Drones are more affordable than ever before and now come in a range of sizes and prices. But before you reach for your wallet, you might want to think about a few things.
Drone laws and regulations: Your biggest hurdle
No matter why you are thinking about a drone, by far the biggest hurdle you will have to remove is your local drone laws and regulations. We will focus on the laws that are applicable in the U.S., so if you are reading this and are abroad, you will need to investigate so as not to violate drone regulations in your country.
In the U.S., you will be required to pass the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) UAS (TRUST) safety test under federal law. This is a free test that takes less than an hour and can be completed online. Once you pass, you will receive a receipt that you will need to keep and present to the police when requested. If you lose your certificate, you will have to take the test again.
Taking this test allows you to fly a drone below 0.55 lb (250g) below 400 feet in class G (uncontrolled airspace) for recreational purposes. If your drone weighs more than 0.55 lb then you will need to register your drone with the FAA for $ 5 per drone and provide information including your address, phone number and drone serial number.
After you register your drone, you will get a registration number that you will have to display on your drone. Your registration is valid for three years, after which you will have to re-register for another $ 5. Both the TRUST certificate and the registration of the drone allow you to fly only for recreational purposes in uncontrolled airspace.
Even if you meet these conditions, you will have to fly below 400 feet (about 120 meters), maintain a visual line of sight with your drone, ensure that you have lights on the drone when flying at night and do not interfere with the aircraft with the crew in any way. You cannot get any form of fee to operate your drone without becoming a certified drone pilot for commercial purposes.
The biggest obstacle that needs to be overcome is flying in uncontrolled airspace. If you live in a big city or near an airport or military facility, you will probably have to travel to legally operate your drone. If you live in the middle of nowhere, you can probably fly right over your house. Take a look at 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 used market. Most of the drones we’re talking about below were made by DJI, which is constantly making the biggest leaps and bounds in consumer drone technology (although other companies like Parrot and Ryze are worth a look). They range from small FPV (first-person view) drones designed for racing and acrobatics, to drones large enough to mount an entire camera and gimbal system for professional film production.
After all, your choice of drone depends on your intended use. If you want to avoid registering your drone, a small model below 0.55 lb is ideal. The weight of the drone is calculated minus the batteries, and many hobbyists and FPV models are available that fall into this category.
The DJI Mini series is made specifically to meet this FAA regulation. The DJI Mini 2 (from $ 449) and DJI Mini SE (from $ 299) are ultra-compact and lightweight drones that are ideal for newcomers or anyone who appreciates light travel. If you want to take your drone for hiking or camping, they are perfect, but they sacrifice some of the more advanced optics and safety features that can be seen on more expensive models.
Low barrier to entry
DJI Mini 2 Drone Bundle
If you don’t care about advanced features and don’t want to bother registering with the FAA, this package is a great starting point.
If you like to loop and make your own drones, the FPV scene of drones cannot be surpassed. Go to forums like intoFPV.com or r / FPV subreddit to see the variety of versions offered. Over time, you will learn how to repair and replace components, improve your drone with new parts and become more efficient in flying (plus FPV drones are designed to be lightweight, so most meet FAA regulations below 0.55 lb).
If you have more money to spend or want a more capable drone, 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 such as obstacle avoidance systems and controls that include a screen (instead of relying on your smartphone or FPV headset).
In the top range are drones like the DJI Mavic 3 with its premium interchangeable camera module and the DJI Inspire range which is designed for filmmakers to carry large camera systems. Unless you have a few thousand dollars making a hole in your pocket, this will be too much 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 flying, and there’s nothing wrong with that. This is where cheaper hobbies and FPV drones come into their own, offering an affordable path to exciting entertainment.
FPV drones are usually designed with speed and agility in mind, often dismissing high-quality cameras and video feeds in favor of lightweight designs that rotate and accelerate quickly. Hobby drones like the DJI Mini series are less manageable, but they can have a camera that can take acceptable photos and video that is comparable to a smartphone.
Higher-capacity drones place more emphasis on quality cameras, and some include gimbals for smooth and stable videos. Many of these cameras include intelligent tracking systems that will keep you in the picture while on the go, such as skiing or mountain biking. This makes them more suitable for photography and video lovers.
Unmanned aerial vehicles are not useful for flying or for photography. One example is homeowners who use them to inspect hard-to-reach places, including gutters, roofs, and tree canopies. Just keep in mind that non-commercial drone operators are not allowed to receive any payment for their services, and that includes commercial photography.
Keep the cost in perspective
While FPV and hobby drones are often considered affordable, beware of cheap “flight-ready” drones that look too good to be true. Like any cheap product, they are often of poor build quality, with a very short battery life. The money you invest in a cheap drone that breaks down the first time you use it could go to a higher quality model or FPV project that you can fix yourself.
This brings us to one more thing: keep in mind the “right” price of your drone when you buy. While the DJI Mini SE starts at around $ 299 for the drone and battery, most drone operators will want accessories such as a spare battery or two ($ 55 for the Mini 2), a carrying case ($ 39) and optional accessories such as protectors for propeller ($ 19).
This is also true for more expensive models, which mostly 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 videos, you’ll also need to consider the price of a high-capacity high-speed memory card. Other accessories such as extra chargers and car chargers mean that your hobby drone can quickly rise in price.
Photographers often call this “gear acquisition syndrome” or GAS for short. If you are not sure if drone flying is your hobby, consider buying a used model before you dedicate yourself to the full “Fly More” package when paying.
Other gadgets you might be interested in
If you are not able to fly easily in unlimited airspace, you are not convinced that you are a fan of simple drone flying or you are worried about the cost of buying a drone, there are many other devices that you could spend your money on instead.
The drone is ultimately a camera that can fly. You get better images from a dedicated camera like the Sony RX100 family of compact cameras, or interchangeable mirrorless cameras like the Fuji X-T3. Photography is a hobby with far fewer restrictions, although it can also become very expensive.
There are also action cameras and 360 degree cameras that can provide a new look at your existing hobbies. These cameras can enhance your existing activities such as hiking, biking, traveling, kayaking or simply going on vacation and sightseeing. Pair your camera with a gimbal for smooth videos 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 could be one of the best-selling consoles, Valve’s Steam Deck is a worthy alternative for gamers looking to play their Steam library on the go. Another option is VR headphones like the Valve Index or Oculus Quest 2.
If the remote control (RC) aspect is what interests you most, RC cars are always an option. In particular, the beautiful world of RC stone caterpillars allows you to turn your backyard into a wilderness that you will conquer on a micro scale. Like drones, stone caterpillar models are very modular, and learning how to repair and replace parts is an important part of the hobby.
Drones are a lot of fun
We hope you now know more about the convenience and use that drones offer. They are fun to fly and offer unique aerial shooting options, but they have unique regulations and practical considerations to keep in mind.
If you’re ready to take a bite of a bullet, check out our best drones (as well as the best cheap drones for Review Geek beginners). Photographers should pay special attention to what lens filters can bring to photography by drone.