Drones are everywhere these days, but despite the mainstream popularity of the hobby it’s still not what one would call a cheap way to spend your time.
High-end consumer drones cost thousands of dollars and even much more modest fare will have an asking price in the hundreds of dollars.
That being said, the actual value for money you get these days has improved a lot. While drones might not be cheap in the absolute sense, you get a lot more for the price than ever before. However, this article isn’t about the best “value for money” drones.
This is about the best drones that crash through the price floor, without actually crashing for real.
What is “Cheap” Anyway?
aying something is “cheap” is relative. A dollar is cheap for a stake, but expensive for a piece of gum. That’s not the spirit of the question we are asking here though.
I’m looking for drones that cost as little as possible, but still provide legitimate value.
To me the magic number is a bout $100. Getting into a hobby needs a reasonable entry point. Something that costs less than $100 easily falls into the “impulse buy” category and anything over that amount will make you think a little before handing over the cash.
So for my purposes here, $100 is the sweet spot. Under is excellent and a little over that mark is OK. With that in mind, here are a few tips I’ve picked up while looking for good deals.
Buying Tips for Cheap Drones
OK, so you don’t have a lot of money to spend on this drone hobby thing, but you also don’t want to buy something that’s literally a waste of money.
What should you look out for before buying your affordable drone?
There are a few general categories that warrant special attention.
Drones come in many different sizes. From tiny nano drones that fit in the palm of your hand to enormous monsters that can lift cinematic cameras into the air. Really cheap drones tend to be quite small, which is a pretty important thing to take into account depending on where you want to fly.
Small drones, such as nano-sized ones, are usually pretty useless outside. Just the slightest breeze and it’s over the roof, into the pool or a wall. Yes, all three of these things have happened to me.
Make sure the drone you’re looking at is big and strong enough for the conditions it’s meant for.
Many cheap drones are very basic radio-controlled aircraft. They are fully-manual, apart from the electronics that stabilize them. Others shift the costs and don’t have a controller at all. They may be controlled via an app alone.
Neither of these is a good or a bad thing, but if you want to learn how to fly or are mainly interesting in the experience of flying, you’ll want manual controls. A controller that shows you some info such as the drone’s battery level and is comfortable to hold and operate are all things to think about.
Sometimes you can buy a single controller and then purchase multiple drones that work with it. In that case you might want to look for a BNF or bind and fly drone. So you don’t end up paying for multiple controllers.
If your cheap drone has both a camera and an app for live video, then check if the controller has a holder big enough for your device.
The great revolution in camera drones has really come from the fact that they can now fly themselves. Unless you have to fall back to a fully manual mode you’re really just giving your drone suggestions.
Unfortunately autonomy costs a lot of money. You need an onboard computer, sensors and sophisticated software. None of these things come cheap, although they are getting cheaper by the day it seems. For the type of target price we’re talking about here you aren’t likely to get a drone with much in the way of brains, but there are still some forms of cheap autonomy to look out for.
Automatic takeoff and landing routines are becoming more common in inexpensive drones . The same goes for a “return to home” button where it flies back to where your controller is. These are all “dumb” features where the drone just does its thing blindly so you still have to make sure that the moves are safe to make.
Basically everyone has a smartphone these days. So it’s no surprise that RC aircraft makers, those that sell drones in particular, have capitalized on this.
Many drones now come with an app that lets you see through the camera live (if applicable) and do all sorts of neat things. At the cheap end of the spectrum its hit and miss whether you’ll get any sort of app. If the sorts of features that smartphone apps bring to the drone experience then include the presence of the app and its specific functions in your decision making process.
Budget Drones with Cameras
I still remember my first camera phone. It was an old Samsung flip phone with what I think was a VGA resolution camera. Man was I blown away but the futuristic nature of that phone, with its awful blurry photos. Now my Galaxy S8 takes photos and videos at a resolution and quality rivalling professional equipment from that era.
Some inexpensive drones also come with cameras. The quality you can expect from cheap drones with cameras aren’t quite the potato quality of my old Samsung, but you also can’t expect top of the line specs here. Even for cheaper drones 720p or better video is not unheard of at the low end of the price range.
