The best best drones
An unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), commonly known as a drone, is an aircraft without a human pilot aboard. UAVs are a component of an unmanned aircraft system (UAS); which include a UAV, a ground-based controller, and a system of communications between the two. The flight of UAVs may operate with various degrees of autonomy: either under remote control by a human operator or autonomously by onboard computers.
Compared to manned aircraft, UAVs were originally used for missions too “dull, dirty or dangerous” for humans. While they originated mostly in military applications, their use is rapidly expanding to commercial, scientific, recreational, agricultural, and other applications, such as policing, peacekeeping, and surveillance, product deliveries, aerial photography, agriculture, smuggling, and drone racing. Civilian UAVs now vastly outnumber military UAVs, with estimates of over a million sold by 2015, so they can be seen as an early commercial application of autonomous things, to be followed by the autonomous car and home robots.
Multiple terms are used for unmanned aerial vehicles, which generally refer to the same concept.
The term drone, more widely used by the public, was coined in reference to the early remotely-flown target aircraft used for practice firing of a battleship’s guns, and the term was first used with the 1920’s Fairey Queen and 1930’s de Havilland Queen Bee target aircraft. These two were followed in service by the similarly-named Airspeed Queen Wasp and Miles Queen Martinet, before ultimate replacement by the GAF Jindivik.
The term unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was adopted by the United States Department of Defense (DoD) and the United States Federal Aviation Administration in 2005 according to their Unmanned Aircraft System Roadmap 2005–2030. The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) and the British Civil Aviation Authority adopted this term, also used in the European Union’s Single-European-Sky (SES) Air-Traffic-Management (ATM) Research (SESAR Joint Undertaking) roadmap for 2020. This term emphasizes the importance of elements other than the aircraft. It includes elements such as ground control stations, data links and other support equipment. A similar term is an unmanned-aircraft vehicle system (UAVS) remotely piloted aerial vehicle (RPAV), remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). Many similar terms are in use.
A UAV is defined as a “powered, aerial vehicle that does not carry a human operator, uses aerodynamic forces to provide vehicle lift, can fly autonomously or be piloted remotely, can be expendable or recoverable, and can carry a lethal or nonlethal payload”. Therefore, missiles are not considered UAVs because the vehicle itself is a weapon that is not reused, though it is also unmanned and in some cases remotely guided.
The relation of UAVs to remote controlled model aircraft is unclear. UAVs may or may not include model aircraft. Some jurisdictions base their definition on size or weight, however, the US Federal Aviation Administration defines any unmanned flying craft as a UAV regardless of size. For recreational uses, a drone (as apposed to a UAV) is a model aircraft that has first person video, autonomous capabilities or both.
In 1849 Austria sent unmanned, bomb-filled balloons to attack Venice. UAV innovations started in the early 1900s and originally focused on providing practice targets for training military personnel.
UAV development continued during World War I, when the Dayton-Wright Airplane Company invented a pilotless aerial torpedo that would explode at a preset time.
The earliest attempt at a powered UAV was A. M. Low’s “Aerial Target” in 1916. Nikola Tesla described a fleet of unmanned aerial combat vehicles in 1915. Advances followed during and after World War I, including the Hewitt-Sperry Automatic Airplane. The first scaled remote piloted vehicle was developed by film star and model-airplane enthusiast Reginald Denny in 1935. More emerged during World War II – used both to train antiaircraft gunners and to fly attack missions. Nazi Germany produced and used various UAV aircraft during the war. Jet engines entered service after World War II in vehicles such as the Australian GAF Jindivik, and Teledyne Ryan Firebee I of 1951, while companies like Beechcraft offered their Model 1001 for the U.S. Navy in 1955. Nevertheless, they were little more than remote-controlled airplanes until the Vietnam War.
In 1959, the U.S. Air Force, concerned about losing pilots over hostile territory, began planning for the use of unmanned aircraft. Planning intensified after the Soviet Union shot down a U-2 in 1960. Within days, a highly classified UAV program started under the code name of “Red Wagon”. The August 1964 clash in the Tonkin Gulf between naval units of the U.S. and North Vietnamese Navy initiated America’s highly classified UAVs (Ryan Model 147, Ryan AQM-91 Firefly, Lockheed D-21) into their first combat missions of the Vietnam War. When the Chinese government showed photographs of downed U.S. UAVs via Wide World Photos, the official U.S. response was “no comment”.
The War of Attrition (1967–1970) featured the introduction of UAVs with reconnaissance cameras into combat in the Middle East.
In the 1973 Yom Kippur War Israel used UAVs as decoys to spur opposing forces into wasting expensive anti-aircraft missiles.
