July 24, 2017
Just when you thought DJI didn’t have any more tricks up their sleeve for the year, they go out and release an incredibly small, gesture controlled drone at an extremely affordable price. If you have yet to see it, DJI Spark is the latest model in the DJI drone lineup and it packs a lot of features in a very small package.
Deviating from the norm for DJI, this particular model is not aimed at photographers and videographers (be it hobbyist or professional), but more so everybody else. It’s chock full of simple to use video and selfie features, is controlled through your phone or tablet, and dare I say it, the thing is even kind of cute. At roughly less weight than a can of beer, it has easy swappable batteries, and a small case that will fit in a medium sized purse. Simply put, the DJI Spark is as close to a mainstream drone as it currently gets.
To test the DJI Spark out, I took it along on a bike trip, a boat outing to Lake Marion, and of course put it through the tests in my neighborhood and indoors. What the drone lacks in 4K video and distance, it gains in affordability, portability, and ease of use. Also, a big thanks to Drone World for providing us with the test drone, and letting us play around with their new Spark accessories to make flying outdoors easier.
Performance and Speed
The Spark may not be the fastest drone in the DJI fleet, but at 31 MPH in sport mode, it certainly gets where you want it to. With that said, the Spark also only has a 2-axis gimbal, which means video and Sport Mode don’t mix, nor does regular full speed flight mode as it’ll look really jumpy. If you want to use speed to get to a location to film and take photos, then Sport Mode can certainly be used, but it also burns through more battery power as well.
Speaking of obstacle avoidance, DJI gave the Spark a bit of an upgrade compared to the Phantom and Mavic. It now uses a 3D obstacle system that detects objects up to 16 feet away (shorter than Mavic), but it also detects objects under it as well for palm landings.
While in obstacle avoidance mode, the Spark moves slow but smoothly. This works really well if you are trying to capture video, especially if there is any kind of wind. Without it, or being in sport mode, you’re going to get some jumpy and choppy looking video. This is mostly due to it only having a 2-axis gimbal rather than a 3-axis like the Mavic. What this means is you can move the camera up and down, but the drone it self basically has to rotate for anything horizontal.
Max distance without controller: 100 meters out or 50 meters up
Max distance with controller: 1.2 miles
Overall the performance of the Spark is impressive, but if you’re just using your smartphone, you’re not going to be getting crazy aerial shots. It definitely gets the job done though, especially if most of your content is shared through social media.
Gesture and Capture Controls
One of the biggest new features for DJI are gesture controls. With these, technically you don’t even need a controller, but for safety sake, you’ll probably want to go ahead and have that connected. Regardless, the various gesture controls allow you to use your hands and palm to tell the Spark what to do and where to go. It’s a bit wonky at first, and apparently wearing a green shirt over green grass makes it a bit hard for it to see you. Once I got it up and running, which was actually a super simple process of turning it on and pressing the power button two more times while facing the camera, the Spark will take off from your hand.
It’s then ready for you to start giving it gesture commands, with the first one being the palm of your hand. It’ll get its bearing set, and from there the Spark will begin to position itself in contrast to where you put your hand. You can also make a frame symbol using your hands, and the Spark will take a selfie of you. I’ll spare you the ones it took of me. While I couldn’t get it to work, you can also supposedly wave your hands at the drone in this mode, and it will then fly up and back to take a better shot. To get it to return, you simply place the palm of your hand under it, and it’ll know to land on your hand. The blades are fast and sharp, so try not to move. Keep in mind that with these gesture controls you’re mostly getting photos, not video.
For capturing an object or person, there are also a few other neat tricks the Spark can do. Using Active Track, you can either trace a square around a person and the Spark will follow the object, or in profile mode it will stay the same distance away from that person as they move forward. This is basically what that Lily drone wanted to do forever ago before they went caput. Due to the slow turning speed on the drone, it’s also pretty easy for it to lose you, or rather you lose it, so you probably won’t be capturing any high-speed activities with this just yet. It is a very promising feature though.
The other two features are all about ease of movement. With Tapfly, you can either tap on your screen and the Spark will fly to that place and hover, or in direction mode it’ll continue moving in the direction you set it. Once it hits its max distance though it will stop moving. I used this down a long stretch of road in my neighborhood and it did a great job indicating where it may run into something, so it’s not just running with the expectations that you mapped out the full course in front of it.
Overall I was impressed with the new gesture controls, but as you can see in the video, it ran into a few issues. For one, the speed of the Spark will prevent it from capturing anything moving too quickly, especially if it’s close to the drone. The other is that these are new features, so I went in expecting some wonkiness and that is what I got. It’s likely that as more people use them and as time goes on, DJI will update the firmware to make them more stable and reliable. For now, they do work well enough.
Not only does the Spark have gesture controls, it has a few video capture settings that allow you to create semi-action movie-ish style videos. There are four modes to choose from, and each of them (except for Rocket) requires you to have a pretty big open area like a field for them to work.
