Radio control aircraft have actually been around since the late 1800s, with mini blimps controlled by spark gap transmitters.
The more modern multirotor ‘drones’ have only been made possible (let alone affordable) thanks to relatively recent advances in control systems, motors and batteries.
Officially designated RPAS (remote piloted aircraft systems), drones can now be bought for less than $100 and are surprisingly easy to fly. With the addition of high resolution cameras, they have gone beyond a hobby and are used for commercial activities, such as aerial photography.
For many, drones are simply toys, but for others, it’s possible to build custom DIY creations or even race competitively. With movement-dampening gimbals, GoPros or built-in cameras, drones make it easy to film shots not possible any other way.
While the word ‘drone’ is universally understood, they can more accurately be called multirotors, quadcopters or just quads.
Some of the biggest brands are DJI and 3D Robotics, who produce very popular camera drones that cross the line between hobbyist and professional use. For smaller fun drones, Parrot is well known, as well as Blade, Hubsan and Syma.
Compared to most other RC aircraft, quadcopter style drones are amazingly easy to learn to fly and can be very affordable. They incorporate sophisticated gyro stabilisation for hands-off hovering, so the pilot just has to concentrate on not running into things.
The more advanced outdoors models even have GPS, so can maintain position against the wind or return to the takeoff point if signal is lost. Drones also have a lot to offer advanced pilots, as the safeties can be turned off for incredibly fast, aerobatic stunts and flights.
In Australia, one of the biggest drawbacks (which is often ignored) are the laws and rules that govern drone operation. Depending where you live, it can actually be illegal to fly in your own backyard.
Do your homework
Want to buy a drone? Here are some tips to keep in mind before you go shopping.
Ready to Fly vs Bind and Fly
Some drones come with controllers (RTF) while others connect to your existing (compatible) RC transmitter (BNF).
For quadcopter drones, you want a ‘Mode 2’ controller. This is mostly the default, but some are available either way or can be switched.
Inside vs Outside Flying
Micro drones are great fun indoors, but will struggle in any wind. Buy a bigger and more powerful drone if you intend to fly outdoors a lot.
Cheap quadcopters can record but not transmit video. Look for FPV models if you want to watch as you fly.
Order a spare along with your drone as one won’t cut it. There are also upgraded charges that can handle multiple batteries.
Before buying, check your drone of choice has spares available for reasonable prices. Propellers are the most common part to damage.
Sooner or later, you will crash and typically damage propellers or motors. Prop guards can help protect your drone as you learn to fly.
Buying Online vs Local
For little drones, buying online is often a lot cheaper. For big expensive models, on-hand local expertise is very useful.
How we tested
Drones were tested with a repeating flight pattern to demonstrate agility, power, gyro stability, hovering and video quality (if applicable). Mini drones were flown both indoors and outdoors. Drone control apps were tested on an Android Nexus 5 phone. Battery life was timed based on constant but medium intensity flight.
Air Hogs Helix X4 Stunt
Rather than big propellers, the X4 has a ducted fan system protected by an EPP foam body. But despite a few flaws,
it somehow ended up becoming one of our favourites to fly and proved to be incredibly tough.
With most minidrones, zooming safely around the middle of your living room is fun at first, but quickly gets tedious. So you start trying to make it under the coffee table, through some chair legs or land on the dog’s back.
With any other quad, you will inevitably catch a blade (despite prop guards) and tumble to the ground. Then you have to go pick it up and put it on a safe surface to take off again.
Not so with the Helix — the ducted fans mean you can keep pushing the boundaries (and improving your precision flying) without worry. Suddenly, your house full of furniture is an exciting obstacle course.
It’s not quite as zippy as normal designs, and the large wind-catching body doesn’t work well outdoors, but the gyro stabilisation is top notch and the 2.4GHz transmitter very serviceable. It can also do flips and barrel rolls at the push of a button.
Flight time is around seven minutes but, frustratingly, the Helix doesn’t have a removable battery. While the quad is pretty much crash proof, no spare parts are readily available online.
Despite the drawbacks, the Helix gives an amazing amount of indoor fun.
From: Air Hogs
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Blade Nano QX
The Nano QX is not the cheapest option, but it is a great choice for those who want to fly indoors (or outside in calm conditions) but want a drone that can accommodate skills levels all the way up to expert.
Out of the box, the Nano QX uses Blade’s SAFE technology to give beginner-friendly stabilised flight and hands-off hovering. It also has lightweight prop guards that help avoid crashing from unexpected bumps into furniture, or the ceiling.
Using the included controller, the QX is very easy to fly, but with SAFE turned off, it can be totally manually controlled for stunt flying.
The little quad weighs in at just 16.5 grams and manages up to about seven minutes of flight time.
You can take it outdoors, but be prepared to fight the wind (which can be fun). Not to mention that, at long range, it can be hard to tell which direction it is pointing. The QX is tough enough to take repeated crashing — just watch for hair wrapped around the motor shafts and replace any bent props.
