The Best Drones of 2018, Ranked By Their Purpose
by Malek Murison
We’re at a point in the drone hardware space where there’s plenty of choice for pilots. Although DJI have a firm hold over the market, there are loads of options for aerial photography and other niche uses.
And that’s important, because no pilot chooses a drone based on capability alone. It’s more about suitability. Even if you’ve got an unlimited budget, it’s not always the most expensive option that’s best suited to the task you have in mind.
Which is why we’ve decided to rank the best drones of 2018 based on their suitability for certain things, rather than outright capability. We’ve narrowed them down into 4 categories: Hollywood Ambitions, Professional All-Rounder, On-The-Go Aerial Photography, and Beginner Friendly.
We’ll take into account capability and value for money in each category and suggest the best option – and a runner-up.
As this category title suggests, Hollywood Ambitions is all about which drone is your best bet for shooting cinema-grade aerial photography and creative drone videos.
The Winner: DJI Inspire 2
To date, the DJI Inspire 2 is probably the best photography drone ever made. Which isn’t saying much of course – this industry is less than a decade old. Nonetheless, this is the drone you will see gliding over Hollywood movie sets, shooting adverts and capturing live sports events.
And it was always meant to be this way. DJI’s Inspire range has been created to set the industry benchmark for what drones can achieve in terms of photography and video footage.
As such the Inspire 2 is smarter, faster and more capable than DJI’s smaller, more beginner-friendly drones. Perhaps with the exception of the recently released Mavic Pro 2.
But what the Mavic Pro 2 doesn’t have is the Inspire 2’s ability to go from 0 to 50 mph (80 kph) in 5 seconds with a top speed of 58 mph. Those may sound like pointless numbers, but they translate into unmatched shot versatility and more creative options for pilots and filmmakers.
Add to that the ability to switch between different cameras – including the Zenmuse X7 and X5 – and you’ve got a powerful aerial photography package.
Both cameras work with the Inspire 2’s CineCore2.1 image processing system. The Zenmuse X7 shoots aerial video at up to a whopping 6K in CinemaDNG/RAW at 30fps and at 5.2K in Apple ProRes. It’s got 4 stops of dynamic range and captures 24-megapixel stills.
As you might expect, Hollywood-grade aerial photography doesn’t come cheap. The Inspire 2 on its own costs $2,999. The Zenmuse X7 camera comes in at $2,700. All of that gear is protected by a range of sensors to detect and avoid obstacles in front, below and above the drone.
Runner-up: DJI Mavic 2 Zoom
We chose the DJI Mavic 2 Zoom as the Runner-up in the Hollywood Ambitions category because it offers something a little more interesting than the Mavic 2 Pro.
Yes, both models can offer a 45mph top speed and a huge 31 minute flights time. And both Mavic 2 models feature omnidirectional collision avoidance, combined with DJI’s APAS (Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems).
Both also use DJI’s OcuSync transmission system, for 1080p live video streaming and a maximum range of five miles.
And, lastly, both Mavic 2 models come with DJI’s numerous autonomous flight modes, including Hyperlapse, ActiveTrack 2, QuickShots and more.
But the creative difference lies with the cameras. Like the Pro, the Mavic 2 Zoom captures 4K video at a maximum bitrate of 100 megabits per second.
The clue is in the name: The Zoom comes with its very own Hitchcock-style swagger.
It has the equivalent of a 24-48mm optical zoom and 2x digital zoom, giving drone pilots the effect of a 96mm telephoto lens for 4k lossless zoom at full HD video resolution. The camera itself has a 12mp 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor.
Used with DJI’s new Dolly Zoom flight mode, the camera creates an eerie, warped perspective by automatically zooming in as it flies away from its subject. The result is that the subject is kept in shot at the same size while the full background of the scene is revealed.
The retail price of a Mavic 2 Zoom, including the drone, battery, charger, remote controller and four pairs of propellers, is $1,249.
Looking for a solid, adaptable drone that can get in the air with minimum fuss without breaking the bank?
The Winner: DJI Mavic 2 Pro
The DJI Mavic 2 Pro looks set to continue from where the original Mavic left off: as the world’s most popular drone.
We’ve been through the key stats above already, so what else do you need to know?
How about that it was co-engineered with camera specialists Hasselblad, to form the world’s first drone with an integrated Hasselblad camera.
As well as improved image quality, and superior light and color performance, the Mavic 2 Pro’s camera has been upgraded to include a 1-inch CMOS sensor with a 10-bit Dlog-M color profile.
DJI says it can capture four times as many levels of color per channel compared to the original Mavic Pro, which wasn’t so shabby.