Resolution isn’t everything however, and you can expect to put up with little or no stabilization, motion blur and other visual anomalies. A gimbal at this price? Forget about it!
Inexpensive Drones and Battery Life
Lithium ion batteries are dirt cheap and there isn’t much compromise on that front when it comes to the more affordable drones. There are plenty of things to consider however, even if the technology is pretty standardized by now.
The obvious one is flight endurance. Many cheap nano drones only fly for five minutes or so. Stepping up the size of the drone allows for a bigger battery and also means dramatic increases in flight times are possible. The bottom line is to choose a drone with a claimed flight endurance that fits your needs.
More important than this, in my opinion at least, is that the battery be easy to swap out. Since lithium ion batteries are so inexpensive, it’s easier just to buy a bunch of them for your drone and charge them all ahead of time. So if your drone can fly for 15 minutes on a full battery, four of them will give you an hour of almost continuous flight.
Depending on where you live in the world, buying a drone might burden you with legal responsibilities.
If you live in the USA, any drone that weighs more than 0.55lbs has to be registered. You yourself don’t have to go through any sort of training or certification unless you want to fly commercially. Something you won’t be doing with a drone in this price range.
Apart from those national guidelines, you might also want to look up any state or local regulations that may be layered on top of federal rules.
Regardless of the details, in general you aren’t allowed to fly near places like airports and definitely not over or near people. Don’t breach people’s privacy or otherwise trespass using your drone. It’s not that hard to stay within the rules, but you have to make sure you know what they are first!
The Top Cheap Drones With Camera
1. UDI U818A
The UDI U818A is an incredibly affordable drone, but it’s also about as bare bones as they come. I really do like the spartan design of the drone. It’s a basic frame covered with a shell that includes prop guards. An excellent feature if you want your modest investment to be resistant to a few mild crashes.
It has a pretty average flight time of between seven and nine minutes. With pretty long two hour charges in-between. This is not the result of USB charging. There is in fact a wall-wart charger included in the package, so the limit is probably the safe charge rate. The good news is that this arrangement makes it fairly easy to buy extra batteries and extend the fun.
The UDI U818A is a little big for indoor flight at about 16 inches to a side (410mm), but with those substantial prop guards I guess there’s little harm in trying it.
This drone package does c ome with a camera, but there is no live transmission. You’ll have to wait until your flight is over before seeing how the footage turned out. I couldn’t find out too much about the camera, but there are some videos from people who own then and it looks to be a 720p unit. Honestly, it’s just a nice extra feature to keep a record of your best flights.
The real appeal of the UDI is its flying experience and in general it looks like most people are pretty impressed with how it feels and performs.
The 2.4Ghz controller looks attractive enough and has a small LCD info display. It has a 30 meter (about 100 foot) range, but no notable autonomous features.
2. Overall Best Cheap Drone with Camera: DJI Tello
The Tello’s price is really insane when you consider what’s packed into this little guy. Just a few years ago the Tello’s abilities would have costs hundreds of dollars and that’s just for the abilities that existed at the time.
However, you should know that this drone is not actually made by the folks at DJI. Instead it’s made by another manufacturer and filled with that DJI software magic. This isn’t a bad thing in itself. After all, DJI is happy to sell this drone through their own website.
It has a fully-programmable Intel CPU for a brain and sensors to help it fly itself. You can program it using special software or just play around with what ships in the box. The standard package which qualifies for my “cheap” category doesn’t come with any sort of controller. Instead you use the app to control and monitor the drone. A physical controller is an optional extra and with it you can take the Tello out for a manual spin.
Setting that aside for now, this is without a doubt the most sophisticated drone for the price that I know of. It has advanced flight autonomy and acts as a selfie drone too.
It transmits live 720p footage and will fly for 13 minutes on a full charge. An impressive endurance rating for such a small drone.
3. SYMA X5C
I’ve featured the Syma X5C a couple of times in previous articles because not only is it cheap, it’s pretty well-featured at the same time. The fact that this drone has been around for a while has certainly helped to bring its price down, but don’t be fooled. It’s still relevant.
