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Drones of 2014: Quadcopters that give you a view from above

This crop of quadcopters make it easier and more affordable than ever for you to shoot aerial photos and video with your hands on or off the controls.

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Joshua_Goldman.jpg

Joshua Goldman

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1 of 8 Joshua Goldman/CNET

Drones, drones, drones!

You've probably heard the word "drones" one too many times this year, but the hobby is definitely taking off (no pun intended).

You might think these are just radio-controlled quadcopters with cameras and, well, some of them are. But many of them are packing an array of sensors to help them fly autonomously and be piloted from far out of sight.

All of the ones here are quadcopters we're currently reviewing (or will be when they're available) and are targeted at those getting started in the hobby or just looking for a ready-to-fly experience instead of DIY.

Editors' note: This story originally published on September 23. It was updated on November 26 with additional products and information.

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2 of 8 Joshua Goldman/CNET

DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

This update to the Phantom 2 Vision arrived in April and has the longest flight time of the current consumer quadcopter crop at 25 minutes. The Vision+ improvements include a three-axis gimbal to stabilize the camera, increased Wi-Fi range, and the ability to have it fly autonomously to up to 16 waypoints.

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3 of 8 Sarah Tew/CNET

Blade 350 QX2 AP Combo RTF

The 350 QX2 might not look as polished as the Vision+, but it's a little less expensive and  includes a two-axis brushless gimbal with optional pitch control and a 1080p camera with 720p/30fps video downlink to mobile devices.

It has three different piloting modes depending on your experience level or to improve video quality, and it has the all-important return-to-home feature to help bail you out if you get turned around.

The QX2 is joined by the recently announced 350 QX3 AP Combo RTF, which offers improved GPS performance; a new a 16-megapixel camera that can capture 1080p video at 60fps and a three-axis brushless gimbal; an updated transmitter with a tilt control for the gimbal as well as spring-loaded sticks so they bounce back to neutral when you release; and user-definable flight boundaries.

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4 of 8 Sarah Tew/CNET

Parrot Rolling Spider

The Rolling Spider showed up at CES 2014 and is the most simple quadcopter here. Controlled with your smartphone or tablet, it has some pretty high-end electronics in its tiny body. However, it can't fly completely autonomously like the rest of the quads here. It is a lot of fun, though, despite a short flight time.

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5 of 8 Joshua Goldman/CNET

Parrot Bebop Drone

A follow-up of sorts to Parrot's AR.Drone 2.0, the Bebop has an f2.2 fish-eye lens with a 180-degree angle of view and a 14-megapixel camera sensor. It can capture video at 1080p full-HD resolution and photos can be captured in JPEG or Adobe DNG raw format.

Though it can be controlled completely with a smartphone or tablet, those who want physical controls can get the Bebop with Parrot's new Skycontroller. This gives you two sticks for piloting; discrete controls for the camera; a button for taking off and landing and one for emergency motor cutoff; status lights for the battery of the Bebop and the controller; a return-to-home button; and you can wirelessly pair a tablet or phone with it for first-person-view (FPV) flying.

The Bebop will be available in December for $499 at Best Buy and Apple, in stores and online. The Bebop with the Skycontroller will sell for $899. Those in Australia will be able to buy from Apple and Harvey Norman in December, too, with presales starting November 20. Pricing for the Bebop alone will be AU$699 (including GST) or with the Skycontroller for AU$1,299 (including GST). Pricing and availability for the UK is still being determined.

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6 of 8 Joshua Goldman/CNET

DJI Inspire 1

Billed by DJI as the world's first 4K flying camera, the Inspire 1 is a step-up model from the Phantom 2 Vision+. And it's a pretty big step-up, too, with a matching price tag: $2,900. Pricing for the UK is £2,380 and in Australia you'll be paying AU$4,130.

You do get a lot for your money, though, and it's about as ready-to-fly as they come: just spin on the props, charge it up and start flying (assuming you already know how to fly one).

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7 of 8 3D Robotics

3D Robotics IRIS+

This is one we can't wait to get our hands on. Among its many other attributes, the IRIS+ has a Follow Me feature, so that you can set it up to follow any GPS-enabled Android device.

Beyond that, 3DR's DroidPlanner app can be used to plan flights just by drawing a flight plan on any Android tablet or phone with as many waypoints as you want.

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8 of 8 Sarah Tew/CNET

Honorable mention: Parrot Jumping Sumo

More robot than drone, perhaps, but nonetheless the Jumping Sumo is a blast to drive around. Its front camera gives you a view from the ground.

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