Spending thousands of dollars on the latest drone is not necessary to get something high-tech at your fingertips.
For this guide, I took a look at drones that cost $300 to $500. This category is a higher quality level than toy drones.
This range is considered around entry-level for hobby drones. If you get one of these drones and live in the U.S., you will have to register it with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).
This can be done online by paying a small fee at the FAA Drone Zone. Be sure to mark your drone with the unique registration number you get from the FAA website. That is a legal FAA requirement. This helps recover it, if you lose your drone. This also makes it easier to identify the responsible owner, if you accidentally break a neighbor’s window with your drone. To avoid problems, be careful and fly in an open space away from everyone and everything when you are first learning how to fly.
If you fly a drone for hobby purposes, according to the rules for recreational-drone flying, you do not need to get a pilot’s license. If you plan to make money or get free stuff from clients for commercial use of your drone, you will have to take a test and get an FAA-issued remote-aircraft pilot certificate.
If you live outside the U.S., I strongly suggest checking with your local aviation authority.
This article contains a buying guide to help you better understand the models available in this price, and it includes reviews of my favorites for sale right now.
Let's get started:
Table of the Best Drones Under $500
12MP / 1080p
DJI Phantom 3 Standard
12MP / 2.7K
Parrot Bebop 2
14MP / 1080p
UPair One 4K
12MP / 4K
Force1 Racing Drone
Expected Specs and Features for Drones Under $500
Some of the drones in this category come with a high-quality camera. Photo resolution is determined by the megapixel amount for a digital photograph. This photo resolution for a camera on drones in this category starts at 8 megapixels and goes up to 12 megapixels.
Video recording capability may be high-definition (HD) that is starts at 1080p resolution and goes up to 2.7K. Even better is ultra-high-definition (UHD) video, which is also known as 4K resolution. There are cameras that stream live video, which is useful for flying them using a smartphone. Having a live video stream is also important for flying with a virtual reality (VR) headset that gives a first-person view (FPV) of the drone flying.
Racing drones in this category can go over 75 miles per hour. High-flying drones can go up to an altitude of 5,000 feet when flying in unrestricted airspace as long as your flying does not interfere with other piloted aircraft. Flight times for drones in this category range from about 16 minutes up to 25 minutes on a single battery charge.
When using a local controller, the flight range is shorter than when connecting with the drone by a WIFI or cell phone signal. The longest range for some of these drones is just over a mile. As long as you can still see the drone you can fly a long-range drone from quite a long distance away from it.
Drones in this category may have GPS positioning and assisted-flight control features such as one-button takeoff/landing and an automatic return-home feature that flies the drone to a pre-set location of the home GPS coordinates. Another great feature is called follow-me and this makes the drones follow a person or an object while videotaping. A few of these drones have the ability to fly from one waypoint to another one, so the flight path can be pre-programmed. I find this feature especially helpful when trying to capture complex video shots.
How to Choose a Drone in this Price Range
One of the main considerations is, to decide if you want to use the drone for racing or if you prefer to focus more on capturing video. If you want to capture video you want a drone to have the highest-quality camera you can afford. If racing is your thing, you will want the one that flies the fastest.
Here are some other considerations, when making a purchase decision about one of these drones.
Since the cost category is limited to the range of $300 to $500, the price is less of a factor than the importance of getting a drone with the flying capabilities that you want it to have. There is no point in buying a cheaper drone just for the lower price if it will not do what you want it to do.
Flight time is only a consideration for those who do not like to change out the battery as frequently and for those that cannot afford to buy extra batteries. You may also want to consider the time necessary to recharge a battery if you do not have enough extra ones.
Beginners really need to pay attention to the choices of drones that are easier to fly. There is probably not a worse feeling for a drone flyer than to take a new drone out of the box, fly it for the first time, crash it, and have it break into a hundred pieces. Everyone wants to avoid a serious fail when they are first learning. For those just starting out, having one-button takeoff and landing assistance is really helpful.
