DJI Spark Review
DJI has taken over the consumer drone market. While there are tons of competitors out there, DJI ranks well above them, and holds to its standard of excellence with just about everything they engineer. However, what we’ve seen most from them is optimized aerial photography machines ranging anywhere from $1k-15k. Cue the new DJI Spark, the ‘selfie’ drone which happens to be the smallest drone they’ve ever engineered and listed at a $500 starting price.
If you can speak drone–and are familiar with the Phantom series–we’ll tell you right off the bat that it’s not on par with those drones. However, it’s attractive in its own way; it’s incredibly portable, easy to use (if you enjoy flying drones with nothing but hand gestures), and can capture quality footage. These are attributes anyone would expect from a DJI machine, but thing is, the Spark isn’t targeted at those of us that want to manually fly our quadcopters and take sellable footage; it’s targeted at newcomers that just want to see what drones are all about and take some selfies in the process. It’s targeted as at those that say ‘ahh, well I’d love to have a drone but it looks a bit complex,’ as it’s literally engineered to be the most user-friendly drone on the market. If that’s what you’re interested in, look no further, as this will explain everything you need to know about the new DJI Spark.
Build & Flight
DJI claims that the Spark is no bigger than a soda can (and as light as one too — being that it weighs about 10 ounces). They’re not wrong (it’s literally half a foot wide and long). It’s probably the most portable drone they’ve built, which obviously comes with territory, but even in the design you don’t need to remove the propellers to store it away. Aesthetically, it looks like a little robot police bird from a Philip K. Dick book. It comes in a variety of colors (red, yellow, blue, green, and white).
It comes with its own microSD memory card, which it uses to store footage. You might want to buy a few extra, however, as they can often load up quicker than one would expect. In terms of battery life, DJI claims you can have over 15 minutes in the air with this bird, but realistically with all systems go you’re probably going to come in a bit under that. That’s why buying extra batteries is worth it; don’t worry too much on that, as they’re incredibly inexpensive compared to the batteries of their more professional line of machines.
Despite its size, it can actually fly up to 30mph (careful though, as this won’t be a good thing to do with such a small drone when conditions aren’t right for it).
This high-performing mini drones comes with a mechanical gimbal that supports a tiny little camera. It can take 12mp stills and capture video in 1080p (it has a 1/2.3” CMOS sensor; for those of you that don’t know what that means, the camera is basically slightly better than the new iPhones). Not only that, but it can also live stream directly to your smartphone (or tablet) in 720p using WiFi (this is an important note, as Lightbridge technology isn’t integrated into the Spark). The FPV can be transmitted up to 100 meters without any loss of feed.
Despite the size, the gimbal works really well on the Spark. Normally with these mini drones the problem you face is this: it comes with a capable camera, but the gimbal isn’t on par with the quality, and thus you get shaky footage. You don’t make a great meal with bad ingredients. DJI strove to solve that problem by integrating a vibration-absorbing mechanical gimbal. It certainly succeeded with the Spark.
In which case the spark offers you this: a camera that can take amazing footage for anyone who isn’t trying to shoot in RAW 4k (and use it commercially) and transmits the first-person-view via WiFi rather than usual technology. This means, of course, that you’re going to run into connectivity problems when the Spark reaches a certain range, but you’ll never want to take it that far anyway.
Okay, so here’s possibly the best part about this drone. Feasibly (although it’s not necessarily the most fun way to pilot) you can fly this drone without any sort of controller. With their new gesture mode, all you have to do is activate it, and then gesture with your hands for it to carry out a certain action. And it’s not just–this gesture means take picture, this gesture means capture video, but a slew of them that can have the drone setting up dynamic and complex shots of you and your friends.
After testing it, we noticed that the more complex gestures were harder to communicate, but we think it’s a positioning problem on the pilot’s behalf, as eventually they always registered. Aside from gesture mode it contains Active Track, meaning it can follow an assigned subject. And it has Return Home, so it will autonomously return home to a certain location if it’s low on battery, has signal loss, etc.
Onboard it contains GPS and GLONASS for higher satellite positioning accuracy. It also has its own vision positioning system, which allows the drone to stabilize if it’s not using GPS (especially indoors). Then perhaps the most impressive system of all–being that it’s a mini drone and you simply don’t find units with this integrated feature at the price point–is it contains an obstacle avoidance system. It’s not as intuitive as the Phantom 4 and on, but it does have integrated frontward-facing sensors that autonomously detects and avoids obstacles. That’s HUGE for a mini drone, and incredibly important if it’s going to be flying around while you’re making hand motions.
All this intelligence fit into a mini drone makes it possibly the most optimized drone for its size. It’s self-stabilized, intuitive, and holds position when it needs to. In this way it certainly mimics the design of the more professional machines, and stands alone as a mini drone.
So there isn’t actually a controller that comes with the Spark. One of the most attractive features is something we already mentioned: the gesture mode. However, with the DJI GO 4 Application you can link your phone to your drone via WiFi, live stream FPV, and then fly it from there. The application is basically an all-inclusive platform that allows you to pilot your drone, customize your settings, switch out certain camera modes, and even edit your footage (although they still have a bit to work on with the editing part).
However, a controller IS available, and it comes in a jumbo package with the Spark included. This controller gives you a longer control distance (obviously) and even the capability to hit higher speeds. They did this to give a bit more of a flare to the Spark, as pilots that want to fly their drone manually can do so as well with the proper controller. Note: the speed difference between piloting with your phone and with your controller are vastly different, the controller making the drone capable of flying 15mph faster.
All-in-all what you’re getting is an incredibly optimized mini drone with the DJI Spark. It’s not going to take industry-standard footage that commercial pilots seek, nor is it going to become the new Mavic Pro, but it’s a definite step in the ‘simplified drone’ direction. What we mean by this is that ease of use is only going to increase with the drop of this drone. You can literally buy this RTF quadcopter, charge it, make a few hand gestures and have it flying. It doesn’t really get much easier than that.
Basically, it’s the perfect drone for those that just want ‘fun’ footage, or to fool around with the technology. There’s still some quirks that it needs to figure out (including within gesture mode), it can’t really fare well in harsher conditions, and to buy the jumbo package you have to spend an extra $200 to fly it manually (which also means to greater distances and faster).
But for what it is, it’s truly an incredible piece of machinery. While there’s a few competitors out there (the Parrot Bebop 2 coming to mind) within the respective grade, there are none that are as intelligent. But that’s what to expect from a DJI machine.
However, if you take the jumbo package with the included controller into consideration, you’re only spending $300 less than you would on a Mavic Pro. Put the Mavic Pro side to side with the Spark, and there is literally no comparison. Just something to consider.
All said and done, this little beauty has our vote, and we’re excited to see just how much these drones manufactures are going to be able to compact into tinier, more portable and affordable machines. Who knows, maybe soon the average millennial will have their own personal ‘selfie’ drone to do the job of their iPhone for them.