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Drones are all the rage these days. Once reserved for the military (with a pretty bad rap,) they’ve now definitely entered the consumer space.
Travel is no exception, with both professionals and enthusiastic amateurs increasingly adding these flying cameras to their packing lists. The end result, at least for those who know how to use them, is the kinds of shots we’d only ever seen on the big screen in the past.
Love them or hate them, drones seem to be here to stay. If you’re ready to invest one, these are our current recommendations — plus a few challenges to bear in mind when taking them on the road.
Best on a Budget: HolyStone F181C RC
If you’re a total newbie looking to fly a drone for the first time, this HolyStone model is a solid choice.
One of the most affordable drones out there, the F181C RC is a full flying camera, rather than just a flying body that can hold a camera (as is the case for many budget drones). Its body is pretty rugged and can stand a beating, vital when you’re just learning how to operate a drone. Despite its solid body it’s very light, at just under 2 lb.
The 2MP camera, which can record video and take photos, comes with autofocus capabilities. That’s useful when testing out the 360º and 4-way flips the drone is capable of performing. There are definitely drones with better cameras out there, but you’ll be hard-pressed to find any for a similar price.
- Size: 31 x 9 x 31 inches (787 x 229 x 787 mm)
- Weight: 1.7 lb (0.8 kg)
- Batteries: 7 to 10 min each (two are included)
- Speed: 10 mph (16 kph)
- Storage: 2GB on the bundled SD card, or use your own
- Video: 720p @ 30fps
Best Value: Potensic D80 GPS FPV RC Drone
Ready for a higher-quality, yet still beginner-friendly drone? Then the Potensic D80 is for you: a solid choice with excellent features, at a very budget-friendly price.
The D80 comes equipped with GPS, and will automatically return “home” when the battery runs low or it flies out of range of the controller. There’s one-touch takeoff and landing, and the app has several useful shooting options for better footage.
You can set the drone to follow the controller, or a preset path that you’ve drawn within the app. You can also set a limit on where it can fly, to avoid accidentally going out of range or into restricted airspace.
The camera records in 1080p HD and can tilt to 90º, offering several points of view when shooting, with smooth, lag-free image transmission back to the app. Your phone mounts on the controller so you can easily see what’s going on.
The D80 comes with a hard case, ideal for storing the drone and accessories, and avoiding knocks and damage in transit.
- Size: 1 x 15 x 15 in (25 mm x 381 mm x 381 mm)
- Weight: 5.85 lb (2.65 kg)
- Batteries: 18 min
- Speed: 25 mph (40 km/h)
- Storage: none onboard, has SD card slot
- Video specs: 1080p
Best Mid-Range Choice: Yuneec Typhoon H
The Yuneec Typhoon H is the ideal entry to the world of mid-to-high-end drones, where quality cameras meet serious flying capabilities.
The Typhoon stands out in a variety of ways. Having six rotors instead of the usual four provides extra in-flight stability, and only five are needed for flight. If one fails, the drone will identify it and return automatically for repairs.
The camera shoots 4K UHD video and 12MP photos through its wide-angle lens, and is mounted on a three-axis gimbal that provides a full 360º range of motion. The controller has a 7″ touchscreen build-in, so you can see what’s being recorded in real time from up to a mile away, and change settings on the fly.
The Typhoon H has several autonomous flight modes, including following a preset path, orbiting a point of interest or yourself, follow-me/watch-me mode, and more. The obstacle avoidance technology is reliable, letting you trust its self-guided performance even in crowded or difficult conditions.
All six arms fold down to make it easier to transport, and there’s a backpack included as well. An updated version (the H Plus) adds higher-quality images and video and extra flight time, among other things, but it’s significantly more expensive.
Right now, we think the standard H model offers better value for money.
- Size: 21 in x 18 in x 12 inches (520 mm x 457 mm x 310 mm)
- Weight: 3.6 lb (1.7 kg)
- Batteries: 25 min
- Speed: 44 mph (70 km/h)
- Storage: none onboard, has microSD slot
- Video specs: 4K UHD @ 30 fps
Best From a Major Brand: DJI Phantom 4 Pro
DJI is one of the giants of the drone market, and Phantom is arguably its most popular range. Investing in a DJI product means, in a few words, that you’re serious about improving your aerial photography and videography.
