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Best Drones for Consumers
October 21, 2019
Drones are one of the most exciting pieces of consumer tech to come about in the 2010s. But there are tons of different drone models on the market - how do you know what the best drones are? How do you know what the best drones with cameras are? And how can you find the best drone for you? We’ll cover all that and more. Let’s rate the top consumer flying drones.
What can I use a drone for?
Consumer drones are incredibly versatile. There are a few common reasons why people fly them.
Fly a drone for the fun of it! You can live out your childhood dream of taking to the sky and flying. Drones are basically a modern form of kite-flying when you think about it. Kite-flying is an endearing pastime because when you’re controlling something that’s hovering in the air, it gives you a sensation that you’re conquering the skies.
Drones give you that sensation, too. And the best drones can arguably do it better than a kite can. The top consumer drones typically have cameras that afford you a bird’s eye view from above, so you can experience what it’s like to fly wherever you want.
Photography is the most common reason why people fly drones. It’s pretty easy to do stunning aerial photography on drones, so it’s no wonder they’re so popular with both casual fliers and professional photographers.
Promotional videos and even major motion pictures have captured professional-quality aerial footage on drones. To meet the demand, the latest consumer drones are being equipped with more powerful cameras each year.
Drones are commonly used at construction sites. Construction workers can use drones to map out a large site, or they can use them to examine high structures, like roofs and chimneys. Construction is one of the more practical purposes for using drones.
National parks have also begun to use drones to scout areas that are burning in wildfires or where other dangers may exist, like avalanche or mudslide conditions. This gives rangers information without the risks associated with hiking into dangerous backcountry situations.
You’ve probably heard about Amazon experimenting with package delivery via drones. The technology isn’t quite ready for use, but don’t be too surprised if drones become the mailmen of the future.
How to fly a drone
So you want to fly a drone? We don’t blame you. But before you purchase a new drone and take to the skies, you should first learn the basics of drone flying. While drone controls are relatively simple - most drone controllers look just like a video game controller - successfully navigating a drone can be a little more difficult, especially when you’ve got to account for wind and weather conditions.
Here are a few tips on how to master the basics of drone flight.
1. Purchase a beginner-friendly drone
You might feel tempted to buy a high-end drone right off the bat, but your first drone should be a cheaper, easier-to-use model. First-time drone fliers often find it difficult to take off, land, and keep the drone stable when it’s being battered by winds, so crashes are quite common.
You don’t want to lose your entire investment on a drone that gets broken during your first flight. Try out a beginner-friendly drone and master flying it before you buy a more expensive model. Later on, we’ll pick the top consumer drone for beginners.
2. Register your drone with the FAA
If your drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds, you need to register it with the FAA. The only drones that weigh less than that are palm-sized drones, which we won’t discuss here. All the top consumer drones of 2019 are larger drones, so they all need to be registered with the FAA.
3. Get a warranty
Again, beginning fliers are more likely to crash and damage their drone, so you should definitely consider getting a warranty on it.
4. Practice in an open area
Practice in an area where there are few trees, people, or power lines. You don’t want to crash your drone into any of these obstructions, and you definitely don’t want to hit anyone.
5. Practice taking off and landing
Before you fly off into the horizon, you should practice taking off and landing over and over again. You might be surprised to find that it’s more difficult than it looks! Master landing maneuvers just a few feet off the ground, otherwise you could risk breaking your drone when you’re landing from a higher altitude. Some drones have a “beginner” mode, too, and you should use it while you’re practicing.
6. Fly slowly
A lot of first-time fliers are tempted to fly their drones as quickly as possible, but you should avoid doing this - even professional drone fliers are cautious about high speeds. When you fly too fast, there’s a greater chance that your controller will lose signal with the drone. Also, if you’re doing aerial photography, fast flight will result in shaky footage. Drones are not built to zip through the skies like jets. Not consumer drones, anyway.
7. Memorize the no-fly zones
You’re not allowed to fly your drone anywhere that’s designated as a no-fly zone. Common no-fly zones include:
- Airport areas (typically you can’t fly drones within a few miles surrounding an airport)
- Crowded events
Most no-fly zones are located in industrial areas, but you’ll find them in rural areas, too. For instance, some national parks won’t allow any drone flying and you could be prosecuted for doing so. It’s very important that you avoid no-fly zones - you could find yourself in legal trouble if you don’t.
Pro tip: You should download the Hover app on your phone. This app will let you know where there are no-fly zones in your area.
8. Master flying in a circle
When you feel comfortable flying in straight lines, practice flying in a circle. Become a pro at flying in a circle in both directions
9. Fly in a figure 8
Practice flying in a figure 8 pattern in both directions. Once you’ve mastered the figure 8 maneuver, you might just be ready for a more advanced drone.
When you’re flying a drone, you always need to abide by the following safety rules. If you don’t, you could potentially face a lawsuit or even criminal prosecution:
- Always maintain a visual line of sight with your drone
- Don’t fly over people
- Obey local regulations and avoid no-fly zones
- Don’t fly after dark (the FAA considers “dark” to be 30 minutes before sundown) unless you’re an experienced drone professional with permits
- Don’t fly before dawn (the FAA considers dawn to begin 30 minutes before sunrise)
Now that we’ve covered the basics on how to fly a drone, it’s time to ask a few drone FAQs. When we evaluated the top drones on the market, we referred to each of these benchmarks:
How high can drones fly?
