What is the best drone to buy?

I’m often asked ‘what is the best drone to buy?’ Whether for:

  • Entry or advanced level drone users
  • Commercial or recreational purposes
  • Photography or agricultural uses, or mapping
  • Rural or urban use

And many are asking online for opinions. Incomplete and inaccurate information is rife so I’ve written a comprehensive, independent summary.

Traps to be aware of; often people:

  • Have only flown one or two drones and this is what they recommend for you.
  • Are only familiar with their own circumstances, not yours. Your specific aims, requirements, circumstances and budget may be completely different. EG they are unaware of the challenges involved in rural & remote Australia (from ultra-fine dust to temperatures regularly above 40c, humidity above 80%, long distances from mobile phone reception and slow upload/download speeds). Do they have sound knowledge of professional-standard photography requirements (what drone features will make a real difference to what you create, and what don’t matter). Do they understand the needs of small business owners or are they just flying recreationally, and with more spare time than you have?

Ensure:

  • You don’t get hung up on spec sheets, without understanding what the specs actually mean. EG, the difference between optical and digital zoom or what shifting from Lightbridge to Occusync may mean, in terms of usability. Or fall for the common asssumption that because a lens carries the brand name of a traditionally expensive camera manufacturer it automatically produces better images than the rest.
  • You take listed capabilities as a guide for comparing between models, only. There is of course a big difference between the real world and a manufacturer testing a drone’s flight time and distance in perfect conditions (no wind or signal interference, at sea level, temperature in low 20s C, flying in a power-efficient manner). A manufacturer’s listing of a flight time of 34 minutes does not mean you’ll be flying that drone for 34 minutes. Maximum flight distances are often spruiked but should be ignored because in Australia, same as in most countries, it is only legal for a drone pilot to fly their drone as far as they can see it with their own eyes, unaided (‘VLOS’). And there are numerous reasons why signal interference can occur. Use these specs to compare models. EG ‘this model usually has a longer flight time than that one’, ‘this drone is likely to have a stronger drone-to-controller signal than that one’.

The information below is written with Australia in mind however the principles apply globally.

I don’t sell drones; the information I provide is completely independent and based on solid hands-on drone usage. See the bottom of this page for my drone-related qualifications & experience. In summary:

  • Fully licenced & certified by CASA and I’ve owned & flown many of the most popular consumer level drones.
  • I have been invited to present at drone conferences on 4 continents (Europe, China & the US, in addition to Australia); delivering keynote addresses as well as drone introductory sessions & masterclasses.
  • Small business owner & professional aerial photographer for 30+ years.
  • I do run drone training sessions through the Rural Drone Academy but this has no bearing on information provided to the general public re recommendations for drone purchases.
Outback drone photography - on OBE Organic's Adria Downs Station, Birdsville

Outback drone photography – on OBE Organic’s Adria Downs Station, Birdsville – taken with DJI’s Phantom 4 drone.

There’s a lot of detail here but it’s important to note – drone buyers are often spending more money than they need to or buying a drone that isn’t a good fit for what they need. If you don’t want to waste time or money, it’s worth doing decent research before buying a drone.

If you simply want a summary of what is the best drone to learn to fly on (without considering any other factors, eg job requirements or portability), then see the What is the best drone for beginners blog post.

Want to buy & fly a drone? First:

  • Determine exactly what you want to use it for. Is a drone the best tool for the job?
  • If in Australia: visit the ‘OK2Fly’ website (via CASA) and enter the location where you intend to fly your drone most of the time, to check you are legally allowed to do so. And visit the Civil Aviation Safety Authority and read the drone laws that apply to your situation, to check it’s safe & legal to do what you have in mind.
  • If in another country: visit your federal government’s national aviation body & read up on the drone laws. There may also be an official drone app which you can download which shows where you can and can’t fly drones. In the US it’s the Federal Aviation Administration; Canada: Transport Canada & in the UK it is the Civil Aviation Authority.  Up until mid 2019 European countries had separate drone laws for each nation, but EASA (European Union Aviation Safety Agency) has put an impressive amount of work into formulating EU-wide drone regulations, that will be introduced soon.
  • Also – be aware that the remit of aviation authorities is to ensure aviation safety. There’s also federal, state and local authority laws preventing drone flights in specific areas – from coastal ports to urban parks to Defence Force facilities and prisons (including prison farms).  The onus is on drone operators to ensure they have thoroughly checked (‘ignorance is no excuse in the eyes of the law’).
  • The internet is full of people who’ve spent a thousand or two buying a drone, only to find they live too close to controlled airspace to fly where they want to, without a drone licence and special permission; or what they want to do just isn’t safe or legal.  EG checking bores on stations (out of line of sight). Don’t risk buying an expensive paperweight – check before buying.

Then:

Buying a drone is like buying a car.  The vital consideration is: what do you (or the operator) specifically want a drone to do (what will the drone be used for), and who will be flying it (child or adult, experienced or inexperienced)?

In simple terms, the 5 main choice-related considerations:

  1. Portability (smaller = better)
  2. Visibility (how far you can fly it legally is determined by how far away you can see it. Bigger = better.)
  3. Quality of images (or the ability to use other kinds of sensors) & camera features
  4. Price (don’t pay more than you need to)
  5. Wind resistance (vital consideration if flights are time-sensitive and you are in coastal or other regions where high winds are a regular occurrence)
  6. (Another consideration for a few people – weight class of the drone, in relation to registration or licencing requirements)

What is best for you depends on which of the above considerations matters most to you. List your personal priorities in order.

