The best programmable drones for research [Full Guide]

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Buying a drone for research purposes requires something more than the usual drone recommendations. There are some important factors to consider when you are buying a drone for research such as fully open source and programmable code base. This allows for control and optimisation above anything that a consumer level, videography focused, drone could offer. There are so many different types of drones out there and many of them are suitable for research purposes. In this article we are going to go over some of the best programmable drones for research so that you know exactly what to buy and which drones allow for programming and customisation.

The best programmable drones for research include the DJI collaboration drone the Ryze Tello, and also other programmable drones such as the parrot mambo mini drone and the DJI Matrice series drones. If you are serious about programming drones it’s probably best to build your own by using open source software and hardware.

I recommend reading some awesome books such as:

To learn all about how to program a drone to fly – I was also amazed at how little drone flying kits can cost for students – look here and here (I think this is the best one!).

There are different levels of programmable drones for research. Some of the programmable features in the DJI drones allows for programmable features such as programming particular flight path – in this instance something like a Mavic pro or phantom pro would be perfect for you. On the other hand if you are looking for something that is absolutely hack a ball you can find companies like Parrot which have some drones which allow them to be interfaced with programming platforms like MATLAB and Simulink. The parrot mambo mini drone is very affordable and as a good indoor flying capability which makes it perfect for research. Let’s take a look in more detail at the best drones for research with a little bit of information about what they are capable of.

Best drone for research

In this section we are going to go over the best drones for research purposes. All of the drones in this section have been recommended by researchers who are actively pursuing their research interests and we will make sure that each of the recommended drones has the ability to be programmed fully.

Parrot mambo mini drone

This drone is a really inexpensive and awesome way to dip your toes into what drones have two offer for research. Anyone in the academic fields of maths, engineering, science, or physics would be familiar with the software package Matlab. Matlab is a desktop environment that is tuned for iterative analysis and design processes with a programming language that expresses matrix and array mathematics directly. It includes a live editor for creating scripts that combine code, output, and formatted text in an executable notebook. So it is an incredibly powerful tool for researchers.

In addition to the inertial measurement unit (which detects the current rate of acceleration using one or more accelerometers) the parrot mambo mini drone also has an ultrasound sensor, a Bluetooth controller, and a camera. This may look like a toy and even the promo makes it seem like it’s just for children:

But for a research it may be the perfect way to test code, and understand things like aerodynamics and flight control. If you need help setting up the interaction between the parrot mambo mini drone and Matlab you can find a series of videos which can talk you through the entire process on the MathWorks website – click here.

DJI Matrice series

If you are looking for a drone that is able to be purchased and flown without any hassle, is from a well-known and reputable manufacturer, and is fully programmable you need to consider the DJI Matrice.

The DJI Matrice is a fully programmable customisable drone that uses the DJI Software Development Kit for tailoring your flights. You can teach your DJI Matrice how to behave and what you wanted to do. You can programming customise commands and gather information from the entire system in real time while flying your drone. The one thing that makes this particularly powerful is that the DJI software development kit features everything you would need for research. From flight actions to advanced flight control and aircraft state data the Software Development Kit in a powerful bundle.

This is not a cheap option however. This customisability and flexibility as well as the support generated from the Software Development Kit comes at a price starting at about US$8000 for the DJI Matrice 600 pro. So, you are going to need a grant and some good start-up money if you want to head down this route. The DJI Matrice 100 (which is a entry-level drone for open programmable interfaces in the DJI series) retails for about US$5500 which is still a fair bit of money if you are serious about getting some of the best drone technology into your research.

Build it yourself

Building your own research drone is undoubtably one of the best ways that you can utilise drone technology in your research. There is a fantastic article that was published in 2018 called “a survey of open source UAV flight controllers and flight simulators”.

The recent hype around drones delivering Amazon parcels, delivering organs, and other disruptive drone uses has caused an upsurge in the amount of research being done into UAV technology. The biggest issues at the moment are that the platform properties such as reliability, fault tolerance, and functionality are all tightly linked to the UAV controller hardware and software. There is a complete lack of standardisation of flight controller architectures and there are many closed source flight controllers on many different types of drone parts. There are a range of open source options for building your own drone.

Using open source flight controllers gets over some of the shortcomings currently available with closed source controllers and enables researchers to build upon existing research. The paper looks at more than 20 different open source hardware, software, and simulation platforms that would be appropriate for not only academic research but served as the basis for a commercial product as well. If you are serious about using open source software for your research purposes you should seriously consider reading this paper. It is available free of charge at researchgate – click here.

Here are some of the open source drone projects that you should follow:

  • LibrePilot – this software suite is designed to allow control of drones and other radio controlled objects. The project is built on top of the open pilot UAV software. The founders are committed to creating an open and collaborative environment and also work with other similar projects.
  • Flone – flown is a project that aims to turn a smart phone into a drone. It combines a digitally fabricated airframe with software that allows an android smartphone on the ground to control one strapped to the airframe via a Bluetooth connection.
  • ArduPilot – “The ArduPilot Project provides an advanced, full-featured and reliable open source autopilot software system. The first ArduPilot open code repository was created in 2009 – since then it has been developed by a team of diverse professional engineers, academics, computer scientists, and other members of our global community. It is capable of controlling almost any vehicle system imaginable: conventional and VTOL airplanes, gliders, multirotors, helicopters, sailboats, powered boats, submarines, ground vehicles and even Balance-Bots. The supported vehicle types frequently expand as use cases emerge for new and novel platforms.” Over 1 million vehicles worldwide use these analysis and simulation tools.

