Cheap drones have become far more feature-packed and way easier for beginner drone pilots to fly than ever before, thanks to tech innovation from the bigger drone brands. Decent cameras, GPS locking and intelligent flight control are just three of the most common features in this budget price bracket.
The best drones as a whole are far more advanced now than even a few years ago, which means budget drones have upped their game too. So you can now find genuinely decent 4K and 1080 camera drones without spending a fortune. In fact, you can get some beauties for a couple of hundred dollars.
All of the quadcopters featured in our best cheap drones buyer's guide present a great way to learn essential flight skills and control, before progressing onto a larger drone with more advanced features. So whether you're just starting out or are looking to improve your skills before upgrading to a bigger and better model, rest assured there's an affordable drone for you. Also check out our best kids drones, if you are buying for your little ones.
To save you the bother of scouring the interweb for a suitable budget-priced drone, we’ve done the work for and collated this lovingly-crafted list of top affordable drones for under $400 from retailers like Amazon, BestBuy and Walmart.
Whether it’s shooting decent video and stills or simply flying for the fun of it, this list has all the best choices of drone currently on the US market.
BUYING AN AFFORDABLE DRONE: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Consumer drones come in many shapes and sizes and at wildly varying price points. You can buy a small indoor flyer for less than $25 or spend in excess of $10,000 for a heavyweight camera-carrying monster. Most cheap indoor toy drones aren’t that much fun, to be honest, unless the drone has a built in altitude sensor to gauge its distance from the floor. Sensor-equipped toy drones like the Parrot Mambo hold their position indoors impeccably well and are great models to learn on since their stick control methods are exactly the same as with bigger outdoor models.
Ultimately, we’d advise against buying your kid a cheap indoor toy drone without some form of positioning sensor built in or the drone will be really difficult to control. In fact, like the tiny remote-controlled helicopter you ill-advisedly bought last year, it will likely crash within the first three minutes and then be put away with all the other toys, never to be seen again.
So, perhaps forget the really cheap indoor models and opt for an outdoor one instead. Even some of the cheapest outdoor drones use GPS to locate their position in the sky and this bit of tech is vitally important, especially if you're a beginner. GPS-equipped models are, far and away, the easiest form of model aircraft to fly – and the most reliable. They will hover in one spot, only drifting a little even when flying in a stiff breeze. Some models are even equipped with a clever return-to-home (RTH) feature that will fly the drone back to the user and land, all automatically with zero input from the pilot.
However, it is essential that you read the drone’s manual before take-off and acquaint yourself with all controls by practicing at low altitude and at low speed before reaching for the sky. Also, be mindful of where you fly it and know your local ‘drone’ laws intimately (see below).
What's the best type of drone for you?
If you just want to whizz about the local park or heathland, try any of the budget-priced Chinese GPS-equipped copters below. They’re cheap enough not to cause too much of a fuss if crashed but their onboard cameras – if they have one – are woefully low on the resolution front making them near useless for cinematography purposes. This brings us neatly to the arena of the HD camera-carrying drone…
Photography and video are the two main reasons why drones have soared to such stratospheric popularity. And all because of Chinese company, DJI.
When, in July 2014, DJI released the Phantom 2 Vision+ with a built-in HD camera and three-way gimbal (the clever bit that keeps the camera rock steady no matter what the drone is doing), the world rushed at the opportunity to shoot the sort of aerial video previously only accessible to those sitting in a helicopter seat.
Video and photography fans are naturally more interested in the quality of the camera onboard than the mothership carrying it. The very best models sync the images from the camera to the user’s phone, which is normally plugged into a hand controller. This allows the pilot to see exactly what the camera’s pointing at and record video or shoot stills accordingly.
Companies like Potensic and Eachine are producing some excellent models of this nature that are good at shooting video and especially photo stills. Granted, none of them hold a candle to the DJI fleet in terms of high-end image quality, rock-solid reliability and integration between phone app and craft, but they’re a darn sight cheaper to buy and just as much fun to fly.
USA DRONE REGULATIONS: WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW
Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has some regulations regarding drone ownership and flying. In a nutshell, all owners of drones weighing between 0.55 and 55 pounds are, by law, required to register online as a drone operator. Registration costs $5 and is valid for three years. You must be 13 years of age or older.
Read the full guidelines, and register as a drone operator, at www.faa.gov.
So you don't get yourself into trouble in a public place, there are also some basic rules you need to follow:
Also remember that in the US it is illegal to fly any drone in a National Park. Yes, we know that that is exactly where you’d like to fly a camera-equipped drone, but rules are rules. If you want to find out more about where and where you can’t fly a drone, check out these handy tips at Master Your Drone.
The best affordable drones to buy right now
If you want to shoot video or photos and your budget is an absolute maximum of $400, then stop here now and forget everything else because this is the drone for you.
DJI’s Mavic Mini is unquestionably the best high-quality camera-carrying drone for the masses. It weighs a floaty 8.78 ounces (0.55lbs) fully loaded, which is a fraction shy of needing to register it with the FAA.