Summary of different drone features to consider & significance in relation to completing required tasks:

  • Portability: size & weight. Will you be carting it around on a motorbike, in a ute, or on a plane?  In your pockets or a large hard case?
  • Quality of the inbuilt camera: which really only matters a lot if you want to sell drone photographs; otherwise, most inbuilt cameras on larger drones are good enough (producing quality aerial images and videos is much more difficult than on the ground; buying a top quality drone camera is a waste without the experience to get the best out of it.)  Some of the smaller drones have camera specs & output that match larger, much more expensive drones – so don’t presume bigger/more expensive = better quality image creation ability. Although very small drones usually don’t offer the ability to record ‘raw’ image files; only JPEGs.
  • Ability to attach other cameras and sensors:  rather than just use inbuilt cameras and sensors – are you wanting to use your drone for mapping, for example?
  • Capacity to carry other weight:  eg spray units (bearing in mind that using drone spray units requires licencing and special permission; IE you progress to this point rather than start from it.  You only buy a spray drone after you’ve got all the licences required.)
  • Number of motors: quadcopters [4 motor drones] drop like rocks if one motor fails – no redundancy. Octocopters & hexacopters can usually keep flying.  For licenced pilots this matters, because special permission may be granted by CASA to fly higher or closer to people than would be the case with just a quadcopter. But quadcopters are usually much cheaper & simpler.
  • Weight of the drone:  heavier drones usually fly more smoothly in strong winds.  Lighter drones struggle to film smooth videos. Will you be making videos, and flying your drone in an area where it’s often windy?  Small light drones can struggle in coastal areas. Strong winds also chew through battery power, shortening flight times.
  • Noise: if you want to muster livestock out of holding paddocks with your drone, noise is an advantage. Some later models drones are quieter than earlier models – so they’d be less useful for moving stock.  And see the Mavic 2 Enterprise – which can use a loudspeaker.
  • Power:  affects speed, lift capacity, steadiness in the wind etc.  Cost is fairly directly related to power.
  • Longevity/durability:  consumer drones are not made to fly longer than most pilots use them over about 3 years. As camera & software specs are rapidly improved longevity is more of an issue for drones above 2kg with interchangeable cameras (older drone bodies can be useful for a long time by just upgrading the camera). Most consumer drones are superceded long before their moving parts wear out. (Contrary to what is said on many drone Facebook groups, careful drone pilots very rarely crash. If you crash your drone it’s probably because you made more than one mistake, just as in aviation.)
  • Range (transmission range – controller to drone):  is not an issue for larger consumer drones because the controller-to-drone transmission range for most is way beyond VLOS; ie they cannot be legally flown to the edge of transmission range (without licencing plus special BVLOS permission, which is very hard to obtain, for sound safety reasons). IE ignore ‘5km range’ and ‘7km range’ that you may see on advertising material for Mavic 2 Pros because a drone this size cannot possibly be seen by the operator just 1 kilometre away, even in ideal atmospheric conditions.  Smaller drones use WiFi, which is subject to interference in densely populated areas. So the quoted ‘range’ for drones such as the Spark may be much further than in reality.
  • Speed: is also worth ignoring – unless you’re buying a racing drone (a rather moot point; as drone racers typically custom build their own drones, anyway).  The top speed advertised with drones is usually not available in all modes, and super-fast speed is rarely required. It’s also worth noting that current collision avoidance sensors do not usually work at top speeds.  (Logical when you think about it but it continues to amaze, how many fly their drones full-tilt at solid objects then complain when their aerial robot is not able to sense and brake before impact.)

And –

Drone batteries:

  • Flight time – when new, drone batteries last for a few minutes up to approximately 30 minutes; depending on the brand and flight conditions. Bearing in mind that you can’t run a drone battery down to zero when flying. (Of course UAV battery life will improve as technology evolves.)
  • Number of batteries the drone requires (more than 1 battery, with dual redundancy, means that if one battery fails in flight, the other will allow the drone to be flown and safely landed)
  • Capacity of the drone batteries. Current CASA and airline rules re the carriage of dangerous goods (eg lithium batteries for drones) state that below 100w the quantity carried is discretionary. Above 100w there are limitations on the number that can be carried.  Larger drones usually have more batteries and they’re higher capacity, fewer of which can be carried on airlines. So this should be considered if you want to take your drone on planes.  It may be necessary to send your extra batteries as cargo (rather than on a passenger plane) or by road.  Rules for carriage of dangerous goods on airlines are discussed and formulated by the IATA (International Air Transport Association) so rules tend to be similar across airlines; but always check CASA’s ‘carriage of dangerous goods’ section as well as the relevant information on the website of the specific airlines you’ll be flying with.  Some airlines now insist drones must be in checked luggage rather than hand luggage (but batteries still in carry-on). Airlines can and do change these rules overnight, so check before you leave for the airport.
  • Lithium batteries that power drones are expensive. The current price for Phantom & Mavic Pro batteries is just under $300, and batteries for larger machines are more than $300.
Farm drone photography (High Country, Victoria)

Farm drone photography (High Country, Victoria)

Which model of drone is best?

Just like cars, there are different drones for specific purposes; and drones that are more multi-purpose. If you buy a tiny, easy-to-park & economical town car it will be great for that purpose but if you take it bush-bashing you’ll be disappointed.  Choose your horse for the right course.

