Summer has always been the perfect time to enjoy the thrill of flying, making it the ideal time to unpack and launch a drone.
Just a few years ago, the closest you could get to the experience of piloting a small aircraft yourself (short of a large investment in an actual airplane plus considerable time and effort in training) was a radio controlled model plane.
Before that? A kite was pretty much the only option.
Now, consumer drones recreate the flying experience, and many are equipped with HD cameras, making them ideal for aerial exploration of summer vistas.
It’s not hard to spend a tidy sum on these high tech drones, but even the pricier ones are bargains compared to the cost of flying a real airplane — and you can land them in your back yard.
Here are five of the best drones, if you decide this summer is the time to take to the skies.
5 Best Drones for Every Budget: DJI Phantom 3 Professional
The DJI Phantom has been the go-to device for professional quality consumer drones, and the latest model — the DJI Phantom 3 — sets the bar higher than ever.
The professional version is one of the best drones on the market for prosumers.
At $1,259, it’s not cheap, but the DJI Phantom 3 Professional has everything a pro-grade drone enthusiast would want, while providing sufficient automation to let a beginner safely fly it. It also includes enhanced visual and ultrasonic sensors for indoor flight — a tricky proposition with drones of this size.
This model is targeted at those who want to capture the kind of stunning aerial videos that show up on YouTube. The camera position can be remote controlled and besides capturing 4K video (12MP stills) it can stream live HD to an Apple (AAPL) iPhone or Android smartphone up to 1.2 miles away.
Rather than a GoPro (GPRO) mount, the Phantom 3 Professional is equipped with its own 4K camera mounted to a 3-axis gimbal.
5 Best Drones for Every Budget: 3DR Solo
3D Robotics is the American juggernaut when it comes to high-capability consumer drones, and its flagship model is the 3DR Solo.
The latest version of the 3DR Solo is billed as the world’s first “smart drone” thanks to advanced features like a controller with its own built-in computer.
Like the DJI Phantom 3, the 3DR Solo has a lot to offer aerial photographers, but while the DJI drone includes a gimbal and its own camera, the 3DR Solo was designed while working closely with GoPro for the ultimate in integration.
The 3-axis gimbal for mounting a Hero3+ or Hero4 costs an additional $399, but GoPro fans will appreciate being able use their preferred camera, while those who are more interested in flying than shooting video will benefit from its lower $999 base price.
Flight time is 20 minutes (with a camera mounted) and the 3DR Solo is smart enough to warn pilots when that charge is running low.
5 Best Drones for Every Budget: Parrot Hydrofoil Drone
The Parrot Hydrofoil Drone is a unique cross between an R/C boat and an airborne drone, and makes for a very entertaining day at the beach.
Picture a mini drone bolted to an outrigger boat hull and you get a good idea of what this hybrid looks like. Instead of going up, the drone propellors drive the Hydrofoil across the top of the water (it stays about two inches above the surface), hitting speeds of up to 6 mph.
Control is via Bluetooth using an iOS or Android app (range is 65 feet from the smartphone) and an onboard camera can record video at 640 x 480 resolution.
Remove the “nautical structure” and the drone can be used for aerial acrobatics instead of skimming the water surface.
The Parrot Hydrofoil Drone hits shelves in August for $179.
5 Best Drones for Every Budget: Parrot Airborne Night Drone
Another of Parrot’s new line of mini drones, the $129 Airborne Night Drone is an affordable choice that makes it easy to explore the summer skies — even in the dark.
Using an iPhone or Android smartphone (or tablet) and the free control app, the 1.2-pound Airborne Night Drone is capable of 11mph airspeeds and can turn 90 degrees or 180 degrees with a swipe of the screen.
Throw it in the air, and sensors automatically fire up the engines and stabilize the drone.
The Airborne Night Drone has a VGA camera onboard, but its selling feature is a pair of high powered LED lights. With onboard illumination, this is one of the best drones for exploring caves or flying in the dark.
5 Best Drones for Every Budget: Splash Drone
A former Kickstarter project that’s now shipping, the Splash Drone may just be the ultimate device for beach flying. It’s waterproof and able to take a dunking in salt or fresh water, including rain.
The camera gimbal is also waterproof, so adding a GoPro in a waterproof jackets gets you flying and filming in any weather.
The Splash Drone features 17 minutes of flight on a charge, offers smartphone app-based control as well as a 2.4GHz controller and can carry a 2-pound payload. Boaters take note — this drone can also deploy an emergency flare that burns for 15 minutes.
Splash Drone is available in a wide variety of configurations to suit a range of budgets, from the $389 basic do-it-yourself kit to $1299 and up for the most tricked out configurations.
As of this writing, Brad Moon did not hold a position in any of the aforementioned securities.