the one you have with you, and drones are no exception: The DJI Mavic Pro’s extraordinary portability means you’ll bring it to more places, so you’ll get better shots. Because it measures just 3.3 by 3.3 by 7.8 inches and weighs 1.6 pounds when fully folded, you can take it almost anywhere—simply unfold everything, and you’re good to go. We got approximately 19 minutes of flight time in our tests, and its 4-mile operating range extends farther than the eye can see. It comes with a high-quality camera that captures 4K or 1080p footage, as well as a smartphone app that lets you preview your on-drone camera for photography and for first-person-viewpoint piloting ease. The only real drawback is that you’ll need a current smartphone or tablet to take full advantage of its FPV and live-streaming features.
Of all the drones we’ve ever tested, the GoPro Karma is the easiest to fly, thanks to a user-friendly UI and an intuitive controller that doesn’t require a smartphone. It lacks obstacle-avoidance sensors, however, so you have to be careful while flying it, and it doesn’t offer the range or portability of our top pick. It can shoot excellent stills and video thanks to the included GoPro Hero5 Black, and you can remove its gimbal and use that separately from the drone for stabilized handheld shooting. It’s also a great value, as it ships with the handheld Karma Grip.
If our other picks are akin to flying GoPro Heros (that’s literally what the Karma is), the DJI Phantom 4 Pro is more like a flying Sony RX100. Its 1-inch sensor is nearly four times larger than the 1/2.3-inch sensors found in the Mavic Pro and Karma, and it can shoot 20-megapixel raw and JPEG still images as well as 4K 60-frames-per-second video. Its lens has a mechanical shutter, and manual controls abound, so experienced photographers can dial in their preferred settings. Relative to our top pick, it also has a more advanced collision-sensing system and longer battery life (a 25-minute average in PCMag tests), and it has a rugged magnesium-alloy chassis. Additionally, you get all the same intelligent flight modes as you do with the Mavic Pro, as well as Sport Mode (which enables a 45 mph top speed) and an interesting new mode called Draw (draw a line on the screen, and the drone will fly that route).
If all you want is something to capture aerial footage on occasion for personal use and social-media sharing, and you don’t need advanced flight features or collision-avoidance technology, you can save several hundred dollars by getting the DJI Phantom 3 Standard. It has all the important core features you need from a video drone, including high-resolution 2.7K video recording, excellent image and flight stabilization, and limited smart-flight modes like Follow Me (tracks and follows a subject) and Point of Interest (encircles a subject while capturing photos and videos). But it doesn’t fold up, it comes with an outdated controller, and it’s limited to a half-mile operating range.
If you’re unfamiliar with flying drones or if you just need to keep your skills sharp (and who doesn’t), we suggest getting a cheap trainer drone before putting a pricey investment aloft. For this, we recommend the Parrot Mambo. This little quadcopter is about the size of an extended hand and flies via touch controls on your smartphone. It lacks a camera and fancy features like GPS-assisted position hold, and its battery life is rated at 9 minutes (closer to 7 minutes in our tests), but it’s the ideal drone for getting used to the control layout. It also ships with grabber and cannon attachments that allow you to pick up small objects and blast away targets with small plastic pellets.
Regardless of which drone you choose, know that there’s an evolving body of regulations surrounding drone flight and appropriate usage that you should get familiar with before buying and flying.
I’m a professional photographer who has been piloting drones for nearly three years, relying mainly on a DJI Phantom 3 Professional for landscape and real-estate photography projects in the Northeast and using it to capture video and stills on nearly every project. During that time, I have experienced everything from minor crashes to having the drone fly onto the top of a tree (instead of returning “Home”), where retrieval required a 30-foot climb after a football-hurling session failed to dislodge it.
The reason drones have become so popular recently is that they have the ability to shoot bird’s-eye-view photos and videos that were previously unavailable to photographers and filmmakers without access to cranes or to ultralight aircraft or helicopters—aerial establishing shots, for instance, or alternate angles for chase scenes that only big-budget productions could achieve. Drones are ideal for budget filmmakers—or even photo or video enthusiasts—because they can capture images that otherwise would be impossible.
With technology rapidly improving and price tags declining, there’s never been a better time to buy a drone. Previously, we recommended that all rookie pilots start with a trainer drone, but at this point flying a drone has never been easier, and you can get a decent one at an affordable price. You should certainly still get a trainer drone if you’d like, but we no longer think it’s a necessity.
