Drones Are the Perfect Holiday Gift, Seriously

The once ultra-hot holiday product category still has its charms

drone buying season

 Lifewire /  Tim Liedtke

It’s that time of year.

No, not the holidays. It’s “Do I finally buy myself a drone?” time.

If you were asking me, I’d say yes, but that’s because I’ve been flying drones of all shapes and sizes for almost a decade (as evidenced by the archival video below).

Before you consider a drone, you should dispense with popular misconceptions like they’re no better than the model airplanes your dad used to fly in the '70s.

Drone flying
One of my earliest drone experiences.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

The Heart of a Drone

Drones are drones because they contain:

  •  Robotics
  • Intelligence
  • Sensors
  • Cameras

Old-school model airplanes, regardless of their sophistication, generally don’t include any of those things. In fact, model airplane flyers generally look down their nose at drone flyers who get to combine precision remote control with the drone’s own sensory awareness regarding altitude, attitude, speed, and position. The one time I tried to bring a drone to an aerodrome I was kicked out: “We don’t allow your kind here.”

All that intelligence is precisely why drones are so popular with consumers. They want to fly but don't have (or want to learn) the skills to do so.

It's Not THAT easy

Early consumer drones, like Parrot’s ARDrone line, compressed all your flight controls down to a smartphone screen and wrapped the large, relatively lightweight drone in protective foam. Essentially, they did everything they could to make it easy for novice flyers to get off the ground, fly, and occasionally bounce off things.

Drone falling footage
This is what my ARDrone saw as it fell.  Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Back in 2010, I knew nothing about piloting drones, and it showed. My early flights were filled with crashes and mishaps. In one instance, I flew a drone into the rafters of my office. The poor thing slammed into a girder and its propellers went into panic mode as the drone tried desperately to right itself. In another instance, I flew high into the sky and then backed the poor thing right into a tall tree. No humans were injured, but a few branches and many leaves did not survive.

Undeterred, I continued trying and flying consumer drones as they grew increasingly sophisticated with full-blown remote controls (that usually used a tablet or iPhone as a view finder and flight-status readout) and vastly-improved cameras and gimbals that kept the photo and video steady on even the roughest flights.

Choices

As consumer interest in drones grew, so did the market, with new players like:

  •  Yuneec
  • DJI
  • CyPhy
  • Freefly
  • ActionDrone
  • DraganFly
  • GoPro
  • ZeroTech
  • Intel

Honestly, there are too many to name and for a brief period of time, the drone explosion led to all sorts of people flying drones with no rules, zero guidance, and a high probability of calamity. It was like the sky filled with malevolent Wizard of Oz winged monkeys that were all controlled by 40-year-old hobbyists.

The FAA’s drone flying rules helped regain control of the industry (you have to register any drone over 250 grams), but I also think it dampened the market. Many of the names listed above either dropped out or started focusing all their attention on the pro market. The $14 billion dollar drone segment is expected to almost quadruple over the next five years, but mostly on the rotors of commercial drones.

The Drone for You

DJI, though, is the most notable exception. The Chinese-based company zoomed ahead of competition with a fast-growing drone lineup that includes everything from the diminutive Spark (my least favorite) to pro-level Inspire line. I’ve flown pretty much everything in between.

DJI Mavic Mini
The DJI Mavic Mini. My current, favorite drone. Lifewire / Lance Ulanoff

Most recently, I tested the DJI Mavic Mini. It’s a remarkable folding drone that combines pro-level control and HD photo and videography with an entry-level price ($399) and a weight (249 grams) that puts it below the threshold where you need to register the drone with the FAA. More importantly, it’s the first pint-sized drone that doesn’t skimp on flying time.

Consumers interested in drone flying often make the mistake of buying $99 drones that handle poorly and fly for just a few minutes before pitching into the ground (or the ocean you foolishly decided to fly over). Obviously, the idea of a drone that also doubles as an iPhone case is compelling, but the battery life lasts just about long enough to grab one selfie.

The Mavic Mini, which when folded is small enough to fit in a coat pocket, breaks that mold with 30 minutes of flying time per charge.

So What

Even if you find the right drone, as a consumer you might wonder what the heck you’ll do with it. It’s a fair question. After you’ve taken a dozen 300-ft vantage-point videos of the horizon and zipped around your park or an open field for 30 minutes, what’s the purpose of a drone? Here are some ideas: 

  • Dramatic wedding footage
  • Follow-you sports video
  • The best House for Sale video you’ve ever seen
  • Checking the health of that tall tree
  • Checking your home’s roof and gutters without getting on a ladder 

Drone flying isn’t for everyone and many are not equipped to handle the sheer responsibility of piloting a device that can fly 30 miles per hour at an altitude of 300 ft (or higher) and travel almost three miles away. However, if you understand that consumer drone flying works best when you maintain visual contact with the drone (and if you don’t spent $1,000 on one) you won’t feel the pressure to use it in more dramatic ways, drone flying can work for you. It can also be incredibly fun and satisfying.

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