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.
New use cases are being found all the time, leading to the proliferation of drone jobs and the growth of the drone industry itself to keep up with the demand for drone-related work.
Advancements in drone technology have made owning a UAV unit more approachable and cost-effective than ever before. As a result, the UAV community has flourished these last few years. It’s an exciting time to work in the drone space, or to own a drone in general.
Note: If you live in the U.S. and want to earn money as a professional drone pilot, check out our step-by-step guide to getting certified. We also have a Drone Pilot Ground School training course to help you prepare for your written test.
A new chapter in commercial aviation is being written, as evidenced by all the new regulations being hashed out and put in place by government entities like the FAA here in the U.S., Transport Canada in Canada, and similar agencies in countries throughout the world.
The laws and regulations around remote control drone usage are still somewhat unrefined, and we feel like each week we’re reading about a new commercial application that blows our collective mind.
It’s an exciting time to join the UAV community!02CHAPTER
WHY WE PUT THIS GUIDE TOGETHER
Like many of the more recent entrants to the UAV community, we learned about drones on YouTube.
Watching UAV footage from extreme sports movies like Danny MacAskill’s The Ridge, or first-person-view (FPV) drone racing highlights from the French Alps, we became fascinated with the space.
How could you buy a drone? Do you have to build it yourself? How much do they cost? Where can you fly them? And what does it take to become an aerial videographer?
After hopping on the web and connecting with members of the UAV community, we soon realized that there was a lot to learn.
This guide is the kind of high-level direction we wish we would have had when we first got into the space. We encourage you to use it as a beginner’s walkthrough of all the steps to take and factors to consider when buying your first drone.03CHAPTER
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
The best way to learn more about the UAV industry is to pilot your own drone. You’ll gain an appreciation for how approachable these advanced aerial systems can be, and yes, while they’re difficult to master, they’re very easy to pick up. It’s kind of like snow skiing!04CHAPTER
DO-IT-YOURSELF (DIY) VS. READY-TO-FLY (RTF)
The first thing you should know about buying a drone is that you don’t have to buy one.
You can build one yourself! Of course, this requires a steeper learning curve, as you’ll be putting together, coding, and calibrating a number of pieces. Get out your soldering iron, and have that DIY support forum bookmarked, because you’ll need it.
If something goes wrong, you’ll have to diagnose and debug yourself. Depending on your level of expertise, getting your first DIY UAV off the ground can take a significant amount of time.
Fortunately, a number of companies are putting together ready-to-fly (RTF) or almost-ready-to-fly (ATF) drones, making it very easy to get started. When I bought the DJI Phantom 1 quadcopter, I was able to build and calibrate it within 45 minutes, and when I bought the Hubsan H107L quadcopter, I flew it within a few minutes of opening the box. Talk about instant gratification.
As far as cost goes, depending on how you’re looking to use your drone, you may not end up saving that much money building one yourself. You can buy a pre-built, RTF quadcopter for less than $180!
Also, some of the more advanced drone kits use components that, if purchased as stand-alone items, would be significantly more expensive—so much so that if you were to re-create some of the more expensive units you might end up spending close to the same amount of money you would buying it pre-built.
Drone technology has come a long way, so far that DIY may now make the most sense for those who are curious to see how a drone works, and not necessarily for those who simply want to fly without spending a bunch of money.05CHAPTER
Alright, let’s get into the meat and potatoes.
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.
Because this is a beginner’s drone buying guide, we’ll stick to 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. A quadcopter is a great UAV to learn on!
Check out the next section for the top cheap drones on the market, as well as the following section for the top camera drones on the market.06CHAPTER
TOP DRONES FOR UNDER $180
It’s ultimately a personal decision as to whether or not you start with something cheaper / more affordable vs. diving into the deep end with a more professional system.
For all the inexpensive systems ($180 or less) there are a few important things to know:
- Battery life usually will not be more than 10 minutes, so it’s best to buy multiple batteries for flight training/missions.
- No models that I know of offer a 3-axis gimbal stabilization system, so you’re losing out on image/video stabilization. Nothing “professional” as far as camera quality.
- Models under $180 are LIGHT. Which is actually great for training / repair purposes as they’re quite durable given their light mass and hard outer shells, but because they’re light, they don’t handle wind that well. Any amount of wind and you risk losing control with gusts.
So you’d really just be gaining flight confidence and learning to master multirotor proficiency without GPS and any of the other smart features you’d get with a more professional system.
Our list of recommended cheap drones is below, but first we wanted to note a few things about the list:
Note: When checking out prices, we’ve included models available for sale on Amazon, one of the largest and most respectable online drone retailers. We do our best to keep these listings up-to-date on a regular basis, but if you see something we missed, let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org.
If you’re learning to pilot a drone for the first time, it’s likely a good idea to start with something basic. You know, something you won’t shed tears over if you accidentally pilot your UAV into a wall or crash into the river. It’ll happen, folks. Trust us—we’ve been there!
After speaking with UAV enthusiasts, reading reviews, and piloting a few of these units ourselves, below are the best training drones we could find for under $180 (USD):
- Scoot Mini Drone
- UFO 4000 LED Mini Drone
- F111WF Folding Drone
- DJI Tello
- U49WF FPV Camera Drone
AERIAL VIDEOGRAPHY DRONES
Have a good feeling for the basics and want to buy a drone with a camera that packs a little more punch?
Below are a few of the most well-received quadcopter units used by aerial videographers:
- DJI Mavic 2 Pro
- DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
- DJI Mavic Mini
- U49WF FPV Camera Drone
- DJI Inspire 2
- DJI Phantom 4 Pro V2.0
- Skydio 2
Yes, this list is not exhaustive, but we’ve narrowed our focus on high-quality manufacturers and the most popular systems on the market.
For more information on these camera drones and others on the market, check out our guide to the Top RC Drones with Camera and our guide to the Top Professional Drones.
We hope this guide provided a good starting place for you when it comes to buying a drone.