Defining drone classes is a bit subjective, especially when you come to the threshold margins for certain criteria. There are some drones that lend themselves to more than one category. While some drones are quite easily defined as ‘toys’, there are some ‘toy’ drones that lend themselves to the mid-grade category. Some drones are clearly mid-grade, and other mid-grade drones show traits more often found in professional machines. In the under-$1000 category, you’ll see that phenomenon a lot, but basically you can expect everything from toy drones, to the highest caliber mid-grade drones, to some basic ‘professional’ drones.
If you’re wondering what makes a drone a ‘professional’ drone, that category is often associated with camera specifications, FPV system, and intelligence. While mid-grade drones will often offer FPV, a decent camera, and some form of autonomy, professional drones will perfect and optimize their processes. What you consider a professional drone might be different from someone else’s, but there’s usually a pretty defined separation. Here, we’ve compiled a list of the best drones you can buy for less than $1000, from toys to professional machines. Do note: the way we judge drones is by a cost-to-value ratio, so in simple words, what’s the best you can get for the given price point?
Drones Under $1000
without a doubt, this should win every ‘best drones under $1k’ list on the internet. For $999, there’s simply nothing better. This DJI-engineered machine is portable, absurdly capable, and takes all the best from the Phantom series, then builds on it. Capable of RAW 4k footage with tap-to-focus (like the Phantom 4 Pro) and an FPV livestream in 1080p, you’re rarely going to find a better camera system for the price. The 3-axis-gimbal has a wide range of mobility and the camera is nearly the same quality as the Phantom 4. It can fly for around 30 minutes and hit speeds up to 45mph (while in sports mode). Did we mention that it also comes with an obstacle collision avoidance system? Or that it can fold into the size of a water bottle? Or that it has all the autonomous features of the Phantom series? And anything DJI engineers is going to deliver on its promises, but we should mention that due to the late release of the Mavic Pro, it’s only now gaining popularity; and many actually prefer it since the Mavic Pro can (basically) do the same things as the Phantom 4 Pro, and the Mavic is cheaper, more convenient, and highly optimized. It’s also RTF right out of the box.
Autel Robotics X-Star Premium
Autel Robotics is slowly entering the drone market, and making great progress at that. They recently released the X-Star Premium, which is basically a Phantom, just less expensive and brighter in color. You might see it and think, oh, they just copied DJI, but in reality they engineered an impressive machine that’s been considered as the ‘best bang for your buck’ at its price point. It shoots in 4k with a 3-axis gimbal, takes 12MB stills, can fly for up to 25 minutes and livestreams FPV at 720p (Phantom 4, anyone? The dual frequency channel system improves the transmission signal and the built-in GPS is accurate and effective. It implements Autel’s own version of autonomous systems that should be somewhat familiar: waypoint following, position-lock, orbit, and return home. Similar to the Phantom series, it’s ready-to-fly right out of the box. Just charge up the battery and start flying. For $800, it even comes with its own carrying case and, of course, our full recommendation.
first, this drone is at the bottom half of the price bracket, but will quickly jump up to $1000 if you don’t own a GoPro Hero 3+ or above yet, plan on getting a camera system. 3D Robotics actually worked directly with GoPro to engineer a drone that integrates this camera seamlessly. Once a GoPro and gimbal are fit to the 3DR Solo, it can livestream FPV. So if you already own a GoPro, then for half the price of a drone already outfitted with a camera, you can accomplish what drones triple the amount of the 3DR Solo strive to do. As a drone, 3DR spent their time improving flight optimization and absolutely succeeded. The 3DR Solo flies for over 20 minutes and can hit speeds of up to 55mph. The incredible power leverages it against harsh conditions and manages the payload of a gimbal and GoPro beautifully. The integrated flight systems have names not often seen in the drone space, since they were pioneered by 3DR alone. There’s selfie mode, cable cam (think waypoint following), orbit, follow, and return to home functions.
