Want to Buy a Drone of Your Own?

You might need to alert the FAA. By federal law, you must register any drone weighing more than 0.55 pounds. The fee is $5. Once you’ve registered it, you’re okay to fly it for three years.

Drones are increasingly easy to fly. Brands such as DJI and Yuneec now offer models that can take off and land on their own. GoPro's Karma drone has that capability as well, but the company recently pulled the model from the market after discovering that it could lose power during operation. Yuneec’s Typhoon H and DJI’s new Mavic Pro also have software and sensors that help you avoid crashing into things, like, say, trees.

Some drones even follow you around—like pets. The more advanced models from DJI and Yuneec have autopilot modes that can track you as you walk through a field or ride a bike. And that frees you up to star in your own videos.

You don’t get to fly them wherever you want. They’re not allowed near airports. The same goes for military bases, sporting events, and national parks. And Washington, D.C., is completely off-limits.

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Don’t tread on your neighbor's privacy. To date, no federal laws specifically address the use of drone cameras, but at least 12 states have passed some form of legislation to curtail acts of voyeurism. In Mississippi, for example, using a drone for peeping Tom activities can result in a felony charge and up to five years in prison.

Don’t skimp on the camera. Any drone you purchase should shoot at least 1080p video. Before you make your final pick, try to take the model out for a test drive, because certain drone cameras struggle in transitions between light and shade. DJI’s Mavic Pro and GoPro’s Karma drone (when purchased with the company’s new Hero5 Black action cam) both have 12-megapixel cameras capable of recording 4K video.

Consider portability. The Mavic Pro, Karma, and other new recreational drones can be folded up and stowed in a backpack. The Vantage Robotics Snap Drone—which has shields over its rotors for added safety—comes apart and folds to roughly the thickness of a laptop.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the January 2017 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.

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