Drones are not just hobbyist toys anymore, thanks to better flight stability and improved camera performance. Some consumer drones are just fun to fly; other drones are fun to shoot photos and video with—be it near home or when traveling afar.
However, there are still Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules to follow. But under the right circumstances, there is plenty of time as well as space with which to take to the skies. Moreover, an FAA draft document is looking into setting up a real-time tracking system for all drones that are actually in flight. This would also include the identities of the pilots controlling them.
In addition, smaller sizes and smarter sensory technology may also make the latest drones easier to pilot for creating dynamic footage. Drone manufacturers are competing on those very things. It’s not so much the speed the drone can fly but rather how well it can stay focused on a subject—and not crash into an object along the way.
Here are five consumer drones that are well suited for visual content creation.
Five High-Flying Consumer Drones
DJI Mavic Mini
The Mavic line has always offered something for beginners, enthusiasts as well as budding pros. However, size always mattered in the grander scheme of things. The DJI Mavic Mini earns its namesake with a light frame that only weighs in at 249 grams (8.8 ounces). Notably, that is just shy of the 250 grams the FAA mandates for pilots to register their drones. As a result, anyone can fly the DJI Mavic Mini without having to deal with red tape.
Trimming all that fat came with sacrifices that are otherwise unknown in the Mavic line. Chief among them is obstacle avoidance. The Mavic Mini has no onboard sensors to warn itself of a possible collision with an object. It also limits any subject tracking and auto-follow modes; both of those features have become staples in other DJI drones. There are some basic modes to use, albeit for focusing on a static subject.
Footage is shot on a 3-axis gimbal in 2.7K rather than 4K (it additionally shoots in Full HD). Also, in lieu of the company’s Lightbridge or Ocusync wireless transmission from the controller, the drone communicates via a 2.4GHz Wi-Fi connection instead. That effectively limits range because of the prospect of interference with other wireless signals. DJI claims that it can fly up to 2.5 miles away, but that is likely in more open and remote areas.
More for Hobbyists
All these trade-offs make the Mavic Mini more of a hobbyist drone than one made for capturing dynamic pro footage. However, fixed or static locations aren’t hard to shoot because of the additional flight stability DJI engineered.
Despite the drone’s small size and stature, the company says it will hold its own in varying conditions. What’s more, it also means simpler controls and a shorter learning curve when learning to fly.
DJI says the battery can last up to 30 minutes in the air, owing to its size relative to that of the battery. In addition, the company’s Fly app for iOS and Android acts as a video editor to put together clips quickly. $399.
The second go-round for this small company sees a drone they claim is the best in the industry at auto-following subjects. With a stringent focus on avoiding obstacles, the Skydio 2 uses six 4K cameras as well as proprietary software that are supposed to give it an edge in not crashing into things.
A 3-axis gimbal gives it the same flexibility others have in reorienting the camera’s view, with 4K resolution and HDR underpinning the visual output. The key is obstacle avoidance, whereby the Skydio 2 goes out of its way not to hit anything. With cameras and sensors doing the job, it takes a meticulous approach. However, the drone can fly very cautiously within a dense environment like a forest. Consequently, following someone on a hike seems more likely than a motor bike on a path under many trees.
By default, the drone flies via the company’s iOS/Android app, since the remote controller comes at a separate $149 cost. The Beacon is yet another peripheral provided to improve GPS tracking; it can stay on a subject up to a mile away. It doesn’t change the speed in which the Skydio 2 stays locked on, so it’s not going to work with following a vehicle at a closer distance, for example. However, it does have a homing button to help the drone find its way back in case it gets lost. It also offers some of the same controls seen in the app.
Skydio rates battery life on this drone at 23 minutes, though it’s not likely to hit that number in most cases. The range is also set at a maximum of just more than two miles, though it may be a safer bet doing that with the Beacon over the app. $999.
Yuneec Mantis G
Foldable drones are in vogue, and Yuneec has made another one in the Mantis G. This latest drone carries on to a large degree from the previous Mantis Q. It still weighs about half a pound, so not quite light enough to steer clear of FAA regulations on registration. Even so, its lightweight build is nimble enough to get around.
The drone’s 4K-capable camera can shoot at 30 frames per sec, only reaching 60 fps at 720p resolution. Even 1080p footage is restricted to 30 fps. Moreover, it employs a 2-axis gimbal, so the camera’s viewpoints are affected by the lack of a lateral shift. Yuneec tries to make up for that with different auto-follow modes, like Journey and Waypoint, to give the drone guidance on what to do and where to go. There is also a strong selfie component with a setting made for that, as well as a quicker way to share via social media.
The iOS or Android app is the primary piloting option, though it does work in tandem with a remote controller for better precision. Voice control also plays a bigger role; the Mantis G will engage through voice commands to take off, land or begin recording, for instance. However, so far English, French and German are the only languages the drone works with.
In addition, according to Yuneec, the Mantis G drone can fly for up to 33 minutes with Sport mode on, which allows it to fly at 45 mph. $699.99.
DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
The Mavic 2 is DJI’s most versatile drone, and it still comes in two versions. They have the same frame, materials and weight, but they use different cameras.
While the Pro got the Hasselblad camera with a 1-inch CMOS sensor, the Zoom got the smaller 1/2.3-inch sensor and 24–48mm optical zoom lens. That range means the Zoom version can actually zoom in on subjects in ways the Pro simply can’t, given its fixed focus. It’s only a 2x optical zoom, so not anything dramatic. However, there is an extra 2x digital zoom there if pilots want to use it—provided they’re okay with 1080p resolution. DJI maintains the zoom feature is ideal for capturing architecture and wildlife from safer distances.
Like other drones, a 3-axis gimbal covers various angles, with smoother panning and faster focusing. Unlike the Pro, the Zoom isn’t great for low-light or nighttime shooting, even though HyperLight was a built-in feature added to offset that. Notably, for photos, the drone can take nine photos and stitch them together into a 48MP image using Super Resolution mode.
Obstacle avoidance is in play for all sides, plus the top and bottom, though it’s still not bulletproof, despite firmware updates meant to improve upon that. In addition, the Task Library in the app saves flight paths to revisit at a later time. As a result, the Zoom has a fair amount of leeway in both automatic and manual flight control. Also, its Dolly Zoom function uses the camera to zoom in on a subject while flying toward it to create a cinematic effect.
The Zoom isn’t all that different in battery life compared to the Pro, though it is slightly longer and faster than the original Mavic. $1,439.99; with DJI Smart Controller, $1,899.99.
Autel Robotics EVO
The EVO from Autel Robotics is another among the foldable drone options. This drone sports a bright color scheme and a few key features that set it apart. Key to them all is the 3-axis gimbal that can record footage in 4K at 60 fps, which is more than some competing models manage.
However, its obstacle avoidance is limited to the front and back; so it doesn’t have any way of warning itself to potential dangers when moving laterally. Autel designed the EVO to auto-follow a subject and avoid obstacles in the process. This is mostly for more open spaces where the drone won’t have to contend with objects that could continually get in the way of shooting. That’s why the EVO’s tracking only works when moving forward or away from a subject in a straight line.
What’s more, the included remote control negates the need for an app because of a built-in 3.3-inch display. Pilots do have the option of attaching a phone to serve as the live display instead, particularly for accessing the more advanced features and enabling auto-follow modes.
Autel says the EVO can fly up to 30 minutes per charge, but it also cuts speed in half when obstacle avoidance is on. $1,049.99.