Modern drones are built to be extraordinarily light so they’re able to reach very high altitudes. The highest-recorded flight was about 11,000 feet, but this was an illegal flight using modded software - drones have software that prevents you from flying them higher than a safe altitude.
Most people fly drones up to 400 feet AGL (above ground level). Aviation authorities recommend you don’t fly higher than that because you could risk colliding with manned aircraft. We looked for drones that could easily reach an altitude of 200 to 300 feet.
How fast can drones fly?
There are certain types of fixed-wing drones (basically miniature airplanes) that can reach very fast speeds. But the average multi-rotor drone can fly at speeds of up to 50 MPH. While we did evaluate drone speed, stability was a far more important benchmark for our list.
How far can drones fly?
Most consumer drones can fly up to 2 miles away from the flier, but the top-tier models can travel about 4 miles away. It’s important to know that travel distance may be affected by lots of environmental factors, like radio conditions, weather conditions, and wind. This was a crucial benchmark to test because long travel distance may be a necessity for aerial photographers.
Note: Remember, you have a responsibility to keep your drone in sight at all times. Never lose direct line of sight with your drone.
How long can drones stay in the air?
Most drones, even the higher-end models, can only stay in the air for 20 to 30 minutes. We looked for drones that are capable of pushing 30 straight minutes of flight. But we also took battery replacement into consideration. Drones that have easily swappable batteries are preferable.
Camera quality is important, even if you’re not a photographer. Who doesn’t enjoy taking photos and short videos of their flight? But you also need a good camera to adequately control your drone. We looked for drones that not only have the best camera quality, but which also have a variety of picture-taking features that you’d find on something like a DSLR camera.
How easy is the drone to fly? Is it relatively stable? Are the controls intuitive? Is it easy to pack up and transport? These are all important things we considered.
And now, let’s get on with it. Let’s pick the best consumer drones of 2019.
Best overall drone
Our pick for the best drone overall goes to…drum roll, please…the DJI Mavic Air. DJI has made quite a name for itself with its pro-quality consumer drones, and the exemplary DJI Mavic Air is undoubtedly one of their best.
This medium-weight drone has a solid flying range, easy-to-use peripherals, and smart sensors that’ll help it automatically avoid some obstacles. There’s a cool cinematic mode that takes cinema-style videos for you, which is a neat feature to play around with. And it’s easy to take this drone anywhere because the propeller arms fold up and allow you to fit the entire drone in a small shoulder bag.
The camera has some solid DSLR photography options, but it might not be the first choice for pro photographers because the battery life comes in a little short at about 20 minutes. Still, this is an amazing consumer drone that’s offered at a pretty amazing price for all its features and quality components.
- Solid build
- Responsive controls
- Lots of photography options
- Compact and easy to transport
- Somewhat fragile
- Shorter battery life
- Not great for flying in low light
Best pro-quality drone
If you’re a professional photographer and you’re looking for the best drone with camera capabilities, look no further than the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. This is the best pro-quality drone you can buy, and it’s perfect for both advanced recreational fliers and professional aerial photographers.
The image quality is amazing so long as you use the camera on manual settings, and that’s why this is a drone better suited for the pros. You can set the aperture relatively wide, apply ND filters, and even choose between different depths of field. The battery life is very good, and the controller can even charge your phone - which is incredibly helpful because you’ll be using the DJI app to get the video feed.
It flies great, too. The drone is a little on the heavier side, but it’s also stable in the air and it has a very good range. There are plenty of smart sensors so that it can auto-avoid obstacles, and you can even set the Mavic 2 to track stationary or moving objects, which is one of the most impressive and enjoyable features of this drone. This is also a good drone for flying in low light because there’s a bottom light that helps the sensors track its position in the air.
It’s a little more taxing on your wallet, but it’s well worth the price for the pro-level features.
- Great stability
- Professional-quality photography options
- Great sensors and tracking capabilities
- Phone-charging controller
- Great for flying in low light
- More difficult to master
Best-budget drone/best drone for beginners
If you’re looking for a high-quality drone at a budget-friendly price, or if you’re just looking for a drone that’s perfect for beginners, you’ll want to check out the Parrot Bebop 2. This is a trusty introductory drone that can reach high altitudes and boasts 25 minutes of flight time, long enough for you to practice landings and take-offs to your heart’s content.
The drone is equipped with a 1080p fish-eye lens. This is not very good if you’re looking to do professional photography. But if you’re a beginning flier, the image quality is respectable and you’ll definitely have a blast being able to record videos of your flight path.
Create awesome flight videos with HP ZBook mobile workstation
Professional photographers need a creative workstation that’s capable of doing 4K video editing and photo editing. The HP ZBook mobile workstation is built for those photo professionals.
This high-powered laptop has the processing power, memory, and vivid display that’ll help you craft stunning edits of your aerial footage. If you’re going to be outdoors on a long shoot, then you’ll be able to take this mobile workstation with you so you can edit your footage while you’re out flying. HP ZBook is the ultimate pro-level workstation for pro-level drone fliers.
About the Author: Zach Cabading is a contributing writer for HP® Tech Takes. Zach is a content creation specialist based in Southern California, and creates a variety of content for the tech industry.