Header image courtesy of Karl Greif (via Unsplash)
Originally published by Mat Gallagher. Last updated by Zakh Hyman.
For any true gadget fan, drones are hot business. Not only do they satisfy the radio-controlled plane desires you had as a kid (and probably still do) but they go one step further by offering the ability to take some great aerial photos and videos. Once limited to high-end pro options, there is now a massive range of quadcopters (their proper name) on the market. We check out some of the best drones that money can buy in Hong Kong.
With any great gadget comes great responsibility. Drones are contentious copters and have divided opinion the world over. On the one hand, they have played their part in producing some incredible aerial footage, showing us Hong Kong from new heights. Drones have also aided search and rescue operations; in fact, a report issued by the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology DJI reveals that at least 65 people have been rescued by drones in the last year across five continents.
In these cases, drones have been used to drop buoys to struggling swimmers in Australia and Brazil, spot unconscious victims in sub-freezing weather in England and America, and found stranded people in fields, rivers, and mountains. In one case, police in Lincolnshire, England, responded to a car crash on a dark rural road on a cold night but were unable to find the driver. A drone with a thermal imaging camera spotted the driver in a ditch away from the crash scene and captured the dramatic moments when it guided officers to find him.
While there is definitely a strong argument for the value of droning, on the other hand, there are growing concerns that existing legislation is not robust enough to apply to the rapidly advancing technology. When used inappropriately, drones can pose risks to public safety, air traffic, and breach numerous privacy laws. As drones have become more popular, the restrictions on where you can fly them have become more stringent.
In Hong Kong, the Civil Aviation Department offers guidelines for use of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. Any drone weighing over seven kilogrammes must be registered. There are no-fly zones in Victoria Harbour, country parks, the airport, military sites, prisons, and in government leisure facilities, but many still flout the law. According to UAV Systems International, you must keep your drone below 300 feet at all times, only in the daytime, and within sight.
When considering which drone to go for, make sure you know what you plan to do with it, as this will affect your choice. If you want to make high-quality films, make sure the camera is up to it. And if you’ve never flown one before, consider a cheaper “practice model” to learn the ropes—flying mistakes can be expensive! But we’re not ones to drone on, so if you’re successfully clued-up and regulation ready, there should be nothing stopping you from taking flight! We’ve put together a handy buyer’s guide to drones to help you narrow down your search.
DJI’s newest addition to their ever-expanding range of drones is the unbelievably small yet powerful Mavic Mini. Weighing in at just 249 grams, the Mavic Mini is the perfect “on-the-go” drone for anyone looking to bring an aerial vantage point with them on their outdoor adventures. DJI has specifically designed this drone to sit just under the weight requirement for a commercial drone. This means that owners are not required to register for a license to fly this quadcopter in countries where such requirements exist. Anyone is capable of flying this anywhere, which makes the Mavic Mini the perfect beginner drone.
Don’t let its size fool you; the Mavic Mini is an extremely powerful little thing, offering 2.7K-resolution video capabilities and up to 12 megapixels of photo resolution. With an average flight time of about 30 minutes per battery and an array of QuickShots available, the Mavic Mini is sure to get you all the footage you need. The only drawbacks to this drone include a lack of obstacle avoidance sensors, and a reduced top speed and flight range (four kilometres in optimum conditions) as compared to DJI’s more professional models. However, for the average user, these are not features that one will find themselves yearning for in every-day use.
For those looking to balance a small form factor with impressive optical abilities, look no further than the Parrot Anafi. This drone is the only one on the market to feature a camera with a full 180 degrees of vertical angle range, allowing you to take photos directly upwards, downwards, or anywhere in-between. In addition to this, the camera boasts an impressive 2.8x zoom, something not found in any other drones within this price range. The Anafi’s object tracking capabilities make it perfect for selfie use, as well as cinematic shots using its many intelligent flight modes. Beginner drone pilots beware though, the Anafi does not have any built-in obstacle avoidance system, so you’d best keep an eye on it while you fly!
Small, affordable, and agile, the Bebop 2 is Parrot’s prime offering for entry-level pilots. It offers a 25-minute fly time and a fixed 14-megapixel fisheye camera that shoot in 1080p. The Bebop 2 is controlled from your smartphone, using its accelerometer and touchscreen. It features GPS and visual tracking to allow it to follow you and film you automatically, as well as to return home when the battery is getting low. There are also add-on packs with a gamepad style controller and headset for full immersive flying.
Altair is based in Lincoln, Nebraska, and offers a range of low-cost quadcopters that make for a great learning drone. The Aerial features a seven-minute flight time, a wide-angle fixed front-mounted camera that shoots in 720p, and three speed modes—depending on your experience. It comes with a controller, complete with optional phone mounting (you can fly without one), one-button take-off and landing and an altitude hold mode, for aerial photography.