Like cars, there are many different brands of drones and a variety that are considered good quality.  But for simplicity’s sake I’ve concentrated on the most common brand of consumer drones: DJI.  It’s like the Toyota of drones. Because:

  • DJI drones are readily available everywhere – easy to find
  • The internet is full of ‘how to’ videos and problem solving for various models of DJI drones
  • Easy to find accessories for (new & secondhand)
  • Most spare parts are readily available and they can be repaired by the mechanically or technology-minded at home
  • Competitively priced and easy to sell secondhand when upgrading
  • Most drone training courses revolve around DJI drones

1. Ryze Tello & Parrot Mambo:

  • Both are a very small drones, weighing less than 100g and costing less than two hundred dollars.
  • These drones are learning and recreational tools, not useful for work purposes, and they’re really for indoor use only.
  • However though these small drones are often referred to as ‘toys’, they should not be treated as toys and given to children to fly unsupervised. A spinning propeller across an eyeball can cause permanent damage, and the props easily tangle in long hair. Children flying drones should be supervised and wear protective glasses. (A session on how to best manage children & drones, with other advice, is included in my drone workshops.)
  • Image and video quality isn’t too bad considering the tiny size of these machines – but not usable for anything much other than social media posts (& no option to record ‘raw’ image files).
  • The smaller & cheaper the drone the harder they tend to be to fly, but as they’re light they’re fairly tough; and they are great for training.
  • Usually controlled via a phone, however cheap control units can be purchased which makes them much easier to fly (less lag).
  • These drones use VPS not GPS – so they can easily fly indoors (as long as the surface below isn’t too reflective or bland), but it’s best to have prop guards fitted when inside buildings to protect eyes, faces and walls from damage.
  • The transmission range is short – they cannot fly far from the operator (usually less than 30 metres, but it varies according to conditions)
  • Batteries only last for a few minutes.
  • Being so light, Tello and Mambo drones struggle even in a light breeze.
  • As these two drones weigh less than 100g, have a low transmission distance and short battery life –  they can be flown in some areas where 100g plus drones are not permitted, as the smaller drones are deemed to not pose a risk to aviation safety & minimal risk to people or property.
  • Tellos and Mambos don’t require complicated software updates or a licence to operate.
  • There’s fun but educational free-to-download software that kids can use to programme them. EG Tynker.
  • Note – DJI sells Tellos & provides components for them; but they’re designed by Ryze. Parrot is a French drone company, now moving towards production of commercial drones only, so Mambos have unfortunately been discontinued.

2. DJI Spark:

  • Primarily designed for the cashed-up selfie taker.
  • Ideal for travelling light – fits into a big pocket or handbag & can be operated via a mobile phone screen rather than a dedicated controller.
  • Relatively cheap.
  • The compromise is a poorer quality camera & gimbal and due to lightness & less power, Sparks struggle in wind; but handy for putting up for a look (eg checking spot fires).
  • Maximum battery life of 16 minutes.
  • Much shorter range – the transmission range is shorter, but in any case, being smaller, Spark drones are less visible from a distance.
  • Yuneec Breeze is a similar brand & model to consider, and Parrot may have something similar.
  • DJI’s Spark has really been replaced by the Mavic Mini, released in November 2019.

Mavic drones – consumer models:

  • DJI’s Mavic drones are designed to fold up so they’re easy to cart around & less likely to be damaged in transit, and they fit very neatly into durable ‘pod’ style cases.
  • Each Mavic model has different specs and these can be compared on DJI’s website, in detail. Only you can decide what will suit your particular circumstances – the bottom line is that you get what you pay for.
  • There are three lines of Mavic drones for recreational or light commercial use (rather than industrial):
  1. The Mavic Mini – first created in 2019, specifically to fit under the 250g weight class – so it weighs just 249g. Ideal for travellers with only carry-on luggage and designed to be under the compulsory registration threshold in some countries.
  2. The Mavic Air series – originally released in 2018 and updated in 2020. Smaller, lighter and cheaper than the Pro; the compromise sitting between the Mini and the Pro.
  3. The Mavic Pro series – the original and heaviest Mavic line, first created in 2016.  The Mavic most commonly used for work-related purposes.

3. Mavic Mini:

  • Camera – 12MP sensor; 24mm lens & fixed aperture at 2.8, and it focuses from 1 metre onwards.
  • Takes a 256GB card so a traveller could use the one card on a round-the-world trip*, as the maximum video resolution is 2.7k (not 4k, and H264 no H265 option) & it only records JPEGs not RAW files. (*If you’re confident you won’t drop it into the sea – otherwise – change cards regularly.)
  • Theoretically 30 minutes flight time but distance is limited to VLOS in most countries and you’d be flat out seeing the Mavic Mini further than a few hundred metres away, even in optimal conditions.
  • Uses the ‘DJI FLY’ app.
  • Summary – the drone equivalent of a mobile phone camera for photographers.  What you lose in image quality you gain in fantastic portability and convenience. There’s a lot of things the Mavic Mini won’t be able to do (starting with – no flying in windy conditions. And the drone-controller connection isn’t brilliant.)  Ultimately you do get what you pay for – if you want the best quality images from a consumer level drone, you do need to pay more, and carry around a larger & heavier drone.

4) & 5): Mavic 2 Pro, Mavic 2 Zoom & the Mavic Air 2 (the original Mavic Pro & original Mavic Air have been superceded):