Fight safety features are very desirable such as have automatic collision avoidance. Also, an automatic return-home feature is very handy. This helps if the drone loses the connection with the controller to keep the drone from doing what is called a “fly away.” This is when the drone gets out of range of the controller and is caught up by the wind and then just disappears. That is really frustrating.
A good warranty that the manufacturer supports is very helpful. Getting after-purchase care may be difficult if the drone manufacturer is in a foreign country and does not have a system of qualified technicians to make repairs in the U.S. When a drone needs a repair and has to be sent overseas, this can take many months for it to be fixed and sent back.
Here is a convenient checklist of items to consider that can help you compare one drone model to another one:
- Purchase Cost
- Flying Time
- Flight Controls
Seeing how well a drone meets these basic requirements and comparing it to other drones in the same price range will give you a good idea of which one is best for you to purchase.
Who are these drones are best for?
The types of pilots who benefit most from a drone in the $300-$500 range are the enthusiastic hobbyists who like to fly their drones frequently. Professionals can also use these drones for video capture.
One popular service is offering aerial photography by a drone. You can have fun making videos from the footage taken by a drone flying around real estate that is for sale. This is a pretty easy way to make some spare cash. Remember, you need to have a pilot’s certificate from the FAA to offer these commercial services. Making a deal with a real estate agency or broker is a common way to have a nice income that comes from drone flying.
Top Drones Under $500 - Reviews
1. DJI Spark - Best Overall
DJI makes many drone models from entry level ones to very sophisticated professional ones. In this category alone, I reviewed two of the DJI drones.
The DJI Spark is designed with the beginner in mind. It sells for near the bottom part of this price range. It comes with a remote controller. You can also download the free DJI Go app and then control the drone using a smartphone from up to 1.2 miles away. The flight time is about 16 minutes.
If you are new to drone flying, you will be happy to know that this drone has automatic obstacle detection and collision avoidance that is built-in. Advanced users have the option to turn this feature off and put the drone in sports mode for top-speed flying of up to 31 miles per hour.
It comes with a camera that is mounted on a rotating gimbal, which is stabilized in two directions. This helps to capture steady shots. The photo quality is 12 megapixels. The video quality is 1080p at 30 frames per second. There is a live video stream that can be used for real-time FPV flying while wearing a VR headset. The equipment needed for FPV flying is an optional accessory that is sold separately.
This drone has some special flying features such as responding to hand gestures that can be used to control the drone and to make it take a selfie image. It has Tapfly capability. This is where you tap on a spot on the video image using the application on a smartphone and the drone automatically flies to that spot. It can follow a subject and be programmed to complete a flight path autonomously.
- Compact and durable.
- Flies fast in sports mode.
- FPV capable.
- Memory card to store photos and videos is not included and must be bought separately.
This DJI drone is higher-quality that the Spark, however, it sells for a price at the top of the range for this category. It does everything the Spark can do and more.
It records high-definition (HD) video at a 2.7K resolution and takes photos at a 12-megapixel resolution. An 8GB SD memory card is included. The camera is gimbal mounted for easy rotation. It is stabilized on three axels instead of two like the Spark.
It also sends a live video stream at 780p resolution to a smartphone. This live video can be viewed on the smartphone app at a distance of up to half a mile away using a WIFI transmission.
It has the features of the free DJI Go app that includes FollowMe tracking capability, the option to set waypoints, to fly to a specific point, and the ability to follow a pre-programmed flight path. It has GPS-based flight assistance.
This drone uses an intelligent battery, which allows a flight time of up to 25 minutes. It has a communication transmission range of up to 3,000 feet.
- Captures excellent high-quality images.
- Easy for beginners to learn how to fly.
- Long flight time.
- Not suitable for indoor flying.
A 14 megapixel camera on the Parrot Bebop 2 has a wide-angle lens that allows it to capture beautiful still photographs and record video at 1080p resolution.
