Drones have many uses – photography, racing, even fishing – the list goes on. One somewhat less common use of drones is for programming. Today, there are several drones on the market that you can buy and then program yourself.
In this guide, we cover everything you need to know about drone programming. We’ll explain how it works, why it’s useful, and what you can do with a programmable drone kit. We’ll then review the best programmable drones that you can buy right now, so you can get started right away.
The basics of programmable drones
While the vast majority of drones are not programmable, several major companies do offer drones that you can program yourself.
This may be through a companion coding app designed by the drone manufacturer, or they may make their software open source so that you can develop your own features through different programming platforms.
Programmable drones come in several different forms. For example, there are fairly simple toy drones that are designed to help promote coding education among children. On the other end of the scale, there are advanced drones that experienced coders can program for a whole range of projects.
Let’s take a closer look at each type:
Beginner programmable drones
So, why would you want to program a drone?
Well, for starters it can be great fun!
For example, being able to program a drone to fly custom routes and perform cool tricks like flips and rolls is both fun and rewarding — as you get to see your own programming skills come to life.
However, the real benefit of programmable drones is that they can help you learn coding in a fun way. Many people, especially youngsters, find programming a lot more fun when a drone’s involved, rather than just a computer program.
You can learn a variety of different programming languages, from simple ones like Scratch to advanced languages like Python and the C++ language that Arduino is built on.
However, as many programmable drones are aimed at young people, they help you do this in a simple way through features like block programming.
More and more companies are creating programmable drones as a way of getting children interested in STEM, so we could even see drones in the classroom in the future!
Advanced programmable drones
Not all programmable drones are designed for beginners, though. Some drone brands, most notably Parrot, have a wide range of advanced coding applications that you can use to code powerful, specialized drones. So if you’re an experienced coder who wants to experiment with programming drones, there are plenty of options.
When it comes to advanced drone programming, the options really are endless. From controlling drones from remote computers to building your own drone flying apps, there’s a whole realm of possibilities.
With highly programmable drones you can even create your own prototypes. For example, people have created drones capable of sensing flammable gases from programmable drone kits, so as well as having fun you can actually work on serious, industry-altering products.
Now, let’s take a look at the best drones for developers that you can program yourself. Whether you’re looking for a simple beginner drone for an advanced programmable drone with a camera, you’ll find it here.
Ryze Tello – Best programmable drone for young children
- Price: $99 — Available on Amazon here
The Ryze Tello is perhaps the best-known and most popular programmable drone for beginners on the market.
The Tello mobile app supports Scratch programming so you can easily command the drone simply by dragging coding blocks on your phone! There are also games with different levels, which are designed to help you develop your coding skills while having fun. With the programming simulator, you can easily test your coding before using it on the drone.
Aside from its programming capabilities, the Tech Tello is a really good drone for the money and is a pleasure to fly. It’s powered by DJI, the leading manufacturer of consumer drones, so you know you’re getting good quality.
It can fly for 13 minutes at a time, which is impressive for a cheap programmable drone under $100, and has a decent camera that allows you to take 5MP photos and 720P HD video. There are also cool features like EZ Shots which make the drone perform coordinated maneuvers while filming so you can capture cinematic footage.
If you’re not convinced by our review, the Tech Tello programmable drone has a 4.5-star rating on Amazon from almost 2,000 reviews, which tells you all you need to know.
Drona Aviation Pluto X – Cheap programmable drone for advanced coding
- Price: Check on Drone Aviation here
Drona Aviation’s Pluto X is an “aerial robotics kit” that allows you to tinker with both the physical drone itself as well as the drone’s programming.
This is a drone that’s purely meant for customizing and programming and offers very little else, with just a 1MP camera, but it’s a fantastic model to experiment with.
The main component of this programmable drone kit is the PrimusX circuit board, and you can program each component of the board through APIs.
This drone is programmable through the Cygnus IDE, which uses the C++ programming language.
The SDK is similar to Arduino and allows you to build programs through the IDE and flash your prewritten code to the Pluto X controller app over WiFi. You can then run your program using the Developer Mode on the app.
The Drona Aviation website showcases some of the projects that have been made using this programmable mini drone. For example, 14-year-old Dhruv Kubsad used the kit to create the MethaneX drone, which is used to detect flammable methane and help prevent fires such as those that broke out at the Deonar dumping ground in Mumbai in 2018.