  • The original Mavic Air will squeeze into large pockets on jackets, however the Mavic Air 2 is too big for pockets.
  • Mavic Pro Drones are not standard-pocket sized but fit easily into a backpack or carry-on luggage and are convenient to carry in any vehicle.
  • Primary differences between the Mavic 2 Pro & Mavic 2 Zoom, the upgraded models released in August 2018 – the Mavic 2 Pro has a 1″ sensor; the same size as the larger & more expensive Phantom 4 Pro; whereas the Mavic 2 Zoom has the same size sensor as the original Mavic, but the lens will zoom from 24mm to 48mm. 24mm is a wide angle lens (so things appear further away than they actually are) whereas 50mm is the standard for DSLR cameras – it’s what most closely approximates the what is seen by human eyes.  So it’s important to note that 48mm still won’t get you up close to animals or people (unlike a 120, 200mm or longer lens).  However – the Mavic 2 Zoom is the best off the shelf drone choice if you need to see something closer while on the fly (as distinct from downloading the image & enlarging it, after flying); particularly if it’s something you can’t fly too close too, for safety reasons. The Mavic 2 Zoom is also great for cinematic effects, as well as being a few hundred dollars cheaper.  However the Mavic 2 Pro produces better quality still images.
  • Mavic Air: the original Air was released in early 2018 then the Air 2 came on the market in April 2020. It is cheaper, smaller and lighter than the original Mavics and the Mavic 2’s – thus a lot more portable. On paper it can handle the same wind strength as Mavic Pros and fly for a bit longer than 30 minutes but comments from users suggest this is over optimistic in real world conditions. On paper it can travel almost as quickly as the larger Mavics and it does have a better transmission system than the original Air. Like the Mavic zoom, the Air 2 only has a 1/2″ sensor (unlike the Mavic 2 Pro and Phantom 4 Pro, both with a 1″ sensor), but it does have some better camera and video specs and auto modes. However the Air 2 aperture is fixed rather than adjustable and some other photography options are missing.  So the Mavic 2 Pro will remain the better Mavic drone for photography, particularly videoing with manual setting adjustments.
  • The Mavic 2’s and Mavic Air (original and 2) have 8GB of onboard storage, handy if you’ve forgotten to put a memory card back into it after downloading images.
  • ADSB – due to US legislation, DJI are now making drones with ‘Air Sense’ – an ADSB receiver that pics up signals from manned aircraft that are transmitting location signals, so that drone operators are warned of manned aircraft in the vicinity. Due to virus-related disruption, only the US is receiving Mavic Air 2’s with ‘Air Sense’ at present, with other countries to follow later in 2020. Note that these drones don’t transmit a signal, they only receive. It’s also worth mentioning that many aircraft in Australia are not required to have transponders so relying on ‘Airsense’ or an app such as ‘Flight Radar’ could lead to a false sense of security – until aviation authorities make location signalling compulsory for all airborne manned aircraft, including gliders, gyrocopters and ultralights. All drone pilots must continue to rely 100% on their eyes and ears to look out for approaching manned aircraft. There is a good argument for fitting ADSB transmitters to drones (not just receivers)
  • If you are buying a drone to take photographs out the paddock on a motorbike or to take backpacking, IE space is a top priority, you’d choose to buy the Air 2 not a larger Mavic.
  • You’d choose a Mavic 2 Pro if image quality plus portability is your number one priority or you need a drone to withstand higher winds – but you’ll be paying a lot more money for it.
  • I’ve owned an original model Mavic Air – the most beautifully designed portable drone on the market. I sold it only because it wasn’t being used enough.  And, you can get red ones. I recommended the Mavic Air as being the best choice for most travellers, prior to the release of the Mavic Mini and Air 2.
  • Mavic Pros (original model and the 2) are the most popular drones on farms & stations in Australia, due to their portability. I own a Mavic 2 Pro but only fly it when I’ve run out of Phantom batteries.
  • Remember that drones are like cars – usually people will talk up the brand or model they own. If you’re on a farm or station, a Phantom, Mavic Air or Mavic Mini may actually suit you better than a Mavic Pro – so consider the options carefully rather than blindly running with the pack.

6. Mavic 2 Enterprise; ‘M2E’ & ‘M2E Dual’ – industrial purpose drones:

2 more Mavic drones, first released in 2018.  These two related DJI drone models are discussed separately to the Mavics above as the M2E has been designed specifically for industrial purposes – the smallest industrial use drones that DJI manufacture. M2E drones come with 3 interchangeable accessories – a speaker, spotlight and beacon – that would be especially useful for some farmers & livestock producers, though they were created with emergency service uses in mind:

  • Speaker; maximum volume 100DB at 1metre distance; audible 20-40 metres away, or more (depending on conditions). M2E pilots can make up to 10 voice or sound recordings & play them on demand. Or transmit real-time voice messages. Developed primarily with emergency service operations in mind.
  • Self-heating batteries: very useful for drone work in temperatures down to -10c. (Most drone batteries need to reach 15c before safe flight.  Many people use heat pads and handwarmers to warm drone batteries just before flight in very cold regions.)  The battery heating commences when the temperature is between -20c & 6c and the button is pressed & held for 5 seconds; or heating is automatic if inserted into the M2E & turned on.

Flying drones after official last light & before first light requires full licencing and training in Australia, but these two features are particularly useful in low-light situations:

  • Dual spotlight (2,400 lumens); enough light to capture clear images up to 30 metres away. But not adjustable in flight, only on the ground.
  • Flashing strobe light, for superior aviation safety – visible up to 5km away.

Another couple of interesting industrial-standard features:

  • Password protection for the 24GB of data stored on board (not the memory card), and the password is required to operate the drone (when turning it on, & connecting to the remote controller).
  • Every image can be stamped with the time, date & GPS location. Note that this is an optional feature; not compulsory. Useful for farm image recording of pasture, crops etc (as well as search & rescue, etc). This could also be used to prove drone pilots were operating illegally and be valuable protection against false accusations from paranoid members of the public or vexatious claims.  (Although the flight data also does this already, on other DJI drones.)
  • ‘Local data mode’ prevents data from being sent to the internet via the mobile phone or tablet being used with the drone (security measure).
  • DJI Air Sense: Air sense pics up ADS-B signals & displays them on screen. However, ADS-B: Automatic Dependence Surveillance-Broadcast signals – or an equivalent – would ideally be compulsory on all manned aircraft but currently only required on aircraft operating under IFR. Potentially useful for drone flights near airports but not further away, as manned aircraft using IFR are usually many thousands of feet up, between airports. Or where emergency aircraft are operating – but permission (as well as a licence) is required to fly in declared emergency zones.  Many aircraft do not use ADS-B. From 2020 all new models of DJI consumer level drones will be fitted with ADS-B, so they’ll be trackable by safety authorities.

