The 10 Best Budget Drones
This wiki has been updated 23 times since it was first published in October of 2015. Remote-controlled quadcopters let pilots engage in high-flying antics, capture aerial photos, or produce streaming video feeds of their adventures, but they can be expensive. These budget-friendly drones are great for beginners because while they generally perform very well, they won't burn a huge hole in your wallet, and so won't leave you in tears if they meet an untimely end. When users buy our independently chosen editorial picks, we may earn commissions to help fund the Wiki.
March 31, 2021:
After years of unheard-of, no-name manufactures and importers hawking dirt-cheap quadcopters, the industry has finally produced a hand of brands that are, at long last, generally reliable and cost-effective. One supporting piece of evidence is our attempt to update this Wiki with the latest and most refined models on the market. After digging deep to make sure we include all the newest options, it turns out that most of the quadcopters we've recommended for the last while are still highly recommended and readily available. For that reason, we haven't altered much.
We did make some small changes, though, such as moving the Ryze Tech Tello down a few spots on account of its image quality being below average. We also eliminated an off-brand model with limited availability and some noted quality control issues. In its place, we've added the DJI Mavic Mini. This isn't the newest drone from DJI, but it is just about the cheapest, and does a fantastic job of building on its predecessor, the Spark. It does require a significant investment compared to most others on this list, but the premium construction of DJI's in-house designs are second to almost none.
January 21, 2020:
There are so many quality drones on the market today that it can be difficult to wade through them all and find a good one. But the truth is, you don't have to spend a fortune to find something that's both reliable and fun to fly. Some, like the Syma X20 and Sky Viper Dash, are extremely small, barely any larger than the palm of your hand, and as such cost very little. The Holy Stone HS190 and Blade Nano QX are hardly any larger; the Holy Stone is foldable for easy transport while the Blade Nano is one of the most popular in its size range; the only real drawback of the Blade QX is that the controller that comes with the ready-to-fly model has been widely panned; for that reason, we'd recommend getting the bind-and-fly version and finding a separate controller to go with it.
You're not restricted to nano drones, though, even if you're trying to save money. The Ragu SX20 is remarkably inexpensive, though it does lack most high-end features. The Tello EDU by DJI allows for in-depth programming using various languages, making it ideal for students, especially budding software engineers. The Holy Stone HS100 and Snaptain SP650 both mimic different models of the highly popular (and rather expensive) DJI Phantom line, but at a fraction of the price. And overall, it's hard to top the Snaptain SP510 in terms of price-to-performance ratio, thanks in part to a 2.7K camera and relatively long battery life.
The Fun And Budget Friendly Drone
And with a budget topping out at around hundreds, you can actually get a great little machine with impressive capabilities.
It will surely come as a surprise to most people that the first type of quadcopter took flight in the year 1907. It was known as the Breguet-Richet Gyroplane and was a test vehicle that completed but a few short, tethered flights.
Vehicles sporting four separate propellers would be devised, tested, and often enough crashed throughout the course of the 20th Century, with most prototypes conceived of for use by the military. Ultimately, the four rotor aircraft failed to find much practical use, and their development as large aircraft suitable for carrying humans or heavy payloads was never doggedly pursued.
With the rapid advancements in and miniaturization of electronics that was well underway at the recent turn of the century, the quadcopter finally became a viable aircraft, but not of a size so large it could carry a person; rather the popular quadcopters of the day are small enough to be easily carried by a person. Today usually referred to as drones (though the term is misleading, as most of these vehicles require human control, whereas a true drone would be independent), they are popular among hobbyists and are beginning to find commercial applications as well.
It might come as another surprise to learn that you can buy a decent drone for as little as twenty-five bucks. The rapid advancement in the technology behind these devices has led to a precipitous price drop. And with a budget topping out at around hundreds, you can actually get a great little machine with impressive capabilities.
To first discuss the lower end models, these drones are more akin to toys than to advanced flying machines and they lack many of the features you might expect from such a unit, but they are certainly plenty of fun. Many of the cheaper drones are also so compact as to fit in a pocket, so they can be brought along for a trip and enjoyed anywhere. Flight time is often limited to around five minutes, but this is offset by relatively short charging times of around a half hour. The range at which you can reliably control a cheaper drone is often only around fifty yards, but as these smaller drones are often used indoors anyway, this is hardly a limitation.
If you are willing to spend a bit more cash, you can get an advanced drone with an impressive array of attributes and accessories. For only a moderate sum, you could be the proud owner (or gift giver) of a drone that can complete flights lasting nearly ten minutes, that sports a built in camera with HD quality video capabilities, and with a range of many hundreds of feet. At this price point, you can look for features like live streaming video sent to your smartphone or tablet, automatic return features that will direct the drone to fly itself back to you at the push of a button, and bright lighting that makes for safer, enjoyable nighttime flying.
Drone Flight Safety Tips
Even a small, lightweight drone can cause serious injury or property damage under the wrong circumstances. Take the time to learn how to fly your drone before it ever takes flight by reading its manual, understanding which control features handle which types of operation, and by thoroughly inspecting the unit to make sure it appears in good working order. The more you know about your drone, the easier it will be to master its use and become a safe, responsible "pilot."
And do remember that just as you need a rest after exercise, your drone needs a break after each flight.
Before launching your quadcopter, make sure to study your surroundings. If you will be flying inside, identify areas that are to be avoided, such as rooms with chandeliers or other prominent light fixtures, any exposed wires, and of course any fragile items such as glassware, artwork, and so forth. The best way to avoid damaging something is to never fly near it in the first place. You must also of course consider the people in the area; make sure they know a vehicle will be flying so that can stay well out of its flightpath.
When you are flying outside, the potential hazards are different. You must account for trees (the "graveyard" of many quadcopters), power lines, windows, and other obstacles, and you must factor in unforeseen potential hazards such as birds or a sudden shift in wind direction. Outdoor flight also necessitates knowing who is in the area, and often means being ready for the arrival of unexpected people in proximity to your flight area. If you ever find yourself suddenly facing new challenges during a flight, the responsible move is to end the flight at once.
And do remember that just as you need a rest after exercise, your drone needs a break after each flight. To prevent overheating (and potentially damaging or ruining) the motor of your drone, let the vehicle rest for at least ten to fifteen minutes after each flight.
A Few Rules To Know Before You Fly
The FAA regulates most aircraft in America, and that includes most UAS (or Unmanned Aerial Systems, AKA drones) as well. If your drone weighs more than 0.55 pounds, you are obliged to register it with the FAA before you ever fly it. That's true even if it's a purely recreational toy.
You must never fly your drone within five miles of an airport unless you have received specific permission to do so from an air traffic control official. And always immediately clear the airspace in front of any manned aircraft that approach, including small personal planes and helicopters.
The FAA also requires an operator to keep a line of sight connection with his or her drone. So even if you can track your vehicle using its camera or GPS, legally you have to be able to see it with your eyes while it flies.