These little quadcopters have fallen dramatically - in price and literally - over the last couple of years, and some even now qualify as stocking fillers. But there is a world of difference between the toys at the lower end of the market and the kind of craft a serious hobbyist would covet.
Drones, also known as mini-quads, are covered Civil Aviation Authority regulations, which state, amongst other things, that you can’t fly further than your line of sight or higher than 400ft. That won’t concern you if you buy a very cheap one - child-friendly models start at around £10 - because they are really suitable only for use indoors. But you don’t have to pay very much more before you’re on the CAA’s radar - again, possibly literally.
The £25 Metakoo Bee, available on Amazon, makes a great present for a beginner flyer. You launch it by pressing a button on the remote, and an inbuilt barometer lets it hover automatically by sensing changes in air pressure and adjusting the height accordingly - something you would otherwise have to do by continuously adjusting the controls.
The inclusion of an onboard camera is what separates the men from the toys, though. A drone with a basic lens can be had for less than £50, and for just a little more, you can expect it to feed live video - either to a screen on the remote control or to an app on your phone. The palm-sized Revell X-Spy, for instance, currently around £70 on the high street, lets you mount your phone in a slot on the remote controller and feeds it live video via wi-fi.
The Revell relies on the phone to do the recording - unlike most similarly-priced models, which hold an SD card for that purpose. The results from a card are generally more stable, but in the event that you lose your drone over next door’s fence, your footage goes with it.
At this price, you should not expect anything like broadcast-quality video. For that, or something approaching it, you will need a drone with a gimbal - a gyroscopically stabilised camera mount that keeps it steady and upright no matter how haphazardly the craft itself tilts and dives. Gimbals are usually sold separately and can cost £400 alone.
Depending on how much you pay, you can expect between five and 15 minutes’ flying time between battery charges, which can take around an hour.
As to where you expend this time, your options will often begin and end at the local park. You can try your back garden, but the risk of losing your drone in a tree is considerable - as is the risk to pets, passers-by, and, if you’re still finding your way around the controls, local traffic. Even the park may not be an option because some councils, fearful of the possibilities of drones being used to spy on people, are declaring their open spaces no-fly zones.
Arguably the best-value drone this Christmas is the £200 Parrot AR 2.0 Elite Edition, which has a non-stabilised 720p high-definition camera on board and is controlled by wi-fi from a phone or tablet. It’s neither a professional piece of kit nor a toy, but could, for some lucky recipient in two weeks’ time, be an ideal entrée into the world of low-altitude flight.