Toy drones, search and rescue drones, military drones, racing drones for competitive sport. Drones, or ‘quadcopters’ as they’re technically called, covers a broad range of flying gadgets. The stuff of fantasy a decade ago, now it’s one of the fastest growing areas of consumer tech. For the purposes of this WIRED Recommends guide, our focus is on drones that are great for taking pictures and creating video content whether you’re a beginner or an experienced enthusiast.
Buying a drone is a big investment for most of us especially if you want to jump straight into the deep end with one of the higher end models. But there are some key considerations to make when buying a drone. There is no such thing as ‘the best drone’. Instead, you have to look for a balance between features, size, quality and cost.
But before we begin, it’s important to be aware of the regulations governing aerial craft operation wherever you are. In the UK, the Civil Aviation Authority has created the UK Dronecode, which all operators should be familiar with. Also, if you plan on flying a craft that weighs between 250g-20kg, you must register with the Drone and Model Aircraft Registration Education Service before you fly. That’s even if you plan to fly it over private property. Being a responsible drone operator is key to enjoying your flight time. Follow the guidance and don’t take risks.
What are the best drones in 2020?
DJI are the current powerhouse in the world of drones and their latest offering the DJI Mavic Air 2 (£769) offers the greatest balance of specs, quality and cost. With 48MP stills, 4K/60p video and a plethora of intelligent flight modes, even a rookie will nail a winning shot with this drone.
If size and price are major considerations, the Mavic Mini (£459) is the most capable lightweight ready-to-fly drone that money can buy. It features the same 1/2.3in 12-megapixel sensor as the Mavic Pro and can capture 2.7K resolution video. The only major cons with this tiny beast is that it lacks 4K-video and obstacle avoidance.
One of the boldest consumer drones released in years, the Autel Evo II (£1,489) is the first ready-to-fly drone that offers the option of 8K-video. It’s pricey and large, but its unique modular camera design could make this drone tough to beat.
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DJI Mavic Air 2
WIRED Recommends: Suitable for all levels, with the best balance of specs and price
Sensor: 48MP 1/2in Quad Bayer | Stabilisation: 3-axis gimbal | Video: 4K/60p | Sensors: Obstacle Sensing – Front/Rear/Downward | Battery: 5,200mAh | Display: Android/iOS device | Max speed: 68.4kph | Max flight time: 34min | Real world distance: 8km | Size folded: 180mm (L) x 97mm (W) x 84mm (H) | Size unfolded: 183mm (L) x 253mm (W) x 77mm (H) | Weight: 570g | Memory: 8GB unboard + 1 x microSDHC/SDXC
If you’re in the market for a drone, chances are you’ve been overwhelmed by options – mostly dominated by DJI products. And it’s for good reason. DJI currently holds a significant edge thanks to its winning formula of pairing a fantastic camera with a form factor that provides unrivalled stability and obstacle avoidance.
Bearing a strong resemblance to the Mavic Pro range (below), the Mavic Air 2 (£769) is the amalgamation of DJI’s portable pro-line and its miniaturised entry-level quadcopters. Although it’s called the Mavic Air 2, it would be more fitting to call it the Mavic Pro 2 Air. It shares many of the features of the original Mavic Pro, but with significant upgrades in all key areas.
Firstly the camera, the Mavic Air 2 places a 1/2in sensor in the sky that’s capable of capturing both 12MP and 48MP resolution stills. It also offers full manual control as well as built-in HDR and timelapse functionality. As a flying stills camera with a solid 3-axis gimbal, the Mavic Air 2 is the equivalent of giving Red Bull to a flagship smartphone from 2019. The sensor proves more capable in lower light conditions compared to much of the competition, with an impressive light sensitivity range of ISO 100-6400. This means that it will deliver less grainy images when capturing photos during sunrise, sunset and night-time cityscapes. It also has an exciting 8K Hyperlapse mode, which is ideal for adding dramatic aerial B-roll footage to any video production. Capturing such high-resolution sequences also gives you extra flexibility to crop and experiment with dolly zoom techniques when editing.
