The best camera drones made in the USA for every budget (under $1,000, for pros and more)

So you’re seeking camera drones made in the USA. I’ve extensively detailed the history of drones made in the USA here, including a breakdown of some of the biggest American drone companies throughout multiple industries.

The reality is, the best camera drones often are not made in the USA. In my overall breakdown of the best camera drones, Chinese drone company DJI dominates the list. Its products are reliable, high-quality and priced at an incredibly low cost relatively to what you get. There are even multiple DJI drones under $500 to pick from.

But you came here seeking a camera drone made in the USA. Perhaps security is of utmost importance, or it’s a stipulation for your work to fly an American-made drone. Or maybe — just like Levi’s Jeep, Disney, or Coca-Cola — you like to support American brands in a sign of patriotism.

How I picked the best camera drones made in America

I’ve outlined the best camera drones that are made in the USA. This guide hones in on drones specifically designed for photographers and cinematographers, rather than drones primarily built for other industrial or enterprise use cases that might still be able to carry a camera.

To qualify for a spot in this guide, the drone has to either have its own built-in camera, or is capable of carrying another revered on-the-ground camera, such as the Sony Alpha series of full-frame mirrorless cameras.

Also note that “made in the USA” is a bit of a broad term that varies based on whom you ask. It’s unlikely literally every raw material and part came from the USA. Is it about where the parts come from, or where it’s assembled? The Federal Trade Commission defines “Made in USA” as all “significant parts, processing and labor that go into the product must be of U.S. origin.” The Buy American Act considers products manufactured in the U.S. with more than 50% U.S. parts to be considered “made in the USA.”

My guide considers drones with headquarters in the U.S. that do at least some design and manufacturing in the U.S., but understand that definitions of “made in America” are just as debatable as whether a hot dog is a sandwich.

What about NDAA compliance?

“Made in America” is also different than NDAA compliance. NDAA-compliant products don’t necessarily have to be made in the USA. NDAA compliant simply means the product was not produced (or does not contain parts) by companies that are on a list of prohibited companies. Many of the companies on the NDAA prohibited list are Chinese (including DJI), but not all.

Companies make such a list because the government believes they “have been involved, are involved, or pose a significant risk of being or becoming involved in activities contrary to the national security or foreign policy interests of the United States.”

Under the National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA) FY 2020 Section 848, the Secretary of Defense may not operate or procure drones that are made in China or Russia. While that only applies to drones used by agencies that fall under the U.S. Department of Defense (like the military, Space Force, Coast Guard and National Guard), many other agencies have adopted similar standards, and many industrial clients such as major oil and gas companies using drones for inspections only allow contracting drone companies to fly NDAA-compliant drones.

So with that, here’s the best camera drone made in the USA:

IMG 5245
I reviewed the Lily drone, made by Mota, an American drone company. I looked happy, but was not impressed. Mota no longer exists.

The best camera drones made in the USA for under $500

I wish I had something to fill this section, but I don’t. There are no camera drones made in the USA for under $500 that I’d recommend.

Jump to the section “Why are there no American-made drones under $500, let alone under $1,000 in this guide?” down below to find out in more detail why the USA just can’t seem to produce a camera drone at such an accessible price point.

There, you’ll learn that American drone companies have certainly tried to offer camera drones under $500. There was the former Kickstarter-darling Lily, which was available for pre-order for $499. Teal was going to offer a drone called Teal Sport for under $500. Neither exist anymore.

nick woodman
GoPro CEO Nick Woodman displays the foldable Karma drone, which retailed for $799 but is no longer manufactured or sold. JOSH EDELSON/AFP/Getty Images

The best camera drones made in the USA for under $1,000

Well this is sure disappointing. The same answer I have for the best American camera drones under $500 is the same answer I have to give for the sub-$1,000 category, too. There just are no camera drones under $1,000 that I recommend.

Skip down to the same “Why are there no American-made drones under $500, let alone under $1,000 in this guide” section to learn about two companies that tried to make camera drones under $1,000: GoPro and 3D Robotics.

The now-defunct GoPro Karma drone initially went on sale for $799 (though that didn’t include the camera, so your total would be just over budget at $1,099 to get the GoPro Hero 5 with it). And when 3DR unveiled its Solo drone at the National Association of Broadcasters Show in Las Vegas in 2015, it had a base price of $999, with an optional $399 gimbal for enhanced camera controls. Neither drone is still in production.

