The use of drones cannot be underestimated. It’s no exaggeration to say that these beautiful inventions have changed the way we view the world. For instance, when a large number of youths wanted to embark on a peaceful protest against police brutality in my home country, Nigeria, drones came in handy and were used to cover all that occured during the protest, across the cities where the protest took place. What’s more? The footage from the drone coverages were used during investigation after the incident.
The tech behind cameras, mobile phones and lithium-ion batteries has evolved in recent years — which means that now, for less than $1,000 (N400,000) at your electronics retailer of choice, you can get a drone that will shoot 4K video, pilot itself, and remain in the air for more than half an hour.
But the low end of the market has also matured, and $50 (about N20,000) is now enough to cover a basic quadcopter drone with an integrated camera that can fly for nearly 10 minutes on a charge. And there are plenty of options that fall somewhere in the middle, offering various combinations of features, video quality and price for every drone enthusiast.
Here are recommendations for what to look for when buying one.
What Is a Drone?
While “drone” has traditionally been more of a military-influenced term, it’s become synonymous with other terms like Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS), both of which describe remote controlled (RC) or autonomously programmed aerial machines.
Drones are generally built for recreational purposes, but they’re also used for professional aerial photography and videography, to carry cargo, to inspect bridges and flare stacks and industrial chimney towers, to track wildlife, and in a number of other budding, drone-related fields.
Who Should Buy a Drone?
Who wouldn’t want to have their own flying robot?
But seriously, you should consider buying a drone if:
- You’re a conventional RC hobbyist (helicopters, boats, cars, etc.)
- You’re a photography / videography professional looking for a radical new perspective
- You’ve got a commercial interest in drone technology
What to Look for When Buying
There are many types of consumer drones on the market, but the majority of you, particularly if you’re a beginner, will want to stick with quadcopters.
Quadcopters typically have an X or H square frame and are known for their stability and reliability. The four propellers on most quadcopters can generate enough lift to carry 1-2 pounds and can maneuver quite fluidly, even at wind speeds of 10-15 mph.
All quadcopters follow the same basic design framework: four motors and propeller blades, and a gyroscope or accelerometer to measure the quadcopter’s pitch, roll, and yaw (the factors that determine how it’s positioned in space).
Using this information, the quadcopter can automatically (and individually) adjust each of the four motors, enabling it to hover in place. The pilot uses a transmitting controller to pilot the quadcopter. It can either gain or lose altitude, move left and right on horizontal plane, or spin 360 degrees.
- The beginner’s drone is the pre-built, ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopters. Other types of UAVs can be more expensive, or they’re too complicated for the neophyte drone pilot. Even if you’re looking to buy a special drone for a more specific use case, like live-streaming aerial videography or doing three-dimensional land mapping, you’ll still need to master the basics.
- Photography drones are usually bigger, heavier, and more expensive than toy drones. They are designed for outdoor flight and aerial photography — great for flying around a park, taking selfies, and getting a bird’s-eye view of your surroundings. When shopping for a photography drone, you’ll want to look into the camera quality, including the megapixels and video resolution. It’s also important to note whether a photography drone has a gimbal or a fixed camera. Other features to look for that make flying easier include automated flight modes and obstacle avoidance. Many photography drones for hobbyists support 4K video, and include obstacle avoidance and image stabilization. Collapsible models are smaller, more affordable options for someone looking to buy their first photography drone.
- Drone batteries: A drone battery offers 5–25 minutes of flight time on a single charge, and can take an hour or more to recharge. But oftentimes the battery can be easily removed and replaced with a fresh one once its charge is spent. To spend more time in the air each session, you should purchase one or more extra rechargeable batteries that are compatible with your drone.
- Drone propellers and parts: The bad news – no one who flies drones lands perfectly every time. Whether it’s a collision with a tree or a hard landing on the pavement, the occasional mishap is an inevitable part of flying.
The good news – there’s no reason to let a fear of crashing detract from the fun of flying, because drones are made to withstand crashes. Their exteriors are lightweight, made out of strong materials like carbon fiber and polypropylene foam, and designed to protect the most sensitive components — the motors, transmitters and CPUs. And the parts that are most easily broken, the propellers, are also the cheapest to replace and easiest to repair.
Drones often come with spare propellers, and you can purchase additional spares separately, too. Keep in mind that half of a drone’s propellers spin clockwise and half counterclockwise to enhance stability, so you want a couple spare propellers of each kind.
- Drone remotes and controller accessories: The remote controller sends your commands to the drone’s flight controller, which, depending on its level of sophistication, can gauge a variety of external factors such as wind speed and barometric pressure to turn your commands into motion. Controller configurations range from just two joysticks that control thrust and turning, to complex layouts controlling every aspect of the drone and camera simultaneously.
Most drones can be synchronized with aftermarket remote controllers (known as tethering), so you can continue using the controller you’re comfortable with after you purchase a new drone.
Alternatively, some drones don’t need a standalone remote controller to function. These drones create their own Wi-Fi hotspot, to which you can connect your smartphone or tablet and pilot the drone using a downloadable app. A sunshade can be attached to your controller to protect your mobile device from direct sunlight so you always have a clear view of your screen.
- GPS support: Support for GPS (or GLONASS, the Russian variation) will make your flights and video more stable, assist with taking off and landing and cut down on crashes. Drones with GPS often have a “return to home” feature that can recall them automatically if you get into a sticky situation.