Importantly, a full range of relatively cheap spares are available and extra batteries are cheap to buy. If you already own a compatible controller, a BNF version of the Nano Qx can be bought for $115.
You can also buy a RTF FPV version of the Nano QX, including a Fat Shark headset, for $650.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
The Phantom 3 features a new 4K camera, which uses the 1/2.3-inch Sony Exmor sensor and can compete with high-end action cameras, such as the GoPro.
It records 4K video and 12 megapixel photos and has a faster, smoother gimbal. The live video feed is much improved, with a 720p resolution (displayed on a phone or tablet) possible at ranges up to two kilometres.
In testing, the Phantom 3 flies a lot like the previous Vision +, albeit a little faster and more precisely. It also has a new braking feature that brings the quad to a sudden hover when the controls are released.
The Phantom 3 has a range of new options, such as follow mode, where it keeps the (moving) controller location centred in the field of view. You can also set it to fly GPS waypoints or circle a point of interest for smooth video. It also has auto take-off, return home and failsafe modes.
Battery life is still right around 20 minutes, though frustratingly for existing owners, the batteries from the Vision 2+ (while they look similar) won’t work in the 3.
The Phantom 3 also comes in a $500 cheaper Advanced version, which shoots at 2.7K resolution at 30 frames per second (or 1080p for 60fps), or the Standard, which has the same camera but a shorter range and the older controller style.
From: Rise Above
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Hubsan X4 H107L V2
The X4 is up to version 2, which includes a range of upgrades (such as LEDs and cushion feet) that make it better than ever.
Importantly, the X4 has a six-axis gyro stabilisation system, which gives it rock-solid hovering. It also means the X4 is really easy to fly for beginners, while retaining enough oomph to satisfy more advanced pilots.
The heavier X4 is not quite as zippy as some of the competition, such as the Blade Nano QX, but powerful motors keep it remarkably agile. It can also punch through a bit of wind outdoors if you fancy a flight in the backyard.
The X4 comes with a cheap but useable controller, though can be found for $10 cheaper if you opt for BNF. Plenty of cheap spare parts are available and the X4 has a very strong community of modders, for those who want to experiment.
The X4 also has a range of different models available from Hubsan, including a Nano variant. The H107C adds a camera, while the H109 has upgraded brushless motors. The H107P is the new Plus version of the X4, though is considerably more expensive than the older version.
The Hubsan X4 is cheaper than ever, but hard to find in physical stores. It is best bought online from overseas, or through online retailers such as eBay.
From: AU Direct DX
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Xiro Explorer VM
The Explorer is built to compete with the DJI drones; though side by side, the angular black Explorer makes the Phantom look bulbous and dated. It’s available as a drone only, with a gimbal and GoPro4 mount, or an all-in-one 1080p camera (with 4K coming soon).
The battery (20 minutes of flight time) and camera clip on the underside, and the legs fold up for easy transport.
The included (Wi-Fi) range extender lets you fly out to 500m, which is substantially less than the 2km from the Phantom 3. The Explorer is very stable to fly, though it feels slightly less aggressive than the DJI’s offerings.
The camera and gimbal on the V is excellent (and better than the Vision 2+), but ultimately falls short of the the Phantom 3 Advanced and Standard. Notably, it shoots at 1080p 30fps versus the 3’s 60fps, or 2.7K recording. Video streams back to a phone via the comprehensive app, which also lets you adjust all the camera and drone settings.
The Explorer includes auto take-off and landing, GPS waypoint flying, return home mode, flight modes and vibration alerts. It can also reorientate ‘forward’ based on the controller’s location, in case you can’t see which direction it is facing.
The drone can also follow you, based on the location of the controller, as well as fly in a circle keeping a set location as the camera target.
Overall, the Explorer V is an excellent video drone for the money and can be found for as little as $1,100 online.
Price: RRP $1,399
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
DJI Inspire 1
Importantly, the Inspire 1 is as easy to fly as its smaller Phantom cousins. About the only extra complication are the legs, which are retracted up out of the way once in the air. Get too close to the ground, though, and the Inspire 1 will drop them back down for landing. The Inspire 1 also has a vision positioning system for flying indoors or without GPS signal.
The drone has a modular camera system, using the Zenmuse X series. The X3 (as tested) shoots 4K video at up to 30fps, or 1080p video at 60fps, and takes 12MP stills.
You can upgrade to the X5 lens, which still shoots at 4K but at a higher quality and better low light levels. You can also stream 720p video back to a tablet or phone connected to the controller, from up to 2km away. Unlike the Phantom where you can only control camera tilt, the Inspire 1 gimbal can pan around 360 degrees to catch a shot from any direction.
One especially cool feature offered by the Inspire 1 is the use of dual controllers. While the pilot is busy flying the drone, the second controller can operate the camera separately to catch the best shots.