On the video front, DJI held little back on the Mavic Air 2, giving it 4K-video at cinematic 24fps, all the way up to 60fps at 120Mbps. This tops the 4K/30p video at 100Mbps delivered by the Mavic 2 Pro. And if you want to slow things down, this drone can also capture full HD video at up to 240fps. Again, beating the Mavic 2 Pro’s slow mo video, which can only deliver Full HD at a maximum 120fps. These are serious specs that experienced filmmakers would be able to work with in professional productions.
But the feature set that really puts the Mavic Air 2 above the competition is its AI and sensor-powered tracking and comprehensive ‘active obstacle avoidance’ systems. DJI’s latest Advanced Pilot Assistance System (APAS) 3.0 uses a proprietary 3D vision system based on data from the camera and sensors. This allows the drone to see subjects, points of interest and obstacles, meaning it can actively assist you in avoiding collisions while in flight.
Being so smart also makes the Mavic Air 2 one of the easiest drones for a novice pilot to capture quality shots on, thanks to a whole host of intelligent scene recognition and active tracking modes. You can tap a point of interest or moving subject, tap the type of shot you want and the drone will set off and capture it for you, with impressively consistent results.
The Mavic Air 2 is also the first consumer drone to feature AirSense ADS-B, an aviation technology that allows it to detect nearby aircraft, including private airplanes and helicopters. This is not yet active in the UK but once it is, it’s another reason to go for the Mavic Air 2. It’s currently one of the safest drones to fly on the market.
Pros: Advanced features; stunning video and image quality
Cons: No screen on the remote control
SwellPro Spry+ 4K Waterproof Drone
A fun and quirky 4K drone that’s water and snow-proof
Sensor: 12MP 1/2.3in CMOS | Stabilisation: EIS | Video: 4K/30p | Sensors: GPS-only | Battery: 3,600mAh | Display: Built-into remote | Max speed: 64.8kph | Max flight time: 17min | Real world distance: 700m | Size folded: N/A | Size unfolded: 233.5mm (L) x 249mm (W) x 90mm (H) | Weight: 500g | Memory: 1 x microSDHC/SDXC
Although it’s not one of the latest drone releases, SwellPro has updated its Spry model since its initial release to squeeze as much out of the concept as possible. This Spry+ also benefits from being one of the most unique consumer camera drones on the market. You’d assume that any kind of water would be the death of a drone, especially sea water, but not this one.
The SwellPro Spry+ (£979) is specifically designed to be buoyant and also features a corrosion resistant construction. The same applies for its remote controller, which features a built-in screen. So there’s no need to pair it with a smartphone and it can also be used with FPV goggles via a 5.8G 8CH connection.
Being sealed from water, dust and sand it’s the perfect drone for beach dwellers and fans of water activities such as paddle boarding or canoeing. But for that reason it also doesn’t offer much in terms of range. Once it starts to pass 700m in distance from the remote control the video feed starts to get patchy. But given its USP, it was likely conceived that the Spry+ would be used close to the shore or a boat.
The camera setup on the Spry+ 4K isn’t particularly advanced. The camera is limited to upward/downward tilting and captures 12MP stills with 4K/30p video. Pretty standard. Photographs of landscapes and shorelines look pleasant captured by the Spry+ and will definitely enhance any holiday photo album. But with no gimbal stabilisation the video footage is at the mercy of wind resistance. Thanks to some basic electronic image stabilisation 1080p video will deliver the steadiest footage. When it is steady and the light is good, the footage looks crisp. It offers a couple of auto modes, including return-to-home, tap-to-fly, orbit mode and follow but nothing particularly advanced as it only features a GPS sensor.
With all of that said, the Spry+ enjoys the unique position of being the only consumer drone available that can be flown directly into water, not to mention landing and taking off from water. No problem. We did experience one instance of needing to perform an IMU (inertial measurement unit) calibration. It happened after flipping the drone during a hard water landing, but we weren’t able to replicate the error. It’s worth being aware of but not something we’ll mark against the Spry+. Just be prepared to swim out and recover it on the odd occasion.
Ultimately the appeal here is enjoyment. Drones are fun gadgets, and the Spry+ gives pilots the freedom to fly and skip over water capturing unique shots of boats and watersports. All without the anxiety of your quadcopter ending up in a watery grave. It’s also rain/snow proof, further expanding its potential uses. The footage isn’t professional level by any means. But for an enthusiast that enjoys waterfronts of all kinds, this is a fantastic option that’s easy to get to grips with. Pro Tip: Buy hydrophobic spray for the camera’s dome. It will help keep water droplets from degrading image quality after dipping into water.