The Mavic 2 Pro can also capture 20-megapixel aerial shots with greater color accuracy using Hasselblad’s Natural Color Solution (HNCS) technology. An adjustable aperture from f/2.8-f/11 provides more control across a wide variety of lighting conditions.
The retail price of a Mavic 2 Pro, including the drone, battery, remote controller, charger, and four pairs of propellers, starts off at $1,449.
Runner-up: The Original Mavic Pro
Yes, even though DJI has released a bunch of new drones since the original Mavic Pro, its combination of portability, value for money, camera quality, and safety features make it a great all-rounder that you really can’t go wrong with.
See the original Mavic Pro as a budget version of the new model. It only has obstacle avoidance in front and below, its 4K shots are great but not quite as crisp, and its battery life is a few minutes below the huge 31minute ark hit by the Mavic 2.
However, sometimes the classics are worth keeping around. And not just for nostalgic reasons. The Mavic Pro has already dipped in price to $999. And it’s still more than able to complete the majority of professional drone flights to a very high standard indeed.
You could do a lot worse than waiting for the price drops to continue before grabbing yourself a bargain.
On-The-Go Aerial Photography
This category is all about portability, ease of use and autonomous flight
Winner: The Skydio R1
What can we say about the Skydio R1 that hasn’t been said already?
The R1 is a class act, with almost certainly the most sophisticated sense and avoid system on the consumer market today. In part that’s because California startup Skydio set off from a different starting point to the likes of DJI.
Instead of attempting to create a flying camera anyone could get to grips with, they wanted to build a flying camera capable of flying itself no matter what the context.
That’s why it’s perfect for on-the-go aerial photography. While it isn’t as portable as some of DJI’s smaller models, it makes up for that with the fact that you don’t have to worry about it once it’s up in the air. It’s smart enough to follow you or your chosen subject, dodging and weaving past obstacles until you tell it to come home.
The R1 also shoots in stabilized 4K, so you can bet that your footage isn’t going to be too shabby either.
The only drawback is the price, which dropped down to $2,000 in September.
Skydio has also recently released a range of new skills – autonomous flight modes at the touch of a button – to open up more creative possibilities when using the R1.
That’s right: The autonomous aerial cameraman is getting smarter.
As we mentioned above, a great on-the-go option also depends on portability, ease of use, and price. Which is why the DJI Mavic Air gets the Runner-up spot in this category.
No, it can’t navigate around obstacles with the same effortlessness and reliability of the R1. But it can sense obstacles in 3 directions: to the front, to the back and below. It also comes with other benefits…
For example, the Air is an ideal travel companion. It weighs just 430 grams and folds up to just 168x83x49mm.
The flight time isn’t the best: just 20 minutes. But as long as you’ve got spare batteries you can land, swap them in and be on your way in no time at all.
As with all of DJI’s drones, the Mavic Air can perform pre-programmed flight modes. There’s also a gesture mode if you want to fly like a Jedi.
As for the camera, the Mavic Air can shoot crisp 4K video at 30fps and full HD at 120fps. It also has improved HDR algorithms to preserve more highlight and low light details.
Oe final thing: it’s available in several colors! You can get it at the moment for under $800.
Looking for the perfect drone to start your aerial photography journey?
Drones are becoming easier to fly – there’s no doubt about that. But that doesn’t mean an Inspire 2 or a Mavic 2 Pro is ideal for beginners.
Despite being expensive investments, it can be tough to make the most of your cutting edge drone if you haven’t had much experience behind the controls before.
That’s why it’s a good idea to start small with something better suited to beginners. That way you won’t have wasted a bunch of money if you decide aerial photography isn’t for you after all.
Winner: DJI Spark
There’s no better place to start than what we think is the perfect drone for newbies, the tiny DJI Spark.
As well as shooting full-HD video, the Spark comes in a range of colors, is relatively inexpensive and comes with forward-facing obstacle detection.
Starting with the camera, the Spark’s has a 1/2.3” CMOS sensor that captures 12-megapixel photos and shoots stabilized HD 1080p videos. A 2-axis gimbal and the stabilization technology reduces shake and rolling shutter effect to capture shots that are much more cinematic than you’d expect from a drone of this size.
It’s also got a range of intelligent flight modes – including ActiveTrack – and an easy-to-use controller, meaning you don’t have to worry too much about mastering the controls to get great shots.
The DJI Spark is available in several colors for just $399.
Runner-up: DJI Mavic Air
We’ve already included the Mavic Air as a great drone for travelers and on-the-go aerial photography. So you can read about it in more detail above.
But it’s also made the beginner drone top 2 because of its size, portability, and price. On top of that, it arguably has the most sophisticated safety features of any drone under $1,000.
All of those factors should provide the reassurance new pilots need to explore the hobby for the first time, without breaking the bank.
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