Ideal drones show
Drones or UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) have been one of the big tech stories of the last few years. Admittedly that's largely because of their use in espionage, surveillance and war.
At home, they're primarily for aerial filming and for fun, and there's a huge range catering to one, the other or trying to have a stab at both. We've got everything from flying toys to semi-pro, 4K flying rigs that can shoot footage that makes Top Gun look like The Naked Gun.
Finally, if you have no desire to shoot video and stills from the air but still want to get droning, try joining a race club and dart through an obstacle course of disused buildings and woodland. Racing drones are also equipped with a camera but it's so the pilot can see where he's going. You'll still crash anyway, though.
Which drone makes Duncan's Christmas Fun List? Find out here…
DJI Phantom 3 Professional • £1159
If you’re looking for an impeccably integrated, supremely reliable drone with a superb camera, but don't want to absolutely break the bank, you still can't do better than the Phantom 3 Pro.
The pinnacle of high quality, mid-priced droning, it comes with a stunning 4K, 12-megapixel camera, mounted to an extremely efficient three-axis image stabilising gimbal, and a simple but effective hand controller.
What really sets this bird apart, however, is the superb integration of its iOS and Android app. Launch the drone using auto takeoff and marvel at the 1080 visuals streaming to your tablet or phone. A truly sensational piece of cinematography kit that is both confidence inspiring and damn good fun to fly.
3D Robotics Solo • £1358 with GoPro gimbal
Nipping at the heels of DJI’s Phantom 3 Professional, the handsome Solo takes cinematography to new levels of sophistication. Granted, it lacks the camera quality of the Phantom (it uses an optional fish-eye’d GoPro instead) but it makes up for this by dint of its exceptional build quality and a circus of blindingly good filming tricks including cable cam, follow me, orbit and selfie.
Like DJI’s Phantoms, the Solo uses an iPad or Android tablet as a monitoring device and everything is fully integrated with the aid of the accompanying app. A very worthy contender.
Parrot Bebop 2 • £440
The new GPS-equipped Parrot Bebop 2 is chock full of tech that makes it incredibly easy to fly and rock steady once airborne. Like the v1 Bebop, you can fly it using just a tablet (Apple or Android) or, for an even more satisfying flight experience, including FPV flying with a VR headset, get the excellent dedicated Skycontroller tablet dock.
The new Bebop 2 now flies for up to an impressive 25 minutes per charge and is equipped with an emergency cut-out feature that stops the rotors as soon as they come into contact with an obstacle.
Its Wi-Fi connection stability and live video streaming to the pilot’s tablet have also been improved, as has the camera which has been given a new, sharper lens. Again like its forerunner, the Bebop 2 eschews a mechanical gimbal in favour of a digital camera stabilising system that not only keeps the image steady via a throng of clever algorithms, but also allows the user to pan down without the camera actually moving.
In the sphere of camera-carrying leisure drones, the Bebop 2 is an unequivocal hit. It’s a doddle to operate, keenly priced, great fun to fly and, most important of all, on sale this Christmas.
DJI Inspire 1 • £2381
Want to shoot video like a pro and even have a partner join you as camera operator? You’ll be wanting one of these beauties, then. Like its Phantom brethren, the Inspire 1 is fully integrated using a tablet and the trusty DJI Go app.
The Inspire’s standard camera has similar specs as the Phantom 3 Professional although in this instance it’s attached to a 360-degree gimbal that can be operated by someone using a second controller. However, for truly cinematic results, we’d recommend opting for the new Inspire 1 Pro which comes fitted with one of DJI’s latest Micro Four Thirds cameras. Now we’re talking.
Splash Drone • From $899
If you’re worried about flying over water (and let’s face, who isn’t?), consider one of these GoPro carrying flighty-floaty things. The Splash Drone is the only consumer-priced waterproof, buoyant UAV currently on the market and it’s a little corker.
This Pro version is equipped with a two-axis waterproof gimbal suitable for a GoPro and its waterproof housing (both available separately), the usual gamut of built-in failsafe systems, a hand controller and a seven inch monitor to see what’s up ahead.
It’s nowhere near as integrated or as slick a product as the Phantom 3, but it instils a much greater level of confidence when hovering above a body of water.
Hexo+ • $1349
Sports enthusiasts have long been crying out for a drone that will follow their every move, whether it’s bombing down a ski slope or risking life and limb on a craggy mountain bike trail. The six-bladed Hexo+ is the first dedicated follow-me drone to leave the hanger and it promises great autonomous things.
Unlike the similar, soon-to-be-launched Lily which features its own-brand camera and digital image stabilisation, the Hexo+ uses a GoPro (available separately) and a mechanical stabilising gimbal to shoot your antics. The Hexo+ also isn’t as pretty or as compact as the Lily but its tracking ability is excellent and the company’s decision to use a barometer-fitted smartphone instead of a separate tracking device is a major plus, especially given the simplicity of the accompanying Hexo+ app.
