Drones are now more widely available and come in a variety of sizes and pricing points than ever before. But there are a few things you might want to consider before pulling out your wallet.
The biggest obstacle you face is drone laws and regulations
Regardless of the reason you’re thinking about buying a drone, the main obstacle you’ll face is complying with local drone rules and regulations. We’ll be concentrating on laws that are relevant to the US, so if you’re reading this from abroad, you should do your homework to be sure you don’t violate drone laws there.
Federal legislation in the US mandates that you pass the Recreational UAS Safety Test (TRUST) administered by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). This free exam may be taken online and takes less than an hour. After passing, you’ll receive a certificate that you must keep safe and provide to law police upon request. You will have to retake the test if you misplace your certificate.
You can fly a recreational drone under 0.55 lb (250g) below 400 feet in Class G (uncontrolled airspace) after passing this test. You must register your drone with the FAA for $5 per drone and include information such as your address, contact information, and the serial number of the drone if it weighs more than 0.55 lbs.
You’ll receive a registration number once you’ve registered your drone, which you’ll need to display on it. Your registration is valid for three years; thereafter, you must re-register for $5. Only recreational flying in uncontrolled airspace is permitted with the TRUST certificate and drone registration.
Even if these requirements are satisfied, you still need to fly below 400 feet (about 120 meters), keep your drone in visual line of sight, make sure it has lights while flying at night, and avoid interfering in any manner with human aircraft. Without becoming a Certified Drone Pilot for commercial use, you cannot be paid in any way for operating your drone.
Flying in uncontrolled airspace is the toughest challenge to overcome in this situation. You’ll undoubtedly need to travel to legally fly your drone if you reside in a big city, close to an airport, or near a military installation. If you are in a remote area, you can probably fly directly over your home. To find out if your neighborhood is subject to any limitations, check out DJI’s Fly Safe Geo Zone Map.
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Which Drone Types Are Available?
There are a lot of drones on the market, including a lot of older types that are available used. The majority of the drones we review here are produced by DJI, which continuously advances consumer drone technology in the most significant ways (though other companies like Parrot and Ryze are worth a look). These drones range in size from tiny first-person view (FPV) models made for racing and acrobatics to gigantic models big enough to equip complete camera and gimbal systems for professional video production.
Your final decision on a drone will be influenced by how you want to use it. A lightweight drone around 0.55 pounds is best if you want to avoid having to register it. Many amateur and FPV versions are available that fit into this category since drone weight is determined without the battery.
To comply with this FAA requirement, the DJI Mini series was created expressly. For beginners or anybody who enjoys travelling light, the DJI Mini 2 (starting at $449) and the DJI Mini SE (starting at $299) are the perfect drones. Although they forgo some of the more sophisticated optics and safety features found on more costly models, they are ideal if you want to take your drone hiking or camping.
The FPV drone scene is unbeatable if you enjoy tinkering and building your own drones. To view the range of builds available, visit sites like intoFPV.com or the r/FPV subreddit. Over time, you’ll develop your drone’s maintenance and repair skills, as well as your flying proficiency (plus FPV drones are meant to be light, so most satisfy the sub-0.55 lb FAA regulation).
Consider models from the DJI Air series, which includes the Mavic Air, or the DJI Phantom series if you have more money to invest or want a more powerful drone. These drones are significantly safer than previous models because to obstacle avoidance technologies, bigger batteries, and controllers with a display (rather than relying on your smartphone or an FPV headset).
Drones like the DJI Mavic 3 with its premium interchangeable camera module and the DJI Inspire line, which is made for filmmakers to transport bulky camera systems, are at the top of the market. These will be excessive for your needs unless you have several thousand dollars burning a hole in your wallet.
What Purposes Do You Have for Your Drone?
There’s nothing wrong with drone owners who don’t have much of a “reason” for owning one other than a fascination with flying. This is where FPV drones and inexpensive hobbies shine, providing an accessible entry point to an enjoyable activity.
FPV drones are often made with speed and agility in mind, forsaking superior cameras and video feeds in favor of compact, quick-turning designs. Hobby drones like the DJI Mini series may contain a camera that can take acceptable photographs and video that is equivalent to a smartphone, despite their reduced maneuverability.
Higher payload drones place more value on high-quality cameras, some of which come with gimbals for smooth and stable video filming. Many of these cameras have sophisticated tracking mechanisms that will keep you in the frame even while you’re moving, as when you’re mountain biking or skiing. They are therefore more appropriate for those who enjoy taking photos and videos.
Beyond just being fun to fly or for pictures, drones are useful. One instance is when homeowners utilize them to examine guttering, roofs, and treetops—areas that are difficult to access. Just be aware that commercial photography is not legal for non-commercial drone operators to get cash for.
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Maintaining Perspective on Cost
Beware of cheap “ready to fly” drones that look too good to be true, even if FPV and hobbyist drones are frequently perceived as being reasonably priced. These frequently have poor build quality and an extremely limited battery life, just like any inexpensive goods. Spending your money on a cheap drone that fails the first time you use it instead of a better model or an FPV project that you can fix yourself would be wise.
This takes us to a further point: while making a purchase, consider the “real” cost of your drone. While the drone and battery for a DJI Mini SE start at roughly $299, the majority of drone users will need extras like a replacement battery or two ($55 each for the Mini 2), a carry case ($39), and supplemental items like propeller shields ($19).
This is true for more costly versions as well, which often utilize more expensive, larger capacity batteries ($115 for the DJI Air 2S). You must also consider the price of a quick, high-capacity memory card if you want to take high-quality RAW photographs or 4K video. Your drone pastime might quickly become quite expensive if you add on extras like additional chargers and auto chargers.
This is referred to by photographers as “gear acquisition syndrome,” or GAS. Before committing to the entire “Fly More” package at checkout, think about purchasing a used model if you’re unsure whether drone flying is the right activity for you.
Other Devices That You Might Find Interesting
There are many other devices you could buy with your money if you can’t fly a drone easily in open space, aren’t sure you like the idea of only flying one, or are concerned about the cost blowout of doing so. In the end, a drone is just a flying camera. A specialized camera, such as the tiny cameras in the Sony RX100 family, or an interchangeable mirrorless camera, such as the Fujifilm X-T3, would provide superior photographs.
Although it may sometimes get quite expensive, photography is a pastime with significantly less limits. Action cameras and 360-degree cameras are other options that might give you a fresh perspective on your current interests.
Your current hobbies, such as hiking, cycling, road excursions, kayaking, or simply taking a vacation and sight-seeing, might be improved by these cameras. For smooth video and home productions that appear professional, pair your camera with a gimbal. Consider a contemporary system like the Xbox Series X or PlayStation 5 for entertainment value.
Valve’s Steam Deck is a respectable substitute for gamers seeking to enjoy their Steam library while on the road, even though the Nintendo Switch may be one of the best-selling gaming consoles. A VR headgear like the Valve Index or Oculus Quest 2 is an additional choice. RC vehicles are always a possibility if the remote control (RC) component is what interests you the most.
You may transform your lawn into a micro-scale wilderness by using the fantastic world of RC rock crawlers, in particular. Model rock crawlers are very modular, much like drones, and part of the pastime is learning how to fix and replace broken components.
The Fun Fact About Drones
Hopefully, you now have a better understanding of the benefits and applications that drones may provide. They are entertaining to fly and provide interesting prospects for aerial photography, but they have certain rules and practical things to bear in mind.
Check out our top drone selections (as well as Review Geek’s picks for the best entry-level drones) if you’re ready to make the investment. Photographers should pay close attention to the benefits lens filters may offer when shooting with drones.