The Mavic Air 2 is DJI’s updated iteration of the extremely popular Mavic Air. With its balance of high-quality camera features and a compact form factor, it is geared towards non-professional users who still want to get the most out of their drone. Its 4K-resolution video and 48-megapixel photo capabilities leave little to be desired from this scaled-down powerhouse. The battery life has been greatly increased in this new iteration of the Mavic Air as well, now offering an average of 30 minutes per battery, compared to the 20 minutes offered by its predecessor. The Mavic Air 2 comes with a completely redesigned controller, that—while slightly larger than before—is more ergonomic and better suited for use. With its 10-kilometre range and extended array of tracking and QuickShot capabilities, this drone is comparable to the more expensive Mavic Pro 2, and certainly a fine choice for those not wanting to dish out the extra cash for the more professional model.
Go Pro’s drone offering keeps the cost down by making it compatible with its Hero 5 and Hero 6 models, which fit into the three-axis gimbal. If you don’t already own a GoPro however, you’ll need to factor in this extra cost, as it needs the camera to fly. Using the latest Hero 6, you’ll get 4K-resolution video at up to 60 frames per second and 12 megapixels. The Karma has a 20-minute flight time and a distance of up to three kilometres. It will automatically follow the controller unit, which features its own fold-out screen. The camera can also be operated separately from a mobile device if needed.
This unique-looking drone has a number of advantages for those looking for a flying selfie machine. Its design includes a carbon fibre cage around the propellers, making it easy to catch and release, and also protects them in case of a crash. The Hover Camera Passport offers a 4K-resolution 13-megapixel camera with easy tracking modes (face and body), as well as orbit and 360-degree panorama modes, and folds up for easy carrying. The fly time is just eight minutes but it does come with two batteries and can use in-camera stabilising when shooting in 1080p.
For those looking to add a drone to their professional filmmaking kit, the Mavic Pro 2 is without a doubt the go-to piece of kit. With a one-inch sensor, Hasselblad glass, variable aperture (from f2.1 to f11), 4K-resolution video, and 20-megapixel photo capabilities, this drone boasts a truly impressive skillset. It also comes with the ability to utilise a wide variety of intelligent flight modes that make capturing exotic, cinematic shots a breeze. Unlike the rest of DJI’s portable drone models, the Mavic Pro 2 features a 360-degree obstacle avoidance system, keeping it safe from crashing into trees, buildings, or people. All this is encompassed within a low-profile, foldable form factor, allowing you to easily fit it within a backpack for outdoor adventure use.
If you’re really serious about your drone photography or filmmaking, the Phantom 4 Pro is a great place to start. This solid quadcopter features a 20-megapixel camera capable of filming in 4K-resolution (a.k.a. some serious image quality), all mounted on a three-axis gimbal. The Phantom 4 Pro features object avoidance sensors on all four sides and on the bottom, and a flight time of around 30 minutes, allowing a decent amount of flying time per battery, and a seven-kilometre range. Additionally, there is a range of flight modes, allowing for speed (up to 72 kilometres per hour), altitude control, and auto scenes, such as tracking and obstacle avoidance. The device also includes a high-end remote controller with a built-in screen. The camera can also be controlled separately via a smartphone app.
The Inspire is DJI’s pro range of drones and the Inspire 2 is the latest incarnation. This is designed for professional filmmaking and is sold without the camera unit or in bundles, allowing you to pick from three camera modules: the 4K-resolution, 20-megapixel Zenmuse X4S (similar to that on the Phantom 4 Pro); the removable lens (Micro Four-Thirds mount) Zenmuse X5S; and the 6K-resolution, 24-megapixel Zenmuse X7. The device features sensors for terrain detection and object avoidance at up to 30 metres ahead when flying at up to 55 kilometres per hour. At full speed, the Inspire 2 can reach up to 93 kilometres per hour and fly for up to 27 minutes. There is a range of intelligent flight modes, including the new Spotlight Pro to accurately track during flight.
There is another use for drones other than taking pictures and videos, and that’s racing. This new sport that sees drones racing against each other has become big news, even filling stadiums in the UK and US. One of the best off-the-shelf first-person-view (FPV) racing models right now is the TBS Vendetta II. This is specifically designed as a racer and is capable of speeds in excess of 113 kilometres per hour. The body has a modular design (with no soldering needed to replace parts) and a carbon fibre chassis that is 30 grams lighter than the original Vendetta. Flight time is three to five minutes per charge with a range of three kilometres. You need to buy the controller and receiver separately (also available online), as many racers will have a preferred model.
Considered one of the best budget racing drones, the Eachine Wizard X220S comes either ready-to-fly (RTF) or for you to assemble-your-own (ARF)—the preference of many racers. It’s a durable drone with a carbon fibre body and capable of speeds of up to 109 kilometres per hour straight out of the box. Flight time is up to 12 minutes per charge. It features a small, fixed 1080p camera and also has a mount for a Runcam 3 or GoPro Session.