From travel drones to pro quadcopters, flying cameras have risen to new heights in the last few years.
Whether you’re a novice pilot or a dab hand at flying, several drones now offer features previously reserved for professional aerial equipment, including automated flight modes, 4K video recording and support for First Person View (FPV) goggles.
At the moment, the best outright drone you can buy is the DJI Mavic 2 Pro. If you’re looking for a more budget flyer, the diminutive DJI Spark is a travel drone that can record in Full HD and can be found for under £400/$516.
Whichever one you go for, it’s worth brushing up on the latest UK drone laws to see where you can fly. You can also check out the Drone Code for a quick refresher on drone etiquette.
All done? Let’s get ready for take 0ff…
How we test
We test two main things when reviewing drones – their flying performance, and the camera’s video and stills quality. To test flight, we take the drone out to an approved Flying Field like the one in Richmond Park and check its responsiveness, speed, stabilisation, obstacle avoidance and the accuracy of safety features like return-to-home. We also assess the stability and quality of its video feed from its maximum distance and its battery life claims, based on real world use.
For video quality, we shoot a variety of clips at various resolutions and frame rates, including the maximum available. We film high contrast and low light scenes, along with close-ups of people to evaluate detail and skin tones. Special automated modes like DJI’s Quickshots are also tested. These uncompressed files are then evaluated on a calibrated monitor, along with the drone’s still photos. Stills are shot at maximum resolution and, if available, in Raw. We check for colour, noise and dynamic range, and also look at other shooting modes like HDR and panoramas.
In the pipeline…upcoming drones
Before we look at the best drones you can buy right now, here are the imminent releases that we’ll be reviewing soon.
Launched alongside the Mavic 2 Pro (below), DJI’s Mavic 2 Zoom is the first foldable drone to offer optical zoom. It has a smaller sensor than the Pro at 1/2.3in, but the ability to zoom should ensure added versatility. It’s available now and we’ll be reviewing it very soon.
Another new drone to the market is the Yuneec Mantis Q. It’s a compact 4K travel drone that’s currently on pre-order. Battery life is reported to be 33 minutes, while voice controls should see the drone take off, land and record on command – though we won’t know how well this works in real-world conditions until we’ve spent some time with it.
Best overall drone – DJI Mavic 2 Pro
- Superb image quality
- Quiet, stable and fast flying
- Long battery life
- Almost impossible to crash
- Occasional app issues
Follow-up to the game-changing Mavic Pro, DJI’s new top-end drone is the first to carry a Hasselblad camera, making the Mavic 2 Pro the premium choice for serious flyers.
Its one-inch sensor means the Mavic 2 Pro can shoot 4K footage at 30fps as well as 20-megapixel still images, while the adjustable aperture allows it to perform incredibly well even in tricky lighting conditions.
Unedited footage generally looks superb, with impressive colour depth and dynamic range, and support for a range of formats and resolutions – including H.265 encoding – makes the Mavic 2 Pro a properly versatile performer.
In-flight, DJI’s smarts continue to make life easier for pilots. Updated ActiveTrack tech is adept at locking onto subjects, leaving you free to focus on flying, while the package as a whole feels fast and responsive – and it’s noticeably quieter than the original Mavic Pro.
Battery life has been bolstered, too, so you now get 31 minutes from a single charge, which is longer than any of the Mavic 2 Pro’s rivals.
Similarly reliable is the transmission connection. The app might not be the best, but with your phone attached to the remote it delivers a crisp, constant hi-def feed from the drone, even at a distance of 500m. In theory, it could go as far as 8km – but that would mean breaking the law.
Obstacle avoidance is at its best here, too. There are sensors on every side, making it almost impossible to crash the Mavic 2 Pro unless you’re flying in sport mode, which turns them all off.
All of this in a shell that, while nowhere close to the Spark and Mavic Air, is remarkably compact: folded-down, it weighs less than 300g and is just about small enough to squeeze into a handbag.
Best sub-£1000/$1290 drone – DJI Mavic Air
- Very compact and convenient to carry
- Easy to fly with intelligent flight modes
- Great video quality
- Shoots HDR and panoramic stills
- Fly More Combo option is a must
- Fiddly to switch between control methods
Blending the compact size of the Spark with the 4K capabilities of the Mavic Pro, DJI’s Mavic Air is one of the best all-round packages for wannabe drone pilots.
Folded down, the Mavic Air’s footprint is slightly larger than your palm, making it DJI’s most portable drone to date and the first fully featured flying machine you can stash in your jacket pocket.
Seven cameras and infrared sensors ensure the Mavic Air is adept at both hovering and object avoidance, even if the wind picks up. In theory, the Air can also adjust its flight plans to fly around objects, but it generally needs a long approach for this to work.
Connecting via Wi-Fi with your smartphone is fine for quick snaps, but the Mavic Air’s full potential comes with the remote control. This offers the full range of 4km with footage transmitted at 1080p in real time. It also means you can use sport mode, which unlocks the drone’s top speed of 42mph (making it DJI’s fastest drone to date).
