Best drones for 2021
How to choose the best flying camera
In this article: I’ll hook up a few key recommendations, each based on a common drone application or level of experience.
- Best for new hobbyists — DJI Tello
- Best for edutainment — DJI RoboMaster S1
- Best for casual hobbyists — Parrot ANAFI Extended
- Best for enthusiasts — DJI Mavic 2 Pro
- Best for aerial photographers — DJI Inspire 2
While we’re at it, keep an eye out for some cool alternatives thrown in for good measure.
rones come in a multitude of flavors. They can be just a cool toy or an efficient way to film action sequences on a movie production. Many fly, but some float or roll. There are drones that take underwater pictures or drive on six wheels like the Mars rover. With one pretty neat exception, we'll be focusing on flying drones in this article. If only because they're my favorite.
"Why?," you might ask. Well, if you're looking to capture a beautiful sunset, how much cooler is it to frame that picture with miles of surrounding countryside? Finding the right angle or vantage point on foot can be difficult. There's this whole thing called "rough terrain" you have to contend with.
Flying drones are effectively airborne cameras. In a matter of seconds, they can traverse the environment, free as a bird, and help you capture shots that are otherwise impossible to get from the confines of the earth below. "Gravity weighs down the soul," as the saying goes, so why not take the opportunity to liberate ourselves, if only for a moment?
With a drone's aerial perspective, the daily commute I took for granted became a sweeping landscape. It's way cooler than the view from my car, that's for sure.
Types of camera drones
We divide most of the drones we carry into three basic categories: Micro, Mini, and Full-sized. Micro drones are the smallest type of drone, usually requiring very little assembly or setup, and are often the most affordable. We usually recommend these for entry-level flyers.
Mini drones are a step up from micro drones. They're generally faster, have longer flight times, and tend to carry high-resolution cameras. These work out really well for a wide range of hobbyists.
Full-sized drones are biggest type of drone, flying the fastest and staying in the air the longest. They're also often jam-packed with sophisticated technology and the most advanced cameras. This makes full-sized drones a great choice for flyers looking for a premium experience.
Looking for commercial drones?
Commercial drones are generally full-sized and designed for a plethora of advanced enterprise applications, everything from surveying and mapping to fighting forest fires. These drones are meant to fulfill very specific needs. If you're looking for more info on our commercial drone options, check out our helpful article on How to Choose a Drone for Business.
Best for new hobbyists (and kiddos!) — DJI Tello
If zipping through the air with a drone sounds like a ton of fun, but you’re still hanging out on the bench, let’s get you in the game. The DJI Tello is great starting point for the hobby. It’s affordable, easy to use, and jam-packed with cool features.
Starting up a drone, tossing it, and then watching it catch itself and hover mid-air never gets old. It’s also ridiculously easy to perform flips in eight different directions. With a few quick swipes on the touchscreen of your phone, you can watch the drone do aerial acrobatics.
The Tello is especially great for getting the next generation excited to fly. My five-year-old was super excited when she piloted the micro drone around our yard for several minutes. She made it through her first solo flight without a crash, which is a pretty solid flex for a kindergartner.
- built-in camera takes 5-megapixel stills and shoots 720p video
- electronic image stabilization keeps your video and stills looking sharp
- 13 minutes of flight time with included rechargeable battery
Best for edutainment — DJI RoboMaster S1
Education is more impactful and fun when it’s hands-on. The DJI RoboMaster S1 encourages young learners to get into STEM by letting them build, program, and drive their very own robot.
After working together to assemble the drone, it’s hard not to get excited watching it light up for the first time. It’s even cooler to watch it act out a string of commands you’ve successfully programmed.
With omnidirectional smart wheels, the RoboMaster is just plain fun to drive around too, especially if you’ve loaded its rapid-fire turret up with gel beads.
The turret also has a fully automatic light blaster, and each time you fire the drone it belts out a cool “z-z-zap.” Pressure and infrared-sensitive plates register hits from other RoboMasters, letting your students battle against each other in a hail of laser sound effects.