We scoured professional and user reviews, spoke to enthusiasts, experts, and manufacturers at 2015’s InterDrone conference, and surveyed our readers to ask what they wanted in a drone. Based on this information, we arrived at some key criteria to help pick the best to test:
Using these criteria, we were able to pare the testing field down to the DJI Mavic Pro, the DJI Phantom 3 Standard, the DJI Phantom 4 Pro, the Yuneec Typhoon H hexacopter, the GoPro Karma, and the Parrot Bebop 2.
To evaluate performance, I timed battery life by flying each drone continuously until I got a warning to fly home. I tested distance by flying as far as I could until the drone lost connection with the controller. I looked at image quality side by side with all models and referenced reviews, which helped me to gauge stabilization quality and to see whether propellers appeared in any of the shots. I also experimented with most of the intelligent flight modes and crash-avoidance systems by having each drone hightail it toward my barn at full speed. I tested maneuverability and controller sensitivity by flying low and completing a series of turns in my field.
The DJI Mavic Pro is easy to fly, and it excels in portability. Its ability to fold down to the size of a sandwich means you can stow it in a messenger bag with room to spare. Its propellers are also constantly attached, which cuts down on prep time. The Mavic Pro offers a 4K-capable camera with a low-distortion, wide-angle lens, as well as a three-axis gimbal for effective image stabilization. It also has a standout wireless range that gives you the ability to see both real-time flight stats and a 1080p first-person view of what you’re shooting from up to a bit more than 4 miles away, using a smartphone mounted to your radio controller. Forward and downward vision sensors help the drone avoid obstacles by automatically flying out of harm’s way. It also has preprogrammed flight controls with modes tailored to both beginners and advanced pilots, good battery life (around 20 minutes in our testing), the ability to fly autonomously via ActiveTrack and TapFly settings, and a fail-safe setting that prompts the drone to return to its launch site or current pilot location automatically if it loses connection with the radio transmitter.
The Mavic Pro combines all of the best technology found in DJI’s Phantom 3 and 4 models, yet folds down to around 3 by 3 by 8 inches. The remote controller is about the size of an eclair when compacted into its stowable form. The 4K-camera-and-gimbal apparatus works just as well as its larger counterpart on the Phantom series but is small enough to sit flush with the bottom of the drone, making for a more compact and streamlined body. And unlike older designs that require you to install the propellers prior to flight, on the Mavic Pro the blades stay attached and need only to be unfolded. Best of all, the whole thing weighs just 1.6 pounds. Before the Mavic Pro, just about every serious drone model available required a separate carrying case the size of a small suitcase. Now, you can carry the Mavic Pro in a messenger bag, the top compartment of a backpack, or even a large purse.
You might think the Mavic Pro’s diminutive size would be a disadvantage when flying, but in reality the Mavic Pro is the most consistently stable drone I’ve flown to date. In my tests it hovered accurately and resisted drifting. This is because the Mavic Pro uses a combination of GPS and GLONASS satellites, as well as the four vision cameras, to monitor movement and altitude changes. It also captures images of the takeoff point so that it can land in exactly the same spot from which it took off. The drone corners on a dime and responds sensitively to the remote controller’s joysticks.
While flying, the Mavic Pro uses five vision sensors (two forward, two down, and the main camera) to sense obstacles up to 49 feet away, and it can either stop or change course to avoid a potentially fatal crash. I witnessed this on several occasions with both the Mavic Pro and the Phantom 4 Pro, as I tried taking full-speed runs at my barn only to have each drone come to a halt roughly 15 to 20 feet away from its certain demise. Crash avoidance is enabled in every intelligent flight mode, including Return to Home, and it’s something the DJI Phantom 3 series lacks.
The Mavic Pro has a new wireless transmission system called OcuSync, which has a range of more than 4 miles (though current FAA rulings demand that you keep your drone in sight). I was able to fly the Mavic Pro over 2 miles away before realizing that the battery was more than half depleted—luckily I was able to have it return with only 10 percent battery capacity remaining. The moral here is that the Mavic Pro will run out of battery before it goes out of range. OcuSync delivers a 720p or 1080p feed, automatically scans for the best frequency band before takeoff, and supports several devices at once, so you can use the remote controller, the Mavic Pro, and a secondary controller at the same time. At the CES 2017 trade show, DJI announced goggles that pair with the drone, but they weren’t available as of the publication of this guide.
