POPULAR MECHANICS: The Best Drones You Can Buy Right Now

3 March 2021 | Media Mentions

The essence of what a drone can do is lend you perspective—that is, to see, video, and photograph the world from an entirely different angle. And this is only more true today because camera technology as well as avionics—loosely, what enables a drone to fly and a remote controller to remain in contact with that copter—have leaped forward at an astonishing rate.

Most of the best drones are supremely stable in a crosswind, unlikely to lose connectivity with a controller unless you fly them miles away, and—thanks to onboard GPS—will simply return to where they were launched and land themselves if that connection is broken. Range has also jumped. You can fly them on a path up to 15 miles away (though, there’s an important fine print item on that subject, below), and several that we’ve chosen shoot video in 4K and a few in even 8K resolution. Many feature the still-image quality of $1,000-plus DSLRs. And beyond all that, proximity-sensing tech buffers against many of the dangers of accidentally flying into trees and other objects that can cause crash landings. One thing that hasn’t changed: The more you spend, the more features, stability, flying time per charge and range you get.

Read on for our reviews of the best drones, plus advice on navigating the purchasing process.

What To Consider

For better or worse, there’s one company that stands pretty far apart from the others when it comes to consumer-level drones: DJI. And that’s true whether you’re shopping for something on the affordable side of things or a higher-end model. But rivals like Skydio and Autel are coming with their own cool offerings, too, so there are plenty of options.

The most important consideration when buying a personal drone is to choose the one that best fits your needs—ergo the one that you’re most likely to use. An expensive, high-end model could be great for pro-level video, but you might not get as much use out of it as a more affordable, portable drone that you can easily bring along on trips. On the flip side, you don’t want a drone that’s too limited in capabilities if you’re regularly making long flights or piloting it in more difficult conditions.

For most average users not looking to shoot professional-level video, that will mean a drone somewhere in the area of $400 to $1,500. Most have a flight time in the neighborhood of 30 minutes so you aren’t constantly worrying about your battery running dry, and they’re able to range at least a couple of miles (some many more). As you move up through that price (and beyond), you’ll get more advanced flight capabilities and better cameras. Pricier drones are often simply bigger, too, which can mean steadier flying in turbulence and the ability to carry bigger and better cameras.


Even an inexpensive drone is a serious tool, not a toy, and you’ll want to make sure that you’re following all the local regulations when flying one. In the United States and Canada, that starts with registering your drone for a nominal fee if it’s above a certain weight (250 grams, or 8.8 ounces, in both countries). Other guidelines are also similar in both countries, and include things like:

  • Always keeping your drone within your line of sight.
  • Not flying near airports or other restricted areas, including near emergency response efforts.
  • Not flying above 400 feet.
  • Not flying over people or moving vehicles.
  • Not operating your drone while you’re under the influence of drugs or alcohol.

There can be hefty fines for violating the rules, so you’ll want to familiarize yourself with them. You can find the full guidelines for the U.S. and Canada from the FAA and Transport Canada, respectively, and PCMag also has a good overview of the basics of drone flying.

How We Selected

To pick the best drones, we relied on our own previous knowledge and coverage. I got my first drone shortly after DJI released the Phantom 2, in 2014. Since then I’ve flown many models from a lot of brands that no longer exist, or that exist in other guises, such as 3-D Robotics. My first interest—and still my primary one—was in aerial photography. As an avid shooter who sometimes supports his freelance journalism with still and video, having a different view changed how I capture the world for professional work.

We also recruited a few pros to help with the selection process, since they spend thousands of hours a year flying and testing every drone they can get their hands on. “Knowing what’s coming next is really part of my job,” says Matt Sloane, CEO of Skyfire Consulting in Atlanta. Sloane began his company seven years ago to help firefighters and emergency ops use drones as tools to get more “eyes on the situation.” Sloane says most SWAT teams, for instance, would happily (and wisely) risk a drone rather than an officer, and Sloane himself not only has commercial drone licensing, he also has his commercial license to fly manned aircraft. We also tapped Billy Kyle’s knowledge. Kyle is founder of Atmos Aerial services outside Philadelphia, a professional surveying company that he says mostly entails flying delicately around construction sites, conducting aerial mapping for farmers, as well as for real estate firms. Kyle also reviews drones and offers quick guidance through instructional videos, and has about 100,000 followers on Youtube.


