Q: I am interested in getting a drone. Where should I begin?
A: There are lots of choices out there. Often times the first place people look is online retailers like Amazon. You may be tempted to buy inexpensive models for $100-$200. The advertisements make promises they can’t keep. These inexpensive drones usually don’t have reliable safety features like Return to Home and Obstacle avoidance. They may not be compliant with FAA regulations (Remote ID). These budget models can be a handful to fly, I compare the experience to balancing a marble on a plate. People often crash them into walls, trees or unsuspecting friends. They are also prone to “fly aways”. The cameras on these inexpensive models are usually poor quality, the range is only a few hundred feet and I believe they are a waste of money.
If you are a newcomer and are not exactly sure what drone to get and looking for help understanding the many rules a regulations, I can help. If you’re reading this you’ve discovered that there are dealers like me who specialize in drones and drone training. The main manufacturers like DJI and Autel have leveled the playing field for smaller retailers like me by introducing universal pricing. This means small retailers can offer the same competitive pricing as the big box retailers. If you like the idea of supporting a small business you’ve come to the right place. I am a retired police officer and small business owner. I retired in 2015 after 30 years in public safety. I serve recreational, commercial and the public safety drone market with high quality equipment that I have tested myself. I am available to answer your questions and provide support. Now, let’s talk about the reason you’re here.
I’d like to make some recommendations for some starter drones that are great quality, fly well and won’t break the bank. The first category are the sub-250 gram drones. This weight is significant because FAA rules, which apply to drones, offer certain regulatory exceptions for drones weighing under 250 grams. First, sub-250g drones flown for recreation need not be registered and are exempt from the new Remote ID rules which go into effect in Sept. of 2023. (Remote ID requires a drone to broadcast a unique identifying signal which can be monitored by any member of the public).
Drone Price range $759 to $909
If you want something with good features that won’t break the bank, I highly recommend the DJI Mini 3 series. The Mini 3 is available in 2 models; the Mini 3 and the Mini 3 Pro. Of these 2, my top pick is the Mini 3 Pro. The Mini 3 Pro offers features found on more expensive drones such as tracking, obstacle avoidance and slow motion video at 120 FPS. The Mini 3’s camera is capable of flipping vertically to capture video in a format more suitable for social media applications. For $759 you get the traditional remote that uses your smart phone for a display. If you want a smart remote controller with the display built in, that combo will cost you $909. Virtually every customer who has come to me for a Mini 3 Pro has opted for the smart controller. Most people want a dedicated remote that doesn’t require them to connect their phone.
The Mini 3 Pro bundled with the DJI RC Smart Controller is rated at a range of up to 15 KM. Range is always dependent on conditions and the environment. The law requires you to fly within line of sight these specs are calculated under absolutely ideal conditions. That said, the range will be more than enough.
The Mini 3 Pro advertises a flight time 34 minutes with the stock battery and 47 Min with the “Plus” version extended life batteries. My tests confirmed the 34 minute flight time is possible. Just keep in mind that if you opt for the extended life batteries, the weight of the drone will exceed to 250g, requiring you to comply with the FAA’s registration and remote ID requirement. Don’t think you’ll get away with the heavier battery and not registering Remote ID. DJI will no doubt detect the heavier setup and its fly-safe protocol will ground you until you comply with remote ID. As Obi-wan Kenobi puts it, if you want to avoid any “Imperial Entanglements” avoid using the Plus version (extended flight time battery).
The Mini3 Pro’s camera performs well in low light due to a larger sensor than its older cousin the Mini 2. The 1 1/3 in sensor has a larger aperture, F1.7 which translates to better low light performance. This is quite impressive for such a small drone. I found the video quality to be clear and smooth with excellent color rendition and good dynamic range. Photos will be captured at 12MP with an advertised 48MP accomplished through a software and hardware trick that stitches multiple images together producing a true 48MP photo. The Mini 3 Pro can also shoot photos in the RAW format which means you can produce incredible results editing images in applications like Adobe Lightroom. If you want to see more examples, there are no shortage of demo videos all over YouTube. I am serious, the camera is very good. I know I sound like a fan boy here but I’ve owned a lot of drones and have never have found one this small with such capabilities.
The Mini 3 Pro also includes features found on some of the more expensive drones like return to home and QuickShot modes, which include Dronie, Circle, Helix, and Rocket.
If you like the idea of the Mini 3 Pro but it’s still over your budget, look at the Mini 3. It’s a stripped down version of the Mini 3 Pro. You’ll give up forward and backward obstacle avoidance and some advanced features. The camera will still offer great quality but max resolution will be 12MP. You can get the Mini 3 Fly More Combo for just $718 which includes 3 batteries.
Mini 3 Fly More combo with RC-N1 Remote: $718
Mini 3 Pro with Smart controller: $909
Fly More Kit standards batteries: $189
Fly More Kit: Expended life battery: $249
The newly released Mavic Air 2 is a powerful little drone with capabilities of some of the more expensive models. Weighing just over 20 ounces the Mavic Air 2 performs extremely well. Flight times exceed 30 minutes and the 12 megapixel camera is capable of shooting 4K video. The Mavic Air 2 is equipped with DJI’s signature Ocu Synch 2.0 which provides superior video transmission capabilities. This is where DJI drones excel. The drone has a range of over 11 miles! Please understand FAA regulations require you to keep the aircraft in your line-of-sight but the superior video transmission system ensures that you will not experience brown-outs and signal interruptions.
The Mavic Air 2 is also equipped with Air Sense, a feature that alerts you to the presence of manned aircraft. Most manned aircraft are equipped with a transponder that broadcasts their location. Air Sense will display the location of a manned aircraft in your area, allowing you to avoid coming too close.
The Mavic Air 2 is loaded with sensors for obstacle avoidance. No amount of safety features make a drone dummy-proof but these features definitely make it dummy resistant!
Like the Mini 2, the Mavic Air 2 comes in 2 packages. For $799.00 you get the drone, remote, charger 1, battery, 1 extra pair of propellers and 1 extra set of control sticks. For $999 the fly-more kit provides some valuable extras including a total of 3 batteries, bank charger, ND filters and a carry case. Most people opt for the Mavic Air 2 fly-more kit as adding these accessories later would cost more than the bundle price.
If you want to start out with a professional drone like the Autel Evo 2 or the DJI Mavic 3, consider booking a training session with me. I’ll get you through the high risk period and build your skills so you don’t ruin that expensive equipment. I’ll teach you to fly safely and legally.
You can often find used drones for sale in Facebook marketplace and eBay. Please use caution when buying a used drone. For more information about buying used drones, see my “Tips for Buying Used Drones“. Stay away from the Phantom 3 Standard! DJI is known for making great drones but this one is a stinker. You get what looks like a Phantom 3 but its got a legacy WiFi uplink left over from the defunct Phantom 2 series. If the camera is damaged in flight or gets borked during a firmware update, you may as well sell it or junk it. A new camera will cost you nearly $300. This is the Bic lighter of drones.
If you’re looking for something to play around and learn how to fly, the Tello might be the best choice. If you’re thinking of graduating to a more sophisticated drone in the future, the Mavic Mini will deliver an experience more like the big boys. Whatever you decide, you can’t go wrong with either one. They are both a blast to fly!
Where to buy
Thanks for taking the time to find me and read this article. If you are considering buying one of these drones, I’d appreciate your business. Please consider purchasing your drone from my online store, Titletown Drones. I am a Wisconsin based small business and an authorized DJI Dealer. I am always here to answer your questions and provide great customer service.
Please visit my online store here.