Drones are more accessible than ever before and now come in a range of sizes and price points. But before you reach for your wallet, there are a few things you might want to mull over.
Drone Laws and Regulations: Your Biggest Hurdle
Regardless of why you find yourself considering a drone, by far the biggest hurdle you’ll have to clear are your local drone laws and regulations. We’ll be focusing on laws that are applicable to the US, so if you’re reading this and you’re located overseas then you’ll need to do your research to ensure you don’t fall foul of drone regulations in your country.
In the US, you’ll need to pass the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) per federal law. This is a free test that takes less than an hour that can be completed online. Once you pass you’ll get a certificate which you’ll need to hold on to and present to law enforcement when asked. If you lose your certificate you’ll need to take the test again.
Passing this test allows you to fly a drone of under 0.55 lb (250g) below 400ft in Class G (uncontrolled airspace) for recreational purposes. If your drone weighs more than 0.55 lb then you’ll need to register your drone with the FAA for $5 per drone and provide information including your address, phone number, and drone’s serial number.
Once you’ve registered your drone you’ll receive a registration number which you’ll need to display on your drone. Your registration is good for three years, after which you’ll need to re-register for another $5. Both the TRUST certificate and drone registration only permit you to fly for recreational purposes in uncontrolled airspace.
Even with these conditions met, you’ll need to fly under 400ft (around 120 meters), maintain a visual line of sight with your drone, ensure you have lights on your drone when flying at night, and not interfere with manned aircraft in any way. You cannot receive any form of compensation for flying your drone without becoming a Certified Drone Pilot for commercial purposes.
The biggest hurdle to overcome here is flying in uncontrolled airspace. If you live in a large city or near an airport or military facility, you’ll probably have to travel to legally fly your drone. If you live in the middle of nowhere, you can probably fly right over your house. Check out DJI’s Fly Safe Geo Zone Map to see if your local area falls under any restrictions.
What Types of Drones Are Available?
There are a large number of drones on the market, including a large number of older models on the second-hand market. Most of the drones we discuss below are made by DJI, who consistently make the biggest leaps and bounds in consumer drone technology (though other companies like Parrot and Ryze are worth a look). These range from small FPV (first-person view) drones designed for racing and acrobatics, to drones large enough to mount whole camera and gimbal systems for professional film production.
Ultimately your choice of drone depends on your intended usage. If you want to avoid having to register your drone, a small sub-0.55 lb model is ideal. Drone weight is calculated minus the battery, and there are many hobbyist and FPV models available that fall into this bracket.
The DJI Mini series was made specifically to satisfy this FAA regulation. The DJI Mini 2 (from $449) and the DJI Mini SE (from $299) are ultra-compact and lightweight drones that are ideal for newcomers or anyone who appreciates traveling light. If you want to take your drone hiking or camping, they’re perfect but they sacrifice some of the more advanced optics and safety features seen on more expensive models.
Low Barrier to Entry
DJI Mini 2 Drone Bundle
If you don’t care about advanced capabilities and don’t want to bother with FAA registration, this bundle is a great starting point.
If you like to tinker and build your own drones, the FPV drone scene can’t be beaten. Head over to forums like intoFPV.com or the r/FPV subreddit to see the variety of builds on offer. Over time you’ll learn how to fix and replace components, improve your drone with new parts, and become more efficient at flying (plus FPV drones are meant to be light, so most satisfy the sub-0.55 lb FAA regulation).
If you have more money to spend or you want a more capable drone then you might want to look at models like the DJI Air series (including the Mavic Air), or the DJI Phantom series. These drones have much higher payloads, larger batteries, more safety features like obstacle avoidance systems, and controls that incorporate a display (rather than relying on your smartphone or an FPV headset).
At the high-end are drones like the DJI Mavic 3 with its high-end replaceable camera module, and the DJI Inspire range which is designed for filmmakers to carry large camera systems. Unless you’ve got a few thousand dollars burning a hole in your pocket, these will be overkill for your needs.