DJI Mavic Air 2



Camera: 4K at 60 fps, 48 MP + 12 MP | Flight time: 34 minutes
Top speed: 42.3 mph | Range: 6.2 miles

Kyle thinks the Mavic Air 2 is the perfect “tweener drone,” because it gives you some of the higher level camera capabilities of the most expensive Autel and Mavic 2 Pro drones, as well as more advanced sensing technology, without an eye-watering price tag. Among the key camera features are the ability to shoot 240 fps slow motion video and 8K hyper lapse—the latter is time-lapse video, but do note that’s a battery-intensive mode that mostly you’re going to launch, fly, record, and then immediately land. Likewise, 48 MP image capture is essentially a digital trick that takes multiple images at once. It doesn’t replicate the crystal-clear photography you get from the larger sensor on DJI’s Mavic 2 Pro. Still, the feature set of the Air 2 is excellent. For instance, modes like Point of Interest 3.0 allows creation of an automated flight path around an object (think: 360 degrees around a boat in the water); Spotlight 2.0 lets you tap an object, like a person, in the viewfinder and the camera stays fixed on that subject, so you can focus on flying while the subject moves. Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS) 3.0. also lets you focus on capturing video, and if you’re flying toward an obstacle, the drone will re-route automatically to prevent a collision. Speaking of which, Mavic Air 2 also has forward, backward, and downward sensing, distinguishing it from almost no sensing on the Mavic Mini 2.


DJI Mavic Mini 2



Camera: 4K at 30 fps, 12 MP | Flight time: 31 minutes
Top speed: 35 mph | Range: 6 miles

Sloane recommends the Mavic Mini 2 to anyone who thinks they want to get into drones but isn’t dead certain. He says it’s easy to fly and has multiple modes, such as a very slow “cinematic” setting designed to capture smooth video, that guardrail novice flyers. One key feature for learners, too, is built-in GPS. “Beginners lose sight of a drone above a tree line,” Sloane notes “and that’s that. It’s gone forever.” GPS, however, enables you to tap “return to home” on the app, and that tells the Mini 2 to fly itself back to the launch point. The drone is quite stable, too, able to fly in wind speeds up to 24 mph. And yet, at only 249 grams, it falls just below the weight bar that would require FAA registration. Video and stills resolution is on par with those of a good iPhone, and even though the digital zoom of 2x and 4x doesn’t produce astonishing video, it’s a handy tool for figuring out the drone’s proximity to nearby objects. Why not just get the Mini 2 versus, say, DJI’s more expensive drones or the Skydio 2 or Autel below? Simple: The smaller camera sensor can’t suck in as much light, so shooting at sunrise or sunset won’t be as sharp, and it’s missing some more advanced video options, too. Further, it doesn’t have the follow capability of the Skydio, nor higher-tech sensing for trickier flying scenarios. All that said, the Mini 2 can still take beautiful stills and video, and because it’s so stable and beginner-friendly, there’s no better model to learn on. Sloane says it’s the drone he takes, more often than not, when “I just want to fly for fun.”


Ryze Tello Boost Combo



Camera: 720p, 5 MP | Flight time: 13 minutes
Top speed: 20 mph | Range: 300 feet

Tello is owned by DJI, and this learner drone is ideal for flying with your kids. While its range is only 300 feet and 90 feet up, it has some baked-in features like aerial stunts, take-off by tossing it in the air, and tap-to-record video in predesignated flight patterns (like circling the subject). Tello also teaches kids to code; Tello EDU is a programming app that lets children use a coding tool called Scratch, so you, along with your kid, can design your own flight patterns. The process is a bit involved, and like the drone itself, this isn’t really tech fit for toddlers. But a sharp pre-teen will be able to fathom both the flying and the coding. By the way, at only 80 grams, the Tello doesn’t require registering with the FAA, and at 6 x 6 x 1.3-inches, it’s easy to take with you on any excursion, since it’ll stuff into a backpack—even your kid’s book bag. Tip: The base price is $99, but we suggest the Boost Combo package, which includes extra batteries to extend flying time, spare propellors and propellor guards for safety, and charge cables.


