This might be the year Santa Claus finally ditches the reindeer in favor of a fleet of drones. Just kidding, he’d probably get lost somewhere over the Atlantic without Rudolph’s nose. But, with analysts predicting hundreds of thousands of drone sales this year, 2015 will almost certainly be the year that many shoppers figure out what kind of drone is worth putting under the Christmas tree.
The Consumer Technology Association predicted on Nov. 23 that 400,000 consumer drones will be sold this holiday season. That’s nothing compared to the 1 million drones the Federal Aviation Administration already predicted would turn up under Christmas trees. Whatever the true figure, both numbers make it clear shoppers won’t wait for the FAA’s rules to decide what sort of unmanned aerial vehicle to get for friends and family.
To help with the decision making, here's a buyer’s guide on the best drones for Christmas 2015.
Drones for Rookies
The best place to start for novice pilots is probably the UDI U818A quadcopter, available for $54.99 on Amazon. That’s a fair price for any reliable drone, and the UDI U818A comes equipped with guards that prevent its four rotors from being damaged in a crash. It can survive bumps into fences, telephone poles and is easy to retrieve from pesky tree branches.
The only bummer? The UDI has a flight duration of under 10 minutes and a charging time of two hours (though separate battery packs are also available).
The best option for kids is Parrot’s fleet of 13 mini drones, first unveiled in June. Parrot, the French drone manufacturer that’s been in the consumer UAV game since the beginning, is targeting younger users with a family of remote-controlled toys capable of flying, driving on the land or navigating through the water. Prices range from $99 to $189, with options also available for kids who’d prefer models with a police or flame sticker on their new toy.
Bonus: Parrot also offers the Airborne Night drone, which is capable of recording video as it flies in the dark for nine minutes at a time (starting at $99.99 on Amazon).
Both the UDI and Parrot mini drones also come with camera capabilities, though only Parrot owners can live stream what happens on their drone’s camera with iOS and Android apps.
More Money = More Fly Time
Whether you’re buying a drone for dad, a sibling or friend, chances are they’ll need some practice before they consider applying for a job as a deliveryman for Amazon. Once amateur pilots get enough air time, though, they’ll probably want to upgrade to a faster UAV that can stay in the air for more than a few minutes.
Meet the Blade FPV Nano RTF QX Quadcopter ($419.99 on Amazon). This drone is small enough to navigate through a house or office and comes with a stability mode that lets users fly on autopilot. Or there’s agility mode, which enables pilots to show off with barrel rolls and other quick maneuvers. Don’t forget the first-person view that transmits live video straight from the onboard camera.
Then, if you’re willing to spend another $600 or so, there’s the 3DR Solo. It’s a 3.3 pound, $999.99 quadcopter that looks more like a mini war machine than a fun little gizmo. Users can program the 3DR Solo to fly a predetermined path on autopilot, to orbit and save camera footage to their phone. Flight time tops out at 20 to 25 minutes, with a maximum height of 1,000 feet and a distance of more than a mile.
Drones get really expensive, really fast. The best are also the priciest, as proven by the popularity of the DJI Phantom 3 series. Prices range from $699 (while the Phantom 3 Standard is on sale) to the $2,078 Phantom 3 Professional Kit.
These are not the drones that are fun to crash. They’re fun to watch other people crash, for sure, but that’s partly because every model comes with such a high-quality camera. Look how clearly the tree branches appear before one pilot slams into a roof, for example.
Phantoms are the best-selling line of consumer drones on the market. They also come with a “home lock” GPS feature that automatically returns the UAV to its pilot if the operator loses sight.
Or, if the gift recipient has been really good this year, there’s the Yuneec Typhoon Q500 4K. At $1,299 on Amazon, it’s like a Cadillac for photographers. It comes with an ultra high-definition camera (that’s four times better than normal HD) and an intense ground control system equipped with two old-fashioned joysticks, a touch-screen, shutter buttons for still photos and video and other features.