The Mavic Pro’s wireless controller is a completely new, highly portable design that displays helpful information such as distance, altitude, battery life, speed, and wireless connection strength on a secondary LCD. The controller is designed to use a smartphone for displaying the main FPV feed and controlling the main options, including drone calibration, camera settings, GPS maps, and intelligent flight modes. The smartphone connects to the controller via a specialized USB or Lightning cable threaded through the side of the left brace—you can use a standard cable, but it sticks out oddly and limits motion.
You’ll find a number of modes and features that are both fun and useful: Tripod Mode, which limits the Mavic Pro’s speed to 3 mph and softens the controls to prevent jerky movement for cinematic shots (Philip Bloom is especially into Tripod Mode); Gesture, which recognizes you and takes a picture when you stand with your arms in a Y shape; TapFly, which lets you tap on the screen to tell the drone to fly to a location; Terrain Follow Mode, which allows you to fly the Mavic Pro forward while the internal computers automatically adjust the altitude to follow the lay of the land; and an improved ActiveTrack mode suite, which follows a moving subject in a variety of ways. The bottom line: The Mavic Pro is packed with intelligent flight modes that will accommodate weekend adventurers, hobbyists, and cinematographers.
Despite having a smaller camera and gimbal than the DJI Phantom models, the Mavic Pro still sports a 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch sensor capable of shooting 4K video up to 30 fps, with a 60 Mbps max bit rate (the processing speed at which the camera is recording digital media) and an identical ISO range. It can’t match the slow-motion 120 fps frame rate in 1080p video mode and the wider 20 mm FOV lens of the Phantom 4 Pro—but the lens does let in more light, which is handy when the sun starts to set.
Early reviews of the Mavic Pro dinged it for images that were blurry and out of focus—but you can remedy this problem by simply tapping the screen of the controller, since it uses tap to focus. In our tests, videos were also very stable, thanks to the three-axis gimbal, and the propellers did not make their way into the frame nearly as frequently as they did with the Phantom models.
In video quality, the Mavic Pro stacks up very nicely to the Phantom 4 Pro—it has more saturated colors by default (several YouTube comparison videos confirm this), but shooting in the D-Log color profile, which flattens the colors substantially so that you can correct and grade them in post-production, fixes that. The ability to manually set white balance, ISO, exposure, and picture controls is also a major plus.
You can capture still photos in JPEG and raw, and the Mavic Pro offers several modes such as burst shooting (up to 7 frames per second), auto exposure bracketing, HDR, and interval (capturing images every predetermined number of seconds). As with the video capture, its still-image quality was very good in our tests, especially in raw images. With the amount of customization and control, it’s very possible to capture professional-looking images with the Mavic Pro. One especially neat trait is that the camera can rotate 90 degrees within the gimbal in order to shoot portrait orientation.
The DJI Go application is very user-friendly and tracks all of your flight information, which you can then replay if you’re trying to repeat a shot. It also lets you live-stream over Periscope, Facebook Live, or YouTube; has built-in video-editing tools; and even offers a flight simulator for training (though we think a dedicated starter drone is a better learning tool).
The biggest issue with the Mavic Pro is the banding effect (a rolling shutter artifact) that appears when it’s shooting into the sun. When banding strikes, it renders videos unusable. This effect is something we saw on the Phantom drones, and it just won’t go away. Camera sensors tend not to like direct sunlight, and banding is most common when you’re shooting toward the horizon while the sun is low. The only solution is to steer away from the sun and/or lower the tilt angle.
The Mavic Pro rarely captures its own propellers while shooting—the problem is very infrequent compared with the Phantoms—but it’s still a possibility. The Mavic Pro does give you an option to limit the max tilt angle, so this isn’t an issue.
Also, the Mavic Pro may not be best for people with older smart devices. While it is technically compatible with devices dating all the way back to 2014, in our experience it struggled with smartphones more than a year old. Competitors such as the Yuneec Typhoon H, while not as easy to fly as the Mavic Pro, use controllers with built-in touchscreen LCD panels for the live feed, so you don’t need to supply your own iPhone (which also means one less thing to worry about charging). The Mavic Pro’s controller is very compact, best suited for a phone rather than a tablet, and it is not as comfortable as the larger Phantom controller––the price you pay for portability.