Unlike the smaller Phantom series, the Inspire 1 is a monster, at 438 x 451 x 301mm and weighing 2.935kg.
From: Rise Above
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Jaycar Mega Quadcopter
Jaycar Electronics has the answer, with an oversize quad that doesn’t break the bank. Importantly, they also stock a range of spare parts and extras such as batteries.
The Mega has a six-axis gyro, so it can hover with hands off the controls. In actual testing, the drone is very easy to fly and, despite the large size, it’s quite light and has plenty of power for fast flight and hard manoeuvres.
While the quad does not have a manual mode, it does let the pilot hit a button to perform stunts, such as 360-degree flips. It might not impress the professional pilots, but it’s surprisingly satisfying to be able to tear along and instantly do a perfect somersault.
The Jaycar drone manages about 10 minutes on a charge, but expect a bit less if you really push it. It does not support using your own remote, but the included 2.4 GHz model is pretty good. Aside from a 100m range, it also displays telemetry such as thrust, signal and battery levels.
For those who like to muck around with upgrading their toys, the Jaycar drone has a range of clip on extras. A 720p camera is pretty normal, but there is also a water squirt gun, a bubble blower, or a remotely operated retractable winch. The remote triggering system also makes it easy for DIYers to dream up their own drone upgrades.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Swann Xtreem QuadForce
If you are thinking that you have seen the design before, you would be right — it’s very similar to the great (but now hard to buy) Syma X5C. Swann actually worked with Syma to develop the drone, though have included their own customisations.
The QuadForce has an excellent six-axis stabilisation system that gives steady hovering and precise flying. Like the X5C, it’s one of the better beginner drones that can also keep up and challenge a pilot’s improving skills.
The drone measures in at a sizeable 315 x 315mm and weighs 93 grams. The 500mAh battery gives around eight minutes
of flight time.
The QuadForce comes with removable propeller guards, which are handy for indoor flights but best removed for increased performance outdoors. A button on the remote enables automatic choreographed stunts, such a flips and rolls.
The QuadForce also has a built-in camera that hangs underneath, recording 720p video or still images to an SD card. You can’t move the camera, or view it remotely, and the quality is pretty low. But still, for the money, it’s a fun way to get some cool aerial shots of your house or park.
The controller uses 2.4GHz to give a 100m range, and displays handy info such as signal strength and battery level on an LCD.
The QuadForce is available through Costco with an RRP of $129.95, but you can also pick it up a bit cheaper online, especially through eBay.
Rating: 3.5 stars out of 5
Unlike most drones, the standard Bebop is controlled via a phone app. You can get a Skycontroller (though it costs as much as the drone itself) that boosts the range up to 2km, has a screen for FPV flying and gives joystick style control.
The Bebop is quite compact (280 x 280mm) but weighs in at 400 grams and can get going faster than most drones.
This makes it fun to fly outdoors, as it easily punches through wind. It does come with a foam prop guard too if you want to fly inside.
Being controlled via Wi-Fi and a phone app is intuitive and easy to get started, but quite imprecise compared to a normal controller. On the plus side, Parrot has released new features, such as the ability to fly via GPS waypoints.
The drone manages about 10 minutes on a charge, but it does come with two batteries.
The Bebop has a 14 megapixel camera (1080p video) with a 180-degree view, but instead of putting it on a gimbal, it shrinks the field of view down to normal and allows you to digitally pan around. Video quality is pretty good, but a mechanical gimbal system is smoother.
The Bebop also has GPS tracking and a ‘return to home’ feature. The drone is very solidly built but there are plenty of spares available online for cheap if you do need to make a repair.
A fun (but pricey) quadcopter, the Bebop is ultimately let down by the app control experience.
Rating: 3 stars out of 5
Parrot Minidrone Airborne Blaze
The little drone has inbuilt six-axis stabilisation, lasts nine minutes in the air and has a 20m range. It measures in at 180 x 185mm and weighs 54 grams. Blaze comes with a single battery and charges via USB.
The concept of an app for control is great, and in theory can allow for upgrades down the line. After a bit of rigmarole getting it to connect, you simply hit the take-off button and the drone rises into the air. Landing is the reverse, and the Blaze is very stable in flight.
Control is via on screen ‘buttons’, which lack the sensitivity of a proper controller. Zooming around is fine, but as your skill improves, it lacks precision. On the plus side, you can activate tricks such as flips and rolls.
Through the app, you can also turn the headlights on and off, as well as take 640 x 480 images from a belly-mounted pinhole camera. The quality is pretty poor, though, and due to the fact that the lights point forward, useless at night.
Blaze is a little slower than similar mini drones, but is built pretty tough. The propeller guard is removable though, for outdoor flying.
Parrot drones have never been cheap, but Blaze still costs more than some mini camera drones. It’s a fun toy if you want app control, but is not a good step up to a bigger drone.