What Will You Use Your Drone For?
Many drone owners have little “reason” to own their drone other than an interest in flight, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is where the cheaper hobby and FPV drones come into their own, offering an affordable pathway into an exhilarating pastime.
FPV drones are usually designed with speed and agility in mind, often foregoing high-quality cameras and video feeds in favor of lightweight designs that turn and accelerate quickly. Hobby drones like the DJI Mini series are less maneuverable but may have a camera that can capture passable photos and video that’s comparable to a smartphone.
Drones with higher payloads place more emphasis on quality cameras, with some including gimbals for smooth and steady video footage. Many of these cameras include intelligent tracking systems that will keep you in shot while you’re in motion, like while skiing or mountain biking. This makes them better suited for photography and videography enthusiasts.
Drones have utility beyond being enjoyable to fly or for photography reasons. One example is homeowners who use them to inspect hard-to-reach places, including guttering, roofs, and treetops. Just be aware that non-commercial drone operators are not permitted to receive any payment for their services, and that includes commercial photography.
Keep the Cost in Perspective
While FPV and hobbyist drones are often seen as affordable, beware of inexpensive “ready to fly” drones that seem too good to be true. Like any cheap product, these are often of poor build quality, with very short battery life. The money you sink into a cheap drone that breaks the first time you use it could go towards a higher quality model or an FPV project that you can repair yourself.
This brings us to another point: keep the “true” cost of your drone in mind while purchasing. While a DJI Mini SE starts at around $299 for the drone and a battery, most drone operators will want accessories like a spare battery or two ($55 each for the Mini 2), a carry bag ($39), and optional extras like propeller guards ($19).
This is true of more expensive models too, which generally use higher capacity batteries that cost more ($115 for the DJI Air 2S). If you’re interested in capturing high-quality RAW photos or 4K video, you’ll need to factor in the cost of a fast high capacity memory card too. Other accessories like extra chargers and car chargers mean that your drone hobby can balloon in price in no time.
Photographers often call this “gear acquisition syndrome” or GAS for short. If you’re not sure if drone flight is the hobby for you, consider buying a second-hand model before you commit to the full “Fly More” package at checkout.
Other Gadgets You Might Be Interested In
If you’re not able to fly easily in unrestricted airspace, are unconvinced that you’re a fan of simply flying a drone, or are worried about the cost blowout of buying a drone, there are plenty of other gadgets you might want to spend your money on instead.
A drone is ultimately a camera that can fly. You’ll get better images from a dedicated camera like Sony’s RX100 family of compact cameras, or an interchangeable mirrorless camera like Fuji’s X-T3. Photography is a hobby with far fewer restrictions, though it too can become very expensive.
There are also action cameras and 360-degree cameras that can provide a new perspective on your existing hobbies. These cameras can enhance your existing activities like hiking, cycling, going on road trips, kayaking, or simply going on holiday and sightseeing. Pair your camera with a gimbal for smooth video to get professional-looking productions at home.
For entertainment value consider a modern console like the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5. While the Nintendo Switch might be one of the hottest-selling consoles, Valve’s Steam Deck is a worthy alternative for gamers looking to play their Steam library on the go. Another option is a VR headset like the Valve Index or Oculus Quest 2.
If it’s the remote control (RC) aspect that you’re most interested in, RC cars are always an option. In particular, the wonderful world of RC rock crawlers lets you turn your backyard into a wilderness to be conquered at a micro-scale. Like drones, model rock crawlers are highly modular, and learning how to repair and replace parts is an important part of the hobby.
Drones Are a Lot of Fun
Hopefully, you now know a little more about the practicalities and uses that drones offer. They’re fun to fly and offer unique aerial photography opportunities but come with unique regulations and practical considerations to keep in mind.
If you’re ready to bite the bullet, check out our best drone picks (as well as Review Geek’s best inexpensive drones for beginners). Photographers should pay particular attention to what lens filters can bring to drone photography.