DJI rates the battery life of the Mavic Pro at 27 minutes, but in our testing it lasted for approximately 20 minutes of actual use—good, but not up to the level of the Phantom 4 Pro, which after 22 minutes of heavy use still had 15 percent battery life. With the Mavic Pro, you’ll need a few extra batteries, at $90 a pop, to really make a dent in your storyboard.
We’ve also read a number of reports (and learned from Wirecutter senior editor Dan Frakes’s personal experience) that DJI’s customer service can be very slow, with especially long waits for repair service, though the company is quick to send replacement parts. Keep in mind that pilots who have encountered serious equipment damage in the past have experienced lengthy downtimes.
Of the drones we tested, the GoPro Karma is the easiest to fly thanks to a quick setup, intuitive and responsive controls, and the fact that you don’t need to pair it with your smartphone. It shoots excellent stills and video courtesy of the GoPro Hero5 Black (which is currently our top action cam pick), it has a nice suite of intelligent flight modes and decent battery life, and it ships with GoPro’s handheld Karma Grip, which lets you get more use of the camera off-drone. It’s still notably larger than the DJI Mavic Pro, and it can’t match our main pick’s range—and while GoPro claims to have fixed the issues that led to the whole line being recalled after its initial release, we’re still keeping our eyes open for future problems.
After you’ve charged its batteries, the GoPro Karma can be in the air within minutes thanks to a built-in 5-inch 720p LCD screen on the controller—no need to pair it with your phone, calibrate it, or run firmware updates. We launched our Karma in under two minutes by pressing and holding the Launch button on the controller.
Piloting the Karma is also very easy. Its joysticks and camera tilt are smooth and highly responsive, and the touchscreen functions are easy to use. It remains remarkably agile in the air and hovers fairly accurately, and it returns to the Home point within 10 feet of the controller. However, the Karma has a stated maximum range of just 2 miles (half that of the Mavic Pro), and in our testing we started having issues after just a mile of distance. This typically isn’t a big problem with most drones, since they resume live-streaming to the controller once they automatically return within range, but the Karma’s screen froze and stayed that way until it landed at our feet after an auto Return Home. This experience scared us, because we didn’t know whether the Karma was on its way back until we heard it in the air. We weren’t able to safely replicate this behavior, for fear of losing the drone over icy New England waters, but it’s something to watch for. According to GoPro, this same malfunction happened to one other reviewer, and a firmware fix is in the works. We recommend not flying the Karma over a mile away, especially with an obstructed connection, until the company has officially addressed the issue.
The Karma is compatible with the GoPro Hero5, Hero5 Session, and Hero4 action cameras (it’s sold either with a Hero5 Black camera or in a no-camera version for adding your own), which connect to the three-axis Karma stabilizing gimbal. You can also remove the gimbal and camera from the drone and connect them to the included Karma Grip, a handheld stabilizing unit for photos and videos.
The Karma Grip is highly effective at stabilizing video in the air and on land, and it’s a bonus that no other drone offers. In our tests, due to the way the gimbal was mounted in front of the Karma, we never captured propellers in our shot, either, which was a problem for the Mavic Pro and just about every other DJI drone we’ve ever flown.
Video and still quality is excellent thanks to the GoPro Hero5 Black, a camera we already love, and in our tests the images rivaled the results we got from the DJI Mavic Pro and Yuneec Typhoon H cameras, turning out sharp and clear. The Hero 5 Black can also shoot at different FOV angles, including Linear, which corrects horizontal distortion—an issue we had with previous GoPro models.
The Karma is capable of performing in four intelligent flight modes: Dronie (takes a selfie video and travels away, giving context), Cable Cam (travels a set linear path), Orbit (flies around the subject in a perfect circle), and Reveal (flies in a straight line and gradually tilts the camera up). While these modes are certainly useful for cinematic applications, the Mavic Pro offers more with the addition of subject tracking and the very useful Tripod Mode.
The Karma drone itself is hefty, and one of the better-constructed models out there. Its prop arms fold up to increase its portability, but it still requires a 21-by-13-by-6-inch carrying case (included). The Mavic Pro is notably more portable, which is the primary reason we chose that model for the top spot, since you can just put it in a backpack rather than needing a designated carrying case. Still, the Karma occupies less space than any DJI Phantom model and the Yuneec Typhoon H, which each require carrying cases nearly double the volume. Battery life on the Karma is about 16 to 17 minutes, judging from our experience—not the best, but pretty close to the battery life of its rivals.