Screen Shot 2021 09 28 at 8.41.48 PM
The Autel EVO Nano series.

What about Autel?

I do quite enjoy the Autel EVO Nano and Autel EVO Nano+ drones. Each drone has a has either a 1/2″ or 1/1.28″ sensor, respectively, has 16x digital zoom and can film HDR video. The Evo Nano+ retails for $949 and takes 50 MP photos with f/1.9 adjustable aperture. The pared down Evo Nano takes 48 MP photos with f/2.8 adjustable aperture, and retails for $799. And both drones can often be found at even deeper discounts than that.

These entry-level camera drones weighs 249 grams, which is a big deal because they do not need to be registered with the FAA for recreational operations, nor do they need to be Remote ID compliant.

Order Autel Nano drones directly from Autel, here.

But I hesitate to call these drones “American made.” A lot of other drone blogs try to convince you that they are. After all, Autel at one point had a robust office near Seattle in Bothell, Washington.

That’s due in large part to a single American named Steve McIrvin, who helped launch (and served as CEO of) Autel Robotics USA. He was a visionary for the company, and helped propel it to be a genuine competitor to DJI. Under his leadership Autel grew to hire PhD engineers in Silicon Valley, and its app team was based in Seattle, alongside other U.S. product and marketing teams. McIrvin was instrumental in the larger drone community through other roles including serving a three-year term on the board of the Consumer Technology Association. McIrvin eventually left Autel in 2017, and since then has held other roles including product VP of smart camera company Wyze.

But Autel is very much a Chinese company, with headquarters in Shenzhen, China (the same city as DJI’s headquarters). Today, its R&D base is located at the city’s Nanshan Park, and Autel’s production base is at Guangming Industrial. Though, Autel does also have extensive subsidiaries bases in the U.S., Germany, Italy and Singapore.

Autel in 2020 tried to capitalize on the Made in USA hype by launching USA EVO II Dual Bundles, created for public sector and enterprise use. Those drones were manufactured in the USA with foreign and domestic parts and labor.  More specifically, the airframe was from China, IR/thermal cameras came from U.S.-based FLIR, other images came from Japan’s Sony, and the final product was assembled in Bothell, Washington with American labor.  Today, you can buy the $6,000 Autel Robotics EVO II DUAL 640T Rugged Bundle V3, but it’s no longer promised to be made in the USA.

camera drones made in the USA Skydio 2 drone
The Skydio 2 drone

The best camera drones made in the USA under $2,000

Finally, we have a winner! There’s no better recommendation for a great, American-made camera drone than the Skydio 2+, which starts at $1,099 for the Skydio 2+ Starter Kit. The Skydio 2+ is an impressive, follow-me drone with built-in camera. Equipped with six, 200-degree color cameras, Skydio 2 can see everything in every direction so it theoretically never crashes.

It’s a great camera drone particularly if you’ll take advantage of its autonomous subject tracking and 360 obstacle avoidance, making it useful if you’re trying to film, say, a biker riding through a forest or a skier going down a mountain. The 27 minutes of flight time is more than enough for most use cases, and it films in 4K60 HDR.

Here are some key Skydio 2+ specs:

  • Drone weight (including battery): 800 grams
  • Flight time: 27 minutes
  • Max Wind Speed Resistance: 25 mph
  • Max Flight Speed: 36 mph
  • Camera Sensor Type: Sony 1/2.3” 12.3MP CMOS with 13 stops of dynamic range
  • Sensor Active Pixels: 4056 (H) x 3040 (V)
  • Lens: f/2.8, 20 mm (at 35 mm equivalent)
  • ISO range: 100-3200 (photo and video)

The Skydio 2+ drone is pretty neat drone for casual filmmaking, thanks to smart software features including Skydio Keyframe. This AI feature makes filmmaking easier through taps on your phone, where you define a flight path (aka a KeyFrame), and Skydio’s AI software takes your design and creates a continuous camera path between those points.

The base model, the Skydio 2+ Starter Kit, costs just $1,099. But realize you won’t get a controller with it. If you want to have your hands on the sticks (as is the stereotypical drone piloting mechanism), you’ll have to pay extra for a Skydio Controller ($179).

Skydio also sells upgraded kits with product configurations that automatically include more accessories. If you want that controller, plus some extra batteries, Polar Pro ND filters (a must for photographers), you’ll want the $1,949 Skydio 2+ Cinema Kit.

