Drones nowadays come with all sorts of different price tags. But aside from the dinky ones you find in the toy section, why are most drones so expensive? They go up, they come down and in between they take some video. Why do some of them cost thousands of dollars? I mean, aren’t all electronics cheap as hell these days?
But it’s not that simple at all. Drones have come a long way in a short period of time, and those ones in the middle price range are worth looking at, especially as a holiday gift. Alongside Sally French, founder of The Drone Girl, we’re sticking the landing on some answers.
Why are drones so expensive, then?
French strongly disagrees that they are! “I actually think drones are extremely underpriced for what they are, because you figure you’re not just getting a remote controlled vehicle, you’re not just getting a smart robot, you’re not just getting a camera, you’re getting all three of those things in one,” she says.
Think of the cost of a digital camera at Best Buy, she points out — now, imagine that camera flying, with sensors on it to prevent it from crashing into things, as well as various autopilot functions. You can get a drone that does all that for less than $500. Of course, 500 bucks isn’t something you can scrounge up by searching under the sofa cushions, but it’ll get you a pretty amazing drone these days.
As far as costs go, it’s worth noting that the major player in drones (with up to 70 percent market share), DGI, is a Chinese company, and there’s ongoing speculation that the company is subsidized by the Chinese government in order to dominate the industry. (The fact that Chinese-made drones are so prolific also generates a bit of suspicion and panic in both the private and especially the government sector, much as TikTok and Huawei have done.) All that said, French thinks DGI make amazing drones, especially for the price. They just don’t leave much room for other companies to compete.
What are the most expensive parts of a drone?
After the camera, and not counting the software, it seems to be the handheld transmitter, then the GPS receiver, then the motors and the electronic speed controls. Though a lot of this stuff is variable: Frames can be cheap or expensive, for example, and most every component has different levels of price and quality.
What does more money actually get you in a drone?
Starting with the toy drones, $100 or less will basically get you a “cool party trick,” French says, one that’s fun to fly but has an unimpressive camera and a short battery life (eight to 10 minutes). “As soon as you’re having fun with it, it dies, and you’re going to have to change the battery,” she says. It also won’t hold up in the wind or fly very far.
“Once you get into the $300 to $600 range, you’re looking at something I’d actually want to buy,” French says. It’ll have a better quality camera — not quite commercial-grade, but a good one — plus an increasing number of autonomous features. These are important: things like return to home, the ability to hold its altitude or to fly in a perfect circle.
Why are those things important? I can just fly it myself, right?
Sure, you’ve got all the controls. But can you use them? “Say you want that cool shot of you panning around in a perfect circle,” French says. “You have to be a really pro pilot to get that perfect circle pan! But these drones have autonomous features where you say, ‘Fly a perfect circle around me’ and it’ll fly a perfect circle around you.” In other words, this price range gets you an autonomous robot that can do things better than you’re able to.
And what does even more money get you?
Once you get to around $1,000 or more, you’re looking at upgrades: A 4K camera instead of a 1080p camera; longer battery life; a more stable flight; and a quieter machine thanks to better quality motors.
As you go even higher, into the multiple thousands, you’re talking about some pretty advanced software and features, stuff for commercial applications. One example is autonomous mapping, which allows the drone to automatically map a huge field then analyze the data — maybe it’s using thermal imagery to figure out how dry the field is, say (stuff the average hobbyist probably doesn’t need, in other words).
What do the decent drones have nowadays that they didn’t used to?
Sense and avoid is a big function. The first sensors were only on the front of drones, which is great if you’re flying forward, but they won’t automatically stop a drone from flying straight up into a power line. Or backward into something. DGI drones now have a sensor at least on the front and back, French says.
There’s another company called Skydio, French says, that claims to have a crash-proof drone thanks to sensors all around it. Some of the sensors are smart enough to not only recognize a tree above it, but to find a gap in the tree canopy and navigate through it, or around the tree altogether. This stuff is important, as crashing a drone is no fun at all.
What features are non-negotiable?
An integrated camera, for one. Back in 2013, when French got her first drone, you’d mount a GoPro on it, fly around and blindly shoot, then plug it into your computer to see if you actually got any good footage. Luckily those days are long gone! You want a live feed, which changes the whole experience. Then, the autonomous and safety features: return-to-home, and anything that lets you know what waypoint your drone is at, at all times, and also lets it hover at a certain altitude, as well as other flight modes. It’s great to have amazing piloting skills, but for good video, you want these flight modes for added precision.
DGI has some cool software that takes all your best random video from a flight and automatically edits it into an Instagram-ready 30-second video, and even cool stuff like a safety quiz when you fire up the controls for the first time. They’re the industry leader, and being on top for so long during the short history of consumer drones has allowed the company to develop the best software, the best hardware and, yeah, the best marketing, if you ever see their display at your local big-box.
So overall, you get your money’s worth when you buy a drone?
Yeah — an autonomous robot that flies on its own and takes perfect video, all for a few hundred bucks. Imagine if you could go back in time and explain to your younger self all the things an average drone in 2020 does: Younger-you’s head would probably explode. It’s not cheap, but a flying robot camera that can be had for less than a grand doesn’t exactly sound expensive, either.