Combining our love of tech and fascination with flying, it's no wonder drones have literally taken off the past few years. Nowadays, they come in a variety of shapes and sizes. And they can perform all sorts of fun tricks.
We've rounded up a dozen of our current favorite "unmanned aircraft systems" (as the government refers to them). It may surprise you to see what they can do and how different they look. And if you happen to be in the market for a drone, whether for play, hobby or sport, you may even get a good idea...or two.
1. Aerix Vidius HD
Don't judge a drone by size alone. First, it takes skill to fly. Just cause it's tiny, don't assume it's an easy beginner drone. And second, it probably goes faster, further and higher than you'd expect.
Indeed, when you first start flying the $95 Aerix Vidius HD, it's a good idea to use the included remote control to handle the necessary quick actions with better finesse and accuracy. But once you get the hang of it, you can switch to your smartphone to take advantage of the fact that it's the world's smallest live streaming HD video drone.
By the way, though its body is tough as nails, those little propeller guards are lifesavers for journeys that end with impact.
2. Blade Nano QX2
After a while, you might get a little tired of watching a drone fly and long for the ability to put yourself in the cockpit. Of course, that's figuratively speaking--in reality, the best you can hope is to see what the drone's camera sees via first-person video (FPV, as it's called). And the Blade Nano QX2 is a solid choice for entering that high-flying world.
In addition to the drone itself, you'll need a good set of video goggles which are not included in the Nano QX2's $160 price tag. (There's a $200 model on the Nano's product page.) Once they and the drone are on the same channel for transmitting and receiving the video, you're good to go. The bug-like body is configured to protect the propellers as you wend your way around indoors (if you're really brave) or out.
Incidentally, it's always good to have a co-pilot nearby if you wear FPV goggles, so they can maintain an active visual lock on the drone. It's very helpful for both safety and retrieval.
3. Hover Camera Passport
Rather than a drone, the $599 Hover Camera Passport sees itself as an artificially intelligent flying camera. What's the difference? Instead of you worrying about piloting, it can do all the work.
Just unfold its light-yet-protective carbon fiber body, start the propellers, and gently toss it in the air; the drone then hovers in place. You can steer it with your smartphone just as you would a regular drone. But it can also use a combination of sonar, AI and an extra camera on its underside to automatically track your face and body. Thus (assuming you have enough room) it's able to follow and even orbit you. As with the Dobby, the amazing results are enough to shame any selfie stick.
The Passport takes 13-megapixel stills and 4K video with a remotely tilting camera, as well as 360-degree panoramic shots (by hovering in place and spinning in a circle). It comes with a handy carrying case and shoulder strap, making it compact, durable and quite portable.
4. The Pocket Drone
If portability is your main priority, check this out: both the $130 Pocket Drone and its controller tuck into compact, phablet-sized rectangles. So though boxy, they do actually fit in your front pockets. Best of all, especially with the included carrying pouch, you can easily take it anywhere and don't need to worry about it getting damaged while jostling in your bag during transit.
Aside from the flexible form factor, Pocket Drone has some great features that make it easy to fly. For instance, one button starts and stops the propellers. And other buttons allow it to automatically hover; re-orient its direction (so your right and left realign with its); and automatically return to you. Pretty smart for a drone that looks like a kid's toy!
5. Xtreme Cables Fly and Drive Quadcopter
Like something out of a James Bond film, this $80 radio-controlled vehicle quickly transforms from car on the ground to quadcopter in the sky. In fact, the Xtreme Cables Fly and Drive Quadcopter is the only flying and driving drone with a 6-Axis gyro and HD recording capabilities.
On land or in the air, the right joystick controls its direction. And when you're ready for liftoff, (as with other drones that don't have wheels) just push up on the left joystick and it's airborne. Dedicated controller buttons can change its speed, make it do a flip (while flying) and take a video or still shot.
Based on the video, it looks like it'd be a whole lotta fun to drive and fly around. Certainly more so than drones that can only fly.
6. Parrot Mambo
As with other Parrot drones, the $120 Parrot Mambo is named after a style of dance and (more importantly) quite easy to fly. Even better, as you can see in the below video, it's got a few tricks up its sleeve.
But even without snapping on the grabber claw or peashooter, it's a good one for kids and beginners. In addition to joystick-like controls, dedicated soft buttons on your smartphone or tablet screen tell it to automatically take off or land. Plus, doing stunts like flips (in any direction) is as easy as selecting the one you want and double-tapping. It certainly doesn't get much more simple or fun than this!