At the end of 2016, GoPro recalled the Karma due to a loose battery connection: During certain flights, the Karma’s battery would lose contact with the internal connector and cause the drone to fall out of the sky. The redesigned battery latch seemed secure in our tests, but we’re keeping our eyes open for any further complaints of falling Karmas.
The DJI Phantom 4 Pro is a drone better suited for advanced filmmakers and photographers. It is more refined, with a 20-megapixel 1-inch CMOS sensor and a mechanical shutter (which reduces or eliminates the rolling shutter effect), better manual photography controls, and more advanced collision detection. It captures truly excellent-looking 4K video up to 60 fps and has a 100 Mbps bit rate, capabilities that place it alongside advanced mirrorless and high-end point-and-shoot cameras. It can shoot raw and JPEG images and can capture up to 14 fps in burst mode. It’s priced above our $1,000 sweet spot, but if you are an advanced shooter and have the money, the Phantom 4 Pro is the best all-in-one drone available right now.
The Phantom 4 Pro is also the safest sub-$2,000 model DJI has ever released. It has forward-, left-, right-, backward-, and down-facing collision sensors that prevent the drone from crashing along any of those axes. This network of sensors also enables the Phantom 4 Pro to hover more precisely in place, especially in areas with weak GPS signals. The DJI Go app allows the pilot to measure how far the Phantom 4 Pro is flying from potential hazards via a proximity meter: The closer the drone flies to its potential death, the more red bars appear in the meter, and an alarm sounds—something we experienced firsthand with the Phantom 4 Pro.
I tested the Phantom 4 Pro’s Obstacle Sensing System by having it gather as much speed as it could and making it zoom straight toward the broadside of my barn. Each time, the drone stopped dead in its tracks approximately 5 to 10 feet away from what, for other drones, would have been a certain demise. It accomplished this forward and backward, and it even detected me while it was flying low and stopped before taking off my head. Unfortunately, the sideways collision-avoidance sensors work only in the Beginner and Tripod modes—here’s hoping that future models will employ all four in every mode.
Like the Mavic Pro, the Phantom 4 Pro can fly over 4 miles away, thanks to its OcuSync transmission system. DJI also claims a battery improvement in the Phantom 4 Pro, with a flight time of 30 minutes. PCMag was able to get 25 minutes out of the battery, a superb result for a high-performance drone. In contrast, I got 22 minutes from it and was able to fly only over 7,300 feet before I lost the transmission signal; perhaps this was due to the cold weather, but the Mavic Pro flew much farther.
The Phantom 4 Pro has all the same automated flight modes available in the Mavic Pro but adds Draw, which lets the pilot draw a path on the FPV screen; the drone then flies that route while keeping a uniform altitude. You control these modes via a smartphone or tablet mounted on the Phantom 4 Pro’s controller—but said controller is more comfortable and easier to use than the Mavic Pro’s. If you have the budget for more, the Phantom 4 Pro+ includes a remote controller with a built-in 5.5-inch 1080p screen twice as bright as the displays of conventional smart devices. It also does away with the need to bring your own smartphone or tablet.
The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the cheapest and most basic model the company offers, and is an ideal beginner drone. While it doesn’t have the video quality or feature set of the Mavic Pro, it comes at less than half the price, retains an excellent stabilization system, and is more than good enough for someone just starting to get into drone photography and videography.
Included is a 12-megapixel camera that can record video up to 2.7K at 30 fps, as well as raw and JPEG still images, quite a bit below the 4K capabilities of the Mavic Pro. The camera is mounted to the same three-axis gimbal found on the higher-end Phantom models, including our previous pick, so videos remain jitter-free, though this model is more prone to capturing its own propellers in the shot. It has a wide camera lens, some manual camera controls such as exposure and white balance, and still-photo modes like bracketing and time lapse.
The Phantom 3 Standard also has a few intelligent flight modes, though nothing as advanced as those on the Mavic Pro or Phantom 4 Pro. It has Follow Me (a more primitive ActiveTrack), Waypoints (allows you to tap checkpoints on the screen that you want the drone to fly to), Points of Interest (circles around an object in a fixed rotation), and Home and Course Lock (keeps the drone on a fixed path with minimum control). Like all DJI drones, the Phantom 3 Standard comes with an interactive flight simulator to help beginners practice before launching the real thing.
