Not so long ago, drones were the preserve of the military and dystopian science fiction films, but now they’ve made their way into the consumer market, with rapidly advancing technology and plummeting prices. Crucially, the size of drones has also reduced significantly, meaning they are quickly becoming a household favourite, whether just to fly around as a toy or to shoot amazing aerial photography.
With an unprecedented amount of choice now available, the list of features on offer can be bewildering, but fear not, as we’ve reviewed a broad range to find the best models for all budgets and experience levels.
There are a few things to look out for that have the biggest impact on the piloting experience: ease of use, battery life, range and picture quality. Nail these and you can’t really go wrong.
Battery life remains the biggest limitation on most drones available at the moment. The propellers use a lot of power and batteries are heavy, meaning flight time is often compromised. Time between charges can be anywhere from just five minutes up to half an hour, depending on the model. Spare batteries really are a must, so factor this into your cost calculations.
Prices range from £10 for a mini drone that’s great fun to fly around the garden, right up to many thousands for professional models with sophisticated features like automatic tracking and stabilised cameras.
You can now get a drone with a camera for less than £50, while from around £100 you can expect first-person viewing through an app, controller or even through a headset. Top-end models produce ultra-sharp 4K imagery that are second to none. The cameras included on cheaper models are considerably more basic by comparison.
Drones costing a few hundred pounds or more have features such as a gimbal, which holds the camera steady, giving stunning, professional-looking aerial video. Spend £20,000 and you’ll be shooting your own Planet Earth in no time.
We took our drones out for a spin in a London park, testing out their top speed, manoeuvrability and picture-taking abilities, as well as the must-haves we mentioned earlier.
You will notice that a couple of names dominate our list. This is simply because a small number of suppliers are currently way ahead of the rest.
Sky Drone Pro 720p Quadcopter Drone: £24.99, Maplin
There are hundreds of cheap, unbranded drones out there for under £50 but many aren’t of the highest quality. The Sky Drone, however, is simple, well-made and comes with a 720p HD camera that produces a clear video of your journey – everything you need to have fun trying out your flying capabilities. It comes with its own controller (AA batteries required) and can fly up to a range of 40m, which is far enough in most circumstances. You get about seven minutes’ flight time and the drone can charge completely in just 30 minutes. This drone feels more stable than many others at this price level, making it great for beginners. It also has the ability to perform flips and rolls once you get more advanced.
Hubsan X4 H107c: £38.49, Tomtop
This pocket-sized drone comfortably fits in the palm of your hand, but somehow manages to fit a camera on board. Video is streamed live to a 4.3in screen on the controller. At 720px x 240px, it’s comparatively low-res but to get first-person view on a drone at this price is impressive. It’s also very useful as the tiny X4 can quickly disappear from view. The controller is really easy to operate and you’ll be able to use it straight out of the box without referring to the instructions. It’s also comfortingly retro in its styling – think Sega Game Gear circa 1990.
The built-in screen means there’s no need for a smartphone app. The Hubsan is great fun to fly, zipping around like an electronic mosquito, with responsive controls that novices will pick up in no time. Bear in mind that this machine weighs just 58g, so it can’t handle wind. It also doesn’t hover in a steady position so you have to keep adjusting the controls, which can make it easier to crash. Luckily this little machine is tough – we crashed it several times and it still worked perfectly fine. Battery life is only about eight to nine minutes, and it has a range of around 100m. Spares can be picked up for a few pounds so are well worth the investment.
Parrot Swing: £89.99, Very
Looking like a baby X-wing, this mini drone is a great starter machine for anyone unsure about the whole drone thing. Its unique design means it can fly like a traditional quadcopter or flip horizontally and move like a plane, which allows it to go faster – up to 18mph, according to Parrot, which is impressive for a drone at this price.
It felt a little slower than this in our test flight, partly down to the wind. The wings make it look like something Luke Skywalker would fly but, as you might expect at this budget, they are made from polystyrene. This keeps the craft light and easy to manoeuvre but does make it vulnerable to a gust of wind.
The Swing is controlled via the simple Parrot smartphone app and comes with a controller which you snap your smartphone into. It’s basically exactly the same as a PlayStation controller, so unless you’ve never used a games console, you’ll find it very intuitive. A range of 30m and a battery life of around 20 minutes make this a good drone to take to the park to practice your pilot skills. It’s very easy to use, so highly recommended as a family toy.