- 5-megapixel camera with a 1/4" CMOS sensor
- modular design with 46 customizable components
- customizable control via Scratch 3.0 and Python coding
- RoboMaster app offers interactive educational resources and competition modes
- 35 minutes of driving with included rechargeable battery
- top speed: 7.5 mph
Airborne educational alternative — DJI Tello EDU
If you’re looking to take learning into the air, the DJI Tello EDU is a great budget-friendly alternative for educators and parents. It has all the great features of the standard Tello and is compatible with Scratch 3.0 and Python programming just like the RoboMaster S1.
The Tello EDU recognizes the unique patterns on several included mission pads, letting you design custom actions that are activated when the drone passes over the corresponding pad. You can even link up several Tello EDUs and fly them in a literal drone swarm. Artificial intelligence hasn’t taken over the world yet, but that won’t stop you from scoring points with our future overlords.
Best for casual hobbyists — Parrot ANAFI Extended
The Parrot ANAFI Extended has a 21-megapixel camera that shoots sharp stills and captures smooth 4K video. As you gain more experience in the air, it helps to have a drone with a rugged design. That way you can focus on flying without worrying as much about the weather.
The ANAFI Extended has several swanky piloting modes to make your life easier. You can set waypoints, letting the drone automatically fly to a selected position while you explore the environment. Follow Me Mode locks onto the GPS in your smartphone to let the drone trail you as it films, and geofencing keeps your drone within a perimeter you set in advance.
- resists temperatures between -14°F to 122°F
- remains stable in winds up to 31 mph and resists gusts up to 49 mph
- includes three flight batteries, Skycontroller 3, and carrying case
- up 25 minutes flight time per battery
- POI (point of interest) mode makes the drone circle a target at a constant distance
- FlightPlan lets you prepare a pre-set route and track your progress as you go
Budget-friendly alternative — DJI Mini 2
The DJI Mini 2 is great for folks that have just dipped their toes in the water and are looking for something that has a lot of bang for their buck. It’s budget-friendly and packed with features. This mini drone can fly up to 32 miles per hour, is wind-resistant, and has a 12-megapixel camera capable of recording 4K video at 30 fps.
With several QuickShot and panoramic modes, the Mini 2 makes it simple to snag great footage. The wireless connection to the remote controller also uses OcuSync 2.0, which transmits a clear, strong signal up to 6.2 miles — letting you fly with confidence.
Because the Mini 2 weighs 8.5 oz., you can fly without taking the extra time to register the mini drone in most regions. This helps you get you in the air just a little faster, and makes travelling with your drone easier.
Best for enthusiasts — DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro is popular with our customers for a reason. It’s fast, hitting up to 44.7 miles per hour, and is mounted with a state-of-the-art Hasselblad camera for sharp images with stunning color accuracy.
With wind resistance to help the drone stay on course and omnidirectional sensing providing superior obstacle avoidance, you can focus on flying and capturing sweeping vistas. Low-noise flight technology also makes the drone surprisingly quiet, letting you fly without making a racket and needlessly attracting attention.
The Mavic 2 Pro has several neat features that improve its performance in the air and help you create some pretty cool video content without a lot of extra work. Pre-set flight routes let you plan and perfect the perfect circuit over a scenic area, and you can fly the drone to a selected destination with a simple tap on your phone’s screen. ActiveTrack 2.0 keeps the focus locked on moving objects, even at high speeds.
- low-noise flight technology for a quieter flight
- flight time: up to 31 minutes
- maximum speed: 44.7 mph
- HyperLight mode improves low-light photography
- Hyperlapse mode processes time-lapse photos automatically
Budget-friendly intermediary — DJI Mavic Air 2
The DJI Mavic Air 2 is a solid offering between the Mavic 2 Pro and the Mini 2, making it a budget-friendly alternative for enthusiasts, but also a solid choice for casual flyers looking for room to grow into the hobby. It’s nearly as fast as the Mavic 2 Pro and has an improved 48-megapixel camera over the Mini 2 that runs 4K video at 60 fps instead of 30 fps — hooking you up with especially smooth, crisp recordings.
With several shooting modes, the Mavic Air 2 has something for everyone. You can rock out slow motion, keep moving objects in focus with FocusTrack, or use the processing features of SmartPhoto to optimize your image quality in a variety of shooting conditions. It also includes obstacle avoidance to make it easier to fly safely, with infrared sensors that detect obstacles in front of, behind, and below the drone.
