Drones in 2023: A year of ups, downs, crashes, and change

HoverAir X1 next to Skydio 2 on landing pad
(Image credit: Future)

It's difficult to pick the highlight of 2023 in the drone world. A lot has happened, both in terms of product and the political environment which looms around us as regulations never quite seem to settle. Let's start with the saddest news, which came as a bit of a surprise (though a rather drawn-out one): Skydio's abandoning of the consumer market. 

As an American brand, Skydio's seemed to have an advantage – the US protectionist restrictions on Chinese drones could only be helpful? (While costing Americans $1billion!) The rules, however, apply to a broad range of government uses, including police, all of which come under a commercial umbrella so, in reality, probably made it easier for the firm to step away from the complex consumer space and concentrate all it's AI powers on commercial drones. This might well have been the plan all along, simply using consumers as a test bed for the AI.

It is sad to see, but Skydio is still firing on all cylinders, launching the new X10 drone to cater to this market. The Skydio 2+ is still around, too, just don't expect any consumer-focussed firmware updates (that said, most of the features we need as photographers or video makers are already available, including very smart tracking and 3D-shot planning).

The HoverAir X1 drone will land in your hand thanks to its safety cage and can keep its eye on you. (Image credit: Future)

For the loss of one very expensive AI-powered consumer drone, though, consumers have been rewarded with a new market entry which began on Kickstarter – the HoverAir X1. With relatively slimmed-down tech, this is a much less expensive proposition which nevertheless lives up to the promise that Skydio used to inspire many consumers: automatic subject tracking. It even dispenses with a remote, so you can get on with your action while the drone handles the videography!

Potensic Atom is handsome and boasts a 4K camera. (Image credit: Future)

The other exciting 'new' consumer products don't come from a new brand, but represent a sea-change in quality from Potensic. Already one of the big names in competitively priced consumer drones, this year they produced the Atom and Atom SE (in the other order), which give DJI's entry-level drones a real run for their money. There is no skimping on resolution here – both have 4K, but if you want to save as much as possible Potensic's SE option ditches the mechanical gimbal for the cheaper option of electronic image stabilization.

OK, it's slightly nearer the lens than the tractor, but the Inspire 3 is a big drone. (Image credit: Future)

Then, of course, there is DJI. It's been a massive year for the company which rode into 2023 on the the back of the Mini 3's launch, but in spring began refreshing first the Mavic 3, which became the Mavic 3 Pro in April. Then – seven years after its predecessor – the enormous Inspire 3 finally arrived to redefine professional photography drones.

The DJI Air 3 – all round sensors and two cameras (one with 3x zoom, but both with the same image sensor). (Image credit: Future)

If your budget didn't stretch to that (or, indeed, a mid-sized SUV – you'd have to budget about the same), 2023 was also the year of the DJI Air 3 – an update in which the mid-tier drone picked up a second camera. Finally, the enormously successful Mini 3 Pro has been effectively replaced with the Mini 4 Pro which gains all-round sensors and spectacular 20km radio range. And that's just the camera drones – we've also seen action cameras, enterprise drones more, begging the question: "What can DJI do to maintain the momentum in 2024?"

Or perhaps "Do they need to?"

I suspect we will see a slight slowdown, though a Mini 4 not-Pro seems a reasonable prospect for the near future. The Mini 2 SE has also been very reasonably priced toward the end of 2023, so perhaps a Mini 3 SE is in the offing? Perhaps something from left-field (from a photographic perspective) is the Avata which is a little older now, but there is no real need for the Air or Mavic series to get any attention in 2024 unless we get some big surprises from the competition.

That means now probably is a good time to pick up a drone of your own. Where we'll see the most change in the year ahead – I'd guess – is in higher-end accessories like Sony's screenless camera and in governmental agencies around the world in the race to prepare for drones controlled beyond visual line of sight (BVLoS). That is seen as the growth opportunity by many businesses (including Skydio) and, as photographers, we'll just have to make sure we don't lose our share of the air!

Read our guide to the best camera drones and the best drone for beginners, or check some of DJI's other tech in the best action cameras.

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Adam Juniper
Managing Editor

With over 20 years of expertise as a tech journalist, Adam brings a wealth of knowledge across a vast number of product categories, including timelapse cameras, home security cameras, NVR cameras, photography books, webcams, 3D printers and 3D scanners, borescopes, radar detectors… and, above all, drones. 

Adam is our resident expert on all aspects of camera drones and drone photography, from buying guides on the best choices for aerial photographers of all ability levels to the latest rules and regulations on piloting drones. 

He is the author of a number of books including The Complete Guide to Drones, The Smart Smart Home Handbook, 101 Tips for DSLR Video and The Drone Pilot's Handbook