What drone under $50 can I use to learn to fly, or is a simulator better?

Next up in our “Ask Drone Girl” series is about finding a drone under $50 to learn to fly. If you have a question for Drone Girl, contact her here.

I really want the new DJI Mini SE, though I don’t want it to be a learning drone. My fear is crashing it or getting it stuck in a tree and losing $300 before I’ve solidified the basics of flying. My question is, what drone under $50 would you recommend to be just a flight learning drone only?

Or now that I have a Windows PC, is there a top-notch, affordable drone simulator you’d recommend instead that I can pair an affordable game controller with that will accurately teach me to fly?

We are on the same wavelength! I definitely do not recommend the first drone you fly to be something you can’t afford to lose. While the new DJI Mini SE is an incredibly safe, easy-to-fly drone, I still wouldn’t want to make it the first thing I touch for a few reasons. Here are two reasons why I recommend you start flying on a cheap practice drone:

  1. Cost: Even if this is one of the easiest-to-fly drones, our mindset can get the best of us. We might panic, shoot the sticks sharply in one direction and crash the drone. You don’t want to go into your multi-hundred drone with a mindset where you might crash.
  2. Learning value: Every current DJI drone for sale these days can basically fly itself. All of them takeoff and land automatically, can hover in place, and have some level of return-to-home capabilities with varying degrees of accuracy. Most can fly pre-programmed flight paths, and again, the intricacies of them varies by drone.

That’s all good, but it’s imperative you know how to fly a drone itself in case the failsafes, well, fail. Cheap practice drones are hard to fly and don’t have anywhere near that degree of automated flight, which is why I recommend you learn on them. Train for the hardest scenario, so you are fully confident in the easy scenarios, which is most of the time when you’ll be flying DJI drones.

The best practice drone under $50

And with that, I recommend you get any cheap, practice drone you can find at your local toy store. And quite frankly, you don’t need to worry if it’s good, because it’s just a practice drone. It being tough to fly is a feature, not a bug!

That said, I do really like the Potensic Upgraded A20 Mini Drone. It’s about $35, and I frequently see additional coupons for this one on Amazon (10% off is fairly common). Pair it with an Amazon Prime Rewards credit card if you have one for an additional 5% savings.

A couple reasons it stands out:

  • Well within your $50 budget
  • Comes with three batteries. Most toy drones only have ~5 minutes of life per battery, which can be annoying in cutting training sessions short. With three, you’re looking at 15-18 minutes of flight time per training session. By the time you take off and land, expect to be able to train for at least a half hour using this drone.
  • The drone can fly in headless mode. Some drone pilots prefer to fly in compass mode while others prefer headless mode. You now have the ability to train both.

What about simulators?

I’ve put together a guide that analyzed dozens of software products in order to find the best drone simulators. While I do think nothing beats the in-person flying experience, there are a few simulators that I recommend specifically for you because they’re either free, or under $10.

The Drone Racing League Simulator

The first, low-cost simulator I recommend is actually more geared toward leveling up your FPV (first person view) skills and is from the best in FPV drone racing, the Drone Racing League. DRL’s simulator, called the DRL SIM, costs $9.99 and is designed to help complete newbies learn the basics. It takes you through training missions that’ll take you from player-to-pilot in a few hours. While it’s primarily designed with FPV drone racing in mind, it’s a well-made, engaging way to learn controls, which apply to all drones.

Zephyr Drone Simulator

Screenshot courtesy of Zephyr

This downloadable simulator is ideal for hobbyists who might be interested in getting into the industrial side of drones, as well as pilots seeking to practice for industrial applications.

The full feature version costs $50, but there’s a hobbyist version for just $10. I like the Zephyr Drone Simulator because it offers all sorts of real-world scenarios that you can customize to your desired practice area including various flight conditions to operate in (e.g. ultra-bright, sunny day vs. heavy rain) and the place you want to fly (e.g. interior of a warehouse vs. through the posts of a bridge).

Download the Zephyr drone simulator here or perhaps first check out The Drone Girl’s in-depth, Zephyr flight simulator review.

DJI Flight Simulator

The DJI Flight Simulator has a free trial version compatible with certain Mavic drones, which is why I’m throwing it out there. It’s specifically designed for situations like yours where you want to hone your piloting skills without the potential risks and costs associated with real-life training. Since it’s made by DJI and you’re looking to train for flight on a DJI drone, this will likely give you the most realistic, simulated flight training. DJI’s simulator software tries to account for real world settings, such as flying in wind, and it can also simulate crashes.

The problem with this: you want to get a DJI Mini, but the free trial won’t be compatible with that. The free trial version is only compatible with these drones:

And more specifically, these controllers:

  • Mavic Air
  • DJI Smart Controller

Alas, unless you upgrade to a fancier drone, this won’t work from you. That said, I think flying a cheap, toy drone is really your best way to train for flying a DJI Mini anyway. And of course should you upgrade to a fancier drone, the DJI Flight Simulator is always there for you!

Consider an online course

Another great way to learn how to fly and build confidence? Enrolling in a course! In-person drone flying courses can cost many hundreds of dollars, but the online versions tend to be incredible cheap. I put together a guide to the best places to learn to fly a drone online in 2024. Of those, Drone Launch Academy offers a Drones 101 course that will fit in your budget. Yes, the self-paced course costs $49 for lifetime access.

Sure, that won’t include the drone. But with a cheap drone and an affordable online course, you’re well on your way to being a strong, confident drone pilot.

Is there another drone under $50 that you’d recommend? Share your advice in the comments below!

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