The second version of the M2E drone is the ‘Dual’:

The Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual is fitted with a FLIR thermal camera as well as a standard camera for capturing visible light. Whereas the ordinary M2E is fitted with an optical zoom. Also included on the M2E Dual – a spot meter for measuring object temperature (eg re building fires) and some other temperature measurement features.  The Mavic 2 Enterprise Dual costs more again than the ordinary M2E, but worth consideration for anyone who could benefit from having an airborne thermal camera. It may also be useful for locating feral species such as pigs in scrub and tall crops such as cane.

Unsurprisingly, Mavic 2 Enterprise drones cost a lot more than ordinary Mavics; and really the specs are way beyond what most farmers & livestock producers would end up using. M2E’s are drones to upgrade to, if the need becomes apparent; not drones to start from.

Fiona Lake, catch-landing a Phantom 4Pro V2 drone – which must be done in a particular way to avoid injury. Props fitted to these drones look like plastic but they contain carbon or glass fibres and inflict very nasty cuts if mishandled. Catch landing is not recommended for drones which do not have landing legs. (Image by Townsville photographer, Cheryl Robertson).

7. DJI Phantom 4 Pro Version 2:

  • DJI released their first Phantom drone onto the market in 2013.
  • They stopped making the latest in the series, the Phantom 4 Version 2, in mid 2019 – but then started manufacturing them again in January 2020. And many people are hoping for a Phantom 5, with interchangeable lenses.
  • It’s important not to confuse the V2 model with earlier models, as the V2 is a much better drone than the other P4s.
  • The P4P V2 is DJI’s most expensive consumer level drone.
  • Many secondhand Phantoms are still available and at reasonable prices – but, new filters are becoming harder to find.
  • Due to a combination of features, durability, ease of use and price – DJI’s Phantom drones were the world’s most popular consumer drone.
  • The media still prefers to use the image of a Phantom drone when running drone stories, though the story may have nothing to do with DJI or their Phantom model.
  • Phantom drones were upstaged by the portability of the Mavic drones which first appeared in 2016. This increased when the very popular Mavic 2 Pro model was released in 2018, with the same size image sensor as the Phantom 4 Pro Version 2.
  • Phantom drones are not as portable as the Mavics so less practical for carting around. But Phantoms can squeeze into most carry-on suitcases (along with batteries, which must be in carry-on luggage, not checked baggage. But always check airline spec for rule changes, before flying.)
  • If a Phantom is carted around a cattle station or farm it should be kept in a hard case – quite bulky and of course unsuited to a motorbike.  The upside is that if you get a good case you can get the drone out & going a lot quicker, and pack it up faster – there’s no stuffing around unfolding/folding it all and it is more durable. And a good hard case is ideal for a take-off and launch pad in dusty or wet conditions. The last benefit of hard cases? Should a battery self-combust, a well sealed case could prevent your house from burning down. (Battery safety is covered in detail during Rural Drone Academy training.)
  • Because Phantom drones have legs, they can be safely catch-landed (with the right technique) – thus keeping them out of dust and moisture when landing.  The legs also provide a degree of protection against rough landings; keeping the gimbal, camera and other vitals further away from the ground, thus making them ideal for farm & station use.
  • Phantom 4 drones have a mechanical shutter which means they are suited to producing accurate maps, unlike drones with a rolling shutter; and are better for cinematography.
  • Partly because the Phantoms have been around longer than Mavics and partly because Phantoms are better suited to mapping, there is a larger number of apps available for Phantoms than for any other drones.
  • Phantoms are more durable than Mavic Pros and the heavier weight of the Phantom body means they handle stronger winds – smoother videos.
  • It’s also possible to fly Phantom 4 drones in ‘atti’ (attitude) mode – with the GPS turned off. This is vital safety training for GPS signal failure. It also enables smoother videos. Mavics can only be flown in atti mode – sans GPS – by initiating a complicated work-around.  Which would probably render warranty and insurance claims null and void.  Whereas with the P4, flying without GPS is just a matter of changing one setting and flicking a switch. The option of ‘atti’ mode is why Phantom drones are preferred by better quality drone trainers, and still used by many.
  • The top-of-the-range DJI consumer drones, the Phantom 4 Pro V 2 and Mavic 2 Pro, produce photographs which are similar in quality but still not as good as photos from professional quality camera equipment used by photographers in planes and helicopters, or the far more expensive models of drones which allow interchangeable cameras.  (These drones weigh over 2kg, thus entering another licencing category; and full systems cost many thousands of dollars more). However the image quality of the P4P V2 & Mavic 2 Pro is close enough to be usable for most commercial photography purposes, if done with care.
  • I’ve owned a Phantom 4, Phantom 4 Pro, and the Phantom 4 Pro V 2 (as well as smaller DJI drones, including the Mavic 2 Pro).  I don’t have the patience for faffing around with folding stuff and fiddly SD card removal and screen connection cords and prefer being able to put a tablet-sized screen straight into the P4 controller. I like the Phantom’s durability, ability to fly in strong winds, greater visibility that a larger size brings (while still being small enough to carry onto planes) and I like catch landing to keep it out of the dust & dew. Plus the image quality matches the more popular, later model Mavic 2 Pro.  Phantom 4 drones are like the Toyotas of the drone world.

8.  Phantom 4 RTK (Real Time Kinematic) – industrial use:

  • Specifically designed for more accurate mapping; by using RTK & avoiding the need for ground control points (which ensure map location accuracy).
  • Thousands of dollars more than standard Phantom 4s, but thousands of dollars less than other drones designed for similar work.
  • Not an entry level drone – this is for drone users who are serious about mapping & know what they’re doing.

