The category is “Drones under $100,” so we already know what the ceiling is here. These drones start at less than $50, and at that price you’ll generally find models with a shorter range and flight time and fewer features. Most drones fall in the $60 to $100 range. At this price, a close examination of capabilities and feature sets will be necessary to determine which is right for you.
To gauge flight performance, we put the drone through a number of tests to see how the manufacturer’s claims hold up. First we take it to a local football field and see how fast it can clear 100 yards, then do some calculations to get an objective reading on speed in miles per hour. After that, we do a similar test to assess ascent and descent speeds, and all the while, we’re also taking notes on how responsive the controls are, how stable the craft is, how far it can go before it’s out of range, and what the overall piloting experience is like compared to other drones.
Tello has a range of just over 300 feet, and despite its size, it produces stable and clear videos, courtesy of its dual antenna transmission. You can get a 720p HD quality video with 30 frames per second, and conveniently capture stills of up to five megapixels. Unfortunately, users can only save the recorded videos on the smartphone and not on a memory card. While you can access these clips almost instantly, it takes up all the space on your phone.
If you're flying within the United States, you need to take heed of FAA guidelines—or be prepared to face potential fines or jail time. There are no-fly zones set by the FAA, so don't take off if you're near an airport without notifying the control tower first. And, even if you're out in the middle of nowhere, don't take your drone above 400 feet. Most are set to obey these regulations out of the box, but controlling a quadcopter is just like driving a car—even if you missed seeing that speed limit sign, you're still liable to pay the ticket.
If a drone doesn’t come with a gimbal and that’s the one you want the most, do some basic research to see whether or not you can purchase a separate gimbal and mount it. Aerial photography is much more difficult without a gimbal. It will ruin your chances of coming out with decent footage, so always opt for a drone with a gimbal or one you can purchase one for separately.
Likewise, ensure that your device is equipped with headless mode, which is a cheater mode that allows you to treat any direction that the drone goes as forward so that you don’t have to worry about how to flip it around safely and control it back to your location after completing a flight. With headless mode, all you need to do is just push the joystick in the corresponding direction that you want the device to travel.
DJI’s latest Zenmuse cam, the X5S, is a mirrorless Micro Four Thirds camera made specifically for aerial photography and cinematography. It shoots in 5.2K at 30 frames per second (or 4K at 60), takes 20.4 megapixel stills, and boasts a ridiculously wide ISO range of 100 – 25,600. As an added bonus, this rig is cradled inside a vibration dampened 3-axis gimbal, so your footage comes out silky smooth no matter how crazily you fly.
You can pair the Tello with a third-party gamepad controller, but it’s easy enough to fly using the simple, intuitive Tello app. Thanks to its link with DJI (the Tello’s flight controller is made by the drone manufacturer), it’s a great ‘first drone’ for kids or adults looking for a learner model to practice on before moving to a bigger quadcopter like the the DJI Mavic Air.
The Mavic 2’s camera also blows the previous generation out of the proverbial water (or maybe the air?). Thanks to its larger 1-inch image sensor and better processing tech, the Mav 2 Pro can capture 4K video in 10-bit color — which essentially means it can capture nearly a billion more discrete colors than its predecessor. It also has aperture control, which gives you far more control over exposure and depth of field.
Generally speaking, drones that cost less than $100 bucks aren’t worth your time. They’re flimsy, they lack advanced features, and they’re almost always squirrely as hell in the air. But Tello is different. Despite the fact that it retails for only $99, it boasts a boatload of high-end features and functionality. Under the hood you’ll find a 14-core Intel vision processing chip, flight stabilization tech from DJI, a 5 megapixel camera capable of shooting 720p HD video, and a battery that gets you 13 minutes of flight time.