Pros: It’s a waterproof consumer 4K-drone
Cons: No gimbal stabilisation; limited range
DJI Mavic 2 Pro
King of aerial photography in the consumer drone world
Sensor: 20MP 1in Hasselblad L1D-20c CMOS | Stabilisation: 3-axis gimbal | Video: 4K/60p | Sensors: Omnidirectional obstacle sensing | Battery: 3,950mAh | Display: Android/iOS device | Max speed: 72kph | Max flight time: 31min | Real world distance: 7km | Size folded: 180mm (L) x 97mm (W) x 84mm (H) | Size unfolded: 183mm (L) x 253mm (W) x 77mm (H) | Weight: 570g | Memory: 8GB unboard + 1 x microSDHC/SDXC
The expectations placed on the DJI Mavic 2 Pro were always going to be high. Especially considering the transformational impact the original had on the consumer drone market when it swooped onto the scene in 2016.
The Mavic 2 Pro (£1,339) is packing a powerful 1-inch sensor developed by the masters of medium format photography Hasselblad. This means the Mavic 2 Pro can produce stunning images in a range of conditions. Having a large 1in sensor means this drone gobbles up light like a Romero zombie does brains. You have the option of shooting HDR JPEGs in-camera or shooting RAW and capturing a fantastic amount of data to enhance shadow and highlight detail in post-production.
Capable of capturing a maximum 14-stops of dynamic range, the details, colour depth and latitude that this drone’s Hasselblad sensor offer are the most impressive we’ve ever seen on a ready-to-fly consumer quadcopter. It puts the Mavic 2 Pro in a league of its own in this category for stills photography, even though the Mavic Air 2 offers higher resolution images at 48MP. The Mavic 2 Pro also offers a greater maximum sensitivity range of ISO 12,800 – another tick for its low-light credentials.
For video, the Mavic 2 Pro offers 4K 10-bit HDR support, which will deliver hyper-real footage, rich in texture and bursting with vibrant colours. It’s also one of very few drones to offer an adjustable aperture. Sporting an f/2.8-f/11 aperture lens, the Mavic 2 Pro can deliver smooth, slow shutter speed video without the need for external ND filters on bright days. As mentioned above, the Mavic Air 2 does edge the Mavic 2 Pro on some video specs, such as offering 240fps Full HD video to the Pro 2’s 120fps. Both Mavic Air 2 and Mavic 2 class drones benefit from DJI’s 3-Axis gimbal stabilisation technology and industry-leading sensor technology. Both also record in the highly efficient h.265/HEVC codec, which maintains 50% more image data than videos captured using h.264. All without bloating the files sizes.
In terms of flying, the Mavic 2 Pro is one of the most advanced consumer drones created. However, DJI has also made it one of the smartest, giving it an omnidirectional obstacle sensing APAS system that can ‘see’ entirely around the drone. We’re confident that all levels of drone enthusiast will find that the industry-leading DJI app makes capturing pro-looking pictures and videos a breeze. On board ActiveTrack 2.0 adds precise object recognition, high-speed tracking with trajectory prediction, on top of intelligent obstacle avoidance.
As a flying camera, particularly for stills, the Mavic 2 Pro is the king of aerial photography.
Pros: Unrivalled aerial stills quality; comprehensive obstacle avoidance system
Cons: Some video specs overshadowed by cheaper models
A top beginner drone that provides a lot of fun for a low price
Sensor: 5MP | Stabilisation: EIS | Video: HD720/30p | Sensors: n/a | Battery: 1,100mAh | Display: Android/iOS device | Max speed: 28.8kph | Max flight time: 13min | Max distance: 70m | Size folded: N/A | Size unfolded: 98mm (L) x 92.5mm (W) x 41mm (H) | Weight: 80g | Memory: Uses phone memory
Manufactured by Ryze Robotics, the Tello (£99) utilises DJI and Intel technology to deliver features and functionality that blows its budget quadcopter competition clear out of the sky.