That said, this isn’t exactly a professional-quality camera drone. It’s great for filming action sports and putting that video on social media or YouTube. But you’ll likely want something that can film at least 5K or have a 1″ sensor if you’re really serious about photography (and the reality is, you’ll want to defer to a non-American drone for something similar in this same price point).

Skydio, which has its headquarters in Silicon Valley, California, designs and assembles its products in the U.S. Its software is developed in-house and processors our sourced from U.S. companies.

Read more: Skydio 2 review: yes, it’s a freakishly smart drone

M4 Front min
The Skyfish M4 Drone

The best camera drones made in the USA in the multi-thousand dollar realm

Once you get past the Skydio price point, you’ll find that there are plenty of American drone companies out there. But most focus on enterprise and commercial use cases, such as drones designed for inspections, photogrammetry or other mapping missions.

So yes, while you can buy American drones with great cameras on them, the reality is you’ll likely be overpaying if your primary focus is photography or videography.

Now some folks dedicated to the made-in-America cause don’t mind forking over serious money to get a homegrown drone. Just realize that the drones listed below — while highly recommended for other industrial use cases — aren’t really designed to be pure camera drones. Consider this the equivalent of having a Michelin-star chef make you a peanut butter sandwich. The drones listed below have serious specs that go beyond what a filmmaker would likely need.

Parrot ANAFI USA

Parrot ANAFI USA: great for zoom, even better if you want a thermal camera too

While Parrot is a French drone company, it spun off to offer the Parrot ANAFI USA. This drone was made for enterprise use cases (and in fact, it was initially designed for the U.S. Army). Given that, it’s Blue sUAS program approved, and it’s also both NDAA & TAA compliant.

The drone’s optical camera, mounted on a three-axis gimbal, actually has dual sensors, both of which that are 1/2.4″ sensors, capable of capturing up to 4K video in MP4 video format and JPG/DNG photo formats. The wide sensor has up to a 69/75° video/photo horizontal angle of view, and the telephoto sensor has a 16° video/photo horizontal angle of view.

The Parrot ANAFI USA is also great if you want zoom, as the camera features 32x zoom (that means it can see people from up to 1.2 miles away). And flight time is excellent at 32 minutes.

But the Parrot ANAFI USA drone comes in at $7,000. Why? The real reason you’d want this drone is for its thermal camera. With a FLIR Boson thermal sensor, it can detect 8 to 13 micrometers of IR wavelength for detection in dark or difficult environments. The reality is, this drone is a bit much if you’re simply seeking a camera drone.

Skyfish Sony camera drones made in the USA

Skyfish: great for carrying Sony cameras (and for photogrammetry)

If you’re looking for an American-made drone that can fly Sony’s Alpha series of mirrorless cameras, your best bet is the M4 drone from Montana-based Skyfish. Sure, you can also fly Sony Alpha full frame cameras on the Sony Airpeak S1 drone which is made by Sony itself — but Sony is a Japanese company.

For an American drone company that flies Sony cameras, there’s Skyfish. Skyfish drones integrate with Sony at the API level, as their drones support the Sony Alpha series of cameras. But much as the story with the Parrot ANAFI USA, the reality is you’re probably overpaying if you only want to use this drone for cinematography.

The Skyfish drones provide an industry-leading photogrammetry 3D modeling process (they also integrate with the FLIR Duo Pro R for thermal data capture, and support the GeoCue TrueView LiDAR system out-of-the-box). These drones are really designed to be serious, autonomous work drones, so you should probably go with the Sony Airpeak S1 drone if your goal is simply flying the Sony Alpha mirrorless cameras without all the other enterprise integrations.

Of corse, Sony’s Airpeak S1 is not American-made. There’s another reason why Skyfish’s M4 might still trump the $9,000 Sony Airpeak even as a pure camera drone: battery life. While Sony touts this drone as having 22 minutes of battery life in most of its marketing materials, it’s actually far from that. That’s without a payload. Payloads add weight and reduce flight time. With most Alpha cameras and gimbals, the Airpeak’s battery life drops down to 12 minutes. But strap on the 4.55 pound combination of the Sony A7 RII IV with a Gremsy gimbal to an M4, and you have far more than that. Skyfish promises that its drone has a 60 minute flight time with the craft only, or a impressive 38 minutes of flight time with a 4.55 pound payload. And like the Airpeak, it also offers hot-swappable batteries.

