What’s the best educational drone for a STEM program?

Incorporating a drone into your STEM program is certain to provide not just fodder for your “Teacher of the Year” application. But drones have been proven to get kids interested in science, technology, engineering and math.

A drone is a way to teach real-world examples of coding in action. It can demonstrate principles of flight and physics. And yes, a drone is a way to teach building robotics, whether it’s for kids or for a more advanced high school drone program. What’s more, is that drones go beyond those traditional fields, and into other areas of schools, too.

Environmental science classes can use drones to get aerial views of the environments they’re learning about. Astronomy classes can use multiple drones to create models of the solar systems. Photography and art classes can use drones to actually create their products. And yes, business classrooms can use drones to teach about entrepreneurship (check out what the Girl Scouts did with their cookie delivery drone!).

But with so many drones out there, which should you buy?

The best overall drone for STEM program drone education: The Crazyflie drone from DroneBlocks

DroneBlocks recently began selling the Crazyflie Nano drone as an alternative to DJI’s Tello drone, which appears to be discontinued. The Crazyflie Nano drone weighs 27 grams and is small enough to fit in the palm of a student’s hand. DroneBlocks designed Crazyflie for indoor use. You can program it to fly in crowded spaces, such as classrooms.

The purchase of the drone includes a 7-day free trial of the DroneBlocks curriculum. Students can use the drone for block coding and Python programming via the DroneBlocks app, allowing them to test and refine their code in real-time.

However, the price is significantly higher compared to the DJI Tello. While the Tello costs $159, the Crazyflie Nano costs $379. On the plus side, the Crazyflie Nano features a plug-and-play motor that easily slides right into the drone. Additionally, DroneBlocks includes a spare motor with the purchase, eliminating the need for costly repairs.

The Crazyflie Nano drone has a flight time of approximately 8 minutes but does not come equipped with a camera.

For educators considering drones for an entire classroom, DroneBlocks also offers a bundle option. The bundle includes 10 drones, spare parts, individual cases, one year of exclusive DroneBlocks curriculum access, and more, starting at $4,295.

  • Can you build it yourself? Yes
  • Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
  • Does it have a camera? No

The best drone for STEM program drone education if you are on a budget (and can find it!): The Tello drone by Ryze and DJI

The Tello drone is a $159, kid-friendly drone that combines DJI flight technology and an Intel processor to create a budget camera drone that also can be used to teach newbies the basics of programming.

It’s a great little drone that offers a low-cost introduction to not just flying and shooting videos, but also how to use drones how to code.

Since it’s made in part by DJI, the quality is incredibly high. It’s durable, meaning it can withstand dozens of tiny hands trying to grab it, and plenty more crashes.

It’s also a great tool for an intro to programming course. The Tello drone includes the Scratch coding platform, which is a programming language targeted at children. Essentially, you can program the drone to fly in certain directions based on the “code” you have written.

The drone wins as best overall STEM drone in large part due to its price tag. For $159, you’re getting a camera, a built-in coding program, and an easy-to-fly drone, all in one durable package. The only reason you would want to skip this drone is if you’re looking to build something yourself.

It also scores bonus points for doubling up as the best indoor drone, too.

The Tello drone, which weighs just 80 grams, can fly for 13 minutes and shoot 5-megapixel photos. For context, DJI’s next-smallest drone, the DJI Spark, weighs 300 grams, can fly for 16 minutes, and shoots 12-megapixel photos. The drone doesn’t come with an RC transmitter but can be controlled via a mobile app (or an external one can be purchased separately).

Now for the bad news: it appears that Tello might be discontinued. In late 2023, the Tello drone was listed as sold out on DJI’s stop. On third parties such as Amazon, quantities are limited (mostly to used versions only).

  • Can you build it yourself? No
  • Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
  • Does it have a camera? Yes
  • Is it easy to fly? Yes

Check out my full review of the DJI Tello drone here.

The best drone for learning to build and code (if you’re on a tight budget): Raspberry Pi Drone Kit

The Raspberry Pi drone kit from Drone Dojo is the most comprehensive training tool you could possibly find for learning how to build a drone and program it using Raspberry Pi, which is a popular line of small, single-board computers about the size of a credit card used among STEM classrooms and even small businesses.

The $900 Raspberry Pi drone kit is pricey but well worth it for what you get. Included is all the supplies you need (including the Raspberry Pi 4B, Pixhawk Flight Controller, Drone Frame, RC Transmitter and Receiver, and more) as well as video tutorials teaching you how to put them together.

If you have the pieces to build your drone and don’t necessarily need the kit, Drone Dojo also offers a standalone video course called “How to build a Raspberry Pi drone” which is just $100.

One note: While this drone could be excellent for high school and college students, this is for advanced STEM programs, not young children.

Can you build it yourself? Yes
Can you use it to learn how to code? Yes
Does it have a camera? No

Alternative choices for drones in the classrooms

Teachers who are on a budget but are willing to put in a lot of their grunt work could get away with better drones at a lower price tag.

If you’re ready to cobble together your drone using separately purchased frames, motors, power distribution boards, etc., you could certainly build a great drone for less than $99.

If you’re looking for a drone with a camera that’s easy to fly (and don’t need the coding/building component), you could also get away with buying a “toy” drone for less than $50. Toy drones like  Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone ($29.99) are highly durable (aka crashproof) and fairly easy to fly. That makes them a great choice if your pure goal is teaching students how to fly drones.

And then perhaps you’re seeking to teach kids through reading about, rather than (or perhaps in addition to), flying drones. Check out this guide to the best drone children’s books for kids. These are certain to be a great addition to your school library.

How STEM program teachers can save money on drones

Drones can be expensive, but there are some opportunities to save if you have a valid academic affiliation.

DJI’s Education discount (sometimes)

In the past, DJI has offered an educational discount program. With it, DJI allowed anyone with a “.edu” email address to get a coupon code (typically a 10% discount) on a select group of items from its online site. That enabled students, teachers, and other educationally-affiliated folks to save what sometimes amounted to hundreds of dollars on drones. However, that program was discontinued in 2021. The Drone Girl is watching to see if it’ll return.

Join the free B&H EDU Advantage program

While DJI doesn’t offer discounts on its site, you might be able to score dealers when buying tech from other electronics sites. B&H Photo runs a program for students and teachers called EDU Advantage, which is one of the best teacher discount programs out there.

With it, more than 450,000 items are available at discounted prices. Note that the selection of discounted tech often changes, but it includes drones, cameras, laptops, and more. To participate, you’ll have to go through a third-party website called UniDays. UniDays verifies your identity as a student or educator. The program is free to join, so if you’re eligible, do it!

Look for drone scholarships

This one is more likely to help students than teachers, but it’s worth passing on. A variety of drone scholarship programs out there offer to help cover the costs of things like online Part 107 training courses. Some cover the exam fee to take the FAA’s Remote Pilot Certification test. Others cover general costs in the form of cold, hard cash.

There are also often scholarships to attend conferences and workshops. And often, scholarships are available to both students and teachers, such as the Scholars Program for the annual Law-Tech Connect Workshop.

Happy flying, and happy STEM program teaching!

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