Drones provoke mixed feelings in me.
On the one hand, as a wildlife photographer and appreciator of wildlife, I’m privileged to live in an era in which high-quality aerial photography equipment is available to so many people.
The fact that this technology is so widespread means that wildlife enthusiasts and amateur naturalists like me get to see amazing captures all the time–often shot by amateurs.
But I also sometimes find drones highly obnoxious.
They can be very invasive, and on more than one occasion, some douchebag with a drone has completely killed my immersion in nature by flying an overly loud one far too close.
What’s more, their use as video and photography equipment can be ethically questionable (if not reprehensible) when good noise management is not taken into consideration.
There is plenty of research to suggest that drones, when not used responsibly, have a negative impact on wildlife.
With that said, photographers (and scientists) will continue to use drones, so it’s worthwhile knowing which are the quietest drones out there to minimize your disturbance of wild animals (and people!).
It’s also important to note that, according to the scientific literature:
the concept of disturbance remains ill-defined. Species may not immediately change their behaviour when they are disturbed or stressed, yet existing studies have largely focused on assessing animals’ responses through visual observation. Sensitivity to noise varies across taxa and within species groups depending on sex, age, life history, breeding season and the level of habituation to noise.
With that said, the best portable mini drone for various terrestrial and ocean-based wildlife photography is the DJI Mavic Mini.
Other good options include:
Are you interested in more advanced tech?
If you are looking for something that matches (or perhaps exceeds) the quiet factor of the Mavic Mini and is definitely the more advanced piece of technology, then the DJI Mavic Mini 3 Pro is hard to beat as far as quiet drones go.
Best Silent Drones (aka stealth drones) on the Market for More Ethical Terrestrial and Ocean Wildlife Photography: DJI Mavic Mini and DJI Spark
I chose the DJI Mavic Mini and Spark (each a DJI drone) as the best of the quietest drones on the market for wildlife photography and videography because they were recommended by the authors of a 2021 study published in the journal of the British Ecological Society titled “Determination of optimal flight altitude to minimise acoustic drone disturbance to wildlife using species audiograms.”
In the study, the authors review several commonly used drones and state that:
the unweighted sound level for all UAVs [studied] still exceeds 40 dB at the point where the sound decay flattens out. In these situations, we recommend using a quiet drone, such as the Mavic Mini or Spark, when possible.
This is based on the following:
We calculated the lowest point at which either the UAV sound level decreases below an acceptable threshold, here chosen as 40 dB, weighted according to species’ hearing sensitivity, or disturbance cannot be significantly further minimised by flying higher.
The latter is quantified as the point above which each additional 5 m of flight altitude causes, on average less than 0.05 dB decrease in sound pressure level.
For whales, the disturbance threshold for noise level is even less of an issue:
One study comparing sound from two UAVs with the hearing thresholds of odontocete and mysticete whales and pinnipeds showed that the noise could only be quantified above ocean ambient sound at 1 m depth when flying at 10 m, therefore, disturbance is only a concern when UAVs are flown very close to the water surface.
The journal article also provides an interesting breakdown (based on the authors’ research) of recommended observation and recording distances for a variety of different animals for each of the best quietest drones they sampled, based on noise level tolerance.
DJI Mavic Mini
2.7K @ 30fps
2.4 miles (4 km)
This person is getting way too close to the animals they are filming, so low marks for consideration, but the below video gives you a pretty good idea of what kind of video you will get from the Mavic Mini:
1.2 miles (1.93 km)
The below video is a good representation of what the DJI spark can do:
Conclusion: The DJI Mini is the better quiet drone
The DJI Mavic Mini is just all-around better. The Spark is slightly faster, quite a bit lighter (so a more portable drone, especially for travel), and still a good silent drone, but the Mavic Mini still only weighs less than a pound.
What’s more, the Mavic Mini has:
- Better video resolution: 2.7K vs 1080p for the Spark
- Better battery: 30 mins vs 16 mins for the Spark
- Better gimbal stabilization: 3-axis vs 2-axis for the Spark
- Better flight range: 2.4 miles vs 1.2 miles for the Spark
It’s also slightly cheaper.
Of the two more ethical silent drones, the Mavic Mini clearly also has better photography and videography stats.
The DJI Mavic 3 Pro
The DJI Mavic Mini is not, however, the most advanced silent drone on the market.
DJI also makes the Mavic 3 Pro, which has even better photography and videography specs.
These, of course, come at a price, but according to the below video comparison and accompanying DJI forum discussion, the Mavic 3 Pro might even be the slightly quieter DJI drone:
I don’t know how convinced I am that it’s actually the more silent quadcopter, but there is no denying that it’s camera specs are better (CMOS sensor), it has a WAYYY better flight range, a decent battery life increase (and improved flight time) and it’s faster.