The Phantom 4 Pro, an upgrade from the 4 Advance, comes with some serious improvements over its predecessor. One of the most impressive upgrades is its new collision sensor: with five cameras spread across the drone’s body, the 4 Pro is almost crash-proof. Note we said almost!
The camera has also had a revamp, adding a one-inch image sensor (four times the size of the original Phantom) with over 11 stops of dynamic range. Shooting in 4K at up to 60 fps for video, and 20MP for photos, images are sharper and brighter than ever.
As you’d expect from a drone in this price range, autonomous features are many and varied. As well as all the usual options available through the app or controller, there’s also a “gesture” mode where you can signal to the drone in-flight to lock on to you and take a photo. That’s pretty neat.
Like the Typhoon H above, the Phantom 4 Pro itself has just had a recent update — but just as with that Yuneec model, the latest and greatest comes with a much higher pricetag. Again, we think you’ll get better value by sticking with this slightly-older version.
- Size: 11.3 x 11.3 x 7.7 inches (290 × 290 × 196 mm)
- Weight: 3.1 lb (1.3 kg)
- Batteries: Up to 30-minute flying time
- Speed: 45 mph (72 km/h)
- Storage: none onboard, has SD card slot
- Video specs: 4K DCI @ 24, 25, or 30 fps, 4K UHD @ 24, 25, 30, or 60 fps)
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Best for Any Money: Skydio R1
The Skydio R1 is an impressive drone by any measure. From build quality to features to recording capabilities, it’s not messing around. The R1 is aimed at professionals, and it shows.
The first fully-autonomous commercial drone packs a real punch. Skydio advertises it as a “self-flying camera, no pilot or controller required,” and it’s not joking: the R1 flies itself, without you needing do anything.
Direct it towards a person or in a particular direction, and the drone will do the rest. There are no further instructions required, unless you want it to land or change recording mode.
The drone captures 4K video via 13 onboard cameras, using computer vision to avoid obstructions and work out who to follow. It has the best obstacle avoidance of any drone on the market, even in crowded conditions like downhill mountain biking.
Its various flying modes allow you to choose whether you’d like images from behind, in front, a panoramic view, or fixed on the subject, and the R1 intelligently anticipates where moving subjects will be up to four seconds in the future. That means it can position itself to get the best shot automatically.
The R1 will even transcode its video directly on the drone before sending it to your phone, so it’s ready to share immediately.
- Size: 13 x 16 x 2 inches (330 x 406 x 51 mm)
- Weight: 2.2 lb (1 kg)
- Batteries: 16 minutes each (comes with two)
- Speed: 25 mph (40 km/h)
- Storage: 64GB
- Video specs: 4K @ 30 fps, 1080p @ 30/60 fps
What to Know Before Traveling With a Drone
So you’ve joined the ranks of drone owners, and want to take one along on your next trip. It feels like it should be as simple as unpacking it, letting it loose, and capturing amazing footage, right?
Not so fast. Drones are being increasingly regulated, with limits on where they can be used, whether you need a permit to fly them, or if they’re allowed at all. Ignoring the rules often means fines and/or confiscation if you’re caught.
In Colombia, for instance, only drones under 55lb (25 kg) are permitted. Portugal, on the other hand, only allows drone flights during the day, and never over groups of more than 12 people. In Singapore, drones can’t fly within 3.1 miles (5 km) of any airport.
Countries like Argentina allow drones to fly freely if they have been registered, and a fee paid, before entering the country. Others, including India, Madagascar, and Paraguay, demand you obtain permission from the relevant authority. Certain countries or regions don’t allow drones at all, like Antarctica and Vatican City.
These restrictions are for recreational use only. For commercial use, drones almost always need to be registered before entering the country.
All of the above is just a sample, and rules change all the time. For a more complete, regularly-updated list of drone regulations, check out this excellent guide by Anil Polat. iOS and Android app versions of the guide are also available.