The word drone has a lot of different meanings: military craft, research tool, delivery robot. But for the average civilian, drone means a high-tech toy. Maybe you've seen one flying at your local park or caught some viral video footage of a drone swooping through a fireworks display. Even people like Martha Stewart are suddenly penning love letters to their drones. If you've ever wondered whether it would be fun, easy, and affordable to own one yourself, we're here to tell you it's possible.
Drones are the highly evolved descendants of the RC helicopters and model planes that hobbyists have been flying for decades. What changed? Basically, the rise of smartphones meant a lot of important components — magnetometers, gyros, batteries, cameras, accelerometers, radios, GPS modules, and processors — got a lot smaller and cheaper. Suddenly this wasn't just a cool toy, but also an aerial camera that could capture amazing angles normally reserved for Hollywood. Add the fact that now you can also pair your drone with the smartphone in your pocket, and today's units can deliver a ton of advanced capabilities for less than $1,000.
So what makes a great drone? It should be easy to assemble and repair. Since you'll probably be outside and away from an outlet, battery life is critical. A lot of drones advertise their range, but for the average consumer, durability is way more important — you're going to crash a lot during the learning process. It needs a good controller that isn't too complex, and GPS software that will help you to fly in windy conditions. Last but not least, a great drone is going to take some amazing photographs and video.
Unlike Bluetooth speakers or set-top boxes, drones have a really wide range of prices and capabilities. Which drone is best for you kind of depends on what you're looking to get out of it. But after a few weeks of testing, there is one unit that hovers just above the rest in terms of bang for your buck.