Remember when we said that our drones are sought after due to their value at a given price-point? There may be no more impressive drone than the DJI Phantom 3 Standard for $500. Even more expensive mid-grade drones have a tough time keeping up. The Phantom 3 Standard shoots in 2.7k UHD with a camera mounted on a 3-axis gimbal. It can livestream FPV in 720p with the original WiFi technology, and due to updates in the application, it offers all the autonomous features in the newer DJI models (except for obstacle avoidance, draw, and a few other integrations). Still, you’re able to feature Active Track, Return Home, Position Lock, and more. It doesn’t have an integrated VPS system so you’ll find that in some areas the GPS is dodgy and it may be a bit more difficult to fly, but that’s exactly what this drone does best: it teaches you things. For $500 you can have an autonomous DJI machine that can take footage in 2.7k and livestream FPV at 720p, while other machines at the price won’t do half that. Forget any other mid-grade machine if you’re willing to spend this money, as the Phantom 3 Standard could very well be the most optimized drone at any price point in the entire game.
DJI Phantom 3 Professional
While you’re not going to get your hands on a Phantom 4 Pro without dishing out over $1000, you’ll be able to come close with the Phantom 3 Professional. This drone sits between the 3 Standard and the Mavic Pro (almost literally in price, since you can grab one for around $700) and is still vastly capable. Fit with a 4k camera that livestreams in 720p (and on a 3-axis-gimbal), you’ll have a machine capable of high-quality footage. It can fly for over 20 minutes at speeds around 30mph, and the fact that it uses Lightbridge technology nearly eliminates latency in the FPV feed. In addition to GPS, it contains GLONASS and a VPS so it’ll have much higher position accuracy than the Standard, and will in turn be more responsive (also due in part to the frequency and extended range of the controller). Then we add the intelligent flight systems (active track, follow me, return home, and position lock) and you have an incredibly capable drone for under $800. In fact, this and the X-Star premium are so similar in price and capability, that on paper they look like nearly the same drone. If you read reviews for both, you’ll notice that the better drone is usually decided by user preference, and there are just as many advocates for each one.
We add this to the list because, although it’s specifically a toy, it’s just about the coolest toy at that. These little quadcopters are modeled after the novel vehicles in the Star Wars franchise. They can fly up to 35mph, but what’s most enticing about these machines is that they’re all equipped with infrared lasers. Why you ask? So you can have dogfights (up to 8 drones at a time) with your friends. The integrated sensors identify when they’ve been ‘hit’ and the respective controller vibrates, just like in a gaming console when, and if you’re hit 3 times, the drone theatrically drops from the sky. They don’t really do anything besides fly around and fight each other, but they’re the coolest toys in the consumer drone space.
This is another drone that hits the cost to value ratio in golden colors. For under $30 you can have a 2.4GHz transmitter and a tiny little nano drone that’ll fly around your home for 5 minutes at a time. In addition, the transmitter integrates four different speeds to assist beginner pilots when first learning to fly. It offers quite literally nothing else, but to have a working quadcopter with four different flight speeds and a transmitter all for under $30 is truly remarkable. If you want a little teaser to dink around with before you dive into the drone space, this is a great little buy that shouldn’t have much of an effect on your wallet.
If there’s a drone that would’ve won the high school most attractive prize, it’s this one. It looks like a sheet of wire mesh or an elaborate hardbound book, but that’s because the entire chassis is like one big prop guard. It’s on the upper side of our price bracket, but for $600, you’re getting one of the coolest looking machines that is not only capable of performing an assortment of aerial acrobatics (programmed into the software) but shooting in 4k/UHD. It flies for around 10 minutes given the conditions and can travel well past 100 feet (although you might not want to fly it that far being that it’s barely heavier than 200 grams). The autonomous components featured include orbit, hover, return home, face and body tracking, and more. The onboard GPS unit allows for stable, accurate, and responsive controls. It doesn’t come with a transmitter, since it’s controlled via a smartphone or tablet that supports Zero Zero’s flight application. The Hover Camera Transport is certainly one of the more dynamic machines on this list.
You’ll see this drone recommended a lot. It’s sort of a hybrid between a toy and drone, but most importantly it’s a fantastic drone to learn to fly on. For under $200 you have a drone that shoots in 1080p, offers a low-quality WiFi-based FPV livestream, and can fly for around 15 minutes (with a removable battery – you may want additional batteries). It has two different flight modes which greatly assist beginners during the learning curve, as one slows down the machine and grants more stability, while the link to mid-grade and professional machines, the UDI U818A FPV is a great drone to meet your needs.