Designed to help children and adults learn about quadcopters, the Tello allows beginners to experience the thrills of flying gadgets safely and easily. It can also be used as a tool to teach programming skills via the gamified Tello Edu mobile coding app. Users can programme the Tello to fly specific ‘missions’ or perform synchronized routines using Scratch, a basic block-based visual programming language. More advanced coders can also programme Tello via SDK access. The Tello has propeller guards built into it and taking off is as easy as throwing it up into the air, launching from your hand. You can even perform cool mid-air acrobatics by swiping across the screen.
At just under £100, the Tello doesn’t include GPS or a fancy camera. But it can capture 5MP pictures and 720p resolution video at 4Mbps. It’s nothing special, but it’s good enough for scouting a location or sharing on social media. Another way Ryze managed to keep the cost and size down was by leaving out a memory card slot. Instead pictures and videos have to be downloaded to the smart device you’re using to control the Tello. There’s one major drawback to this method of storage though. Any radio signal interference that occurs while recording will remain in the video footage.
The camera is fixed and there’s obviously no gimbal fitted to this tiny drone, instead it uses electronic stabilisation. The resulting video is relatively smooth compared to most budget options and holds comparison at 720p with drones that cost three times as much. Weighing 80g the Tello falls well below the requirement for drone registration, making it a safe drone to use in most locations, indoors and outdoors.
Other features that help the Tello standout from the competition include auto takeoff/landing, ‘failsafe landing’ when it loses connection and a basic vision positioning system. Few drones below £100 offer any form of collision detection and can hover in a stable position without GPS like the Tello. It also offers basic shot automation for capturing “dronies” and circling points of interest.
Flying using the touchscreen of a mobile phone isn’t the best way to get a feel for a drone though, which is why DJI has created the Gamevice Controller, which can be purchased from their site for around £70. It’s basically the controls from a Nintendo Switch, but for the DJI Spark and Ryze Tello. The Tello is also compatible with select VR goggles and third party controllers.
The Tello is an excellent gateway into the world of quadcopters and it’s affordable enough that you can jump right in without too much hesitation. Intrigued by drones and want to take a cautious step towards spreading your wings? Look no further.
Pros: Class-leading array of technology; powerful educational tool
Cons: No memory card slot holds it back; video quality is limited
DJI Mavic Mini
Great balance between size, features, quality and cost
Camera: 12MP 1/2.3-inch CMOS | Stabilisation: 3-axis | Video: 2.7K/30p | Sensors: Obstacle Sensing – downward | Battery: 2,400mAh | Display: Android/iOS device | Max speed: 46.8kph | Max flight time: 30min | Max distance: 2km | Size folded: 140mm (L) x 82mm (W) x 57mm (H) | Size unfolded: 160mm (L) x 202mm (W) x 55mm (H) | Weight: 249g | Memory: 1 x mircoSDHC/SDXC
The introduction of the Mavic Mini is another savvy move in the quadcopter market from DJI. Weighing in at 249g, the Mavic Mini (£459) is 1 gram shy of the legal requirement for aerial craft registration in most countries, including the UK. This removes a potential barrier for aspiring drone enthusiasts who want to experience flying without the commitment of paying to become a registered operator.
The second stroke of genius behind the Mavic Mini is that DJI has managed to retain a number of the features that made the original Mavic Pro standout. Like it’s camera. The Mavic Mini uses the same 12-megapixel 1/2.3-inch image sensor and 3-axis gimbal combo as its larger predecessor, despite being 3x smaller. Although in this smaller unit, it doesn’t capture stills in RAW format, only JPEG. And the maximum video resolution has been limited to 2.7K/30p at 40 Mbps rather than 4K/30p. But overall, it’s still a very impressive package considering the size and weight of it. Folded down, the Mavic Mini is smaller in length and almost weighs as little as the iPhone 11 Pro, making it ultra portable.
Thanks to improved battery tech and power efficiency, the Mavic Mini offers a 30-minute max flight time – almost matching the flagship Mavic 2 Pro and outlasting the Mavic Pro. The Mavic Mini also benefits from having access to some of DJI’s clever automodes, which makes capturing great-looking video and stills as simple as tapping the screen on your device. The Mavic Mini does, however, lack active obstacle avoidance and tracking so you will need to take better care than usual when operating it.
The Mavic Mini offers comparable image quality to a top-end smartphone, but it can fly. It comes in a neat carry case, with a controller that pairs to both Android and iOS devices. If you want a compact, take-anywhere drone and are willing to compromise on pro-image quality, the Mavic Mini is an excellent choice.