In 1973 the U.S. military officially confirmed that they had been using UAVs in Southeast Asia (Vietnam). Over 5,000 U.S. airmen had been killed and over 1,000 more were missing or captured. The USAF 100th Strategic Reconnaissance Wing flew about 3,435 UAV missions during the war at a cost of about 554 UAVs lost to all causes. In the words of USAF General George S. Brown, Commander, Air Force Systems Command, in 1972, “The only reason we need (UAVs) is that we don’t want to needlessly expend the man in the cockpit.” Later that year, General John C. Meyer, Commander in Chief, Strategic Air Command, stated, “we let the drone do the high-risk flying … the loss rate is high, but we are willing to risk more of them … they save lives!“
During the 1973 Yom Kippur War, Soviet-supplied surface-to-air missile batteries in Egypt and Syria caused heavy damage to Israeli fighter jets. As a result, Israel developed the first UAV with real-time surveillance. The images and radar decoys provided by these UAVs helped Israel to completely neutralize the Syrian air defenses at the start of the 1982 Lebanon War, resulting in no pilots downed. The first time UAVs were used as proof-of-concept of super-agility post-stall controlled flight in combat-flight simulations involved tailless, stealth technology-based, three-dimensional thrust vectoring flight control, jet-steering UAVs in Israel in 1987.
With the maturing and miniaturization of applicable technologies in the 1980s and 1990s, interest in UAVs grew within the higher echelons of the U.S. military. In the 1990s, the U.S. DoD gave a contract to AAI Corporation along with Israeli company Malat. The U.S. Navy bought the AAI Pioneer UAV that AAI and Malat developed jointly. Many of these UAVs saw service in the 1991 Gulf War. UAVs demonstrated the possibility of cheaper, more capable fighting machines, deployable without risk to aircrews. Initial generations primarily involved surveillance aircraft, but some carried armaments, such as the General Atomics MQ-1 Predator, that launched AGM-114 Hellfire air-to-ground missiles.
CAPECON was a European Union project to develop UAVs, running from 1 May 2002 to 31 December 2005.
As of 2012, the USAF employed 7,494 UAVs – almost one in three USAF aircraft. The Central Intelligence Agency also operated UAVs.
In 2013 at least 50 countries used UAVs. China, Iran, Israel and others designed and built their own varieties.
The UAV global military market is dominated by pioneers United States and Israel. The US held a 60% military-market share in 2006. It operated over 9,000 UAVs in 2014. From 1985 to 2014, exported UAVs came predominantly from Israel (60.7%) and the United States (23.9%); top importers were The United Kingdom (33.9%) and India (13.2%). Northrop Grumman and General Atomics are the dominant manufacturers on the strength of the Global Hawk and Predator/Mariner systems.
The leading civil UAV companies are currently (Chinese) DJI with $500m global sales, (French) Parrot with $110m and (US) 3DRobotics with $21.6m in 2014. As of March 2017, more than 770,000 civilian UAVs were registered with the U.S. FAA, though it is estimated more than 1.1 million have been sold in the United States alone.
UAV companies are also emerging in developing nations such as India for civilian use, although it is at a very nascent stage, a few early stage startups have received support and funding.
Some universities offer research and training programs or degrees. Private entities also provide online and in-person training programs for both recreational and commercial UAV use.
Starts at £449 w/out remote from DJI.com
- 16 minutes flight time
- Full HD video, 2-axis gimbal
- Obstacle avoidance
- 1.2 mile range with remote, 100m with phone
After the success of its Mavic Pro, DJI surprised us all with its most compact high-end drone to date. The Spark is, essentially, a very small Mavic Pro. It features many of the same flight technology, but in a much more compact and more rigid design.
Unlike the Mavic Pro, the Spark’s arms aren’t foldable, but the overall footprint is so small it can just sit in your palm fairly comfortably. What’s more, it’s the first drone that can be controlled completely by hand gestures alone. For those who want a more traditional control system, you can use the DJI remote to fly with a 1.2 mile range at speeds up to 50kmph.
Each battery lasts up to 16 minutes of flight time, and the intelligent flying modes will ensure that time flies by before you even know it. Like the Mavic you can lock on to individual objects or people, and move around in various manually controlled or pre-programmed motions while tracking that person/subject. This all happens while the camera is kept super steady using its 2-axis gimbal and electronic UltraSmooth technology.
Read the full review: DJI Spark review: The tiny drone that makes you feel like a Jedi
Parrot Bebop 2/Bebop 2 Power
- 25 mins flight time
- HD videos and 14MP stills
- 2km range with SkyController
- Digital stabilisation for smooth video
The Bebop 2 is the follow up to the popular Bebop, which we loved when we reviewed it at the time of its launch. The design has changed quite a lot, but the value for money has increased.
The Bebop 2 can fly over 37mph and resist winds of the same speeds, and an slow down to a stand still within four seconds. It has a Follow Me feature to track you while you’re cycling, running, climbing, or whatever else you might be doing, and it uses GPS to track its position and return home again when you’re done.
Its camera can shoot in 1080p full HD resolution, and take great pictures with its wide-angle 14-megapixel lens. It can even capture in RAW and DNG image formats, giving you the ability to edit them professionally afterwards.
At £349, it’s great value for money, and you can control it with your smartphone. Or, for £499 price point you can also get the brand new Skycontroller 2 control pad and the first person view (FPV) glasses, which let you watch the live stream of the camera’s video feed in real time.
Skycontroller 2 gives you an impressive 2km range when piloting the drone, while the glasses can stream 1080p video footage right to your eyes.
