How We Test Drones

27 Oct.,2022


Drone Motor Test Stand

Many of PCMag's product reviews are heavily reliant on tests performed within the walls of PC Labs, where we use dedicated testing equipment. But those walls are too small for flying drones. So in order to review them, we do the same thing you'd do with drones at home—take them out into the real world to fly, record video, and snap images from the sky.

There are a lot of drones out there, ranging from ultra-fast, maneuverable racers to big, pro birds that are used to monitor crops and inspect bridges. The drones we look at are somewhere in the middle—ready-to-fly models that are primarily for photo and video capture. Most include an onboard camera, with entry-level models delivering picture quality in line with smartphones, and premium ones with flat video profiles and more robust codecs for cinema production. We take camera quality into account, but also put a strong emphasis on safety features and reliability when testing drones.

Flight Tests

Getting a drone up into the air is the first step. For shakedown flights we typically fly at a local athletic field or a privately owned farm in a rural area. They aren't the most exotic locales, but before we take a drone somewhere more picturesque we want to make sure that there are no major issues.

We look at several factors when flying. The first is handling: Is the drone responsive to controls and does it hover in place without too much drift? Safety features are also important. We make sure the drone can lock onto GPS quickly, and check to make sure its return-to-home function works. If the aircraft has obstacle sensors we see if they work, and run drones with automatic navigation through some obstacles to see how they handle obstructions.

Next up is operating range. Drone manufacturers cite theoretical communication range, but those numbers can vary greatly in the real world. We see how far a drone can fly while still responding to controls and delivering a smooth, clear video feed. We test drones in both rural and suburban environments. FAA rules call for a drone to kept within line of sight when operating, and we want you to know if you can safely control it within that distance.

We also test battery life. Manufacturers typically list expected battery life, but there is no standards board for testing. DJI's numbers are based on hovering in place, which is not a typical use case, and we've seen drones that claim much longer battery life than they get in reality. We perform at least three test flights and average the flight times to determine a more realistic gauge of battery.

Autel Nano+ in flight (Photo: Jim Fisher)

Finally we look at any special features that a drone has. These may include obstacle detection and avoidance, automated flight modes, or unique imaging capabilities. If a drone does something to set itself apart from competing models, we check it out to make sure it works as advertised.

Video and Imaging

We record video during all of our testing, typically at the highest resolution available. But if there are other options—such as slow-motion at lower resolutions—we'll check them out too. Video is evaluated for clarity, color fidelity, and stabilization on a calibrated display. We edit clips together using Final Cut Pro and export it at a bit rate at least as high as the original before uploading to YouTube to embed in our reviews. Because drone cameras are typically silent we add an audio track to finished clips. YouTube applies its own compression, so all of our evaluations of video quality are made based on original, unedited clips.

For imaging, we look at photo quality, both for JPG images and, if a drone supports it, Raw capture. Sharpness, dynamic range, color fidelity, and image distortion are all evaluated. And if a drone has special imaging capabilities—panoramic stitching, HDR, a flat profile, shallow depth of field simulation, or the like—we check those out, too.

Once all the testing is wrapped up we look at the overall package—size, camera quality, and, most importantly, how safe a drone is to fly—and give the drone a rating. The best model in every category earns our Editors' Choice designation.

To see all the drones we've reviewed, check out our drone product guide. Or for a quick look at those that have excelled in field testing, read up on the best drones.

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