7. Spin Master Air Hogs Connect Augmented Reality Mission Drone
Fly this real-life quadcopter over its special mat using the accompanying app and you'll be pulled into an on-screen world that tests your flying skills around virtual buildings, lets you extinguish fake fires, and deploy animated commandos.
It's a 3D augmented reality game that blends reality and fantasy in endless missions. And the action doesn't stop when the $150 Spin Master Air Hogs Connect Augmented Reality Mission Drone needs to recharge. You can also play offline, racking up various vehicle upgrades and keeping the online competition going with your friends.
8. Propel Toys Star Wars Drones ($200 each)
Admittedly, we're a little biased when it comes to Star Wars gadgets. But we're pretty sure this collection of Propel Star Wars Drones comprises the coolest drones in the galaxy.
For starters, each of the three pieces—a Speeder Bike, X-Wing Starfighter, and Tie Fighter—is highly detailed and comes in an attractive display box. In theatrical fashion, opening the box triggers both a bright light and one of four musical samples, including the Star Wars theme.
And these drones actually do fly—up to 40 miles per hour. As they go, the special included controller plays sound effects. And you can engage your friends in exciting multiplayer laser battles.
Oh yes, these are the drones you're looking for. And best of all, we hear that this May they're releasing a fourth in the series: none other than the Millennium Falcon.
9. Parrot Swing
In military aviation circles, VTOL (which stands for Vertical Take-Off and Landing) is considered The Holy Grail. It signifies a vehicle that has the flexibility of a helicopter with the power and range of a plane. The Parrot Swing, a funky $140 X-winged fella, is the only plane mini-drone with that capability.
With all four propellers facing skyward, you press a button on the included Flypad controller and the Swing automatically rises up, awaiting your command. In quad mode, you can steer it around (albeit relatively slowly) in similar fashion to other drones.
But press another button and it does what they can't, tilting forward various degrees and surging ahead like a plane. It's easy to operate, but (unlike some other small drones) needs a pretty big wide open space to truly show off all its speeds, stunts and slaloming capabilities.
10. PowerUp FPV Paper Airplane VR Drone
Before the age of drones, most kids were introduced to the world of flight by simply folding a piece of paper and launching it skyward (or in certain cases, towards the back of their substitute teacher's head). Add a pair of propellers and a minuscule camera and you've got the PowerUp FPV Paper Airplane VR Drone, the $200 21st century iteration of this old standard.
After folding it (yes, you still have to do that), clipping on the techie rig and firing up the app, you can either spin the propellers before launching it or set them to automatically start when you throw it.
As the FPV in its name implies, you can watch a live stream of first-person video from the plane's perspective (in case you ever wondered what it'd be like to fly in a paper airplane). And to add another layer of coolness, by placing your phone in the included cardboard-based virtual reality viewer, you can tilt your head to steer the plane. It's exponentially more advanced than your grandpa's aerial origami.
11. UVify Draco
Though we're generally focused on everyday drones for the casual hobbyist, here's where we get serious. Meet UVify Draco, the world's fastest production drone. It's the only one capable of 360-degree flips and up to 100MPH speeds right out of the box. When you're ready to race, this is the one for you, as long as you can pony up the $500.
We recently witnessed what it's capable of at the first annual Drone Rodeo, held about 40 minutes south of CES in Las Vegas. And all we can say is: Wow.
Head over to their YouTube Channel to see more amazing videos shot by this incredibly agile and modular drone. Just be sure to do so while sitting down. And on an empty stomach.
12. DJI Mavic Pro
We end on a high note, with what's probably the most advanced small drone on the planet. DJI has imbued its $999 Mavic Pro with some truly incredible capabilities.
Though it folds up to practically the size of a water bottle, this thing flies remarkably stably, as fast as 40 MPH and with a range of over 4 miles. It shoots high quality 4K video and can stay aloft a substantial 27 minutes (roughly twice as long as others this size).
Taking advantage of its various self-navigational flight modes, you can have it film you while in front of, behind, alongside or circling above you—and while remaining at a constant height above the ground as it does. Or if you like, press a point on your phone's screen and it'll automatically fly to that location at up to 22 MPH while smartly avoiding obstacles in its path. And that's just the tip of its technologically advanced iceberg.
The above price includes the drone and its remote. For $300 more, they'll also throw in two batteries, extra propellers, a charging hub, an adapter, a car charger and a shoulder bag. A pretty penny, but in the world of small drones, it just doesn't get any better (yet).