11 miles (18km)
What Went Into My Selection Process for the Quietest Drone for Wildlife Photography
I started out, like many people who don’t study this kind of thing, somewhat naive when it came to ethical drone use and wildlife photography and videography.
I knew that I found drones personally annoying sometimes because people often used them with no regard for other people or animals, but I still used them and had probably bothered animals with them at some point.
A couple of years ago, a bunch of articles started coming out addressing ethical aerial photography, and I felt both educated and duly chastised for my ignorance.
I wanted to put together a guide that was backed by scientific research that would help people choose a more silent drone while still factoring in things like video and photo quality, range, battery life, gimbal stability and all of the other important drone specifications.
Main Evaluation When Choosing Quiet Drones for Wildlife Photography
In addition to choosing a much more quiet drone if you are planning on shooting wild animals (and not annoying people), there are several features that I think are the deciding buying criteria when investing in a drone.
- Video/photo resolution
- Gimbal stabilization
- Battery life
- Max Speed
Obviously, if you’re trying to capture great images and videos of wild animals and their natural habitats, you want the best photo and video quality possible.
I tried to choose the two drones that I thought were the right mix of appropriate decibel levels for ethical wildlife photography and ones that would make wildlife photographers and videographers happy.
Most drone gimbals (and gimbals) in general are either 2 or 3-axis gimbals. A 3-axis gimbal is better, but it adds to the price of the drone.
A two-axis gimbal is designed to correct a camera that is rolling either side-to-side or forward and backward. What this means is that it’s not going to correct unwanted movement in the yaw axis.
Here is a great breakdown of roll, pitch and yaw–how things fly and remain stable and below is a diagram of the three axes.
A 3-axis gimbal will correct shake along the yaw axis, which gives you more stable footage. A 3-axis gimbal has an extra pivot, so it weighs more, and a heavier load tends to mean reduced flight time and max speed.
Battery life is another important qualifier when evaluating a drone because it basically equates to how long you’re going to be able to shoot for.
The battery life of most drones is notoriously short. You will definitely burn through most drone batteries in under an hour.
Max speed is important in a drone for wildlife photography for a couple of reasons.
First, you need to be able to keep up with your subject. If you’re trying to record super fast ungulates that are moving across plains or savannahs, even the fastest drone is not going to be able to keep up.
Second, when you’ve only got half an hour of battery life, you want to be able to cover distance fairly quickly.
If you’re looking for animals from above, you don’t want to waste your entire session because you can’t move fast enough.
Lastly, you want to be able to return home quickly when your battery level starts to dip. If you are spending a few hundred dollars on a drone (and potentially upgrading and augmenting it with a bunch of accessories), you don’t want it emergency landing somewhere you can’t reach it.
Max speed is also going to be affected by external variables like air pressure, propeller blades, propeller guards, etc.
Flight range means how far a drone can travel while maintaining contact with the remote control. If the remote control can’t send signals to the drone, you can’t steer or use it.
Drone weight affects how long your battery lasts. A heavier drone requires more power to keep airborne, and every additional gram counts.
How to Reduce Drone Noise
While buying one of quietest drones available is definitely the first step to more ethical aerial wildlife photography and videography, there are things you do and add to make your drone quieter.
***one important caveat here is that longer blades require more power to rotate them, which means your battery drains faster and has a shorter flight time.
What’s more, more blades per propeller reduces your efficiency, as each additional blade is subject to more wake turbulence from the one proceeding it.
Install larger and slower propellers
Small propellers don’t displace as much air on each turn, which means the prop has to turn more times for more propulsion. More mechanical activity means more noise.
Larger propellers displace more air, which means the prop doesn’t need to rotate as fast (a few times per second less) to keep the drone flying.
While larger propellers won’t eliminate the noise entirely, they will lower the noise frequency. Slower spin means lower decibels.
Invest in quieter propellers
In addition to your ability to avoid mid air obstacles, your propellers are the biggest variable when it comes to your drone’s noise levels.
- Here are some low-noise blades for the DJI Mavic Mini
- Here are some low-noise blades for the DJI Mavic Mini 3
- Here are some low-noise blades for the DJI Spark.
Low-noise propellers can make the quietest drone even quieter. They usually work by reducing the number of revolutions per minute–reducing the mechanical noise.
Use noise-reduction shrouds
There are special coverings for drone propellers called shrouds.
They use nanofiber sound-dampening material which absorbs the noise from your drone, directing it upwards so that animals (and people) below don’t hear as much.
They also offer some protection to your drone’s propellers as well.
Adjust the propeller
How quiet a drone is depends a lot on the shape and design.
A lot of manufacturers are starting to incorporate advanced software in order to produce quieter acoustic signature propellers to soften the noise.
Companies also twist the shape of the drone’s propellers, which can reduce the acoustic signature but a massive margin. Raked wingtips and other small tweaks can have a marked impact.
Use more motors
If your drone has a large wing, you can always add more motors. Additional engines allow for more efficiency propulsion and less noise.