The drone relies on the DJI Go app and provides a 720p FPV live view on a smartphone or tablet, which is significantly inferior to the OcuSync system found on the Mavic Pro and other higher-end models. As a result, the Phantom 3 Standard can travel only a little over half a mile. It also relies exclusively on GPS rather than on a GPS/GLONASS combination; in our tests of this system on the Phantom 2 Vision+, it provided a decent signal but tended to lose connection far more frequently than the system on DJI’s improved models. The Phantom 3 Standard also uses the same remote controller as the Phantom 2 Vision+, which has limited external controls and a less user-friendly smart-device mount.
The safety and collision-avoidance features built into modern drones make them easy enough for most beginners to pick up and fly. But if you are too afraid you’ll crash a $1,000 investment, it makes sense to get some practice with a trainer quadcopter. These devices typically cost less than $100, usually don’t record photos or video, and typically lack GPS position-assist capabilities, but in flight they feel similar to larger, more expensive drones, so they’re a great option to get your bearings.
The Parrot Mambo is our pick for anyone just starting out, because it’s easy to fly, it handles similarly to a full-size drone, and it has a reasonable battery life of around seven minutes. It’s the size of a large hand outstretched and is extremely light. It flies via the Parrot Free Flight app, which transforms any current smartphone into a touchscreen remote controller with two joysticks and a Takeoff/Landing button.
In the air, the Mambo wanders up and down slightly, but that’s to be expected without GPS functionality. You can fly it indoors with ease, and it’s relatively quiet. With the hulls attached, the Mambo can slam into walls and ceilings and smash into the floor without a scratch—it’s the drone version of training wheels, a far better option for practicing than doing the same with a full-size Mavic Pro. The Parrot Mambo instantly takes off each time it’s able, until the battery dies.
The Parrot Mambo comes with two fun attachments. One is a grabber for picking up objects weighing less than 4 grams, and the other is a mini cannon that fires plastic pellets. It’s safe to say the Mambo is kid-friendly and will help educate young drone pilots.
At the CES 2017 trade show, Yi debuted the Erida, a three-rotor drone with a foldable design that makes it easy to carry. Yi claims the carbon-fiber tricopter will offer speeds of up to 75 miles per hour and a 40-minute battery life, as well as 120 minutes of shooting. You can fully control the drone through a mobile app. The company has not yet announced the Erida’s pricing and availability.
After a number of incidents beginning in 2015 led to calls for bringing the then-murky legal status of drone piloting into sharp relief, the FAA started regulating the drone industry more closely. In December 2015, the FAA formalized its rule for registering drones between 0.55 pound and 55 pounds in weight. This rule applies to all of our picks except our recommended trainer quadcopter, the Parrot Mambo. Drone owners need to provide their name, their home address, and an active email address at the FAA’s sUAS Registration page to generate a Proof of Ownership number that must be marked on the drone. The registration fee is $5. A pilot can use the same registration number for each owned drone, and the registration is valid for three years.
In June 2016, the FAA released the more comprehensive Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule 107, effective on August 29, 2016. You can find a summary of Rule 107 here (PDF). Under Rule 107, you can use drones for educational or recreational purposes with only the aforementioned registration. But if you are a photographer or videographer thinking about selling your work commercially, Rule 107 now requires that you pass a written test to earn a pilot’s license.
While it’s beyond the scope of this article to offer any legal advice (and we are not pretending to do so), a good place to start for beginning amateurs interested in small-quadcopter flying is Know Before You Fly, a resource cosponsored by the FAA with the Academy of Model Aeronautics and the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. The FAA also released an app version of this resource that lets pilots check on airspace restrictions for where they are flying or where they plan to fly. If you’re interested in delving further into the particulars, the FAA maintains a site covering the evolving regulations pertaining to “model” aircraft, including amateur drones; if you’re curious about unmanned flight in general (and commercial drone use), check out the FAA’s full site on the subject.
In short, the FAA’s guidelines say that every drone pilot should do the following:
As of June 19, 2014, it’s illegal to fly a drone in any of the 401 units of the US National Park system, except where it obviously isn’t, such as at a dedicated radio-control flying facility (the RC Field at Gateway National Recreation Area in New York City, for example). And it’s illegal to take off or land in National Forest Service Wilderness Areas. The Academy of Model Aeronautics (PDF) also says that photography “at locations where there is a reasonable expectation of privacy is strictly prohibited by the AMA unless written expressed permission is obtained from the individual property owners or managers.” Fines for breaking these rules can reach into the thousands of dollars and can cause a mess of legal troubles, so be careful and be informed.