There’s also the all-new Parrot Bebop 2 Power which comes with 60 minutes battery life thanks to shipping with two batteries. You can buy the Power FPV pack with VR goggles and the physical remote for just £549.
- Dedicated auto-flip control
- 3-axis gyro and 3 accelerometers for stable flight
- 2.4GHz radio control
- 10-12 mins flight time per battery
If you’re after a drone that can perform its own stunts, the Dromida XL looks like a lot of fun. Like many modern drones it can take off and land automatically at the press of a button, but its one-press feature list also includes the ability to perform a flip. It also has a front facing 1080p camera, and can fly quickly, close to the ground.
DJI Mavic Pro Platinum
£1,199 at store.dji.com
- 4.3 mile (7km) range with OcuSync transmission
- 30 mins maximum flight time
- 4k video 30fps, 3-axis gimbal
- Obstacle avoidance and Return to Home
DJI’s latest drone is one of the most talked about to date – thanks mostly to its brilliant form factor. Rather than have a large, rigid quadcopter design, the Mavic Pro is foldable, and it’s small enough to fit in your bag. Similar to the GoPro Karma drone, the four quadcopter arms fold into the body, but do so in a very neat and incredibly compact fashion.
Although it’s small, don’t let that fool you in to thinking it isn’t powerful and full of top-notch features. For instance, it can last up to 27 minutes in flight on a full battery, and it takes less than a minute to set up and calibrate to get it flying. Mounted to the 3-axis stabilisation mount is a camera capable of recording up to 4K resolution at 30 frames per second, or full HD up to 96 frames per second.
The Platinum version of this drone was announced at IFA 2017 in Berlin, and has all of the same features, but has enhanced battery performance and much quieter motors.
It has a minimum focusing distance of 0.5m and a 12-megapixel sensor equipped with the ability to take still RAW pictures tuned purposefully for aerial imagery. Perhaps more impressive is that the new transmission system has a range of up to 4.3 miles and can live stream 1080p footage directly to Facebook Live, Periscope, and YouTube through the connected DJI GO app.
To immerse you more in to the experience of flying the drone, DJI’s flying gadget will pair with a new set of immersive DJI goggles. With these on your face, you’ll see 90-degree view straight from the drone’s camera in 1080p.
Read the full review: DJI Mavic Pro review: One insanely powerful, portable drone
£449 with Skycontroller 2 and FPV glasses, amazon.co.uk
- First person view glasses
- Up to 45mins flight time
- 1.24 mile/2km range
- Fixed wing design
- Up to 50mph
If you’re looking for something entirely new and different, there’s Parrot’s latest beast, the Disco. Unlike most hobby and toy drones, the Disco is fixed wing. That means it looks more like a plane than a quadcopter.
It can fly as fast as 50mph and has a battery that’ll get you up to to 45 minutes of flying time, which is pretty remarkable in the droneworld. It’s got a built in computer/brain called CHUCK, which helps provide its autopiloting capabilities. Just press the start-up button, hold it until ready, then throw the drone like a frisbee, then the autopilot takes over.
Because of its vast wingspan, it doesn’t need four propellers to keep it airborne. Instead, it has one blade at the back to propel it forwards, while the wings ensure it stays in the sky.
It has 1080p video recording which has three axis stabilisation, and 32GB of onboard storage to host all of your captured footage. What’s more, you can view all this footage in real-time while flying, using the FPV glasses. At under £700, it’s currently nearly £500 cheaper than it was when it launched in 2016.
Read the preview: Parrot Disco preview: You can be my wingman any time
Turbo Ace Matrix S
- Over 40mins flight time
- Up to 60mph speeds
- Fits various cameras, inc. GoPro Hero range
This is the daddy of drones, made for professional grade filming and photography. The Turbo Ace Matrix, with its 1 metre wingspan and triple carbon fibre deck build, has a range of 1.2 miles and can stay in the air for more than 40 minutes thanks to the 22,000mAh battery version. The whole thing even folds down for easy transport. It comes with an 8-inch monitor for viewing what the flight camera feeds back.
But that’s just for flying. The unit can have gimbals and cameras plonked on top to carry around for high-definition filming and photography. There are several models of Turbo Ace Matrix, some designed for speed and others for heavy lifting. In short, if you want to spend serious money on a serious drone, the Ace Matrix should be near the top of your list.
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
£509, DJI.com or amazon.co.uk
- 2.7K video capture
- 1km transmisson distance
- 25mins max flight time
- 3-axis gimbal
DJI is fast becoming the go-to name for hobbyist and professional dronefliers alike. The Phantom 3 is a line offering Standard, Advanced, and Professional models. The DJI Phantom 3 Standard is the most affordable of the three. Despite that it still crams in plenty of next-gen drone tech. The camera offers 2.7K video or 12-megapixel stills and uses a gimbal to offer stable footage.
The drone itself can fly for up to 25 minutes on a charge and will return home or land if the battery gets too low. Pre-set routes can be mapped out so the drone flies them over and over as the user focuses on working the moving camera for the best shot. With the range extender controller, the drone can fly up to one kilometre away from the pilot, all controlled via a smartphone app.