Flying time from a single charge is a respectable 21 minutes, while opting for the Fly More Combo pack will get you extra battery packs.
Speedy and nimble, the Mavic Air is great fun to use beyond its image-capture abilities – though these are stellar, too. The 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor sits on a three-axis mechanical gimbal that reduces vibrations and ensures silky smooth footage, with 4K video at 30fps offering plenty of detail. It’s only in low-light that you’ll notice it struggling.
QuickShots are on-board as well. These pre-programmed set-pieces deliver Hollywood shots, with two new moves for Mavic Air owners: Asteroid and Boomerang. Both are very cool and add yet another string to its bow – even if gesture controls still feel more gimmicky than game-changing.
Best DJI alternative – Parrot Anafi
- Clever compact design
- Excellent 4K camera
- Easy to fly with straightforward app
- No collision avoidance tech
- Relatively short range
- No indoor stabilisation
- Lossless zoom isn’t lossless
Parrot’s Anafi drone is an affordable but fairly comprehensive flying machine with a portable focus. At 320g, it’s more than 100g lighter than the Mavic Air and, collapsed and folded into its carry case, it’s compact enough to slip into almost any bag.
Where the Anafi shaves off the pounds is in the complete absence of obstacle avoidance tech. GPS and GLONASS are there, but used solely for its return-to-home abilities. Similarly, the lack of a downward-facing camera means the Anafi isn’t one to fly indoors: it often drifts around, requiring constant manual corrections.
Still, it’s a joy to fly. Responsive, agile and swift, the Anafi can hit 33mph in sport mode, while the film setting limits speeds in order to keep things steady and smooth.
Real-world range when using the included controller is sadly a long way off the claimed 4km. At 600m, the 720p video stream starts to break up and the drone threatens to fly home. That said, flying time of 25 minutes per charge is impressive,
Several automated modes are built-in, such as Cameraman, which frames a subject while you pilot the drone. Most work as intended, though the lack of obstacle avoidance means they’re best tried in open spaces.
Photographers will find the Anafi a welcome step forward for Parrot. It utilises a Sony sensor to capture video at up to 4096 x 2180 resolution with HDR and photos at up to 21 megapixels. While the promised “lossless digital zoom” proves to be anything but, in general results are vivid, clean and as good as you can get at the price.
What’s more, the nose-mounted camera is attached to a 3-axis gimbal that offers both excellent stabilisation and 180 degrees of vertical movement, meaning you can film above the drone – something you can’t do with the Mavic Air.
Best budget drone – DJI Spark
- Small, lightweight build
- Intelligent flight modes
- Easy to fly
- Good image quality
- Expensive for what it is
- Gesture mode can be unrealiable
- Short battery life
- Pricey extras
DJI has become pretty good at making diminutive drones and the Spark takes that to the next level, packing a host of intelligent tricks into the company’s smallest ever drone.
While it won’t fit in your pocket, the Spark is small enough to comfortably land on your hand – or take off from it. It’s not collapsible like the Mavic Pro, but it’s so light that you can easily forget it’s in your backpack.
Despite the size, the Spark still offers many of the features you’d expect of an advanced drone. There’s GPS and GLONASS on-board for precise positioning and return-to-home smarts, while a 3D infrared camera on the nose should prevent it from flying into nearby trees.
In terms of imagery, you get a 1/2.3in sensor good for 12-megapixel still images and 1080p footage at 30fps. That’s less than the Mavic Pro’s 4K capabilities and stabilisation is similarly toned down, with 2-axis tech on the Spark playing 3 on the Pro.
Where the Spark excels is simplicity. Controlled from your smartphone via a Wi-Fi connection with a 100m range, on-screen sticks might make the drone’s movements jerkier than with the sold-separately remote but there’s no denying their accessibility.
Cinematic Quick Shots are just a tap away, too, offering pre-determined moves such as ‘helix’, which sees the Spark pan around a subject in an upward spiral. Target tracking isn’t infallible, but when it works the results are fantastic.
Gesture controls are another headline feature: the Spark locks on with a lift of the palm before responding to your poses. Sadly, it’s hit and miss in practice, especially from afar.
Still, while the Spark might be a little pricey, it’s a fantastic first foray into advanced drone flying – especially if you can’t stretch to the Mavic Pro.
Best for flying fun – Parrot Bebop 2 Power FPV
- Nimble and easy to fly
- Great battery life
- Friendly app and controls
- Disappointing image quality
- Only 7GB of non-expandable storage
- No carry case
The Parrot Bebop 2 Power is more of an update to the original Bebop 2 than a sequel. That ‘Power’ in the name relates to one of the biggest changes: battery performance. You now get 30 minutes of flight per battery – and Parrot includes two cells with the drone.
Also bundled with the Power is a remote control and a pair of FPV goggles. Strap on the collapsible Cockpitglasses 2, slide in your smartphone and you can enjoy an immersive flying experience – even if the app only outputs video at 720p.
