Flying your $18 toy drone from Target into a tree is a lot less painful if it’s gone for good.
Cheap practice drones are often more difficult to learn how to fly than expensive, higher-end drones that have automated control software that enables the drones to takeoff and landing. And that’s a good thing.
Even something like a $400 Mavic Mini, one of DJI’s most budget-friendly drones, can basically fly itself, able to takeoff and land automatically, hover, return-to-home and fly pre-programmed flight paths like go in a circle or take a dronie (where the drone flies backward and upward, with the camera tracking you) at the push of a button.
But it’s important you know how to fly a drone yourself. And you want to train for the hardest scenario.
You wouldn’t get in the driver’s seat of a self-driving Tesla without first learning how to drive in your mom’s old Honda Civic, right? Same goes for drones. Even if a drone can fly itself, you want to be prepared in case you do need to take control. And the best way to prepare is with cheap practice drones.
Most of the cheap practice drones in this guide actually don’t have helpful flight features like hover in place — and we like it that way. We want you to learn for yourself how to fly, without relying on software to do it for you.
The one thing all the drones in this guide have in common: they cost less than $100.
The Robin strikes the perfect balance in the world of cheap toy drones of fun to fly, not headache-inducing, but still tough enough that you really feel comfortable on the sticks.
It can perform “stunts” like flips, and also has a camera that records videos to a Micro SD card. Though, don’t expect great image quality; it records aerial videos at 720P HD and takes JPEG photos up to 1600×1200.
It also transmits the video in real-time to your controller, which can be helpful in allowing you to experience a “first-person view” type flight (just keep your eyes focused on the controller — don’t be tempted to look at the drone.
The airframe is durable enough to survive many crashes. Plus, since the drone has propeller guards, they can bounce off walls or other objects with no damage done.
If you’re on a tight budget, it’s nearly impossible to go wrong with the EACHINE E010 Mini Quadcopter Drone. At just $22.99, there’s not a lot to lose — even if you lose it in the pool.
As a budget pick, this drone has no camera, and no bells or whistles period. But if you’re looking simply for a training drone to get comfortable behind the sticks, this is it.
That’s not to say it has no features. It can perform some stunts like “3D rollover,” and the Eachine E010 also gives you the option to switch between flying in high and low speed modes (start with low speed, and when you get comfortable flying, graduated to high speed).
Plus, you can still toggle between flight modes like headless/compass mode — which are also mode options you might choose to fly more expensive DJI drones in — so it’s great to get that practice in here.
Flight time: 5 minutes
The best practice drone (if you want more than just a practice drone): Tello
Most of the drones in this guide are pretty much only good for the duration of your training. Once you’ve mastered the practice drone and graduated onto a “real” drone, you likely won’t pull out that training drone again (other than maybe a fun party trick).
The same can’t be said for the Tello. The Tello has a life that extends beyond just a training tool for newbies. It has a decent camera, so you might actually find yourself bringing it with you to parties to shoot a group selfie (it can shoot 5 megapixel photos). And it has a neat feature that teaches you how to code through Scratch, an MIT-developed coding system (you can actually program your drone to fly), making it one of my favorite educational tools, too.
It’s also the most expensive drone in this guide. At $99, it combines DJI flight technology and an Intel processor to create a drone that will serve more than just “training” or practice goals.
One note: this drone is actually fairly easy to fly, thanks to auto takeoff/landing and a smart vision positioning system that facilitates precise hovering. (It’s made with DJI flight technology, so what would you expect?!). If you really want to master precise drone flight, this might not actually be your pick, for that reason. But if you know you want to “graduate” to a DJI drone, you might actually want to go for the $99 Tello, as the flight experience closely mirrors the experience of flying something like a DJI Phantom or Mavic.
And this is fun (and slightly more expensive): there’s also an Iron Man version of the Tello drone.
Flight time: 13 minutes
One of the problems with cheap practice drones: once you’ve mastered them and moved onto a “real” drone, then the training drone gets relegated to the back of your closet to collect dusts. That’s not the case with these Propel Star Wars High Performance Battle Drones.
At less than $40, they’re a great, inexpensive way to learn how to fly. But once you’ve mastered it, it has a spot on your shelf. That’s because these beautiful, hand-painted drones are designed to resemble the real Star Wars ships: T-65 X-wing Starfighter, Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced x1 or a 74-Z speeder bike.
And they’re great for learning how to fly. You can toggle on or off altitude stabilization, which is a great training tool. And so you don’t chip the hand-painting, there is a training cage so the drone bounces off walls or other objects if you crash.
With three speed settings, you can set the drone to a level you’re comfortable with. Real pros can fly at the fastest speed — up to 35 mph.
Plus, this drone has a neat feature to make flying even more of a fun challenge. These Star Wars drones actually battle and fire eye-safe lasers at other Star Wars drones (if your friend has one!). With two drones and two pilots, you can pair them and create a battle game, where the drone actually wobbles and the controller vibrates in your hand if hit. After three hits, the drone will crash land. If you don’t have a buddy or only have one drone, you can battle against others via system that records, combines and compares your performance against virtual players around the world.
Plus, it plays music!
Flight time: 13 minutes
Everything else you need to know about getting started with cheap practicee drones
No matter what drone you’re flying, make sure you’re comfortable and familiar with drone flying basics before takeoff.
If your drone weighs less than half a pound (which is all of the drones in this guide), you DON’T have to register with the FAA. But you still need to adhere to other rules, like only flying in unrestricted airspace and following other FAA operating rules.
Once you’re a pro at flying and you want to get serious about aerial photography, you’re ready to upgrade! Check out my guide to the best camera drones of 2020.
Or, if you’re shopping for a child, check out my best drones for kids of 2020.