The awesome thing about open source code base means that it is always rapidly evolving and it remains at the cutting-edge of technology. If you are considering using an open source software make sure that it is an active code base and that it is actively maintained.

Which drones can be programmed?

Perhaps for your research you do not need a fully programmable drone but rather you are looking to use drones for programming and coding research that doesn’t require open source level control. Here are the top drones that you can use for programming research and coding education projects.

Ryze Tello EDU

This drone is awesome for learning all about programming as it supports the programming app scratch. Students can command Tello to perform corresponding movements by dragging coding blocks on their smart mobile devices and they can also develop programming skills by playing games and completing levels (some of this requires payment to open up the levels). Scratch is an MIT developed coding system which allows kids and teens to learn the basics of programming while also flying drones. But the drone doesn’t just stop at students. If you are a more advanced programmer or you want to push the limits of research you can also develop software applications using the Tello software development kit.

This drone may be small and lightweight but it has a tonne of features powered by a very reputable drone manufacturer, DJI. DJI are the leaders when it comes to drones and they have perfected this entry-level drone. Here are the features that this drone comes with:

  • Tello App – The Tello app makes it really easy to fly. It makes even the most complicated maneuvers just a simple touch of a button.
  • Lightweight – this very small drone fits in the palm for your hand and weighs only 80g.
  • You can perform stunts – start flying by tossing the drone up into the air with the Throw&go technology. You can also perform stunts and tricks (like flips) using the app
  • Safe to fly indoors – Thanks for rotor guards and it’s vision positioning system the Tello drone is fun and safe to fly indoors
  • 13 minute flight time – a huge flight time for a drone of this size powered by the best drone batteries on the market – DJI batteries!
  • Programmable – You can learn the basics of programming by using Scratch – an MIT developed coding system especially suited for students. Fly your own flight patterns

This thing is by far the best drone for travelers that are new to drone flying and want to test the waters of capturing their adventures.


+ Lightweight

+ Really inexpensive

+ super easy to fly


~ Needs another battery for continuous fun

~ May not be robust enough for heavy travel

Parrot mambo fly

The parrot mambo fly is a brilliant little mini drone which is one of the most stable and easiest to pilot for new drone flyers. The great thing about this is that it comes with an array of sensors including a gyroscope, air pressure sensor, ultrasonic sensor, and an Excel a matter. This means that the mambo fly can detect objects and conditions in the environment which you can use as triggers for your programming language.

There are also a range of programming options. For the beginner there is a simple block based coding app called Tynker this allows you to drag-and-drop coding blocks to build an algorithm which tells the drone what to do. At the intermediate level there is the swift playground which simulates Texas-based programming using a type of code structure. And then if you are a researcher you are probably going to want to program the drone in a modern and powerful programming languages such as JavaScript or Python. This makes the parrot mambo fly a brilliant drone for research purposes and even if you are a researcher and you are using the drone for your research it is possible to take it to schools to do outreach programs as there is such a flexible coding system.


Bitcraze was founded in 2011 to finance the development and manufacturing of an open source development platform for drones. Into size they started work on the crazyflie quadcopter:

Crazyflie is a small quadcopter that started with a simple idea: get an electronic board to fly. We were three embedded engineers from Sweden and we wanted to make a small flying machine that could be used indoors (it is often cold outside in Sweden ;-)) and with as few mechanical parts as possible. The result of this idea was a small quadcopter that used its printed circuit board (PCB) as the main mechanical frame with motors glued to the PCB. At that point it was the smallest quadcopter in the world.

The drones that these guys make are incredibly small. Just check out this video which gives you a rundown on the drone development kit:

I think that if you are looking for a small drone development kit for programming purposes this would be a great option for you.

Are DJI drones programmable?

Most consumer grade DJI drones are not open software or available for programming. That is because DJI is a manufacturer who is constantly developing the drone stability and flying software and it wants to keep that information in house as a competitive advantage. However there are a couple of drones and robots that allow the user to program their movement and collect data from sensors. These are typically used for educational purposes and therefore are probably not super suitable for research but they are worth a mention just in case you find a drone in the DJI range that is perfectly suitable for your research.

Here are a list of DJI drones that and robots that are programmable:

  • DJI Matrice – we have talked about this above and the DJI Matrice is an expensive option but offers a fully programmable and customisable drone experience.
  • Ryze Tello – this drone is perfect for education and you can even upgrade the programming interface to include Python and JavaScript. It is perfect for research as it is inexpensive but still has on-board cameras and sensors that are programmable.

If you want a hand choosing a drone check out my complete buyers guide – click here.


The best programmable drones feel research will depend on exactly what you are doing and how you want to do it. If you are looking for drones that can also be used in an educational setting the Ryze Tello and parrot mambo are some of the best drones that you can consider.

If you are serious about wanting to program drones as part of your research you probably need to end up building your own drone and there are plenty of open source hardware and software solutions to make it a breeze.

Good luck with your research endeavours and I wish you the best in finding the best drone for your research purposes.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton is a Drone pilot, Writer and YouTuber with a PhD in science. His drone footage has been featured on TV (ABC Documentary) and he has written and/or produced videos for Science Alert, COSMOS magazine, and Australia's Science Channel among others. He has been a drone pilot for many years and has flown many types of drones.