Pros: A drone built on proven success; ultimate portability; good image quality
Cons: Signal strength can be compromised by its size; no RAW files; no obstacle avoidance
Autel Robotics Evo II
A pioneering flying platform with a modular camera offering 8K-video
Camera: Modular system, standard 48MP 1/2in Sony IMX586 Quad Bayer | Stabilisation: 3-axis | Video: 8K/60p | Sensors: Obstacle Sensing – omnidirectional | Battery: 7,100mAh | Display: Android/iOS device | Max speed: 72kph | Max flight time: 40min | Max distance: 3km | Size folded: 228mm (L) x 113mm (W) x 110mm (H) | Size unfolded: 424mm (L) x 354mm (W) x 110mm (H) | Weight: 1.127kg | Memory: 8GB unboard + 1 x mircoSDHC/SDXC
As market leader, DJI has a target on its back and Autel is one of the brands that is starting to offer a genuine threat to its air supremacy. The original Autel Evo is a credible alternative to DJI’s 2018/2019 quadcopter models.
This time around Autel isn’t trying to match DJI, it’s trying to surpass the Mavic series and in some ways, it seems like it has. One standout feature of the Evo II (£1,349) is that it is designed to be an aerial platform. That means it’s a quadcopter that features a modular camera. Currently there are three Evo II options; 1/2-inch sensor + 8K-video (Evo II), 1-inch sensor + 6K-video (Evo II Pro), 1/2-inch sensor + 4K-video + Thermal IR Camera (Evo II Dual).
It’s a route that perhaps DJI should have taken with the Mavic 2 range. Choosing this path could extend the life of the Evo II for many years to come, as long as Autel chooses to keep supporting it with new camera modules as the tech improves. It’s a potentially game-changing move from the challenger brand.
So far, we’ve only been able to get our hands on the standard Evo II model, but after an initial firmware update we can confirm the 8K-video is impressive. Why the need for 8K-video recording in 2020? Especially when 4K is still very much the norm for displays. Glad you asked. It’s safe to say that 8K will be standard at some point in the near future. So having the ability to capture video in that resolution has a future-proofing benefit.
Also, capturing 8K-video footage allows for a lot of cropping and zooming flexibility in post-production. 8K-video is 16 times the size of Full HD (1920×1080). That effectively gives it 4 x lossless zoom when shooting for a Full HD output, opening up various exciting creative options. And even if you don’t want to shoot in 8K or 6K, the Evo II can capture glorious 4K/60p video in h/264/h.265 codecs. Due to its weight, powerful motors and capable AI the Evo II captures insanely stable footage, even in relatively high winds.
Still images from the Evo II are a slightly less satisfying story unfortunately. The camera on the Evo II captures in RAW and JPEG and appears to be based on the same Sony IMX586 48MP unit that is in the Mavic Air 2. So why do the images appear to be of lower quality? It may be the fact that its lens uses cheaper glass or because it has a constant aperture of f/1.8. The Mavic Air 2 uses a sharper f/2.8 lens. There’s noticeable softness in the corners of still images captured with the Evo II. It’s not bad by any means, it’s just a shame it doesn’t match its awesome video quality.
Covered in 12 AI-powered vision sensors, the Evo II is rock steady in the air and tracks subjects intelligently. It was impressive to see how consistent the avoidance tech performed. The Evo II can detect objects up to 30m away and stop at a safe distance with helpful radar visual queues appearing on screen to show obstacle proximity. It would be almost impossible to crash this drone with avoidance turned on, if anything its sensors are too sensitive. The Evo II remote has an LCD screen built into it, so it can be used without a smartphone. It’s not as good as a phone display, sure, but it’s good to have the option.
The Evo II is a relatively large drone, it’s definitely not something that we’d recommend for regular travel. It’s the type of drone you’d want to use for a big trip to the Scottish Highlands or Iceland, for example. This is one of the reasons why it isn’t an immediate threat to DJI’s dominance. However, if you’re looking for best-in-class video resolution, stability and impressive auto modes, the Evo II is hard to beat.
Pros: Cracking 8K footage; interchangeable lenses; super stable
Cons: The lens on the default camera is noticeably soft in the corners; heavyweight