This machine experienced the same phenomenon as the Phantom 3 series did: a hefty price drop once the Phantom 4 swept the market. With an integrated 1080p camera, the Phantom 2 vision shoots in HD and offers WiFi-spawned FPV livestreaming. The flight time is around 25 minutes and the max speed is somewhere around 30mph (depending on where you’re flying it) and it comes with a few autonomous components. Sure, the Phantom 2 might be a bit outdated now, but it’s still a DJI engineered machine, and it still holds its value well for the price. It is less expensive than Phantom 3 Standard, so if you want to experience one of the drones that sent the Phantom line into motion, look no further. It comes with a transmitter that can hold a phone or tablet, which will support the FPV livestream.
We wouldn’t have been able to put this drone on the list just a month ago, but it’s actually offered on Amazon right now for less than $1000. Coined ‘the drone anyone can fly on’, this machine literally swept the consumer drone market by storm. It was pretty much the first drone of its caliber that could capture 4k footage, fly nearly autonomously, and implement an obstacle avoidance system. All that for under $2000 and with the new modifications added to the active track feature, people were basically drooling. Well, they still are. Despite its successor the Phantom 4 Pro (basically a souped up intelligence system, better camera, and slightly more powerful machine), the Phantom 4 remains an industry favorite. It’s capable of doing everything its predecessors could, and then expands on it with a better VPS system, more autonomy, 4k footage at 30fps (3-axis-gimbal), livestreaming FPV at 720p with Lightbridge technology, and an obstacle avoidance system. With sports mode, it can fly up to 40mph and usually stays in air for around 27 minutes of flight time.
Under 300, this could very well be one of Hubsan’s most impressive models. If you’re looking for a less expensive drone that could still pass for a mid-grade machine, the H510S certainly makes the cut. With an integrated HD camera that can shoot in 1080p, and an FPV livestream feeding directly into the LCD screen built into the transmitter, this drone will have no problem taking aerial footage and allotting the pilot an immersive experience. The 5.8GHz frequency helps with transmission interference and the drone can fly for around 18 minutes or so with a maximum speed of 25mph. Despite the size, Hubsan was still able to fill the drone with intelligent features (return home, position lock, and even active track – it’s extremely rare to find a drone that has a tracking feature for under $300). It contains a removable 7.4V 2700mAh battery so if you buy extras, you’ll guarantee longer flight times.
We’ll finish this list with another Hubsan machine, priced a bit more than the abovementioned model. One of the big game changers is that this drone stabilizes its 1080p camera on a gimbal, offers FPV, integrates intelligent flight systems, and costs less than $400. It’s definitely attractive if you’re looking for an optimized, intelligent, powerful mid-grade drone. It can fly for as long as the Phantom machines (up to 30 minutes, or even longer) and hit speeds up to 30mph. It transmits at 5.8GHz and the livestream feeds directly to the LCD screen built into the controller. It looks like a sexy, robot-ninja-bumblebee, and comes highly recommended. You’re basically paying less than $400 to get the whole drone experience.
As you can see from our list, there are numerous drones for under $1000. If you’re willing to dish out the very maximum of the price bracket, you can own one of the best DJI machines on the market, and if you’re a bit hesitant or if you’re on a budget, you can still afford some fun. In between there’s a whole bunch of machines to choose from, and what will benefit you most is to identify what you want from the drone experience, then read up on user reviews of the products which interest you.
Your due diligence is really important. Purchasing a unit from a trusted manufacturer is key, but you may find one of those hidden gems that offers double what its price suggests. However, remember that with the rapid evolution of drone technology, pricing can be a bit odd. You’ll have some companies that offer a highly capable drone for a certain price, then another company will price their drone the same, yet it won’t have any autonomous features. Or it won’t have a camera. Or an FPV system. Be wary that prices really fluctuate. And in the famous words of Nike, ‘just do it’. By that we mean do your research.