Mobility has been a big theme in drone innovation this year. From egg-shaped flyers that fold up into smooth little bundles to caged drones that snap shut like a book, drone-makers have gotten pretty good at stuffing their tech into small and strange packages. With all these out-of-the-box ideas it can be difficult to know what's right for your flying style, so whether selfies are your game or you're shooting for drone racing fame, our selection of the year's best drones has something for everybody looking to take their aerial exploits to the next level.
DJI Mavic Pro
We'll kick things off with the biggest name in the business, DJI, and its first entry into the burgeoning compact drone segment. Made for aerial cinematographers on the move, the Mavic Pro shoots 4K video at full 30 fps, full 1080p at 96 fps along with 12-megapixel stills. These capabilities are nothing we haven't seen before, but when you consider the company's track record in delivering user-friendly aircraft, its first neat, portable package and a few new features, the Mavic Pro is likely to win DJI some new fans.
The inward-folding arms can be tucked in alongside its body to result in dimensions of just 7.8 x 3.26 x 3.26 in (198 x 83 x 83 mm). DJI says its three-axis gimbal provides enough stabilization for the camera to shoot stills with two-second-long exposures, which could make for some pretty spectacular aerial photos in low-light settings.
The camera can be flipped 90 degrees to take portrait shots and can be engaged through a set of gesture controls, which basically allow the drone to find you, place you in the camera's frame and take your photo, provided you're waving your arms around in the right way.
The Mavic Pro is priced at US$999 and is available through DJI's online store.
The Hover Camera
One of the more inventive drone designs to cross our desk in 2016, the Hover Camera, as the name suggests, sits among a growing category of devices that are more flying cameras than drones in the traditional sense of the word. Its onboard camera takes 13-megapixel stills and 4K video, and can be folded up into a tidy modem-shaped form when not in use.
It can simply be released into the air and will hover in place automatically, where it uses facial and body recognition algorithms to keep a subject in shot. But if that fails, the carbon fiber frame that encases its propellors can be safely poked and prodded so you can make adjustments in midair. It is controlled via smartphone and can also be made to autonomously follow the subject should they go walkabout or partake in some kind of action sport.
The Hover Camera is available now for $549.
Parrot Disco Drone
From a company that has pushed out more left-field drone designs than most, Parrot's Disco is perhaps its boldest departure from the conventional quadcopter we've seen yet. Fixed-wing drones have become popular in surveillance and monitoring circles due to their superior flight times, and Parrot is betting that these capabilities might attract the interest of a few hobbyists, too.
Where most top-flight consumer drones can fly for 20-30 minutes per charge, the Disco drone can soar through the skies for 45 minutes. It also has a brisk top speed of 50 mph (80 km/h), but its major drawcard is the promise of what seems to be a pretty unique flying experience.
First-person view (FPV) flying, where the user straps on a virtual reality headset that streams a live view from the drone's nose, has catapulted the field of drone racing into mainstream popularity, and this is what the Disco drone is all about. Parrot hopes that this, along with the drone's ability to glide faster and longer, will offer an experience you can't really get anywhere else.
The Parrot Disco drone is available now for $1,299.
Speaking of drone racing, if you're looking to get started in this nascent and ridiculously fast-growing sport, then you'll want to choose your weapon wisely. Obviously something that goes fast is desirable, but something that flies easily is just as important (trust us, we've tried and tumbled along this steep and unforgiving learning curve).
The Rogue from American company xCraft gives both of these boxes an emphatic tick. It is actually aimed at drone racers of all levels of experience, but caters to the sport's newcomers by way of a "Noob" package that comes with a ready-to-fly drone, FPV goggles, extra props and batteries. Oh, and it will zip along at 100 mph (160 km/h) out of the box, which is something not unheard of among drone racing aficionados, but usually requires plenty of technical know-how and tinkering to get them up to speed.
The xCraft Rogue is available now and the Noob package will set you back $1,000.
GoPro's debut drone finally arrived last month, after more than a year of hints and whispers. It look a bit like DJI's Mavic Pro and features arms that can be tucked away, but is a bit bigger when in folded form, measuring 14.4 x 8.8 x 3.4 in (365 x 224 x 90 mm). The Karma seems destined to be compared to the Mavic Pro, as DJI and GoPro are the two biggest names in the drone game right now, and it falls a little behind in some areas.
Top speed is 35 mph compared to 40 mph, (56 and 64 km/h) and flight time is 20 minutes compared to 27 minutes, but it does feature a removable camera. Karma can be loaded up with a GoPro Hero 4, Hero 5 Black or the forthcoming Hero 5 Session, so for those who already have one of those actioncams and are keen to put the tried and tested image quality up in the air, the Karma could be the right option.
And that makes it cheaper, too. The Karma can be ordered from October 23 onwards, with the drone alone costing $799, undercutting the Mavic Pro by $200, while it can be bundled with the Hero 5 Black for $1,100.
Flybrix Lego drones
Lego is already tons of fun on its own, so what if you bring drones into the mix? The team behind Flybrix drone kits is banking on this marriage of playtime favorites old and new to teach kids a thing or two about engineering, robotics and creativity.
The kits come in the form of Lego bricks, with a bunch of hardware components like motors, propellors and a flight controller thrown in. Kids (or adults) can then set about building spectacular Lego creations as they normally would, and then use smartphone controls to fire them up and see how they fly. The idea is that by building, flying and crashing the drones, kids learn through trial and error what designs work and what don't.
The Flybrix kits are available now and priced at US$149 for the drone only (piloted by smartphone), or $189 with a dedicated remote controller thrown in.
DJI Phantom 4
No compilation of top drones would be complete without a mention of the industry's biggest seller. The Phantom 4 is the latest and greatest in the line of DJI's hugely popular Phantom series, and having taken it for a spin after its arrival earlier this year we can attest to its fantastic build, safety, reliability and image quality.
It sits in the "prosumer" category of drones aimed at cinematographers, and we reckon it rules the roost. It can stream 720p footage back to its controller from up to 5 km (3 mi) away so you can see what you're doing, has built-in obstacle avoidance and shoots 4K video and 12-megapixel stills.
The Phantom 4 is available now and is priced at $1,400.