Physically, the Bebop 2 Power is almost identical to its predecessor, which means it’s just as compact and light (550g) – although a carry case would have been a nice way to complete the otherwise generous package.
Flight itself has also been improved, with the Power gaining several automated modes for movie-style shots and easier piloting. Object tracking is particularly useful, with the ‘Follow’ mode offering a hands-off experience when you want it.
On-board, there’s a full suite of sensors, ranging from GPS and GLONASS positioning to ultrasound on the base and an altimeter. All are used to ensure the return-to-home function works effectively.
In the air, it’s surprisingly stable even in gusty conditions. In ‘Video’ mode, speeds are limited in the name of smooth footage, while ‘Sport’ mode lifts the limits and unlocks the full 65km/h pace.
As for shooting, the Bebop 2 Power’s 14-megapixel sensor can capture JPG and RAW stills, as well as Full HD video at 30fps – though footage is only stabilised by a 3-axis digital process.
Overall, image quality isn’t as good as that of other drones but the Bebop 2 Power is still great fun to fly. With the goggles and extra battery, it’s a cracking package at the price.
Budget sub-£100/$129 drone – Parrot Mambo
- Fun and easy to fly
- Reasonably quick charge time
- Simple to set up
- Entertaining accessories
- Short flight time
- Mini pellets are easy to lose
- Can only lift 4g with grabber
- Struggles in even light winds
While there are plenty of cheap mini-drones on the market from no-name brands, the Parrot moniker generally means you’re getting a quality device – and that’s very much the case with the Mambo.
A tiny, lightweight flyer, it’s much more than your standard mini-drone. While it’s great for indoor fun, it will also happily fly outdoors – provided it’s not too breezy.
Adding to the entertainment value are two bundled accessories: a grabber claw and a pellet-firing cannon.
Although the grabber is only good for a load of 4g, you can still do plenty with it – from picking up balls of paper to air-dropping Lego bricks – while the cannon’s pellets, though easy to lose, are definitely fun to fire.
Flight can be controlled via a smartphone or an optional remote control. The app’s virtual sticks are generally responsive, while the Mambo’s 3-axis gyroscope, accelerometers and downward-facing ultrasound sensor do a good job of keeping things stable.
A top speed of 5 metres per second is plenty given the 20m Bluetooth range when paired with a smartphone, while pre-programmed aerial tricks (such as barrel rolls and flips) only make the Mambo more appealing.
Its 9-minute battery life is relatively short, but a full recharge time of just 30 minutes means you won’t be out of the sky for too long.
As for footage, the 0.3-megapixel camera is nothing to write home about. It’s noisy and blurry, while colours are underwhelming – but at this price you’d struggle to do better.
If you’re after a starter drone that will do more than simply zip around the living room, the Parrot Mambo is a stellar choice. It might not be a photographer’s dream, but its accessibility – not to mention the included accessories – make it a great entry-level drone.
Best drones buying guide – four things to look out for
1) Battery life
Battery life is a big consideration when buying a drone. A good battery life for most ‘travel drones’, which can fit into a small backpack, is around 30 minutes. Once you’ve factored in taking off and landing, this can leave a relatively short filming time.
If you’re likely to need longer than this and the drone doesn’t support direct USB-C charging, you should consider buying a bundle with spare batteries (DJI calls these ‘Fly More’ bundles). Longevity can often also be extended by reducing the video quality. If you don’t need to capture footage in 4K, switch down to 1080p for a longer flight.
2) Smart flight modes
Many drones ship with automated flight modes that take it through pre-programmed ‘set piece’ manoeuvres for cinematic shots. These include performing corkscrews in mid-air to circling a chosen subject to capture footage worthy of an epic closing scene.
If you’re not a very experienced pilot – or aren’t particularly interested in boosting your flying skills – then these are often a very useful feature to have. If you’re more keen of flying than filming, though, then a more budget model without these flight modes might be more suitable.
3) Range and controllers
Most drones will be able to handle flying around your local park, but if you’re looking to send it further afield then it’s worth considering the transmission range. Drones wth dedicated controllers (like DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro) tend to offer longer ranges than those controlled by smartphone.
It’s also much easier to control a drone using a controller than virtual sticks on a touchscreen. Depending on your location’s drone laws, though, a maximum range is often only theoretical – for example, in the UK it’s necessary to always keep your drone in line of sight.
4) Stability in the air
Small drones might be super for indoor and low-level outdoor flying, but if you’re planning to pilot your drone in more difficult weather conditions it’s worth considering how well your flying machine will fare. Petite drones are generally more affected by crosswinds than larger quadcopters, though advanced stabilisation tech can sometimes reduce the effects of a strong breeze.
It’s also worth reviewing sample footage of the drones in-flight where possible. Some can suffer from camera shake when flying at top speed, because of vibrations from the rotors – although better models usually use stabilisation smarts to alleviate this.