4 Best Drones in the Market
While they might seem like toys, a high-quality quadcopter is a serious investment, and an easy way to add production value to a film project, or get a unique view on the world for your travel vlog. Below, we’ve got recommendations for the best drones in the market.
DJI Mavic Mini
Best Budget and Portable Camera Drone
- Weight: 0.249kg
- Dimensions (folded): 140×82×57mm
- Controller: Yes
- Video resolution: 2.7K at 24 or 30fps
- Camera resolution: 12MP
- Battery life: 30 minutes (2400mAh) |
- Max Range: 4km / 2.5 miles
- Max Speed: 47kph / 29mph
The Mavic Mini drone is DJI’s smallest and lightest camera drone, weighing in at 0.249 kg. Despite its compact profile, however, it offers many of the best features you’ll find on the company’s larger models: It folds up neatly for easy portability, includes a physical remote (which also folds up) and can fly for about 30 minutes on a charge. And the camera specs are rock-solid. You get 12-megapixel photographs and 2.7K video at 30 frames per second (and 1080p at 60fps). The three-axis motorized gimbal ensures you end up with smooth video and clear photos.
One of the reasons that the Mini is so light is that it has fewer sensors for obstacle avoidance and recognition. That means there will be a learning curve and some crashing. But once you get the hang of it, the Mini is stable, nimble, safe to fly and quieter than other DJI models including the Air and the now-discontinued Spark.
DJI Mavic Air 2
Best for Hi-res Photos and Videos
- Weight: 570g
- Dimensions (folded): 180×97×84mm
- Dimensions (unfolded): 183×253×77mm
- Controller: Yes
- Video resolution: 4K 60fps
- Camera resolution: 48MP
- Battery life: 34 minutes (3500mAh)
- Max Range: 18.5km / 11.4mi
- Max Speed: 68kph / 42mph
The Mavic Air 2 is the drone that most people should buy. It’s portable and lightweight, but it still manages to pack in a brilliant half-inch sensor for high quality images and video. Tons of automated features mean you can just fly and get the images you want, or shoot video and let the drone avoid obstacles and track your subject. You’ll even get 60 frames-per-second 4K video—something that still isn’t available in the more expensive Mavic 2 Pro—and Spotlight, a powerful automated flight mode pulled from DJI’s pro-grade Inspire drone.
PowerVision Poweregg X Wizard
Best weather-proof drone that lands on water
- Weight: 860g / 1.9lb
- Dimensions (egg): 178 x 102 x 102mm
- Dimensions (drone mode): 427mm diagonal
- Controller: Yes | Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps
- Camera resolution: 12MP
- Battery life: 30 minutes (dry mode)
- Max Range: 6 km / 3.7mi
- Max Speed: 65kph / 40mph
The Powervision Poweregg X can go where most other drones can’t: In the water. That’s because the Poweregg X has a removable waterproof shell and pontoons that allow you to land and take off from ponds, lakes—even the ocean, if it’s calm enough. And, the drone’s body can even be used as a camcorder, making it useful even when it’s not in the air.
Photographers will rightly worry that the 4K camera doesn’t have as bigger sensor as, for example, the Mavic, but in good light it’s capable of 60fps – double the frame-rate of the DJI, making it great for. Its adaptability means it’s arms are completely removable but, thanks to the folding props, setup takes no longer than a DJI Phantom. The A.I. camera mode is good, but it would really benefit from a ‘record’ button like a traditional camcorder – you need to use the app.
The waterproof mode means attaching a housing and landing gear which does take a minute or two, and covers the forward-facing collision & object tracking sensors, but there is nothing on the market that can touch it so it’s hardly something to complain about. This is the drone that GoPro should have made.
DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
Best for serious photographers and filmmakers
- Weight: 1375g
- Dimensions: 350x350xmm
- Controller: Yes
- Video resolution: 4K @ 60fps
- Camera resolution: 20MP
- Battery life: 25 minutes (5870mAh)
- Max Range: 7km / 4.1mi
- Max Speed: 72kph / 44.7mph
If you’re going to be putting the drone in the back of your car, and don’t mind it taking up most of a specialist rucksack (rather than just a side pocket like the Mavic Air), then the Phantom Pro 4’s latest update is very tempting. Redesigned props for quieter flight are definitely pleasing, and the new OcuSync radio system that makes 1080p video possible on the monitors is a plus (though it won’t work with the older controllers).
There were concerns that this drone was going to be discontinued, but DJI have now confirmed that the Phantom 4 Pro V2.0 is now back in production. That’s great news for any drone pilot that has truly professional photographic ambitions.
|DJI Mavic Mini||DJI Mavic Air 2||Powervision Poweregg X Wizard||DJI Phantom 4 Pro|
Shoots excellent 2.7K videos and stills
|Takes amazing 48MP stills|
Shoots 4K at 60fps
Three-way obstacle avoidance
Faster than a squirrel up a tree
Lands and take off from water
Handles very well
Good range of autonomous modes
Serves as a stabilised land camera
|Large Image Sensor|
|The Bad||No obstacle avoidance||Larger than before|
Not as pretty
|Camera not up to DJI spec|
Not as portable as DJI Mini and Air 2
|– Clunky size|