This drone is 14 inches to a side, making it a medium-sized flyer. You could fly it indoors if you have a bit of space or where in a hall of some sort, but It’s too big for an apartment or small home.
So it’s a good thing that Syma has built this with a fair bit of wind resistance. Light breezes shouldn’t be too much trouble, but you’ll still want to take it out on quiet days if possible.
The best way to describe the design of this drone is “functional”. It’s not the prettiest machine out there, but she’s got it where it counts kid.
At this price the real star of the show isn’t the shell, but the included camera. The onboard snapper sports a 2 megapixel sensor, which makes HD resolution video possible. By “HD” I mean 720p video. Which is perfectly fine for Facebook or Instagram.
You’ll have to be quick however, since the X5C is only rated for seven minutes of flight before running out of the old electricity supply. It then also takes an hour and forty minutes to recharge. Of course, this is largely due to the use of USB as the charging mechanism. This drone uses a pretty standard 500 mAh LiPo battery, so if you have a programmable LiPo charger I’m sure things could be sped up. It also opens the possibility of buying multiple batteries.
It’s easy to remove and replace the battery. It’s just a single battery door and one plug. I’ve also seen people put in larger capacity batteries, which will improve flight times a bit, but you do so at your own risk.
4. Holy Stone HS160
The HS160 is at the higher end of the “cheap” price range, but even at first glance you can tell that this quadcopter is something different. The design of the drone is like nothing else on the market that I am aware of. Sleek lines, radical geometry and an overall futuristic look.
Holy Stone isn’t a name that gets too much mainstream recognition, but the company has actually released quite a few interesting and worthwhile drones over the years. For the money, the HS160 is definitely in that category. So let’s look at what’s on offer.
First of all, this drone is foldable. That’s pretty impressive! That combines with the integral shell should make it a doddle to tote around. The marketing material shows the HS160 fit into the back pocket of someone’s jeans.
Like other camera drones at this price point the best you can expect is a 720p image resolution. Especially given all the other hardware features that they have packed into it. There’s also an app as well as live video streaming. You can also operate the done entirely with just the app. However, it does come with a very nice controller that has a phone holder built in.
The app also has a VR headset mode, which means you can use something like a Google Cardboard or other similar phone VR headset to get some cheap first-person flying action.
There are a few basic autonomous features that come with the HS160. Altitude hold is always welcome. Think of this as cruise control for height. The drone has an air pressure sensor that lets it stay at the same altitude, making it easier to get the shots you want.
The rated flight endurance is the typical seven to nine minutes we expect in this price class. However, batteries are easy to swap out and Holy Stone has been kind enough to include an extra battery in the package. However, they do warn to let the drone cool down for a few minutes between flights. This is to prevent motor failure due to overheating.
Since the HS160 is actually quite small, you can’t really fly it if there’s any wind whatsoever, but it makes for a very cool and affordable foldable pocket drone.
5. Holy Stone F181C
The F181C doesn’t have a radical design like the HS160. It does not fold and sadly does not have a live video feed. Yet, it costs about the same as the HS160. So you might be wondering what it is about the F181C that would make you choose it over its much fancier cousin.
Well in it’s much bigger for one thing. Which means you can fly it outside even when there’s a bit of wind. The large prop guards will help keep it on one piece if you misjudge any obstacles and the two 750 mAh batteries will keep you flying up to 5 minutes per charge according to users. Although the manufacturer claims a longer time of course.
Yes, this is a drone meant for the simple joys of flying. The 720p camera is only along for the ride, with post flight review needed to see if you got anything good out of the trip.
It does have some autonomy features. It can go into “headless” mode, where the drone direction is relative to the controller. This is much easier for beginners to figure out their orientation. You’ve got one-button 360-degree flips, which are always fun, and the same controller it seems as the HS160. Minus the phone holder.
There really isn’t much else to say about the F181C.
6. EACHINE E58
The E58 from Eachine is clearly aping another much more expensive drone that shall not be named here (it rhymes with “slavic”), but that’s not a knock on its looks at all. Angular lines and matte black panels evoke stealth military technology. It looks pretty menacing actually.