The 640px x 480px camera is functional but the images it produces are fairly grainy.
Parrot Mambo FPV: £129.99, Currys
The Mambo is a cut above most of the similarly priced mini drones, and comes with the security of the well-known and respected Parrot brand. The latest version of the French firm’s entry-level drone offers an enjoyable introduction to flying but with a few extra tricks up its sleeve. Weighing in at just 63g, it’s pretty tiny but will hover in place as long as there’s not too much wind. It’s also quick to charge up and has the bonus of looking a bit like a Transformer.
The standout addition that comes in the box is the pair of first-person view goggles, which stream the 720p HD video directly, giving you an exhilarating drone-racing experience at a fraction of the cost of a professional model. The battery lasts up to 10 minutes, which is OK, and the range is pretty low at just 20m if you use the app. You can extend this to a much more workable 100m by buying the Parrot controller (£49.99). It has a number of flying modes, including “Easy”, which helps you hold the drone steady in flight, and “Racing” which allows you total freedom.
Parrot Bebop 2 Power: £549.99, Very
There’s a lot to like about the Bebop 2. It’s compact, stable and great fun to use. It will fly to a range of 300m, which is plenty for most needs and it has a 14MP camera, delivering decent 1080p footage. The newer versions come with a virtual reality FPV headset, which gives a truly immersive flying experience and is well worth the upgrade, although you inevitably look a bit strange wearing it at the park.
The slightly cartoonish styling contrasts with the stark sci-fi appearance of the pricier DJIs. In both look and features it fits neatly between the toy and “serious” models. The latest “Power” version comes with two batteries that will each give you 30 minutes of flight time, while the older and slightly cheaper Bebop 2 is essentially the same drone but with one 20-minute power pack.
There are a couple of minor gripes which let it down slightly. Unlike some of the more expensive models, it doesn’t have any removable storage, so once you’ve filled up the 8GB internal drive you have to wipe and start again. Also, the wi-fi connection between the controller and the drone cut out a couple of times when it should have been within range, which was a little frustrating.
Yuneec Breeze 4K: £319, Argos
Muscling in on DJI and Parrot’s position at the mid to high end of the market is relative newcomer, Yuneec, which burst onto the scene with its mean-looking Typhoon drone in 2015.
The Breeze 4K is a different proposition entirely. It’s aptly named as it couldn’t be easier to set up. You just fold out the four wings, install the Yuneec smartphone app and get started. In the air it is nippy, if not electric, and it’s really easy to pilot with the intuitive on-screen controls. Unlike the Parrot and DJI models, it doesn’t have a compatible joystick controller, but this is a relatively small drawback.
With the tagline #myflyingcamera, it’s obvious this is aimed at those wanting to take selfies with a difference (“dronies”, apparently). It comes with a “follow me” mode, for the real narcissists among us, which allows you to catch yourself from every angle.
To complete the package, the Breeze comes with built-in social media connectivity so you can instantly show everyone how amazing your holiday is with a simple tap of the app. All in all this is a great drone for Instagram fans but don’t let that fool you into thinking this is a gimmick – it produces great 4K images. One issue is that the battery runs down quickly – you’ll only get twelve minutes on a single 40-minute charge. At 100m, the range is quite a bit less than the Bebop 2 but certainly enough, given what this drone is for.
DJI Spark Mini Drone: £449, John Lewis
The latest release from DJI, the Chinese brand which currently sits atop the drone world, is a bit of a game-changer for one simple fact: it’s so small. The vast majority of drones that offer full HD video quality are significantly larger, meaning that they aren’t practical for use in many scenarios. The Spark easily fits in the palm of your hand and is light and portable with the included plastic case.
Despite its petite frame, the Spark comes with many of the same flight modes as its more expensive stablemates. It has Active Track, which allows you to automatically follow a subject and Helix which makes the drone perform a cinematic corkscrew around you as it ascends.
A great feature is that you can take it out of the case and start flying straight away using hand gestures. Once it takes off, you point your palm at it and then move in any direction, the drone will follow.
The Spark sneaks in under £500 but for that you don’t get a controller and will have to control it via the DJI app. With a controller, it’s a bit more than £500 but you get extra range beyond the 100m that wi-fi will stretch to. You might also want to invest in an extra battery for £55, as one charge will only last around 15 minutes. All in all, this a fantastic little drone.
