In 2020, the FAA reports there are nearly 1,700,000 registered drones in the United States. There were 1,000,000 drones in 2018, which represents a nearly 70% increase in drone ownership in only two years.
I’ve owned three different brands of drones (haven’t crashed any of them). I am also a certified Part 107 drone pilot and I am familiar with what decisions influence the kind of drone you should buy.
Here’s how to make sure you buy the right drone … in 5 minutes.
Questions to ask when buying a drone
Beyond price, these are the primary factors that can influence which drone you’d want to buy:
Measured in megapixels (MP), resolution is how many pixels are used to create a photo/video image. While important, having a high resolution doesn’t guarantee a high quality image/video. What it does allow for a more accurate image. When you increase the size of your picture (e.g. increase it to a poster, scale or “zoom” in on a video, etc.), it should remain in high resolution so as you don’t over-do it.
This is the ability for the drone to recognize objects and to avoid them autonomously (using GPS). One drone may create a better overall picture than the other, but if you’re concerned about running into things, obstacle avoidance is worth strong consideration.
How much does the drone AND the battery weigh? Many prosumer drones are not heavy at all so this isn’t a huge factor. But pay attention the dimensions—a Mavic Mini is inches smaller than a Pro 2 when folded up, which could become a bigger deal depending on your camera case.
These are all synonymous with the crispness, sharpness, detail, and color of the image. Sensor size means the sensor is large and can often take in more light than a smaller image. The size of the sensor size is usually correlated with resolution, as the larger the sensor the more pixels captured.
Bitrate is the amount of information that the camera can record onto a memory card or storage drive. This is measured in mbps (100mbps, 60 mbps, etc.). The more information that a camera can record, the higher the image quality (caveat: the more information recorded, the bigger the file size).
Bit-depth differs from bitrate in that it focuses on colors. This is measured as 10-bit or 8-bit in the drone world. A video with a bit depth of 10-bit is preferable over 8-bit for the same reasons as a higher bitrate—10 bit allows a camera to recognize 1 billion colors while 8-bit can recognize around 16 million.
The Major Drone Manufacturers
Roughly 6 out of 10 drones in New Zealand are made by DJI. The most official US report claims 7 out of 10 drones in the US are DJI. I dive a bit more into why DJI is such a major player in the drone space, but this article mainly focuses on the others as they’re usually a bit harder to find.
Created in 1994, Parrot is a wireless company based out of France with a decent foot in prosumer drones, but most noted for drones made for kids or as “toys.”
The Parrot Anafi is the most popular prosumer drone the company offers. With a very nice camera and the lowest price point for a prosumer drone ($699) it’s not difficult to see why.
Whether you want to buy the Analfi drone likely comes down to:
- Do you want obstacle avoidance?
If you do, the Analfi doesn’t have it.
- How important is the ability to shoot in high frame rates?
You can shoot 60 frames per second in 1080p resolution with the Analfi, which is good but not great. Shooting with a high frame rate ultimately give you more frames to slow down when editing video, creating a slow-motion effect. If you’re looking to maintain video quality while slowing the footage down, ideally you have 120 frames per second.
- Could you use 8 more minutes of battery life?
Parrot batteries usually last a bit longer than the compeition.
- You just don’t want to buy a DJI or AUTEL (i.e. don’t want a Chinese drone)
Parrot was awarded a contract to make drones for the US government after the United States soured on DJI’s reputation for being enmeshed with the Chinese government. Whether or not the Analfi is the drone for you to buy, the good news is that Parrot as a company is likely not going anywhere.
Outside of the DJI Mavic Air 2, Autel Robotics is responsible for the EVO Pro II.
The Evo Pro II compares favorably to the Mavic Pro 2—both have a price point around $1,700 and a comparable camera. A person will likely buy the Autel over the DJI Mavic Pro 2 if they:
- Don’t mind a heavier drone
- Feel that 6k resolution is important to them
- The EVO Pro II technically can shoot 8k, but on a ½ inch camera sensor (the smaller a camera sensor usually the more degraded the quality)
- Don’t want a drone with a Geofence (i.e. is restricted to a no fly zone controlled by the drone)
- Aren’t a fan of DJI products for whatever reason
Does GoPro make a drone?
Not technically. GoPro left the drone game in 2018 after they lot close to $400 million. GoPro’s main drone—the GoPro Karma—can still be purchased refurbished, but it was the Karma that helped propel GoPro out of the drone industry (it would lose power randomly and was thus recalled).
Chinese companies often get a bad wrap for being successful, for no reason then it’s assumed they do so illicitly. I have no inside knowledge as to whether this is the case with DJI. What is undeniable is that DJI was founded by an incredible engineer (if not mercurial). DJI almost single-handedly created the consumer drone industry, before many others were able to realize it exists.
DJI drones incorporate an incredible amount of engineering and design for products that are under $2,000. Your mission will vary but…
…these are the best DJI drones to buy in 2020
- If you have $6,000 grand to spend
- The DJI Inspire 2 with the Pro-Res license and Zenmus X5S camera
- If you have $1,500 to spend:
- The Mavic Pro 2 (assuming you don’t want to go with the other Chinese player Autel or forego obstacle avoidance with Parrot).
- If you have $750 to spend:
- The Mavic Air 2 if you want 4K
- The Mini if you just want a drone to fly and don’t care for 4K or higher frame rates.
Pro Tip: The best alternative to a drone camera
Get this GoPro tripod adapter and this boom pole and put a GoPro on the end of it. It’s fairly easy to get high angle shots. While these perspectives don’t get nearly the landscape of a drone, they will offer a different view with the video quality of a mid tier drone.
Together, both of these should set you back $65 or so (GoPro not included).
How to enhance the drone you buy
There are couple of overlooked accessories that can really make your drone better, as well as some basic skills to keep in mind:
- Look at filters
- Strongly consider becoming a drone pilot
- Learn what a Lut is (many higher end drones shoot with a flat color profile in h.265, you’ll need to understand color grading to use these modes)
To truly take advantage of your drone, I can’t recommend enough getting your drone pilot’s license. Becoming a drone pilot will give you more opportunities to fly your drone in more unique areas as you’ll be licensed to do so, and make you a better (actual) pilot.
Buying the right drone is often about more than finding the correct drone, it’s about your experience level, understanding video and photo properties, and your editing capabilities.