For years, aerial drones were beyond the reach of most consumers. They were just too expensive and difficult to fly. And so the wonder of drone photography was left to aviation buffs and pro videographers who used the flying cameras to record weddings, real estate offerings, and adventure sports.

But with reliable, lightweight, and user-friendly models, all of that has changed. You can now purchase a drone recommended by Consumer Reports for as little as $400 at Best Buy and capture video of a backyard barbecue or family road trip. Some even fold up and fit in your pocket.

More on Drones

“Four years ago, when I started flying, it was with people who enjoyed tinkering in the garage, building the things themselves,” says Sally French, founder of the Drone Girl blog. But new models put “drones into the hands of nearly everyone,” she says.

The Consumer Technology Association says U.S. consumers purchased 2.4 million recreational models in 2016. And it estimates that this year consumers will buy 4.4 million.

That intense growth has raised safety and privacy concerns for the general public as drone hobbyists increasingly zip their mini aircraft around suburban homes and parks. But a consensus is growing about what kinds of regulations, commonsense rules, and etiquette are needed to smooth the flight path for these flying cameras.

If you’re toying with buying a drone, be prepared to learn the technology and the rules—official and unofficial. Here’s a quick guide:

What Is a Drone?

The broad term can describe a $20 remote control toy or a $64.2 million armed spycraft flown by the U.S. Air Force. Some hobbyists buy specialized drones built for racing or acrobatics. The models Consumer Reports tested are essentially flying video cameras designed for mainstream use.

Priced between $230 and $900, they offer automated takeoff and landing features and preprogrammed modes that allow the craft to orbit you or follow you from above. Some can even return home using GPS.

The cameras take decent video (learn how to shoot great drone video), but not all models fly with the same precision and ease. And you might be surprised by the short battery life.

In our testing, the Parrot Bebop 2’s battery claimed top honors, delivering 24 minutes of flight time with the video camera running. The GoPro Karma logged 13 minutes. (GoPro announced recently that it’s exiting the drone business.)

Do I Need a License to Fly One?

No, as long as you’re flying for fun and not financial gain. But you do have to register any drone that weighs between 0.55 and 55 pounds with the Federal Aviation Administration. The registration, good for three years, costs $5 per aircraft and takes only a few minutes on the agency’s website.

Are Drones Dangerous?

They can be. Many models have guards that shield fingers from rotors and also come with low-battery warnings to alert the operator to land the drone before it falls from the sky. The Consumer Product Safety Commission doesn’t have the authority to set safety standards or oversee recalls for aircraft. And the FAA, for its part, generally provides guidance for where recreational drones can be flown.

Last November, Consumers Union, the policy and mobilization division of Consumer Reports, wrote to members of Congress (PDF) to request greater oversight—even from the FAA—to better ensure that drones are built to be safe.

Hazardous crashes are fairly routine, especially among inexperienced pilots. A drone that drifts out of view can hurt bystanders and personal property.

Drones also can threaten larger aircraft. According to FAA computer simulations, a high-speed collision with a passenger jet could damage the jet’s engines, stabilizers, or wings.

That’s why the FAA requires drone pilots to notify airports before flying within 5 miles of such facilities. (For more restrictions, see below.)

How Hard Are They to Fly?

Flying a drone for a living teaches you to see the world differently, says Travis Jack, who runs Flyboy Photo & Media with wife Megan in Raleigh, N.C. You begin to notice tree branches, power lines, light poles, and all sorts of hazards looming overhead, he says.

Today’s drones are designed with automated flying features and built-in safeguards. But they’re not foolproof. CR testers lost a $400 DJI Spark that zipped off on its own beyond the range of its controller—a mishap cited by other drone owners online. According to flight data saved in the cloud and reviewed later by the manufacturer, the problem was due to “a compass error of undetermined origin,” which could mean “a faulty compass, failure to calibrate the compass before flight,” or “electromagnetic interference.”

It’s a good idea to start out with a cheap model, says Michael Kofsky, a video producer who has worked on projects for Consumer Reports and is based in Los Angeles. Kofsky learned to fly inside his home, weaving a $90 drone in figure eights through the holiday decorations draped from his ceiling. “When I shelled out three grand for a drone, I had already crashed myself silly.”

Before your first flight, read the owner’s manual and note maintenance procedures and preflight checklists.

Can I Fly in Parks?

The FAA says you must fly drones no higher than 400 feet and keep the craft in your line of sight at all times. Federal law also forbids drones from operating near wildfires (so that they don’t endanger firefighters) and within 3 nautical miles of a stadium. National parks are mostly off-limits, and you can forget about buzzing landmarks such as Mount Rushmore.

The FAA insists you steer clear of prisons, power plants, government buildings, and military bases. The rules vary by state and are often ambiguous.

“It’s not like driving a car, where you more or less know what the rules are in every city,” says French, the Drone Girl blog founder. For instance, some state parks allow drones as long as you don’t disturb wildlife and fellow visitors.

Before you go flying, it’s best to review local rules. The FAA has a free app named B4UFLY that uses GPS data to inform you of certain restrictions.

Regulations aside, it’s smart to err on the side of caution. “At the end of the day, these are aircraft,” says Gretchen West, a senior adviser in the Silicon Valley office of the law firm Hogan Lovells, which helps commercial clients navigate FAA regulations.

Can My Neighbors Use One to Spy on Me?

At the moment, federal privacy laws don’t specifically address drones, but peeping Tom laws may apply. And 2016 guidelines created by the National Telecommunications and Information Administration advise pilots not to fly over private property without permission. Bottom line: Drones are noisy and—like any video equipment—can seem intrusive. If someone objects to a drone, the operator should ground it and have a chat, West says. “It’s best to cooperate and educate.”


Do-It-Yourself Drone Shopping

CR’s tests reveal that it’s possible to purchase a well-designed, user-friendly drone for just a few hundred dollars. The price ultimately depends on the features you choose.

Consider flight controls. There are two main ways to pilot a drone—through an app on your smartphone or tablet and via a remote control unit (which may also integrate with your mobile device). A model that relies on a mobile app for maneuvering requires a Bluetooth or WiFi connection, which limits its range to 260 feet or less (and only 164 feet vertically). If you want the freedom to fly the drone over large stretches of land or water, invest in a model with a remote control. It can pilot a drone from miles away.

When it comes to the camera, it’s easy to get hung up on the image resolution. But the ultra high definition of 4K isn’t worth it for most consumers. First, 4K drone cameras don’t all deliver high image quality at that resolution. And when you post your flight video on YouTube, most of your friends are going to watch it in plain HD (aka 1080p) anyway.

Last, don’t pay dramatically more to get safety features such as obstacle avoidance and return-to-home. They sound good but aren’t always reliable. For instance, the return-home feature may let you down if the drone flies out of range or enters an area with poor satellite reception.

The tested drones shown in the ratings charts fall into two groups: larger drones that generally have longer ranges and more features in the top chart, and smaller, shorter-range drones in the bottom one.

Editor's Note: This article also appeared in the March 2018 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.