DJI Phantom 4: £899.99, Maplin
The DJI Phantom range is a best seller for good reason – out of the box, it is a beautiful piece of sleek, white plastic and when it gets into the air it is fantastically responsive and boasts an unrivalled set of features.
It darts around exactly where you want it to at a breakneck 20m per second (45mph), yet still captures silky footage thanks to the gimbal-mounted camera and the steadiness of the machine itself. It will hold its position even in moderate winds and always feels sturdy and reliable.
Even for the novice, it’s easy to handle, via the controller provided, using your phone or tablet for first-person view. It’s the Phantom’s impressive set of tricks that set it apart, however. Tap an object in the view of your phone and the drone will lock onto it as you fly around to capture footage from all angles. It can also track moving objects. Battery life is a respectable 25 minutes and the range is 5km, though we never got to test this last statistic.
DJI Mavic Pro: £999, Jessops
The Phantom 4 clearly raised the bar when released but then DJI brought out the Mavic Pro. A year on from that release, this model has become a favourite among drone enthusiasts and travel bloggers alike. It essentially bundles all of the impressive abilities of its bigger brother into an unbelievably tiny package that you can fold up and throw in your hand luggage. The Mavic is the ultimate flying camera to take on holiday or an adventure sports weekend. With a top speed of 40mph, it isn’t quite as fast as the Phantom but can track objects and automatically avoid obstacles in the same way.
No one has yet managed to combine the portability and top-end features that the Mavic possesses. Considering its light weight, it can hold itself steady remarkably well, though it feels slightly more “jumpy” in flight than the Phantom. The camera has a narrower field of view but for most purposes this makes little difference. The quality is still razor-sharp 4K. The battery also lasts around 25 minutes and it has the longest range of all of the models we tested at 7km.
GoPro Karma with HERO6: £1,049, Currys
The Karma has had its share of problems in development but GoPro now seems to have well and truly fixed them. What you get in the box is more an action filming kit than just a drone because it comes mounted with a detachable HERO6 Black camera and a handheld Karma Grip gimbal, which allows you to take ultra-smooth and steady shots on the ground. It would be ideal for snowboarding or skating (though we tested it with feet firmly on the ground). If you already have a GoPro camera, you can buy the kit without one and attach your own. The controller is a standalone unit with an integrated 5in screen.
As you would expect from GoPro, the Karma is attractively designed. Its folding arms and stylish carry case make the Karma easier to transport than DJI’s Phantom but it’s more cumbersome than the Mavic. This drone is perfect for GoPro fans and those that will get plenty of use out of the HERO6 and Karma Grip (those two pieces of kit on their own would set you back around £700). However, battery life is a little disappointing at 20 minutes and it doesn’t have quite as many filming options as some of its competitors.
Yuneec Typhoon H Pro: £1100, Jessops
Yuneec is one of DJI’s only realistic competitors at the top end of the drone market at the moment and its Typhoon H Pro model competes squarely with the Phantom 4. The Typhoon’s distinct design has six blades as opposed to the usual four and it can still fly if one of them breaks down. It also has a controller with a built-in 7in touchscreen monitor, meaning you don’t have to rely on your smartphone or tablet as you do with the Phantom and Mavic. On the negative side, the controller is on the large side, making it impractical in some circumstances.
The drone itself is quick and simple to handle, with a top speed of 43.5mph – slightly lower than DJI’s Phantom 4. Picture quality from the 12MP camera is also crisp and you can get some really impressive footage using some of the shooting modes. The RealSense obstacle-avoidance system works well in most instances but can’t pick up hazards unless they are approaching from the front. Battery life is slightly shorter than the Phantom 4 and Mavic at a maximum of 25 minutes.
The Verdict: Drones
For those looking to dip their toe into flying without having to spend big sums, the Hubsan X4 is a great option. If you want something that will keep you interested for a bit longer and allow you to hone your drone skills, our pick is the Parrot Mambo FPV thanks to its headset. In the mid and high ranges DJI leads the way. For around £500 the Spark is a fantastic option and really demonstrates how drones with great filming capabilities have come down in both size and price over the last couple of years. Its big brother, the Mavic Pro, is slightly larger, with a wider range of features and better camera. It remains the best consumer drone out there.
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