Size-wise, this drone is so small it can be hidden under an iPhone and easily tucked into a jacket pocket. Its low weight, small size and flexible front propellor arms also give it a better chance of surviving a crash.
The DJI Mavic Mini’s camera shoots 1080p video at up to 60 frames per second and crisp 2.7K at up to 30fps (believe us, 2.K is plenty sharp enough for the average computer monitor). Its 12mp stills, meanwhile, are nicely detailed. Despite the size, the craft is surprisingly stable in flight and fast and nimble when flown in Sport mode. It will easily fly for up to 30 minutes on a single charge and up to 4km away (far beyond the FAA’s line-of-sight regulation). Granted, one thing this drone doesn’t have is obstacle avoidance, but we don’t think this is a deal-breaker if common sense prevails.
If you’ve always hankered after a top-quality camera drone and have one cent shy of $400 to spend, then this is far and away the best model for you. It’s remarkably stable and reliable in flight, a doddle to control and it shoots stunningly good cinematic footage to boot.
• Read our full DJI Mavic Mini review
If you’re looking for a small but exceedingly well equipped ‘selfie’-type drone then consider this remarkable little contender from Ryze, which is equipped with a lot of DJI-sourced tech. It stays in the air for 13 minutes at a time, comes with digital image stabilization, shoots video in pretty decent 720p, snaps 5mp stills and hovers on the spot without the aid of GPS.
The Tello weighs just 2.82 ounces and measures 3.85 inches at its widest point. In other words, it’s small enough to tuck in a jacket pocket despite not being foldable like the DJI Mavic range. Although ostensibly designed for indoor flying, this little craft is also adept at flying outdoors, as long as it’s not too windy (without GPS on board, it could drift with the breeze and may not make it back to you).
To fly it, simply launch the Tello app on your phone, select hand launch, throw it into the air and steer it using the virtual joysticks on the screen. Everything the camera sees is streamed to the phone and, because it has digital stabilization, the footage it shoots is surprisingly smooth. The app also comes with a few pre-programmed ‘EZ Shots’ including circle (the drone flies around the user with the camera pointing inwards) and dronie (the drone flies away from the pilot while automatically filming at the same time). The Tello has a 100-meter range and is capable of performing aerobatic stunts.
You can also program this drone to perform a series of maneuvers with no real-time input from the pilot. Simply drag a series of named color-coded ‘blocks’ (‘take off’, fly forward’, ‘land) into a specific order and the Tello will follow the commands. This is a great educational feature because it teaches kids (and adults) the basics of robotics in an easy and fun way. At just $100 (or $160 for the Elite Combo with three batteries and more), this little sky star is a steal.
The Potensic A20 is a great option for kids keen to try out their drone skills for the first time. As a beginner's drone, it does what it says on the tin, with all the features you'd expect: well-protected propellers for those inevitable bumps and scrapes, an emergency stop button for those times when your little darlings fly a little too close to the dog/oven/baby and an un-ignorable low power alarm.
It's a breeze to fly inside or outside, if there isn’t a breeze. The altitude hold function keeps the drone very stable and one-touch take-off and landing controls allow kids to grasp the basics of drone flying in record time. We also love the fact that it comes with two rechargeable batteries, minimizing the risk of meltdowns when the drone's power levels start to flag. Top budget choice.
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Designed to introduce aerial photography novices to the world of cinematic drone photography, at the front of the Holy Stone HS100 GPS FPV is a fixed 1080p Wi-Fi camera with 120-degree field of view and 90-degree adjustable angle, ensuring you can capture decent footage or stills and experiment with shots from multiple perspectives. The drone is also suitable for use with FPV (first person view) goggles.
‘Follow Me’ mode is on-hand to further boost the dynamism of your shots, enabling the drone to automatically follow a subject and keep it in the frame at all times – ideal for epic selfies or shooting fast-moving activity.
The Holy Stone HS100 also comes equipped with GPS precise positioning, ensuring smooth flight and the ability to return to the take-off point at the touch of a button, or as a safety measure if the battery or signal drops. ‘Headless Mode’ and ‘Altitude Hold’ take the stress out of flying so pilots can focus on getting their shots in the bag.
The Holy Stone HS100 ships with a brilliant hand controller and a robust cradle for your phone, whether it’s Android or iOS. This is an excellent value sub-$300 model that is a lot cheaper at Walmart than it is at Amazon.
Potensic's D80 is capable of shooting 2K video and is a great option for those keen to get to grips with drone videography and photography. It’s packed with features that make it ideal for beginners, whether it’s the Point of Interest function, which programmes the drone to fly clockwise around a single point and provide a comprehensive image of the object it’s circling around, or the option to set custom-designed flight paths. The latter allows you to use Potensic’s app to programme your drone to follow pre-set routes – a great way to test out your drone’s capabilities.
There are also plenty of other features to keep more accomplished flyers entertained, and with an impressive 300 metre transmission range and 20-minute battery life, it’ll provide plenty of flying time. We also love the fact it’s got a brushless motor, which is tougher and long-lasting. However, bear in mind that it isn’t fitted with a gimbal which means video footage is quite jumpy, especially when the drone is in motion. That said, it does take very decent still images for the price.
