Drones have swarmed the market in recent years, and there’s now a drone to suit every type of consumer: would-be filmmakers can capture stunning panoramic videos, making them excellent hiking and adventure companions; sports enthusiasts are tracked by slimmed-down machines designed for speed and agility; while drone racing has become so popular that in 2016 Dubai hosted the World Drone Prix with a prize pool of $1 million.
In the world of aviation, however, the emergence of drones has been a little less welcome. Numerous airports, from Gatwick to Dubai International, have encountered disruptions from fliers operating drones within restricted airspace, and last year the British pilots association BALPA, citing safety concerns from potential collisions, called on the UK government to crack down on the use of drones near airports. Other European nations, including France and the Netherlands, have taken to training eagles to hunt and bring down drones that stray too close to airfields.
On the other hand, last year Edmonton International Airport began using defensive drones to combat the problem posed by menacing birds, using “Robirds” developed by Clear Flight Solutions to scare birds away from runways.
While drones were once a relatively niche sector, they have now become one of the technology world’s most competitive, with the pack leaders almost all based in China. (From our list, Parrot is the only non-Chinese brand to make the cut). Intense market competitiveness has even seen high-profile companies such as GoPro, renowned for its durable action cameras, being forced to announce the closure of its entire Karma drone division after struggling to gain a foothold.
With so many options available these days, knowing which drone to buy can be a daunting task. We’ve selected six of the top performers to help you with your decision.
DJI Mavic Pro
Size: 3.3 in x 7.7 in
Weight: 1.62 lbs.
Max speed: 40mph
Max flight time: 27 minutes
Camera: 4K at 30fps (video)/12MP (photo)
Shenzhen-based DJI is one of the leading names in consumer drones. The DJI Mavic Pro is one of the top drones currently available on the market. The ability to fold its arms in to decrease its size to just 3 x 7 inches makes it highly portable while maintaining the quality of a larger drone. It’s also especially good for users looking to film high-quality video – the camera can capture 4K video at up to 30fps.
At $999 it is notably more expensive than other models on the market, though, making it more of an investment than a frivolous buy. Some upgraded iterations have recently been unveiled: the Mavic Pro Platinum has an improved 30-minute flight time while also supposedly generating 60 percent less noise, and rumors abound about a newer Mavic Pro 2 hitting the market in the foreseeable future. dji.com
Size: 5.6 in x 5.6 in
Weight: 10.5 oz.
Max speed: 30mph
Max flight time: 16 minutes
Camera: 1080p (video)/12MP (photo)
The smaller and lighter DJI Spark has been designed for new drone users, with advanced gesture controls that make flying the drone relatively straightforward. But the coolest features? It activates itself using facial recognition scanning and can even be controlled using hand gestures alone – and if the idea of controlling a flying robot by waving your hands around like a wizard doesn’t excite you, we don’t know what will. dji.com
Hubsan X4 Desire Pro
Size: 7.2 in x 7.3 in
Weight: 5.5 oz.
Max speed: 11 MPH (GPS MODE)
Max flight time: 11 MINUTES
The X4 Desire Pro from Shenzhen-based Hubsan is one of the cheaper quadcopters on the market, and at just 5.5 ounces it’s also a lightweight option. Able to be controlled via a smartphone WiFi connection, the drone has a number of useful features such as waypoint flying that enables you to set paths for the drone to fly by itself, along with an automatic ‘return home’ function that activates when it gets low on power. There is also an additional Expert Mode that increases the sensitivity of the transmitter, thereby making the drone more responsive – a good feature for learners as they become more adept at handling the quadcopter. hubsan.com
Parrot Bebop 2
Size: 13 in x 15 in
Weight: 1.1 lbs.
Max speed: 37mph
Max flight time: 25 minutes
Camera: 1080P (video)/14MP (photo)
Larger and more powerful than its Bebop predecessor, the Bebop 2 comes in at a mid-range price point while also offering a good-quality camera and responsive controls, particularly the ability to brake from top speed in about four seconds. It’s a little larger and heavier than other drones in its category, partially due to a larger battery that affords 25 minutes of flight time, but its bulk also makes it more resistant to buffeting winds. Parrot’s drone also comes equipped with the company’s ‘Follow-me’ GPS and visual tracking mode, which allows it to follow and film a selected target entirely autonomously, making this a good option for people looking to video themselves doing outdoor activities. parrot.com
Ehang Ghost Drone 2.0
Price: $399.99 (Aerial)/$899.99 (VR)
Size: 14 in x 7.7 in
Weight: 2.5 lbs.
Max speed: 44mph
Max flight time: 25 minutes
Camera: 4K at 24FPS (video)/16MP (photo)
The Ghost Drone 2.0 is notable for the way that it’s controlled by tilting your smartphone rather than through a traditional remote controller. Tilt your phone to the left and the drone mimics the movement. This makes for a dynamic flying experience, though if you’re looking for precision-shot videos you may find this a little tricky. However, Ehang has also developed a virtual reality variant of the drone that comes with VR goggles, which track your head movements in order to control the direction of the on-board camera. And even if you’re not the most capable flier, the accompanying app contains smart algorithms to reduce human error. ehang.com
Yuneec HD Racer
Size: 5.3 in x 5.1 in
Weight: 2.3 oz.
Max speed: TBA
Max flight time: 6 minutes
Camera: 1080p (video)/13MP (camera)
Yuneec’s HD Racer was announced earlier this year and is the Chinese company’s first racing drone. As such, its focus is on being lightweight and speedy rather than offering advanced filming functions – though it’s not without some nifty tricks of its own, most notably a Flip Up mode that automatically uprights the vehicle if you crash it. Beginner and advanced modes are available, and at $179.99 it won’t break the bank either. The HD Racer is set to hit the shelves sometime this year. us.yuneec.com