As the PrimusX board has a 20-pin GPIO connector, you can customize the physical drone itself by attaching additional components such as sensors and indicators.
Ryze Tello Edu – More advanced programmable drone with Python
- Price: $149 — Available on Amazon here
The second entry from Ryze on our list, the Tello Edu is very similar to the original Tello, except that it’s more advanced when it comes to programming.
This is because whereas the standard Tello is limited to just Scratch programming, the Tello Edu can also be programmed using Python and Swift. It has an upgraded SDK (software development kit) with more advanced commands and data interfaces, so it’s better suited to young programmers looking to take their skills to the next level.
Thanks to these more advanced coding capabilities, there’s a whole new realm of coding possibilities with the Tello Edu. For example, you can write code that commands multiple Edus to fly in a swarm and over mission pads, and you can program them to perform cool stunts like 360-degree flips.
The programmable drone kit comes with four mission pads which can help you achieve more precise programming. You can use them as both guiding points and trigger mechanisms, and you can even program your drone so that it recognizes each pad’s unique ID and then perform acrobatics when it flies over pads.
You can even develop AI functions with this drone! For example, the SDK 2.0 means you can work on functions such as object recognition and tracking, as well as 3D reconstruction through programming and deep learning technologies.
The Tello Edu supports block programming, so it’s still very user-friendly and well suited to beginners. If you’re a more advanced coder, then you can develop software applications for the Tello through the Tello SDK app.
While it’s primarily a programming drone, you can also capture some great footage with the Tello Edu, with the camera offering 12MP photos and 720P HD video. It also has advanced electronic image stabilization which helps you capture steady footage while flying the drone.
Robolink Codrone Pro – Best programmable drone that supports Arduino
- Price: $215 — Available on Amazon here
The Robolink Codrone Pro is one of the few drones that’s designed specifically for educational programming purposes.
In fact, Robolink was established to specifically encourage students to engage with STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) in fun and inventive ways. It’s also the first company to have created a self-driving car kit that teaches AI.
This drone supports three programming languages – Python, Blockly and Arduino – so it’s suitable for coders of different preferences, whether you’re looking to learn simple or advanced coding.
It comes as a complete programmable drone kit that includes everything you need to build a drone and remote controller from scratch, complete with step-by-step tutorials to help guide you through the process.
It takes just 10 minutes to get the drone build and flying, and you can then start to experiment with a wide range of different coding possibilities. It can even be programmed to battle other Robolink drones! You can easily control the drone via your smartphone and even by using your voice.
The drone itself is very light and sleek, weighing just 37g, so it’s fun to fly and is suitable for indoor use. It has some nice features, such as a 3-axis gyroscope and a 3 axis accelerometer for altitude control, as well as an optical flow sensor for hovering.
Robolink also offers online resources and virtual professional development meetings for teachers and educators who want to be trained on using the Codrone Pro in the classroom.
Parrot Anafi Base – Best programmable drone with camera for advanced developers
- Price: $469 — Available on Amazon here
The Parrot Anafi Base is ideal if you’re an experienced coder looking to take your drone programming skills to the next level.
Parrot has made a variety of programming interfaces openly available via its SDK. For example, there’s Olympe, which is a Python programming interface for parrot drones that you can use to control your drone from a remote Python script.
There’s also the Ground SDK, a mobile Ground Control Station that allows you to create apps with which you can control the GPS programmable drone.
All Parrot drones are compatible with the open-source MAVLink protocol, meaning they can be fly according to automatic planning paths from a base station that’s compatible with MAVLink.
The Parrot SDK is compatible with its entire range of Anafi drones, of which the Base is the cheapest. The Anafi line includes other more advanced drones such as the Anafi FPV, Anafi Thermal, and Anafi Work, so there’s no doubt this line of drones is the best choice if you’re looking for highly advanced programmable drones.
One of the best things about the Parrot SDK is that the company is constantly working on bringing new interfaces out. For example, the Air SDK is coming soon and will allow you to program custom flight missions with complete access to drone sensors, autopilot functionality, and connectivity interfaces.
Another upcoming feature is OpenFlight, which will be an open-source core of Parrot’s own FreeFlight 7 app, allowing you to program your own features in a professional way on both Android and iOS.