How to buy a toy drone: what to look for and what to avoid

Looking to take to the skies with a drone? A less expensive ‘toy’ model is the perfect way to start. Here’s all you need to know

How to buy a toy drone: Potensic A20 Mini Drone
(Image credit: Potensic)

Flying drones is a lot of fun, and the video footage and stills they provide can give you a whole new perspective on your surroundings. While there are plenty of seriously capable drones around these days, starting off with the best drone available is probably overkill.

If you're finding your feet in the world of drones, there are plenty of smaller and easier to fly versions, often referred to as toy drones, that are ideal for building up your drone skills. These range from the kind of ultra-basic models you'll find in our best kids drone roundup, to the more feature-rich but still very reasonable drones in our best cheap drone guide. These are the kinds of drones we're focusing on here – read on to find all your questions answered.

Note also that just because your drone is cheap, it doesn't automatically mean you don't need a license to fly it. Head to our UK drone regulations explainer or US drone rules guide for more info before you take to the skies.

How much should I spend on a toy drone?

The most basic models come without a camera and start at around £15. However, the cheapest versions tend to be unreliable fliers and are easily damaged, so it’s worth spending a little more to get a better-quality model from a reputable drone manufacturer, such as the Potensic A20 drone (or better, its slightly pricier camera-equipped sibling, the Potensic A20W). 

Camera-equipped models worthy of consideration are available from around £60, but the leading budget toy drone, the Ryze Tello (read the full Ryze Tello drone review here), is also one of the most expensive and costs around £99.

Will I need any other equipment?

Potensic Elfin drone and controller on the grass

(Image credit: Rich Owen)

Most drones come complete with a controller, but certain models, such as the Ryze Tello, do not. To get a drone’s eye view from your camera-equipped model or use on-screen controls, you’ll also need to use a phone or tablet and download a free app. Your phone slots into a bracket on the controller for easy viewing as you fly.

With most drones, your phone will also serve to store the stills and video you take, though some models allow you to record directly onto a micro-SD card inserted into the drone itself.

Are the cameras on toy drones any good?

With relatively low camera resolutions, the video and stills you get from your budget drone won’t be winning any awards, but you can still get some impressive aerial sequences. Most toy drones, except the Ryze Tello, lack any kind of video stabilisation, so footage tends to look pretty shaky, though.

Can you fly a toy drone outdoors?

Ryze Tello drone in flight, against a blue sky

(Image credit: Rich Owen)

Being very small and light, toy drones are almost always extremely susceptible to any kind of wind. Stronger gusts can easily blow them for long distances, never to be seen again, as has happened at least once during testing for our reviews. As a result, we’d only recommend flying them outdoors on completely windless days in very large open spaces.

How far and how long can a toy drone fly?

While ranges are sometimes listed up to 100m, it's more realistic to assume around 30 to 40m for most models. And that is usually plenty. Battery life tends to be from 8 to 13 minutes depending which on which model you go for, but the vast majority come with additional rechargeable batteries included.

Are toy drones suitable for children to fly?

Woman and child flying the Potensic Elfin on a beach

(Image credit: Rich Owen)

In the UK at least, kids of any age with a Flyer ID (see below) are permitted to fly drones. However, drones with faster propeller speeds are often marked as being suitable for age 14+. Even with propeller guards fitted, drones can cause painful cuts and even rip out hair, so we’d highly recommend adult supervision at all times when kids are at the controls.

Anything else I should know?

Rule changes that came in at the start of 2021 mean that to fly any camera-equipped drone outdoors, you’ll first need to buy an Operator ID. If your drone doesn’t have a camera, you can fly it straight out of the box with nothing to worry about. 

An Operator ID costs £9, is valid for a year and only available to over 18-year-olds. Younger pilots or anyone else wishing to fly your drone can do so with a Flyer ID. This is free and lasts for five years, but you have to take a multiple-choice test. See the Civil Aviation Authority website for more information.

Rich Owen

Rich Owen has been frantically riding mountain bikes since the early 90s and is a former editor of What Mountain Bike magazine. He’s also a surfer with over 20 years’ experience and lives near North Devon’s best beach breaks.