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#1 DJI Mini 2
The DJI Mini 2 has arrived sooner than many expected to refresh what was already an excellent drone, and it maintains its key positive features: it is under the 250g which is the weight for pilot registration in the USA & China, it has GPS-based return to home and other pilot-assist features, and it includes very share-friendly ‘QuickShots’. In fact, other than all-round object collision systems, the drone has almost everything you’d expect from a folding drone costing more than twice as much.
The accompanying remote control is also completely new, and in FAA areas offers up to 10km (6.2 miles) range via automatic channel switching, meaning you can confidently take the drone out in even 24mph wind and remain confident the drone won’t out of contact. The camera gimbal will keep images horizontal and vibration free while recording up to 4K video, as well as selection of other effects recently only known on DJI’s prosumer models, like panorama (and even sphere panorama). Photographers can choose Raw, manual exposure, exposure bracketing and other features they’d expect on the ground.
If you’re thinking of the Mini 2 as your first drone, but you’re already familiar with cameras, then this is definitely the best choice. It’s also pretty handy indoors thanks to downward-facing visual and sonar distance sensing systems which can help it hover even without GPS, and the optional propellor guards (detachable cages too prevent any accidents while flying near obstacles). The app also makes getting the images to your phone easy if you don’t want to wait until you get home.
#2 DJI Mavic Mini Drone FlyCam
Launched at the end of 2019, this drone was aimed squarely at the consumer market (and specifically to avoid the 250g registration limit). It still packs quite a punch – 2.7K video, GPS, altitude hold and a mechanical gimbal – meaning that images and video it recorded to its MicroSD card were of more than adequate quality for YouTubers or Instagrammers. Indeed the drone has been understandably popular (while, equally predictable, DJI’s attempt to brand it a ‘FlyCam’ has not caught on. Going into 2021, the only slight worry would be supply, but DJI are still selling it and supplying it for now, while gently pointing out a newer model is on offer.
For consumers not confident learning to fly and shoot video at the same time, the automated QuickShots provide several striking orbiting or other dramatic swooping shots while keeping your subject in frame – the DJI Mavic Mini makes use of its intelligence to do this from the main camera rather than packing any extra scanners, which probably helps even this first model pull off 30 minutes of flight time (as with all drone official times, expect about 20% less).
For kids, families or just anyone interested in getting started in aerial photography/videography, the original Mavic Mini was and is a surprisingly capable machine, but the ‘extended wi-fi’ radio system mean that, in bad conditions, the signal can become intermittent even before the drone reaches the legal range. Similarly the motors can only compensate for a maximum of force 4 cross-wind, though of course on bad days you could play indoors with the propellor guards. There are also a great range of safety features (hover, return-to-home, tutorial, and geofencing to prevent you from getting into trouble near an airport).
#3 Ryze Tello
Designed in partnership with DJI, Ryze’s Tello is an affordable, compact and lightweight drone that’s ideal for mastering the basics.
Controllable via your smartphone running the Tello app and Wi-Fi (you can also use a Bluetooth gaming controller, albeit at a shorter range), it’s a responsive and lively flier that’ll teach you the ups and downs of twin-stick quadcopter flying. It even features stability sensors to minimize drifting when it’s supposed to be static, and the 13-minute battery life isn’t bad at all.
It’s not all positive. The flight range is limited (well below the 100m maximum Ryze suggests, think 30m instead) while the slightest breeze will send the drone drifting off in whatever direction it’s blowing. The 720p video camera isn’t up to much either, and with no local storage it sends all footage and photos directly to your phone – which results in choppy video if and when the Wi-Fi connection dips in and out.
Those caveats aside, the Tello is a great starter drone that does the simple things well and feels better made than other budget models.
#4 DJI Air 2S
The DJI Air 2S – the successor to the Mavic Air 2 – brings a photography-grade camera into a reasonably compact drone which is well-equipped with features suited to first-time drone users, whether they specialise in video or photography. The 5.4K video gives the option to crop down to 4K without loss of resolution, while the 20 megapixel camera produces great wide-angle images.
In terms of safety, the drone has all the key safety sensors – forward, backward, downward and front-mounted upward-looking – with which the drone can not only sense obstacles and stop, but also plot and execute an avoiding path if appropriate (depending on the settings). Only the sides of the fuselage lack sensors, so caution is needed while exercising tracking shots; most of the time this won’t be a problem, and DJI’s previous side sensors on the Mavic 2 series weren’t worth the extra money. If you’re flying around physical obstacles (sensors have a harder time with water) then it might be cheaper to get a better drone with more sensors first time out; you can always learn with caution. The controller is ideal. It is strong, has a good battery, easy access to speed modes, and the place the phone (which acts as your screen and menu) sits is just where you need it.
#5 Parrot Anafi – FPV Drone Set – Lightweight and Foldable
Parrot have done an amazing job of straddling the fun and the functional aspect of the drone market ever since they essentially created it ten years ago, and the Anafi (especially the new FPV kit) epitomizes that.
The Anafi is a professional drone, with a 4K camera capable of zoom (at least in video mode), with a gimbal-stabilized camera. In fact some surveyors choose this over DJI products because it can tilt its camera up and down to create 3D models or, for mere mortals, get some unique angles for action shots. But, with the addition of First Person View (FPV) goggles you can also flay it from inside the cockpit. Parrot’s goggles are included in the FPV kit, and at first they were the only ones supported, but a later software update means you can use other VR headsets.
The app is fully featured and great for ‘Arcade mode’ racing or settings-obsessed photographers. The only thing missing from a much more expensive craft (and admittedly this isn’t cheap) is a collision sensing system, but the Anafi is surprisingly robust, especially the FPV version with improved legs. Compatibility with Pix4D tools offers an interesting route into 2D and 3D survey work should you decide to offer your services commercially.