9. Parrot Anafi

Parrot discontinued consumer drone manufacture in 2019 and now concentrates on producing commercial drones. The Anafi was roughly similar in specs to the original Mavic drones but cheaper.  I list the unique features of the Anafi as an example of why the drone industry needs a healthy range of manufacturers – a diversity of features to choose from, plus creative development. It is good to consider all main brands when purchasing. The features that differentiate the Anafi from DJI’s similar level models:

  • Gimbal tilts 180 degrees – from right down to the ground and right up to the sky above (EG great for inspecting underneath structures such as bridges)
  • Digital zoom (useful for inspecting stock without disturbing them)
  • Hand launch and hand catch modes – with clear instructions (great for using on boats)
  • USB cord charging for batteries and the controller. And it’s a ‘C’ port. (This is fabulously convenient – it means no lugging around a stack of chargers and forking out for overpriced essentials. DJI has one charger for using in vehicles and another for using with the mains power supply, and different chargers for every model of DJI drone)
  • Wind resistance listed at 50 km/hour (much higher than Phantom & the largest Mavic drones, as they list wind resistance as being in the mid 30 km/hour range)
  • Super quick and easy to download Google maps of specific areas (for use when away from mobile phone reception)

10. DJI Inspire & Matrice:

  • Inspire and Matrice drone systems cost thousands of dollars more than the much simpler sub 2kg Phantom and Mavic drones, mentioned above.
  • These drones weigh more than 2kg, which means they can only legally be operated by licenced drone pilots. Except Australian primary producers flying over their own land (up to a 25kg weight limit). But refer to CASA’s website for the precise and current details on this.
  • These heavier drones are primarily used by professional cinematographers and for agricultural and research purposes – IE advanced uses (not just straightforward still photography).
  • Not the drones to buy when you are starting out, these are drones to buy once a smaller, simpler drone is mastered and you are certain you really need something more sophisticated to accomplish the jobs you need to do.  And if you’re in business, you must also consider – will your clients want to pay the much higher rates that you’ll need to charge them, if using a much more expensive drone system? Mostly – they will not.
  • Many of these heavier and more expensive drones have been sold to people who could have instead used a sub 2kg drone for the same purpose.
  • Advantages of a DJI Inspire 2 drone: 5.2k film recording, simultaneous recording of the data onto 2 different mediums (SSD & micro SD, so an on-board back-up is created instantly), camera with interchangeable lenses, greater redundancy (dual batteries, IMU & barometer; but only 4 motors, so no motor redundancy), GPS & GLONASS (navigation accuracy), higher top speed, front camera as well as the image-recording camera on the gimbal below (to allow 2 operators; 1 to operate the camera the other to fly the drone – for high-end/high risk jobs). Disadvantages of the DJI Inspire 2: many thousands of dollars more for the whole setup in total, compared to the next cheapest DJI photography drone. Thousands more for the drone and the camera; plus the extra accessories, plus the 5.2k video licence key & the SSD required has to be at least 480GB – more expense. Greater size and weight (airline transport more difficult and more expensive), fewer obstacle avoidance sensors), fewer automated flight modes. Unless you’re doing big screen movie-quality cinematography the Inspire 2 is virtually impossible to justify, from an economic point of view.  Especially for anyone working a long distance from capital cities, who must carry a back-up drone, thus doubling the outlay of extra thousands of dollars. The Inspire 2 will however greatly impress clients who see it and for some drone operators, that may be a factor for consideration!

11. Spray drones (the most common spray drones used for weed treatment in Australia):

  1. DJI (China) – DJI are the world’s largest manufacturer of consumer drones; the agricultural division has been added as an afterthought. There’s pros and cons of different brands – it’s best to compare all that are available.
  2. XAG (China) – a company that specialises in drones for agricultural/land management use. Recently there have been good reports from customers on the Australian-based service staff & parts warehouse located in Australia.
  3. Yamaha (Japan), RMAX – more like a chopper without a seat for a pilot, the RMAX costs well over $100,000, requires extra training/licencing and it has to be hands-on flown by a remote pilot. (Rather than able to run a predetermined route autonomously, under the supervision of the drone pilot.)

Earlier drone companies didn’t realise agriculture was a potentially profitable industry so spray drones, such as DJI’s Agras, were developed long after consumer drones with cameras. Now there are a multitude of spray drone manufacturers, mostly based in China, but at present the above three are the most commonly used in Australia.

The Yamaha RMAX is a beast, looking like a small manned helicopter. And with a hefty price tag; $120,000+. Due to the RMAX’s size and cost it is not something commonly used at present or feasible for part-time work. Whereas the much smaller Agras and XAG spray drones cost less than $50,000 and while obtaining a licence to operate them is time consuming it is not too difficult for ordinary farm operators or regional drone spraying service businesses. Operators must have a Remote Pilot Licence and Operator’s Certificate (or operate under someone else’s OC); plus an APVMA permit (Australian Pesticides and Veterinary Medicines Authority).

At present there are relatively few spray drone operators in Australia and next to no training is available within Australia or other countries. However the industry is slowly expanding, as the immense benefits of aerial precision weed spraying are realised.

11. Other drone manufacturers:

There are a plethora of other consumer drones on the market, making up the other 20-30% of the world’s consumer drone sales. These of course have pros & cons but some are a lot cheaper. Most drone manufacturers are based in China. One leading brand based outside China is Parrot – based in France, and some drones are made by Japanese companies. The main alternative brands & better-known models:

  • Autel – Evo. Autel is Chinese-owned but based in the US. They produce a range of Evo drones that are similar in size & specs to DJI’s Mavic Pro drones. The Evo II was created in late 2019 & available to the public in early 2020.
  • Parrot – Anafi. Parrot is a French company; France has traditionally been a world-leader in the aviation industry, right from the outset. However the consumer level Anafi drone was discontinued in 2019 & Parrot is now concentrating on industrial drones.
  • Yuneec – Typhoon H
  • Skydio – Skydio 2 (relatively new brand; popular due to to autonomous flight capabilities)
  • XDynamics – Evolve
  • Hubsan – Xino

I took this photo at the Drone World Congress in Shenzhen, China, in 2019. Shenzhen is world’s centre for drone development, with nearly 300 drone companies, and quite a few spray drone manufacturers. Large drone conferences are good places to look for alternative drone brands and models.