Helix: Spark will fly up and then begin to spiral around the subject.
Circle: Spark will circle around an object. While it won’t quite give you that bullet time matrix shot, you’ll be able to get a neat streaming 360 view of an object.
Dronie: Just as it sounds, the Spark will fly backward and upward with the camera focused on a subject.
Rocket: with the camera pointed down, the Spark will fly upward.
Each of these modes were easy to use, just keep in mind you really need a lot of open space or you’ll probably get it stuck in a tree, power lines, or something else.
Perhaps one of the biggest sore points on the DJI Spark is the battery life. Sure, you can charge it with a Micro-USB cable, but it takes about an hour and a half for this method. If you bought the combo pack or the separate wall charger, you’ll be up and running again in about 50 minutes. According to DJI, the Spark should last about 16 minutes in the air or 15 minutes in hover mode, which of course depends on how you fly it, the modes you use, and the biggest factor of them all… wind. Charleston is relatively breezy this time of year, so while testing the gesture controls in my backyard, the Spark burnt through it’s battery life in about 10-12 minutes on a full charge. By comparison, the Mavic Pro lasts about 2.5 to 3 times that amount (but it also costs twice as much).
For such a short battery life, the only real remedy here is to buy at least one additional one, or just spring for the combo pack. Even with the perks of charging through USB, letting you use portable backup chargers, it simply takes too long to make this really viable. If you’re out camping or have some time in between what you want to capture, then it’s a non-issue.
Overall the battery life was a bit disappointing, and we recommend getting at least one additional battery (costs $50). Fortunately these batteries are small and only takes a second to swap out, so it won’t affect portability.
Design and Portability
If there is one thing for certain, the DJI Spark packs a lot of power in a very small package. DJI also found some creative ways to cut costs to make this more affordable, which means you’ll need either an iOS or Android device to fly the base model. Sure, you can use the device with only it’s gesture controls, but as this is newer technology you may run into some issues, and you’ll certainly be only using a small portion of its features.
Much like the Phantom and Mavic, the DJI Spark is a relatively durable little thing. In fact it may be more so than its former drones as only the gimbal on the camera (it’s also sort of inset) and blades move, rather than foldable arms or a huge outset gimbal. While it does come with proper guards, and you will want to use these in gesture mode, especially indoors, the front-facing sensor should prevent it from getting into too much trouble. However, like the Phantom 4, it mostly only watches what is in front of it, so overhanging trees or anything else can quickly become a problem.
With that said, we forced the Spark into a wall with the prop guards on, it bounced back, and no harm was done. It’s also worth noting that the more solid the object in front of it, the better it will be at not running into it. It also moves slow, so it’s harder to slam into objects.
Unlike the Mavic Pro, the Spark has fixed arms. This makes it slightly less portable, though it’s still incredibly small at 143×143×55 mm. With the foam housing that it comes in, you won’t need to worry too much about foldable arms anyways. I was easily able to cart that around in my book bag and triathlon gear bag. While the case adds a tiny bit of weight, in all it still comes in under a pound, in fact it’s less than the weight of a full 12 ounce (technically 13.1) can of beer.
Add in an extra battery and the controller, maybe the iPad extender too, and you’ll still be able to cart this around without a problem. By comparison, the DJI Phantom 4 is about 3 pounds and is the size of a small dog. It’s a huge pain to cart around, plus you basically need a special carrying case or bag for it and all the needed accessories. In the past, you also needed to get your own skins for DJI drones, but the Spark comes in yellow, blue, green, red, and white.
Visibility and Controls
Having flown quite a few different drones by way of an app, trying to use them on a phone is not exactly great while under direct sunlight. While you don’t need the optional controller, if you also want to extend the flying distance and some of the gesture video moves, it’ll basically double the how far it can go. The controller also gives you a better line-of-sight experience with physical controls as the touch ones on your phone are going to feel a bit cramped. All else fails, you can just slap a Sunshade over your phone, too. You can also opt for using an iPad, but you’ll need an extender MavMount for the controller since it only fits regular smartphones and phablets.
Overall the DJI Spark is an light-weight, portable, and solidly built little drone. While I wouldn’t let a kid play with it, the controls are pretty straightforward so it should keep you out of trouble… and trees.
Pros and Cons
- Charges through Micro-USB
- Great price point
- Gesture controls
- Don’t really need a controller
- Weak battery life
- Wifi connection limits it
Should you buy the DJI Spark? If you consider yourself a new hobbyist that is more interested in stable images and video, but have no interest in 4K, this is likely a perfect fit. For the price point, features, portability, and ease of use, the DJI Spark is likely the first step towards a true mainstream drone solution. While we did have some issues with gesture controls, and do miss the range on the Mavic and Phantom, the Spark is basically a cute little drone that let’s you capture moments and experiences, whether inside or outside. Also, buy an extra battery or spring for the combo pack.
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