11 Need to Pick a Drone?

If you’re not sure what drone to get and you don’t want to spend a huge amount of money on a drone, here are some potential options. Check the New Users Guide for more suggestions:

In addition to purchasing drones directly from the manufacturer, we recommend checking B&H Photo since it’s widely available as a preferred vendor within the UC System with a substantial price discount.

NEW for 2024 - FEDERAL FUNDING may not be used for DJI/Autel Drones See NDAA Compliant Drones for recommendations.

11.1 Cheap Drones

Looking to get started with drones and don’t want to spend a lot of money? Try these lower cost, easy to use options:

  • Mini 4 - The DJI Mini series are great, affordable and high-quality small drones. At only 249g, they pack a lot a capability into a tiny platform. It’s great as a flight trainer and good enough for some media use. The current model is the Mini 4 Pro, and the older Mini 3 and Mini 3 Pro models. For the ultimate portability, we recommend the versions with the controllers with the built-in screen (DJI RC/DJI RC 2)

  • Evo Nano+ - The Autel Nano+ is an alternative to the DJI Mini series. Similar to the DJI Mini series, it weighs only 249g, exempting it from registration when being used for recreation or educational activities.

11.2 Drones for Multimedia

If you are looking for a drone to take great pictures and videos, you don’t need to worry about software compatibility and instead can just focus on what has the best camera and which one is the easiest to fly.

  • Mavic 3 - The DJI Mavic 3 is a great drone. It boasts a 45 minute flight time, a great camera, zoom up to 28x and almost all the features you could want from a drone - except its not compatible with mapping software. If you’re just doing cinematography, its a good, albeit pricey option at $2,000 ($2,800 with the extra battery combo pack).

  • Mini 3 - The DJI Mini series are great, affordable and high-quality small drones. At only 249g, they pack a lot a capability into a tiny platform. It’s great as a flight trainer and good enough for some media use. The current models are the Mini 3, and Mini 3 Pro.

11.3 Drones for Mapping

If you want to use a drone for making high resolution maps and elevation models, you need a drone that is compatible with automated mapping software. These days, this functionality is exclusive to the more expensive drones.

  • Mavic 3 Enterprise - The recently released Mavic 3 Enterprise is the only one of the Mavic 3 series that is capable of conducting autonomous flight operations necessary for mapping. While it has all of the great flight characteristics as the Mavic 3, the $4,000 price tag is a bit disappointing compared to DJI’s prior offerings.

  • Skydio 2+ - The Skydio is the only non-DJI drone compatible with DroneDeploy. Starting at $999 for just the drone, it’s smaller than a Mavic, and the camera is not as high quality, but as DJI moves away from low-cost mapping functionality, it’s worth checking out for basic/simple flight missions.

  • Autel Robotics EVO II - Autel has been in the drone business almost as long as DJI, but only its recent models have begun to get mainstream attention. At only $2,500, the newer Evo II Pro is a worthy Mavic competitor and unlike the DJI drones, has mapping software functionality built-in.

11.4 The Best Drones

If money is no issue, and you want the gold-standard in data collection for your research projects, focus first on the sensor package you want to carry.

RedEdge-P - The RedEdge-P is one of the most commonly used multispectral imagers available. High Resolution RGB and multispectral imagery with bands at Blue, Greed, Red, Red-Edge, Near-IR and panchromatic. $8k.

Altum-PT - If you need or want thermal imagery, take a look at the Altum-PT. It’s a complete solution with sychronized thermal, multispectral and RGB imagery in one package - $16k.

Next, what platform should you pick to carry it.

DJI Matrice 300/350 - The DJI Matrice 300 and 350 are the new industry standards for the mid-lift drone category. It’s robust and capable enough to carry two cameras at once with a respectable flight time. There’s no other platform with a more robust ecosystem. The 350 is an updated version with an enhanced controller and battery system, but not a significant upgrade in flight performance. Packages range from $12k to $18k depending on configuration.

Freefly Alta X - The Alta X is a heavy-lift drone that’s configurable for just about any payload. With a lifting capacity of 30 lbs, there’s few things this drone can’t carry. Prices range from $18k to $36k depending on configuration and whether you need the NDAA 848 compliant or BlueSUAS version.

11.5 NDAA Compliant Drones

In late 2023, the NDAA of 2024 introduced new regulations that prohibit the use of Federal Funds for any drone manufactured in China. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of good options right now, but there are a couple worthy of investment for larger grants and contracts.

  • Skydio 2+ - The Enterprise Skydio 2+ is not on the BlueSUAS list nor has it been declared NDAA 848 compliant. But it is marketed as ‘US Made’ and that might be sufficient enough for some agency partners. The base kit package ($2,000), which includes a controller, hardcase and extra batteries, is the lowest cost NDAA compliant RGB-only mapping drone when supplemented with a tablet and Drone Deploy. An all-in-one controller with screen is also available, and can be used for mapping operations with Skydio’s Advanced Autonomy software subscription.

  • WingtraOne Gen II - The Wingtra is a unique tail-sitter VTOL, capable of up to an hour of flight time and can cover some serious ground despite its small size. Consider this drone if you need something that can take off in a tight space, but still need to cover a lot of ground. NDAA848 compliant and BlueSUAS versions available.

  • eBee X - The eBee series are small foam delta-wing drones that has been around for some time. In addition to being NDAA 848 compliant, they are also Class 3 compliant for operations over people. If you’re operating in big areas with plenty of room, these are a good option. Unfortunately, the eBee basic packages start at $11,000 without a payload, which may run an additional $4,000 to $10,000 depending on your needs.

11.6 Full Table of Drones

For more options, here is our master list of drones:


Disclaimer While every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy and completeness of the information, no guarantee is given nor responsibility taken for errors or omissions in the database.

Know of a Drone not on this list? Email us at so we can add it to the list.