Other drones used for agricultural jobs:

  • Hexacopters, octocopters & fixed wing RPAS (including VTOL) – can fly in stronger winds, carry heavier payloads, fly longer/cover larger areas and have other sensors & equipment attached to them.  But they are bulkier, heavier, more complicated, cost a lot more and most require CASA licencing to legally operate.  As mentioned above, these are not drones for beginners.
  • Note also that additional licencing and approval is required to operate a spray drone of any kind.

Larger, more expensive drones usually have greater redundancy. EG they have dual IMUs and compasses, multiple batteries and motors. Flying near people, around buildings and beyond visual line of sight requires drones with maximum fail-safe measures built in. But drone hardware is relatively simple compared to software; hardware rarely fails. Drone software is incredibly complex and this is where problems most often occur.

As is the case for mobile phones, the specs of earlier model drones aren’t as good as the latest.  If you’re buying a drone for someone who is likely to crash it, then an earlier model or secondhand is the way to go.  Bearing in mind – like general aviation, current drones are sophisticated machines that only crash due to pilot error (including lack of planning & foresight) – with the exception of software or hardware failure (that is not due to mistreatment or lack of software or hardware maintenance).  Drone pilots should not rely on obstacle avoidance systems, for example.  These are topics that are covered in drone workshops.

Summary of which drone to buy, when you are weighing up priorities & options:

  • Firstly – I don’t recommend buying a ‘small drone just to start with, then upgrading’. Because: a) bigger drones such as the Phantoms & Mavic Pros are as easier to fly than the smallest drones; & b) a small drone is just a waste of money, if small doesn’t really do what you want it to do.  If you’re not sure if you’ll like flying drones, I recommend attending a training workshop or heading out to fly a drone with a friend who owns one. Or buying a cheap secondhand drone or old model because if you buy well, you can usually sell a secondhand drone for not much less than you paid for it, if you want to upgrade or ditch drone flying altogether.
  • What you choose to buy boils down to budget and use. If you want top consumer drone image quality & you want to be able to open the case & fly your drone with the minimum amount of fuss setting it up – consider a the latest model Phantom you can find secondhand (also best for catch-landing, which is an important factor for most users in rural environments). Or if buying new, a Mavic 2 Pro – the consumer level top of the market DJI currently manufacture. Bearing in mind that every time a new drone is released, the hardware differences are now relatively minimal but the software advances can be significant (though under-promoted by DJI).
  • If portability is of utmost concern along with top consumer drone image quality – buy a Mavic 2 Pro.
  • If ultra portability with reasonable image quality are your main concerns – you want something that will fit into large pockets or a handbag – buy a Mavic Air (image quality matches the Mavic Pro).
  • If you just want the cheapest, smallest/lightest drone – consider buying a Mavic Mini, Spark, Tello or Mambo. But be aware that the mid-price range – eg the Spark – is so often too much of a compromise to be worthwhile or good value.  I’d recommend buying a Mavic Air instead of a Spark, if you have the money – yes it costs more but the image quality matches the Mavic Pro & it’s very portable.
  • If buying a drone for young children – you could buy a very small drone for less than two hundred dollars, such as a Parrot Mambo or a Ryze Tello.  The Parrot Mambo is an ideal drone for primary school age children to learn to fly because it is small and light but surprisingly tough, comes with prop guards for safety and doesn’t require complicated software updates or a licence to operate. (Note that children flying drones  of any size should also be supervised, and wear protective glasses.  More advice for parents is included in the drone workshops I run.) These small drones are best flown indoors. Plus, there’s some fun but educational free-to-download software such as Tynker that kids can use to programme (code) the drone.  But Parrot Mambos are learning tools, suitable for indoor flying not for farm or station work.  The smaller & cheaper the drone the harder they tend to be to fly, but this is great training for kids.
  • Remember that whatever drone you buy, it’s likely to be superceded by a much better model within 12-18 months. Durability isn’t something you should need to consider; as for safety reasons, drones should be looked after, to ensure they don’t fall out of the sky.
  • Essential accessories should be factored into budget calculations (details of what drone accessories are vital and what are superfluous, are included in longer drone workshops).
  • Drones used as genuine tools with an authentic track record of helping to produce income can be claimed as a tax deduction (but do check with your accountant for details).
  • Also – check when the model you’re considering was created. If it’s more than 12 – 18months old it’s likely to be superceded (& discounted) soon.
  • Buying secondhand – checking the hardware is obvious, but battery life must be scrutinised carefully also. Frequently used batteries will have a reduced charging capacity. (Best-practice battery care – to keep their charge capacity up – is detailed in drone workshops. Along with vital drone battery safety information.)  As with all secondhand electronic equipment, drone gear is best purchased from people you know well, or from well-established professionals/business owners.  If you buy secondhand gear well and look after it, it can usually be resold within a few months for a similar price.
  • Do check the CASA website or with a fully licenced, well-respected training professional prior to purchasing, to ensure that what you want to do with your drone will be legal. (Not Facebook!) More information on safety laws towards the bottom of the post.
  • If you’re buying a drone for someone who can’t be trusted to follow (safety) rules or who doesn’t look after gear (which can render a drone unsafe), do the world a favour and do not buy them a drone at all.  Drones should not be treated like toys and left with children, unsupervised.  (More on drone safety & laws, below; as well as in workshops.)

Where to buy your drone, if buying new:

Today’s drones are like ducks swimming. They’re easy to fly – because there’s so much work going on out of sight. Drones will evolve in ways we can’t imagine but they’re already extremely sophisticated machines. Very complex software means much can go wrong and glitches are common, testing the patience of even the most dedicated of problem solvers.