This folding budget drone from Shenzhen, China is proof positive that you don’t need to spend a fortune on a drone with GPS, high-speed wifi technology and autonomous flight modes. The E520S looks like a mini version of the DJI Mavic while the hand controller (replete with a spring mount for an Android or iOS phone) is almost identical to that of the Mavic Air. Nevertheless, it’s a decent intermediate package for those on a learning curve towards a bona fide DJI model.
The E520S comes equipped with GPS, 5G wifi streaming up to a distance of 250 meters and a USB-charged battery that lasts about 15 minutes. It also comes with a raft of automated features including return to home, auto take-off and land, waypoint, follow-me and orbit. That’s pretty darn good for a drone costing less than $130.
However, the jury’s out on the quality of the fixed front-mounted camera, which supposedly shoots in 4K. Granted, the image quality isn’t terrible but it certainly isn’t up to the same level of 4K footage that the DJI and Parrot drones produce. Perhaps more importantly, the camera isn’t attached to a gimbal and that means any video you shoot will be jumpy. You can, however, tilt the camera by hand before take-off.
Despite being noisy, the E520S flies amazingly well for a cheap drone – it’s stable in anything bar a stiff breeze and is great fun to fly.
This DJI Mavic Air clone delivers good budget aerial photography performance in a compact package. The drone and controller can be folded down for easy stowing in a suitcase or backpack and can be ready to fly at a moment’s notice.
On-board is a fixed 1080p HD camera with a 120-degree field of view, capable of capturing acceptable video and stills for the money. This is mainly due to the drone’s aerial stability, thanks to a 6-axis gyro and Altitude-Hold Mode which help maintain a steady hover. The E511 has a maximum control distance of 200 meters.
Trajectory Flight Mode is also on-hand to add greater control and creativity to your shots. Plot a flight path on the map on your smartphone screen and the Eachine E511 will fly along it, or add VR or FPV goggles to enjoy immersive flight in 3D VR Mode.
But this isn’t just a photography drone. Within the Eachine Fly app, you’ll also find 3D flip and stunt modes to explore, while three-speed modes can help you learn the ropes or put your piloting skills to the test.
The included 7.4V 1200mAh Lipo Battery battery can power up to 17-minutes of flight per charge, but it’s worth noting that the transmitter requires 3x AA batteries, so you’ll need to stock up if you’ll be flying regularly.
DJI’s cute little Spark is a bit ruffled round the edges now but still a worthwhile punt – mostly because it’s made by DJI, the Chinese company that knows more about drones than anyone else. The Spark is roughly the size of its closest cousin, the DJI Mavic Mini. However, because its propeller arms don’t fold, it won’t fit in a jacket pocket like the folded Mini will. Even so, this air-snap gizmo is still incredibly portable and one of the smartest selfie drones in existence, available in five lush colours.
The Spark comes with front obstacle avoidance and is rock steady when flown indoors or out. Its camera shoots very acceptable 1080p video and 12-megapixel photos and is equipped with a two-axis mechanical stabiliser for relatively smooth video footage. The battery provides around 16 minutes of flight time, which can be considered quite decent for a drone of this size.
The Spark can be operated in three ways: using hand gestures, a mobile device or, for much greater range (up to 1.2 miles), a dedicated hand controller. While not designed for high-quality videography, it still shoots excellent footage.
It’s also reassuringly tough as nails, as was aptly demonstrated at a DJI event when one was accidentally flown at full speed – that's 31mph – into a tree. The only thing damaged was a prop; everything else, camera included, worked perfectly. Another great reason to consider snapping one up.
The original Hubsan X4 changed the micro-drone market, and now several generations on the exceedingly compact X4 H502S is still a formidable craft. Although it only weighs 5.5 ounces, it still manages to feature full GPS which enables steady flight more akin to larger drones than one of this size.
The GPS makes the X4 H502S incredibly easy to control outside. It also enables advanced features such as ‘follow me’ where you can get the drone to track you autonomously. What makes this drone stand out for beginners is that it has an auto ‘return to home’ feature, so if things do go astray or you lose control or sight of the craft then a quick push of the home button will bring the H502S safely back to you.
The X4 H502S has a flight time of just 12 minutes so you may wish to invest in extra batteries or the fun will be very short lived. It also comes with a fixed 720p camera that isn’t great but acceptable enough for a drone of these diminutive dimensions.
The Breeze has been around for a while and although aging still offers exceptional value for money. It packs in-flight features that will be familiar to all drone pilots with advanced options such as Selfie mode, Orbit and follow me.
You can even program the Breeze through the app to follow a set route guide by its integrated GPS system. The Breeze is ideal for use almost anywhere, it's great fun to use to shoot selfies with friends and the orbit and follow modes are fun additions.
If you want a good quality drone that's easy to fly, at this price you can't go wrong with the Yuneec Breeze.