Best for aerial photographers — DJI Inspire 2
The DJI Inspire 2 is a fast, agile drone designed to help you get razor-sharp stills and silky smooth video. While flying up to 67 miles per hour, the Inspire 2 can accurately track a moving target with Spotlight Pro mode. Vision sensors, infrared scanning, and terrain monitors give the drone superior obstacle avoidance at the same time.
The built-in 2-axis FPV (first person view) camera has a gimbal mount that is compatible with two different high-tech cameras: the Zenmuse X5S or the X7. Each of these compact camera options is designed for aerial photography and cinematography. The lenses on both cameras can be switched out with several other compatible lenses from DJI, giving you additional flexibility.
The video feed from the FPV camera can be transmitted to the drone operator while the gimbal-mounted feed is simultaneously sent to the camera operator. This lets them work as a team to capture shots that would be hard for a single person to achieve.
The Inspire 2 is incredibly versatile, excelling at everything from capturing beautiful landscapes to filming a car chase.
Check out this short film, shot entirely on the Inspire 2.
- includes controller, two TB50 flight batteries, charging hub, carrying case, and microSD card
- up to 27 minutes of flight time on full battery charge
- CineCore 2.0 image processing records in three different professional recording formats: CinemaDNG, Apple ProRes, and H. 26X (H. 264/H. 265).
Zenmuse X5S camera
- Micro Four Thirds sensor
- 20.8-megapixel still photos
- up to 5.2K video resolution at 30 fps
- includes 15mm f/1.7 lens
Zenmuse X7 camera
- large super 35 sensor
- 24-megapixel still photos
- up to 6K video resolution at 30 fps
- includes 16mm f/2.8 lens with built-in neutral density filter
Budget-friendly alternative — Autel Robotics EVO II Pro
The Autel Robotics EVO II has a suite of great automated features with an impressive built-in camera that make aerial photography easy. The drone zips by at 45 miles per hour and has an extensive 40-minute flight timem, which is way more airtime than most drones.
The built-in camera uses Sony’s latest supersensitive 1” CMOS sensor, capturing 20-megapixel stills, and recording video up to 6K at 30 fps or 4K at 60 fps. Phase detection lets the camera precisely focus on and track moving objects. If you need to get in close, the zoom goes up to 8X and stays lossless up to 3X zoom.
Did I mention that there’s a VR mode? If you have an Android phone and a compatible VR headset, you can pilot the drone as if you were sitting inside. Maybe it’s just the gamer in me, but this feature alone is worth the price of admission.
The first thing I learned when I started flying was that drones do a lot of work, so they can only be airborne for so long. The easiest solution is to have extra batteries charged and lined up so you can swap them out and keep going. If you accidentally bump a drone into something, it’s also nice to have a set of replacement propellers around, just in case.
Because most drones can interface with your smartphone, it’s not uncommon for a drone to be compatible with a remote controller, but not come with one in the box. I prefer the tactile feedback of a controller, so this one’s a must for me.
Before you buy a drone, hit up our “What’s in the Box?” to double-check what accessories are included. From there, you can peruse the accessories tab of any drone on our website to see a full list of compatible extras.
Most of the drones we carry also have a bundle or combo version that comes pre-packaged with extra gear. Keep an eye out for these, they can save the time and effort of picking up extra batteries or parts later on.
The Mini 2 Fly More Combo includes a nifty carrying case and everything you need to, well, fly more!
Head to our full list of drones and accessories to get a bird’s-eye view of what we offer. The best part of drones is the flying, so my best advice is to put yourself in a good position to maximize your airtime.
Drone safety, laws, and regulations
Drones are super cool, but they aren’t toys. Learning to fly safely and responsibly is the most important thing you can do as a drone owner. The FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) offers safety tips and information about laws regulating drone use. Some key reminders:
You can’t fly a drone camera near an airport or national park. It’s best to not fly over large groups of people (like an outdoor concert) or over someone else’s private property. The FAA website provides the most up-to-date and accurate information:
Laws can evolve rapidly and often vary based on your area. It’s best to thoroughly familiarize yourself with the current regulations that impact you before you fly your drone. Safety comes before any other consideration — drones can easily injure innocent bystanders or damage property if they’re not flown responsibly.
Now you know, and knowing is half the battle!
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