If you’re buying a Mavic or Phantom drone or anything larger/more expensive, the benefits involved in buying from a good quality, local specialty retailer are really worth having.  Yes you may be able to get your drone out of the box and just fly it, but there’s a good chance that sooner or later you’ll have a headache that’s hard to solve on your own.

The sorts of services provided by good drone retailers – drone specialists who really know the market:

  • Reliable advice on what drone and accessories will best suit your specific purposes (the vast majority of drone retailers are clueless and some are unethical. I personally know several drone retailers who have told primary producers they can legally fly drones out of sight).
  • Set the drone up for you – download the latest software & ensure everything is functioning as it should (this really matters, because like all tech, some drones are lemons from the outset & if you’re new to drones, you won’t know what’s a machine problem & what’s operator error).
  • Hands-on introduction, at a low or no cost.
  • Provide basic advice on where to get information re laws and operation.
  • Give locally specific tips eg maximum or minimum operating temperature for your drone batteries, good spots to learn to fly.
  • Provide assistance with trouble-shooting.
  • Repair your machine or assess & send it away for you.
  • Help with warranty claims.

Bear in mind that very, very few people who are selling drones, actually know anything about them. They may sound entirely plausible – but ask them if they fly drones themselves (and if so, what model/s).

Buying drones overseas:

  • Unlikely to be covered by warranty in Australia, only in the country of purchase.
  • There are airfreight restrictions on lithium batteries, so freight could be an issue.
  • Starves local drone retailers of the profit they need to enable them to provide quality after-sales service (& local employment) & stock a wider range of drone, parts & accessories – you know those last minute items you need.

Please note: This drone buying summary was first written in November 2017, and last updated in December 2019.  The above information is correct at the time of writing but drone specs and federal laws governing drone operation change frequently.  CASA’s website should be checked for current licencing and operating laws before flying or purchasing a drone.  If you are on my mailing list as a book buyer, or have attended one of my drone workshops, don’t hesitate to contact me if you have any specific queries.

A Mavic 2 Pro on an improvised landing mat, at the 2019 Blackall Cultural Association 2 day drone workshop. Funded by the Blackall Shire Council and Regional Arts Development Funding (RADF).

Drone information blog posts

  • I’ve written a number of posts containing information I wish I could have found at the outset. The drone topics below are either not covered by anyone else at all, incompletely or inaccurately.
  • All the information in these posts is included in Rural Drone Academy training, to some degree, but with the addition of many other useful topics, entertaining examples, participant Q & A’s and networking.
  1. Rural Drone Academy workshops & training – want to lift your flying up to another level, solve some drone issues, or you need a hand to gets started? These workshops are useful for all skill levels, ages and backgrounds.
  2. Next workshops plus previous events – upcoming events you can attend. Previous events are also listed, which will give you an idea of the regions covered, themes and the diversity organisations hosting them.
  3. Comments from participants – forthright opinions from people who have attended drone sessions held in four states.
  4. The principles of drone safety & laws – essential reading for every drone pilot. Accompanied by impressive ‘fail’ stories, during Rural Drone Academy training.
  5. How to set up a drone business – how to steam ahead – use time, energy & money to maximum effect – and avoid pitfalls. Included in drone workshops in detail, if applicable to participant interests.
  6. What is the best drone to buy for a beginner?  Objective information to help you decide. The internet is full of drones that have hardly been flown because they didn’t suit the buyer’s purpose. Don’t join them!
  7. What is the best drone to buy? Comprehensive information on the most common consumer models to help drone pilots upgrading or seeking a drone for a specific task. (Information on this page.)
  8. Is a Crystal Sky screen worth buying?  The pros and cons compared to using phones and tablets as screens, from an objective point of view.

If you are interested in attending Rural Drone Academy training don’t hesitate to contact me by email or ring the business-hours phone number listed below.

PLEASE NOTE: As applies to the rest of this website – the content on this page is protected by copyright.  This post was originally written in 2017 and last updated October 2020.

Agricultural drone photography - irrigated rice, Riverina (NSW)

Agricultural drone photography – irrigated rice, Riverina (NSW)

Fiona Lake – qualifications & experience:

  • Chief Remote Pilot/Operators Certificate for RPAS (ReOC), Remote pilot licence (RePL), Aviation Radio Operator’s Certificate (AROC), and certified night UAV training.
  • 2018, named as one of ten ‘Women to Watch in UAS (drones)’ globally, by Chicago-based Women and Drones.
  • Many drone flight hours in a wide range of agricultural environments, in every Australian state.
  • To date I’ve owned and flown 9 different drones.
  • 30+ years of professional aerial photography experience.
  • I have undergone drone-related education/training at various locations between Victoria and Far North Queensland; as well as in the US (New York City, Las Vegas & Raleigh – North Carolina).
  • I’ve run drone presentations (hands-on training, workshops, masterclasses, panel sessions & keynote addresses) across Australia, from capital cities to remote regions. To date, invited to present at drone conferences on 4 continents – and invited back.
  • By April 2019 there were just 33 fully licenced (RePL + ReOC) female drone pilots in Australia; and I’m one of them. There’s more women shearing sheep than licenced drone pilots. We need more role models, for the sake of healthy diversity.
  • The drone workshops I run are holistic; a healthy variety of useful information is discussed and entertaining stories are shared.

Interested in attending a drone pilot masterclass, to learn everything you need to know to fly safely, enjoyably and productively?  Or you’ve done a bit of flying and would like to get to the next level? Let me know via the contact form.

Fiona Lake and other invited speakers at the aerial agricultural spraying conference in Nanjing (China), 2019. Drone conferences are well worth attending, to learn from speakers and see the latest technology developments at the trade show.

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