Skydio 2



Camera: 4K at 60 fps, 12 MP | Flight time: 23 minutes
Top speed: 36 mph | Range: 2 miles

Both Sloane and Kyle say that if your whole reason for wanting a drone is to document action sports, there’s nothing on the market that’s better than the Skydio 2.0. Sloane explains that the fundamental distinction is that from the start, Skydio was founded as a sort of flying GoPro. “The real difference is that while any of the DJIs that have a follow function will look for an alternative path if there’s like a tree branch in the way,” meaning, Sloane says, reacting to circumstances, “the Skydio is about five steps ahead of that, plotting a course instead of just reacting.” The Skydio 2.0 works by first launching the drone and then “tapping on the subject” in the app that you want the drone to follow. But Kyle says you’re better off also getting the beacon that comes with the $1,499 Sports package. Hand that to the subject and it constantly pings the Skydio 2, acting like a digital leash.

Sloane notes that although the flat Skydio will fit in a backpack, it’s not as portable as DJI’s Mavics since, unlike those, it doesn’t fold. Luckily, the 2.0 shoots better still images than the prior Skydio gen-1 model, and these are exportable as RAW files. Other modes include HDR shots, as well as slow-motion hi-definition video at 1080 and 120 fps. Sloane says there’s not much point to buying the Skydio to fly yourself though, because while you can do that, it’s not as versatile for that purpose as other models listed here.


DJI Mavic 2 Pro



Camera: 4K at 30 fps, 20 MP | Flight time: 31 minutes
Top speed: 44 mph | Range: 11 miles

What’s important to note about the Mavic 2 Pro is its very large, one-inch photographic sensor that drinks in light. Basically, this is the drone that made high-level aerial photography accessible for anyone who already shot all their stills with a DSLR. And truly, for still images, no other drone here captures nearly the depth and color saturation of the Pro 2, especially in low-light conditions. Though keep in mind the Autel below for video, because there the question is closer. Both the Autel and the Mavic 2 Pro have side-, down-, and upward proximity sensing, making them hard to crash unless you really screw up. This is also DJI’s flagship portable drone, and as a result they pack in the most “quick shots,” meaning pre-programmed sequences you can have the Pro 2 fly to capture very smooth, professional-looking footage. Hyperlight is also a unique mode that lets you shoot nighttime scenes. To do this requires “tripod mode,” which holds the Pro 2 especially still while it captures a series of images that, when sandwiched together (automatically) result in unusual clarity. These longer exposures let you create very cool effects, too, like light trails from car headlights passing on nearby highways. That Hasselblad lens also has attracted a number of filters you can attach from third-party brands like momentlens.co.


Autel Robotics Evo II



Camera: 8K at 25 fps, 4K at 60fps, 48 MP | Flight time: 40 minutes
Top speed: 44 mph | Range: 15 miles

There are several clever functions to the Evo II, but the primary aspect of this drone that’s especially unique is that you can swap in a new camera. In the early days, some brands made this more widely available at the “pro-sumer” level, but largely that’s now only true on the professional side. Autel’s cutting against the grain here, and if you’d want to have the next zoom or whatever else they debut down the road, that means perhaps a $500 investment, not scrapping your Evo II and having to start from scratch. Note, too, that the Evo II can shoot 8K video, though there aren’t a lot of computers that can actually display that. But the fact that it captures 4K at double the frame rate of the Mavic 2 Pro results in some very crisp capture. Halve that again to 2.7K and you can shoot at 120fps, which should make action look incredibly smooth. Note that, although maximum still image size is 48 MP, the camera sensor is 1/2 inch, rather than the full-inch sensor of the Mavic Air 2, and you’ll likely notice that mostly in mixed light (shadow contrasted with full sun).

The Evo II should be mostly goof-proof, with side-, down-, and upward proximity sensing. FYI, the Autel app uses Google Maps, which is very handy for spotting and ID’ing subject matter while flying. But a bummer on the software side is that, unlike the Mavic Air 2, Autel’s system doesn’t automatically merge captures, so whether that’s a Hyperlapse of 60 seconds or other automatic sequences, you’ll then need to use third-party software to combine images. Then again, there’s one selling feature Kyle says a lot of pilots like: no geofencing. You need to know if you’re near restricted airspace, like an airport, and not break the law, but unlike DJI’s drones, Autel’s won’t ground you. This shouldn’t be a big deal, but I’ve certainly been in unrestricted airspace when, for whatever reason, the DJI simply won’t fly—and sadly been unable to download the latest software patch while in the field to fix it. For that reason alone, Autel’s gained a loyal following.

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