With this drone you simply launch the app, tap on the style of shot you want (follow close, hover high, slide sideways, 360 orbit, etc), hit the red button and put the phone in your pocket. Voila, the drone rises and waits for you to move off and then starts filming from your preferred, predetermined angle.
The Hexo+ isn’t fully autonomous so it don’t expect it to avoid obstacles like drone-eating trees or angry power lines, though you can be sure that day isn’t far off.
Multirotor UK Mini 250 Class FPV Racing Drone • £799
If all the doom mongering about dastardly drones falling from the sky and killing us all is getting you down, consider getting yourself a racing drone. These first person view flyers are becoming all the rage with speed freaks hellbent on negotiating tricky obstacles within the safe confines of a monitored environment, usually a disused factory or somesuch.
Multirotor UK specialises in custom-built ready-to-fly racers and this particular model is a great place to start. It comes fully loaded with a CMOS camera and Fatshark Predator V2 goggles (to see where you’re going), a Futaba T6J radio transmitter, four LiPo batteries, a charger and a case to carry it all in. Great value and faster than a bat out of hell.
Parrot Airborne Night • £100
In the pantheon of indoor toy drones, the acrobatic Parrot Airborne Night is a master of stability. Like Parrot’s earlier Mini Drone, this little fella hovers in one spot so perfectly that you could pop off to put the kettle on and when you return it’ll still be in the same place.
You fly it using the Freeflight 3 app (Apple and Andoid) which can take a bit of getting used to since there is no feedback when your thumbs are resting on smooth glass. But hey, this thing’s so easy to fly you’ll have it mastered in minutes. As the name suggests, it also comes with a pair of headlights to scare the bejeesus out of house guests and pet parrots.
Walkera QR X900 • $4399 without camera
The DJI Inspire may have eaten away at a large market share of the professional aerial cinamatography arena but if you need to shoot video footage good enough for high-budget TV and cinema use you’re going to need something like this six-bladed monster from the house of Walkera.
The X900 comes with a host of failsafe systems which is very reassuring given the hefty asking price. Aside from the usual stabilising, self checking and automatic return to home features, its main safety trump card is a self deploying parachute that initiates as soon as the drone reaches an inclination of 80 degrees. It’ll also land safely if any one motor expires.
The drone itself is modular in design and can be transformed from six blades to four in a trice. It’s capable of lifting a 6kg payload which is sufficient for a Canon 5D or similar sized DSLR. Flight time is around 14 minutes which seems short but is perfectly long enough for most cinematographers to grab the money shot.
Micro Drone 2.0 Speed • £92
This cute little ladybird-shaped drone flies better than most indoor models but you will still crash it from time to time. Just as well it’s extremely well built and tough enough to survive most incidents unscathed.
The Micro Drone 2.0 comes with a hand controller, a 720p camera, spare props and a single USB-charged battery capable of keeping it in the air for up to eight minutes. The little camera
remotely records decently crisp visuals – and stills – and saves it all to an on-board MicroSD card. However, bear in mind that the image will tilt whenever the drone is moving. As the ‘speed’ moniker suggests, this feisty little number shifts like shit off the proverbial shovel so make sure you have enough space around you before letting it loose.
Parrot AR Drone 2 GPS • £299
The domestic drone daddy that started it all is still going strong, though superceded by the Parrot Bebop Drone (we're waiting on the forthcoming version 2.0 of that before adding it to this list.
This GPS version is, as ever, borne aloft on four rotors and controlled by your iOS or Android touchscreen, or the proper controls on your Nvidia Shield. All the while, a camera beams its 720p feed to your connected device to aid navigation – you can store the footage it shoots, and also capture stills.
What's new here is that the GPS allows greater stability, as well as geotagging - if it detects that it's moved without a command from you, due to the wind or pigeon strike, it automaticaly readjusts its position to where it was meant to be. It can also perform forward and back flips, and be pre-programmed to shoot elaborate moves in Director mode.
Lily • $819
Like Hexo+, Lily is almost entirely autonomous, and if the final product turns out to be half as good as the videos suggest, we’ll take a dozen please. Lily flies without the need of a controller. Instead, the user carries a cute tracking device that the Lily drone follows from a discreet distance.
To fly it, you simply lob it into the air and its motors automatically fire up, putting the Lily into a steady hover. Clever stuff. Add 1080p video at 60fps with digital gimballing to keep the image smooth and a top speed of 25mph (40km/h) and you have one very impressive little gizmo.
Only two things bother us with autonomous drones like this: will it actually fly every time it’s thrown into the air and at what point during its flight path will it smash into a tree or a power cable?