Bear in mind that if you fit a drone with multiple small motors, the RPM functionality will vary between them, which can produce harmonics, as opposed to the single frequency of a single motor.
Drone noise factor also has a lot to do with whether it uses brushed or brushless motors.
Adjust the main rotors
If you are using an older drone and an older, noisier drone engine, you can reduce the noise by installing a motor glider.
After you’ve done this, you can adjust the drone’s settings to slow or medium speed and it will automatically produce less noise.
Sand down the surface of the drone’s propellers
You can make the quietest drone even quieter if you do a bit of careful sanding work on the propellers.
Drone propellers from different manufacturers often have a raised logo on the blades. If you take a piece of sandpaper and remove the raised logo, you can get smoother propulsion and less noise.
Tips For More Ethical Drone Wildlife Photography
In addition to buying a more quiet drone, there are other things you can do while filming and photographing wildlife from above to make your hobby and passion more ethical. These include:
- Don’t use drones that resemble the shape or silhouette of predators (smaller drones are usually better).
- Keep your flights short. This requires you to have a plan before taking off and getting up close to wildlife.
- Buy one of the quietest drones on the market
- Fly as high as possible. You can consult the table from the academic article that I linked to at the beginning of this article. Here it is again.
- Fly regular, stable patterns, not erratic manoeuvres
- Don’t change your flight paths over animals
- Pay close attention to animal behaviour as you film and if it looks like they are disturbed by or scared of the drone, stop filming.
- Make your drone quiet using some of the previously mentioned tactics.
This jerkoff’s entire video is him harassing an elephant, and it’s clear the animal is scared of the drone.
- Minimize flying drones and making drone videos during breeding season (even with more silent drones)
- If there are raptors in the area, try to fly drones at lower-temperature times of the day when raptors are usually less active.
Raptors, like Eagles, can and do attack drones, and while it might make for spectacular YouTube footage, it can end up seriously injuring the bird:
Experts have concluded that based on the shadow and position of the bird’s body in the video, it likely hurt itself during landing.
You might also consider learning better flight control with some recreational flying practice before trying to capture mother nature.
Take your silent drone to a place where you are allowed to fly and practice for a while.
Experienced drone pilots are more familiar with and better at obstacle avoidance, distance and noise control, getting and maintaining the best vantage point, video recording, optimizing flight time and making use of advanced features like intelligent flight mode and follow me mode.
Beginner drone pilots flying recreational drones usually aren’t able to fly straight for long periods–especially flying outdoors with the added variables–more likely to scare animals, even with a more silent drone.
How to increase your drone’s lifespan
If you are spending a few hundred dollars on any of the best quietest drones on this list, if you know how to do a few things, you can protect your drone and keep it in good working order for longer.
Check your rotors before each flight
Most recreational drone propellers are sturdy but soft enough to minimize damage to people and other objects. To a certain extent, it is inevitable that they will bend a bit after a few bumps.
Checking each of the rotors before each flight will minimize the chances of a crash.
Don’t fly without a GPS signal
Flying UAVs indoors means you will almost certainly not have a GPS signal. The same goes for flying around a lot of buildings.
Always try to fly outdoors and in open areas.
Make sure your compass is correctly tuned
An incorrectly tuned compass is one of the leading causes of drone crashes. Your compass can become detuned if you store or fly your drone too close to magnetic and radio frequency sources.
Don’t store your UAV close to magnets (e.g., those in a car’s speakers) or fly in areas with a lot of electromagnetic interference (close to cell towers and power lines).
Don’t hit “return to home” too quickly
A drone’s controls can take a while to get used, which means new pilots often lose control, and for a drone equipped with a return to home function, the tendency is to hit this as soon as you start to panic.
The issue here is that, unlike other drones that are more advanced (and expensive), most consumer drones aren’t able to avoid obstacles, and if you hit “return home,” they are going to move in a straight line, regardless of what’s in the way.
A small, less sophisticated drone could easily smack into a tree, structure or telephone pole and become seriously damaged.
The more expensive models like the DJI Mavic Pro Platinum have obstacle avoidance, but these features, of course, come at a hefty price, and I wouldn’t call the DJI Mavic Pro Platinum a discreet quadcopter (It’s quite a loud drone), nor is it a small drone.
Why Buying One of the Best Quiet Drones on the Market Makes Sense
Whether you are using your drone to record wildlife and explore natural areas or for surveillance purposes, the ethical thing to do is to be cognizant of your impact.
Even pretty quiet drones can sound and look threatening to animals, and it’s our job as humans to cause as little stress to animals as possible–especially if we enter their homes with the intention of viewing and photographing them.
All the drones covered on this list were chosen, with the objective being to help you buy something that will reduce noise.
Hopefully, the above review provided a helpful breakdown of some of the quietest drones on the market and how to be a more responsible aerial wildlife photographer and videographer.
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