While the holiday seasons bring cold weather for so many of us, drones are HOT right now.
Racking your brain about what drone to buy this 2016 holiday season?
Everyone from gadget geeks to photography enthusiasts to business owners are having fun learning to fly, and some are even choosing to get certified by the FAA to make some money as a professional drone pilot.
Below are our top drone picks for every gift-giving price range.
It goes without saying that this list is not all-encompassing. There are dozens of quality drone manufacturers and dozens more model variations to consider.
Top 3 Drones under $50
Some things to keep in mind when you’re buying a drone for under $50 just to set your expectations:
- Battery life tends to be pretty short, in the 5-10 minute range. Buying multiple / extra batteries is often a good idea.
- Because of their light mass, these models are surprisingly durable and can hold up well after crashes. Great for beginners!
- They don’t handle wind very well. They get pushed around!
- The propellers are fickle. Any nicks or bends in the propellers and you’re not going to get smooth flight, no matter how much you trim / adjust your remote. Propeller guards can help, as can extra propellers.
- You will NOT need to register any of these models with the FAA, but here’s a good set of guidelines to follow from Know Before You Fly.
UDI Freedom U32
Why is the UDI Freedom 32 our top pick in the under $50 price range?
Because the retailer, Force1 RC, includes an extra battery with this model, doubling your flight time! They’re also U.S. based and from personal experience provide great customer support.
This model in particular comes with propeller guards and has some cool automated functions. It’s kind of amazing how much smarter the flight software is in models like this than it was this time last year.
Hubsan X4 107L
The Hubsan X4 107L is an upgraded version of the model I learned to fly on back in 2014. This particular package comes with propeller guards and an easy USB charger.
Hubsan is a tried-and-true Chinese manufacturer. I’ve flown the vast majority of their cheaper models, and I’ve been impressed with how they’ve slowly been improving the X4 over the last year.
This blue 107L model comes with LED lights, fits in the palm of your hand, and is a great trainer for someone looking to get into small unmanned aerial systems as either a hobbyist or aspiring professional. Also a great drone for kids.
Speaking of fitting inside the palm of your hand, the Cheerson CX-10 mini drone is the smallest quadcopter on the market.
It’s super simple to fly, and at less than $20, a great stocking stuffer for the gadget-loving kid. Or let’s be honest, the gadget-loving adult.
Don’t let the small size fool you. With no wind, this drone is surprisingly stable and really fun to buzz around the house or garage. Indoor obstacle course, anyone?
Top 3 Drones from $50 to $150
You can’t go wrong with any of the models in this price range. Same comments above re: not requiring FAA registration and higher-than-expected durability, but there are two big advantages we start to see emerge at this price point:
- Altitude Hold – makes it a lot easier for a newer pilot to control the drone and offers much more stable images and video capture from the 720p HD camera
- Compatibility with a VR headset – if you’re looking for a true first-person-view (FPV) experience, there’s no better way to put yourself in the drone cockpit than sliding on some VR goggles. Here’s a cheap pair of VR goggles that’s compatible with each of the below three models.
UDI Blue Jay U45
I’ve been teaching my dad how to fly on this drone. One of the big upgrades here is “Altitude Hold,” or the ability to take your left thumb off the throttle and to have the drone hover at the same altitude.
This makes controlling the drone a LOT easier for beginners and those looking to truly master multirotor orientation. You’re also going to get a one-touch take off and landing, and a custom route mode that allows you to trace your desired flight path on your phone or tablet screen. These features were typically reserved for higher end RC drones, but now we’re starting to see them in the $50 to $150 range.
UDI Peregrine U28W
Starting to see a pattern? Lots of UDI models on this list. Like Hubsan, UDI is a tried-and-true Chinese drone manufacturer with a variety of models for beginners.
Their latest Peregrine model looks sleek and is a great gift for the newbie drone pilot. Like the Blue Jay above and the Discovery below, the retailer Force1 RC includes an extra battery in this model, which doubles your flight time and is great for folks logging those first few hours of flight.
UDI Discovery U818A
Finally, to round out this price range is theUDI Discovery. I also learned to fly on an earlier version of the Discovery back in 2014. It’s bigger than the other two models in this section but has similar features like VR headset compatibility and an extra battery.
Top 3 Drones from $150 to $500
DJI Phantom 3 (Standard)
It’s pretty wild that you can get a DJI Phantom 3 for less than $500. There are a few different variations of Phantom 3, and while the “Standard” model is technically their version with comparably less features than their 4K, Advanced, or Professional models, don’t let that hold you back from taking a serious look at the Standard.
25 minutes of battery life and an 8GB micro SD card lets the beginner aerial photographer or videographer take advantage of a camera that shoots HD video up to 2.7K at 30 FPS, or still photos at 12 MP.
For a serious hobbyist or aspiring commercial pilot who’s looking to dip his or her toes into the waters with a professional system that won’t break the bank, the DJI Phantom 3 Standard is a great choice.
I’m not sure when the Yuneec Breeze started including a virtual reality headset as part of this model, but I’m certainly not complaining.
The Yuneec Breeze shoots videos up to 4K at 30 FPS and is Yuneec’s most portable and one of their more sophisticated models for aerial photographers and videographers.
I spent a lot of time flying the Breeze this fall, and I was pretty impressed with how intelligent the software was. Super smooth take-offs and landings with the click of a button, and overall a great gift for the new drone pilot.
One of the big considerations here is that you’re not using a typical dual joystick transmitter to control the Breeze and need to be using your phone or tablet. That can be a pro or a con depending on how you look at it.
Focus FPV Drone
First-person-view (FPV) racing is one of the hottest segments of the drone industry. If you’re interested in FPV racing and drone systems, the Focus FPV drone can be a great introduction.
At less than $200, this model comes with a built-in LCD screen that shows you exactly what the drone sees, in real-time, at 720p HD.
It’s easy to fly and comes with an extra battery for added training session duration. And when you’re zipping around trees and other obstacles, the propeller guards will help protect your precious props from getting too nicked up during your inevitable crashes.
Top 3 Drones from $500 to $1000
The DJI Mavic is a game-changer for aerial photographers and filmmakers.
Launched in the fall of 2016 and marketed as a professional (and portable) aerial media system, it’s small size actually hides a pretty high degree of complexity and sophistication.
The DJI Mavic also boasts obstacle avoidance, sensor redundancy, and runs vision positioning paired with GPS and GLONASS to ensure precise positioning during both indoor AND outdoor flights.
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
The DJI Phantom 3 Professional is the most sophisticated option in the Phantom 3 series, and as the name suggests, was designed for professional pilots.
It offers 4K video, 23 minutes of flight time, and a whopping 5km control distance.
The quadcopter also comes with five advanced flight modes:
- Follow Me
- Course Lock
- Home Lock
- Point of Interest
These autonomous modes free you up to focus on camera control and getting the right shot. This makes the DJI Phantom 3 Professional a smart choice for pro pilots.
Yuneec Typhoon H
If you haven’t heard of Yuneec, you’re missing out on some high-quality aerial camera platforms that may very well be the perfect fit for your recreational (or business) needs.
The Typhoon H is equipped with six rotors, a 360-degree gimbal camera and retractable landing gear with Yuneec’s standard of being ready out of the box, easy and safe to fly, with stunning Ultra HD 4K video and stills.
The Typhoon H is controlled with the Android-based ST16 controller, which has a large 7-inch integrated display and HD 720p first-person-view (FPV) downlink for stunning real-time video reception.
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