What is a great starter drone?


Q: I am interested in getting a drone. Where should I begin?

A: You might consider buying a small multi-rotor to practice on. Some people like to get comfortable on one of these before trying to fly a more expensive model. While not necessary, if you are uncomfortable with the thought of flying a $1,000 to $2,000 drone, this might be a fun option.  These little guys are loads of fun and even if you already own a drone, these inexpensive models are a nice addition to your fleet. 

If you want to start out with a professional drone like the Mavic 2 Pro, 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 learn more about my training programs here: Drone Training Programs

Buying a cheap drone from a big box retailer can be a mistake. These drones usually do not have stabilization features.  Piloting one of these cheapo drones is similar to balancing a marble on a plate. People often crash them into walls, trees or unsuspecting friends. They are also prone to “fly aways”. 

Id’d like to make some recommendations for some starter drones that fly well and won’t break the bank.  I’ll break this down into two price categories: 

Under $200

If your a newcomer, the Tello from Ryze/DJI is a great choice. This compact drone  is one of the most stable flyers in its class.  The Tello is equipped with an 5 megapixel camera. It connects the the WiFi on your smart phone and using the Tello app, you can pilot the Tello using the virtual joysticks on your screen. For stability it uses optical sensors that detect patterns in the surface below and use the information to lock the drone in. This is where the Tello really shines. It will literally hover in place, even if you take your fingers off the sticks for a few seconds.

The Tello is sold separately and comes with one battery. You can expect flight times up to 13 minutes.  It makes a lot of sense to buy the Tello Boost Combo which is bundled with a total of 3 batteries and a USB 3-port charger.  You’ll need to supply your own USB power supply but most people have a few of these things lying around.  The Tello can be flown via Wi-Fi using virtual joysticks on your phone but I recommend buying the Game Sir Remote Controller. The remote controller is good quality and feels a lot like a Sony Playstation controller. The remote gives the Tello a true drone feel.  The Tello is best suited for indoor use, it doesn’t do well in the wind. You can get away with a 5mph wind but more than that may blow your Tello away.  You should also be aware the range of this small drone is limited to a hundred feet or so.  It’s really meant for short range indoor use. 

Another plus is that the Tello can be programmed using 3rd party applications like Drone Blocks and SNAP, making it a favorite for educators and STEM programs.  The Tello is available in my online store.

Under $500

If you are serious about taking photos and video and want something with more features, I highly recommend the DJI Mavic Mini.  The Mavic Mini was released on November 11th and is probably the most popular sub $500 drone right now, and for good reason! DJI managed to pack a lot of features in a drone that weighs just 249 grams.  Watch my YouTube review here.

The Mavic Mini is GPS stabilized with a full HD interface and many of the features normally found in much more expensive drones.  The camera is on a 3 axis gimbal which results in buttery smooth video and the photo quality is excellent.  The basic package is $399 and it includes 1 battery, the remote and a few accessories. Most people opt for the Mavic Mini + Fly More kit at $499.  The Fly More kit includes a total of 3 batteries, a 3 port bank charger, AC adapter, propeller guards and a decent carry case.  This is a good value. If you purchased these extra accessories separately it would add up to about $170.00.  

The Mavic Mini is rated at a range of up to 4KM and advertises a flight time 30 minutes.  Range is always dependent on conditions and the environment. The law requires you to fly within line of sight but these specs are not exaggerations.  Range tests from popular YouTubers like Drone DJ produced excellent results and the video transmission system is superior to anything else in this price range.  My tests confirmed the 30 minute flight time is possible. My very first test flight on a very windy day (which included time on the workbench for updates) still yielded 23 minutes of air time.  Not bad for a drone that weighs less than 2 sticks of butter.  Even more surprising was how this little drone handled the wind. The day of my first test flight winds were a steady 12mph with gusts to 16mph.  The Mavic Mini had no troubles operating in these conditions. I launched off my deck and climbed over the tree line in my wooded neighborhood with ease.  In no time I was a quarter mile down the road visiting the neighbors.

The Mavic Mini is capable of capturing video in 2.7 K. To see some examples, just check out my video. I found the video quality to be clear and smooth with excellent color rendition and good dynamic range. Photos will be captured at 12MP which, for a drone the size of your cell phone, are amazing.  If you wan 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 Mavic Mini 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.

Beware!

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.     

Conclusion

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.


About Bill Bongle

Bill Bongle is a retired police captain with over 30 years experience in public safety. He owns and operates the only drone repair center in the State of Wisconsin and is the founder of the Green Bay Area Drone User Group.