Eachine is actually a pretty well-known brand, but don’t have anything to offer in the rarefied upper echelons of the price range. Nonetheless, they’ve produced some fun budget drones and the E58 definitely comes with a lot of potential.
It’s foldable, which makes for easy travel. That includes the remote control, which has a little clip for a phone and has foldable antennas itself. You get live WiFi video streaming.
The camera is still just a 720p unit with a 120-degree wide angle lens. Despite the way it looks, the camera is fixed and there is no gimbal. Under the fancy-looking skin this is still just a basic cheap camera drone after all.
You do get VR FPV functionality from the app and you can fly the drone using the phone itself. It has altitude hold, which helps get better shots and the hokey but fun flip function.
It has automated takeoff and landing too, which makes life much easier for beginners and busy people.
One interesting design feature relates to the drone’s arms. Apparently you don’t have to replace and wire individual motors. You buy an entire replacement arm and then just swap them out. If the arm isn’t broken you can also just change out the motor without having to solder it. Neat!
The Best Cheap Drones for Sale Without Camera
1. Holy Stone HS170 Predator
Man, there’s nothing like a badass name to sucker me into giving a product a second look. Damn you marketing!
So here we have the lean and mean Holy Stone HS170 Predator. You know it’s mean, because the two blue LEDs on the front make it look like an angry transformer.
This is a small drone measuring only 5.3 inches to a side. It looks really cool, at least in a way that will appeal to the young and the young at heart. The LED array makes it feasible for night flying and the minimum control distance is a healthy 30 meters (about 100 feet).
You’ll get up to eight minutes out of this little guy on a single charge and it takes up to an hour to fill ‘er up again. Batteries are thankfully swappable and quite cheap. So you can just stock up in them. You can also buy a molded foam carry case for your Predator. It’s nice to have optional extras.
What you do get for the meagre price tag is the drone itself, a single battery, some extra props and a USB charger. Apparently you can cut down on the charging time by using a more powerful charger.
I did see some complaints about the battery that comes with the drone so it might be worth getting a better aftermarket one if the bundled battery does give up the ghost.
Despite a few niggles, people seem to love the way the Predator flies. It has three speed limit modes so that you can steadily improve your skills, but unleashed this is quite the rocket.
2. Best Cheap Hexacopter: MJX X800 Hexacopter
Hexacopters are 33.3% better than quadcopters. That’s just science. Although you aren’t going to get a big hexacopter for a cheap price, there are plenty of nano and mini machines that sport two extra props.
There are a lot of reasons why you should try out a six-shooter. They have a unique feel and make comparable quad-copters feel sluggish.
The MJX 800 has been a favorite of mine thanks to pretty spiffy looks, a good price and how much fun it is to zoom around. If you though nano quads made a great noise, wait till you scare the cats with this guy.
It has a control range out to over 300 feet, although you’ll need the eyes of an actual hawk to see it at that distance. Which means its a good thing that they have included headless mode.
One pretty big bummer is that the claimed flight time is ten minutes, but it takes 90 minutes to recharge. If you want something with a bit more wallop, you can buy the bigger MJX 600for just a little more money. In both cases buying extra batteries is a good idea.
“Cheap” is Not An Insult
There’s nothing wrong with being affordable. One of the great things about the modern world is that we can get greats things for small amounts of money. The products at the top, with their cutting-edge features, have their development paid off by early adopters. Then those of us with more limited budgets get those same great features a generation or two later.
The first drone I ever bought was years ago. A non-name cheap device that had a horribly gyro and didn’t really fly in the direction you pushed the sticks. It sort of approximated it. I say it was cheap, but it cost more than any of the drone in this article and it was categorically worse than all of them. Now even a $100 drone can feel like something special. Now that’s progress we can all appreciate!
The bottom line is that today I can say with confidence that cheap drones are worth it. They aren’t just junk anymore. The low-budget versions of big expensive drones are great to learn with, fun to fly and surprisingly durable. This is inevitably just going to get better, but right now the bottom of the barrel is not a bad place to be.