Skyfish drones are designed, manufacture, and tested in Stevensville, Montana. The drones comply with Congress and DoD supply chain standards and are NDAA sec. 848 compliant. They are also ITAR sec. 126.1 compliant, and will ship to any country not restricted by international arms trade agreements.

camera drones made in the USA

Why are there no American-made drones under $500, let alone under $1,000 in this guide?

Just as a table built by a local artist would very likely cost you far more than the table you bought from Walmart that was probably assembled in a factory in Asia, the same logic applies to drones. For reasons including cost of labor and lacking manufacturing infrastructure (including less access to machinery and raw materials), it’s almost always far cheaper to buy products from companies that have a strong manufacturing economy, such as China.

American drones are so much more expensive

A poll conducted in July 2022 about buy-American shopping preferences from Retail Brew and The Harris Poll asked nearly 2,000 adults in the U.S. how often they buy American — and how much more they’re willing to pay.

Nearly three-quarters (72%) of respondents said they seek out American-made products very often or somewhat often. But whether or not they actually pull the trigger and buy the product comes down to price.

While nearly half (48%) of respondents said they’d be willing to pay around 10–20% more for an equivalent but American-made product, the interest falls off quickly past that. If the American-made product was 30% more expensive than the imported one, only 17% say they’d be willing to pay more. Unsurprisingly, the drop-off continues as the price difference grows.

Happily, the $1,099 Skydio 2+ Starter Kit is only about 10% more than the DJI Air 2S, which starts at $999 and is largely seen as a close competitor. Maybe 48% of Americans seeking a drone under $1,000 could be talked into the 10% up charge for the one made in America.

American drone companies have tried to build drones under $1,000 — and failed

It’s not for lack of trying. A handful of American drone companies including 3D Robotics, GoPro and Teal have tried to build consumer-focused camera drones. They’ve either gone out of business entirely, or pivoted their business model out of consumer camera drones.

3D Robotics

Berkeley, California-based 3D Robotics was perhaps the most-hyped — and subsequently most-disappointing — of them all.

The former media darling finally released its Iris drone to abysmal reviews. PC Mag called it intimidating, awkward and compared it to a “large, mechanical insect.” A year later, it turned out another drone, the Solo, which was a bit better but suffered from missed product deadlines and buggy components. Ultimately, 3D Robotics burned through $100 million in funding before shutting down their manufacturing operations.

The 3D Robotics Solo.

GoPro

San Mateo-based GoPro was in a unique position because it already had a great camera and a well-known brand name at the time it launched its Karma drone in December 2015. It just needed to build a drone. But the multi-month launch delay was only one problem. The product eventually was delivered but not for long. The company recalled many Karma drones that were falling from the sky.  By early 2018, GoPro had laid off hundreds of employees, primarily from the GoPro Karma drone team.

GoPro News Karma HERO5
GoPro’s Karma drone.

Mota (owner of Lily drone)

It’s hard to forget the Lily drone, a much-hyped product on Kickstarter that promised to fly right out of your hand. It was available for pre-order for just $499 (though the company said the price would rise to $999 after the initial launch). 

But they never made it that far. The Berkeley, Calif.-based company, Lily, shut down two years after taking $34 million in pre-orders (and without delivering any drones). San Jose, Calif.-based electronics maker Mota bought Lily’s brand and attempted to make its own version of Lily, which was also poorly received. Mota has shut down.

Kickstarter Lily
The Kickstarter version of Lily drone.

Teal

In some ways it feels unfair to group Salt Lake City, Utah-based Teal in with two other drones that failed to make a drone at all. Teal launched back in 2016 as a modular, multi-functional drone. It could fly fast in races, or take photos. It might even be used for industrial applications. The company ultimately released a consumer drone called the Teal One for $1,199, as well as a pared-down version called Teal Sport that was just $500.

But it was too good to be true for pilots seeking an American drone under $500. The company ceased production of Teal One and Teal Sport and then went into a quiet period. Upon emerging from that quiet period, the company switched directions and now builds military-grade drones. Their flagship product is the $15,000 Golden Eagle, which is built for short-range reconnaissance and situational awareness.

Teal Sport
The Teal Sport drone.

The post The best camera drones made in the USA for every budget (under $1,000, for pros and more) appeared first on The Drone Girl.

Tags:
Optimized by Optimole