With their crisp 4K cameras and fancy autonomous flight modes, expensive prosumer drones are a pretty tempting path into the world of unmanned aircraft. But there are more than a few ways to get in on the action without shelling out thousands of dollars. Today, drones at lower price points offer a less risky way for novices to learn the ropes, while still including some bells and whistles to keep the fun coming once they're up and away, such as VR features and HD video. Here's our selection of the best drones available now for less than US$250 that offer a little something more than just the sheer thrill of flying.
Vidius VR drone
Drones that synch up to VR goggles and stream vision from the drone's camera are the backbone of the burgeoning drone racing scene, and are now featuring in mainstream models too.
The Vidius VR drone is among the first to pack this into a pint-sized quadcopter, which pairs with a tablet or smartphone from 100 ft (30 m) away to present a live feed of the drone's eye view. Sliding the device into the included VR goggles places the pilot right in the thick of the action, which should last for up to seven minutes per charge.
Parrot's efforts in the drone space tend to focus on the fun, rather than the practical, and this is best demonstrated by its long line of minidrones. Following models that can climb walls, leap onto surfaces and glide across water, the cannon-equipped Mambo seems designed purely for the purpose of pestering siblings.
Mambo is a quadcopter that comes with a Nerf-like cannon that snaps on via a Lego-like panel on top. Fully loaded, it carries six balls that are said to be soft and safe to use, and it can empty the chamber in nine seconds. What's more, it could even handle the cleanup, with a claw that can be fixed to its underside and grab onto objects weighing up to 4 g (0.15 oz).
Buy the Mambo now on Amazon ($119)
Flybrix Lego drones
Back in September, startup Flybrix launched DIY drone kits designed to teach kids about engineering and robotics, and hoped to capture imaginations by bringing a childhood favorite into the mix. The kits come as loose sets of Lego bricks, and it is up to the budding engineer to assemble the pieces into some kind of magical flying machine, sounds just like any old Lego-building session, right?
But with motors, propellors, battery and a flight board thrown in, users won't have to imagine their creation taking flight, they can actually fire it up to see how it fairs. The idea is that by seeing how their designs fly and crash, users can learn through trial and error how to build the ultimate aircraft.
Available now, Flybrix come in a basic kit which relies on smartphone controls for $189, or a $249 kit that includes a dedicated controller.
The PowerUp 3.0 has been around for a couple of years now, and is not a drone per se, but still makes our list because it's a clever idea and offers something different in an increasingly crowded market. Oh, and it's cheap too.
For $50, the PowerUp 3.0 kit can be affixed to your finest paper airplanes and give them some serious hang time. It uses a propellor, small tail rudder and throttle control to glide through the air at the user's behest, provided they've got a paired smartphone handy to control the thing.
The kit can be purchased now through the company's website.
Hubsan FPV X4 Plus
We've tried out a few of Hubsan's diminutive quadcopters over the years and have found these responsive and solidly-built devices to be great learner drones. The FPV X4 Plus is the latest from the RC toy-maker and packs a capable camera into a pretty small package, with the ability to shoot 720/30fps HD video and stream vision to a 4.3-inch LCD screen built into the remote controller.
We took the FPV X4 Plus for a test run earlier in the year and found that it stood up well to all of our crash landings. This, combined with what is a relatively high-resolution camera for a drone of this size might make it a good way for beginners to get a feel for aerial cinematography. You can read our full review here.
Buy now on Amazon ($117)
If you do treat yourself or a loved one to a new drone this holiday season, be sure to check out our Drone School series for some help in getting off the ground.