3DR, DJI, and Yuneec have partnered with AirMap to develop geofencing systems that alert drone pilots to no-fly zones. No matter what drone you fly, you can use AirMap’s data now (via a Web application or iOS app) to avoid restricted areas and even to alert airports to your flight plans (AirMap can provide real-time information on drone flights to airport control towers through a system called the Digital Notice and Awareness System, or D-NAS). Eventually the system will be available within all of the major manufacturers’ software, so you won’t have to use a second app. At this writing, AirMap data has already rolled out as of the 2.0 version of 3DR’s Solo app, and DJI’s corresponding GEO system is currently available in a beta version of the DJI Go app. We’ll test DJI’s full implementation once it becomes available in a release version.
The Yuneec Typhoon H hexacopter almost became one of our picks but lost at the last minute to the GoPro Karma, which likewise doesn’t rely on a smartphone but is smaller than the Typhoon H and comes with a removable camera. The Yuneec model has a 4K camera that rotates around a full 360 degrees, plus forward-collision avoidance, carbon-fiber prop arms, retractable landing gear, a handful of intelligent flight modes, and a touchscreen built right into its remote controller.
We like the safety of a hexacopter because if one rotor fails, the drone can still fly. The Typhoon H is extremely fast and agile, but it has a more limited flying range than our main pick. Though the drone is large next to others we tested, it looks unlike anything else in its class.
Its large size prevents it from being truly portable, and the remote controller’s UI is not as refined as those of DJI and GoPro. In the end, the benefit of the DJI Mavic Pro’s portability and the superior value of the GoPro Karma (with its included Hero5 Black camera, Karma Grip, and detachable gimbal) pushed the Typhoon H to the sidelines.
Walkera offers two models in our price range: the Aibao and the QR X350. With mixed reviews and a poor camera, the QR X350 doesn’t really stack up to our main picks. Although the Aibao is newer, it still lags behind our picks in its specs.
The Xiro Xplorer V is a great flyer and has some nice intelligent flight modes, but its camera tops out at 1080p 30 fps, and its flying range is shorter than the Mavic Pro’s. We’ll look at the Xiro Xplorer 4K when it becomes available.
The Parrot Bebop 2 is a much-improved version of the first-gen Bebop. It flies farther and better, has a longer battery life and better controls, and offers a neat FPV goggle option. Unfortunately, it tops out at 1080p 30 fps, and the image quality is not great. You must purchase the intelligent flight modes separately as add-ons, and the only way to get your pictures and video footage is to save them to your smart device or suffer through a wireless transfer to a laptop.
Although the Autel X-Star Premium is designed to be a Phantom 3 Professional killer, it can’t fly nearly as far as our main picks. That said, it does have solid owner reviews, a 4K camera, a removable three-axis gimbal, a 25-minute battery life, intelligent flight modes (Follow, Orbit, Waypoint), and an LCD screen built into its remote controller, as well as an orange exterior to aid visibility. Autel also provides great customer service, according to numerous reviews. We’re looking forward to trying one out in time for the next update.
We didn’t look at selfie-oriented and self-tracking drones like the failed Lily and the upcoming Staaker for this guide; we think that such products may not be a great investment, since 3DR, Yuneec, and DJI have now introduced Follow Me modes on more capable full-featured UAVs. We’ll keep looking at these specialized drones as they evolve, however, and if we find that they begin to make a compelling case, we’ll test them as they become available.
The Yuneec Q500 Typhoon 4K was our runner-up last year. It has a 4K camera that also captures raw still images, a controller that doesn’t require a smartphone, a removable gimbal, and a few nifty intelligent flight modes. Unfortunately, it’s not as agile a flyer as the Mavic Pro, the GoPro Karma, or its bigger sibling, the Typhoon H. It suffers from the same limited flying range as the Typhoon H, and it’s monstrous next to the Mavic Pro and Karma.
Special thanks for assistance with this guide to Eric Cheng, whose book, Aerial Photography and Videography Using Drones, demonstrates basic and advanced concepts in the field using DJI’s Phantom 3 series drones.
Originally published: March 24, 2017