The Best Drones for Families
Recreational 'flying' is on the rise for kids of all ages — here's what you need to know
In the market for a drone? You’re in very good company. Consumers across the globe bought 4.3 million civilian drones last year, with 35 percent of sales occurring in the United States, according to Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, a marketing and investment firm.
Many buyers use their machines for business. But recreational flying, as it’s known, is on the rise, too. Kids and grownups of all ages are buying drones that zoom around in sports stadiums, public parks, and neighborhood streets. Some join leagues to race their drones. Don’t be surprised to see a drone at a wedding — more photographers are deploying drones to shoot overhead and bird’s-eye photos.
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“I was startled at a recent wedding to see a drone buzzing overhead as we emerged from the church,” said one New York woman and mother of four sons. “After we realized what it was, we saw the drone operator standing off to the side — and got a kick out of it.”
“It’s something that’s becoming much more mainstream now,” said Christopher Vo, organizer of the D.C. Area Drone User Group, which has over 3,000 members. “I think we’re at the point of the adoption curve where everyone knows about drones, and everyone who has an application for them, such as photography or industrial inspection, already has it in their minds to go get one.”
Here’s a look at some of the most popular drones on the market. They’re a diverse bunch in terms of the capabilities and features they offer. The drone that will work best for you will depend on your budget, your experience, and your goals for how to use it.
Drone for Kids
Kids certainly can fly drones — with proper adult supervision, of course. (Make sure to double-check all regulations for flying drones of any type in your local area.) But any drone for kids should be durable enough to survive a few crash landings. The drone should also be light enough for kids to carry and to fly without risking injuries. The Hubsan X4 FPV meets these criteria.
Only 135 millimeters (5.3 inches) across and weighing just 52 grams (.1 pounds), it fits into the palm of your hand. You could fly it in your backyard — or even in your kitchen or living room.
“You can’t hurt yourself with it,” said Brett Velicovich, president of Expert Drones, a Washington, D.C.-area drone retailer.
This drone can fly up to 100 meters away from you and perform flips and rolls. And it’s got a camera that transmits photos instantly to a video screen on the remote-control handset. As drones go, it’s also cheap. You can buy it for $99 to $120, depending on the retailer.
Drones for the Entry-Level User
The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is popular among adult hobbyists. It comes with a 720-pixel HD camera that transmits video and photos to your iPad or smartphone. The drone can also perform flips and barrel rolls, with onboard sensors keeping it stable. It gives you all of this for $250.
DJI’s Phantom 3 Standard is also good for the new hobbyist, though at a higher cost of $499 to $799. It has a 1080-pixel camera and some self-navigating capabilities as well: Onboard sensors detect trees, power lines, and other objects in its path and change its course as needed — which is important, since it can fly up to 1.2 miles away and stay airborne for up to 25 minutes.
“If someone’s just trying to get into the hobby, it’s the one we recommend. It’s a great starter because it comes with a lot of features for that price,” said Taylor Chien, CEO of DroneFly, a web-based drone retailer.
Drone for a User on a Budget
If money is tight, then the Syma X5SW might be for you. It’s a small drone that costs only $49.
But this drone is capable of complete 360-degree rotations in the air. It also flies up to 50 meters away, and it offers real-time imaging from its high-definition camera that’s neatly tucked away and centered right below its body.
Drones for the Photographer
If you’re a serious photographer, chances are you already have a high-end camera you like to use. Then the 3DR Solo might be your ideal drone. It does not come with its own camera. You attach the camera of your choosing to its undercarriage and let the drone go to work.
And work it can. A pair of Linux computers enables it to live-stream HD video directly to your smartphone or iPad, circle an object, or pause in mid-flight. You can also pre-select a flight path of up to half a mile, which the drone will follow while its GPS steers it clear of obstacles. The 3DR company sells this drone for roughly $999.
DJI’s Phantom 4 is another good photography drone. It has a camera on a 3-axis gimbal that minimizes vibration and movement. This drone flies up to 28 minutes and a distance of 3.1 miles. It can detect and avoid obstacles, brake instantly, and circle an object. And a feature called Active Track lets it zero in on and follow a person or object. The price tag is hefty, though: $1,399.
Drone for a Party Host
At your outdoor party, guests want to make a toast. No problem. You press a key on your smartphone, and a drone zooms over to them with a bottle of champagne in tow. One of Velicovich’s clients did just that with a Flytrex Sky drone.
The Flytrex Sky is a “delivery drone” with an elastic band that holds a wide range of small- to medium-sized items. You control it with a smartphone, and to make delivery extra easy, the recipient can use a phone to access the drone while it’s flying and direct it to the drop-off point.
“If you are down the street and you want a Coke, I can send it to you on a Flytrex Sky. Then your controller can pick it up and you basically get the pilot seat,” Velicovich said. It sells for $649.
Drone for the Aspiring Helicopter Pilot
The drones noted above are “multi-rotor” models, meaning they each have multiple rotor blades (the sets of blades that helicopters spin in order to fly). Multi-rotors make up the majority of drones you’ll see in the civilian airspace.
But suppose you like the conventional helicopter, e.g., one pair of blades? Then you might try the Align T-Rex 500L Dominator. It’s a single-rotor machine whose low center of gravity makes for high maneuverability, flight responsiveness, and precision. And anti-rotation guides within the rotor help minimize wear and tear. It sells for $400 to $700.
Expect to operate the handset controls constantly, however. Single-rotor drones require continuous input from users to maintain proper tilt, rotation, and speed.
“You’re really doing a lot of work flying those things around,” said Tony Stillman, a flying site assistance coordinator with the Academy of Model Aeronautics, based in Muncie, Indiana, which hosts drone-flying events.
Do you want a drone for competitive racing? Your best bet might be to build your own. Dale Hiway Settle, co-organizer of a Maryland-based drone-racing meetup group, said he and his cohorts take this route and get drones to fly up to 75 miles per hour. The 3DR Solo, by comparison, maxes out at 55.
It’s against the law to fly drones over certain national historic sites.
“We will buy motors. We will buy the electronic speed controllers. We will buy the brains or customize them, and we’ll meticulously solder them together from the bottom up — every screw, every nut and bolt,” Settle said. “So they’re not something you can buy off a shelf.”
Online forums offer technical tips and open-source blueprints for drone components. That said, go the DIY route only if you have a solid understanding of how to build machines — or at least a willingness to study hard and learn about them. “You can’t get into this hobby unless you have a little bit of common sense and the discipline to sit down and read through all of the documentation required to understand how this stuff works,” Settle said.
A Word About Flying Responsibly
Be mindful of the rules of flight. Most important is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems Rule, which lists dozens of restrictions hobbyists must abide by. No nighttime flying is permitted, for example. And since 2015, the FAA has required all drone hobbyists whose drones weigh more than 250 grams — which is most of the drones on the market — to be registered.
If the drone is heavier than two sticks of butter (250 grams), you have to register it. The reason? There is a long history of aviation law, but no specific law for drones — so in the meantime, “the FAA is using aviation law on drones. Drones are considered airplanes and all aircraft have to be registered. So the FAA is telling us that any aircraft above 250 grams has to be registered,” said Vo.
Within five miles of an airport, no drone flying is permitted, unless you contact the airport first. It’s also against the law to fly drones over certain national historic sites, such as the Arlington National Cemetery, according to the FAA. Some high-profile public events are no-drone zones, too: The Democratic National Convention, taking place July 25 to 29 in Philadelphia, is officially off-limits to drones — just as the RNC was last week.