The lens does not move. Instead of using a gimbal mount that needs to be rotated to get the camera shot you want, it has software that converts the image captured by the wide-angle lens into the portion you want as an image.
It has 8GB of internal memory. Captured images and video can be transferred to another device by using a cable connection or over a wireless WIFI connection.
The Bebop 2 can fly for up to 25 minutes using a 2700 mAh battery. It has powerful motors that allow it to fly at high altitudes. It has a range of about 1,000 feet.
This drone is a strong competitor to the DJI Spark. It is compact but slightly larger than a Spark. This drone has a bright-red rear-facing LED flashing light that makes it easier to see if flown at dusk.
- Creates unique shots using its fish-eye lens.
- No need to adjust lens to capture images.
- Long flight time.
- Internal memory can fill up quickly.
4. UPair One 4K
The UPair One captures ultra-high-definition video at 4k resolution using a gimbal camera.
The video streams live to an included seven-inch LCD screen on the controller to give the operator a first-person view of the drone flying. It has a range of about 1,500 feet.
It takes very nice 12-megapixel high-quality photographs. Memory storage is on removable 16 GB o 32 GB Micro SD cards that need to be purchased separately. This drone sells for a price towards the low end of this category of drones.
It is intentionally a knock-off of the DJI Phantom that sells for about half the price of the Phantom. The Phantom has a slightly better range than the UPair One. However, the UPair One has a better camera than the Phantom.
Beginners like to fly this drone because it has lots of flight control assistance that includes the ability to hold position and altitude. It will return home to GPS coordinates by one-button operator control.
This feature engages automatically when the battery has low power or if the communication connection is lost. It locks the home position to be able to return to it automatically by using the coordinates from at least eight GPS satellites when calibrated by the pilot before a flight.
It uses an intelligent 5,400 mAh battery that allows it to fly up to 19 minutes. The battery can recharge in about one and one-half hours.
- Full after-sale tech support and service.
- Captures UHD 4k video, which is the best quality.
- Easy to fly.
- Not safe to fly indoors.
This is a wonderfully-fast, racing drone that can fly at a speed of over 75 miles per hour.
The Force1 Racing Drone sells for a price at the low end of the range of $300 to $500 for this category of drones. It has a camera that is designed for FPV flying of the drone while wearing a VR headset.
The camera is lightweight and used for flight control, so it is not designed for the quality of the image capture. Instead, it uses a high-definition CCD camera that has a wide dynamic range to help the pilot avoid glare when flying towards the sun and to enhance the light level when flying at dusk.
This racing drone is made of carbon-weave fiber that is very strong and lightweight. It has a one-key automatic takeoff and landing. It has altitude hold capability.
By using its headless function, this allows the user to set the controls to operate in a way that feels the best to them for the direction that they wish to fly. These features make it easy for beginners to fly this drone. It has a range of about 3,000 feet for its communication connection over the land direction and can fly up to 5,000 feet in altitude.
The controller offers a choice of eight communication channels to find a channel with no interference. The VR headset operates over a 5.8 GHz connection. When FPV flying, it sees what the drone sees.
The headset has a beveled, LCD screen design that allows the view to wrap around the sides of the face. This gives the pilot more of a side view of what the drone can see while flying. Racing this drone is an exhilarating experience when flying in the FPV mode.
- Purchase includes 180-days of spare parts care.
- Good starter drone for those interested in racing.
- Brushless motors and high-quality components.
- No propeller guard.
Since I like aerial photography more than racing, my choice for this category is the DJI Spark. The price-to-value ratio for this drone is quite good. It is unusual that my favorite pick is one of the cheaper drones in a category.
Sure, the DJI Phantom is a better drone in this category; however, it is double the price. I prefer the DJI Spark over the similarly-priced UPair One because I like the features of the DJI Go app. I also like that the Spark can fly using an optional VR headset for FPV flying.