A few years ago, the concept of having a small flying robot follow you around and record what you do as you hike, snowboard, or just enjoy your life, was something that existed in the realms of science fiction. Now, you can drop a few hundred dollars and have just that.
Chinese drone manufacturer DJI, along with a few others, like Parrot and Yuneec, have been leading the charge in the consumer drone market for years. DJI has released some of the most popular drones, including the Phantom line, the cheaper but still powerful Spark drone, and in late 2016, the Mavic Pro. The company returned earlier this month with a miniaturized version, called the Mavic Air. It’s meant to be as useful as as the Pro, but in a compact, foldable body.
Quartz spent the last few weeks testing the Air to see how it holds up against DJI’s earlier models:
It’s tiny. Two years ago, a drone this impressive cost around $1,400 and was about the size of a basketball. DJI has miniaturized its technology at an impressive pace, and when folded up, the Mavic Air is only about 3 inches wide. It’ll fit in a large back pants pocket and just about any jacket pocket or bag. It’s eminently portable. If you’re the sort of person who always carries a bag, you can now carry a highly professional camera drone and probably not notice the weight difference in your bag.
These are getting easier and easier to set up. Charge the batteries, download the DJI GO app, turn the Mavic on, connect to its wifi, and you should be good to start flying your new drone. There are tutorials and calibrations you need to run through, but really, it’s never been easier to get a professional-level flying camera in the air.
The footage is smooth. Even flying the drone in windy weather, my footage was smooth and steady. Whipping around corners or stopping midair at high speeds didn’t seem to have much effect on the camera, which is hooked into a recessed three-axis gimbal.
A powerful camera. On top of the smooth gimbal, the Air has a 4K camera that can record at 30 frames per second, and capture HD video at 120 frames per second, as well as take 12-megapixel still images. It can also capture 32-pegapixel 360-degree spherical images, creating fully immersive panoramas.
Onboard storage. This is the first DJI drone to come with sizable storage onboard. It has 8GB of space that comes in handy if you can’t find any spare SD cards, or you fill yours up while flying.
More autonomy. Like DJI’s other latest models, the Air can sense and avoid objects it’s flying towards. But unlike earlier models, it won’t just stop when it senses something it doesn’t want to crash into—it’ll route a course around it. This could mean flying around a tree, or over a bush. It can also track objects on its own—on older DJI models, you’ve had to select objects (or people) you want to track in the GO app.
New shot modes. The new QuickShots modes are a lot of fun. There’s all the ones DJI has had on its last few drones, including helix and rocket, where the drone starts at eye level and then shoots up above its subject. But the newest, called “Asteroid,” might be the best yet. In can turn this muddy, damp field in Massachusetts into something that looks amazing:
The special modes work like they’re supposed to. The drone might take a little longer to carry something out than you may expect, but everything I tested out worked as it was supposed to, including the new hand gestures that let you control the drone similarly to the way flying the Spark made you feel like you were a Jedi.
Nice hardware design touches. The Air’s design feels more considered that its predecessors. Here’s a couple examples: The radio antennae are built directly into the drone’s fold-out feet, optimizing their connectivity, and the joysticks on the Air’s controller unscrew and snap under the body of the controller, meaning it fits easily in a pocket. Older models left the joysticks sticking out.
What’s not so good
Flight time is a letdown. The Air will only get about 21 minutes in the air according to DJI, but in practice I found that the average battery life to be a little over 15 minutes. After that, the controller starts bleeping incessantly until you land it, so even if you can eke out another three minutes or so of flight time, it’ll be an exceedingly annoying few minutes.
You’ll have to buy a lot of batteries. DJI told me that one reason it expects customers will still be interested in purchasing the Mavic Pro over the Air (even though the Air is an ostensibly better product) is its longer battery life. To fly the Mavic Air for an hour, you need at least three batteries, maybe four, and the patience to swap them in and out. (The Mavic Pro gets about 27 minutes of flight time per battery.)
The software is still poorly designed. One of the few things that’s consistently a let-down for DJI products is their software. The DJI GO app isn’t as buggy (or filled with spelling errors!) as it used to be, but it’s not without its flaws. I accidentally activated Siri at one point when flying the drone, and it crashed the app. Thankfully the Air was smart enough to land on its on, realizing the connection to the app had been severed, but it was a pretty disconcerting experience. The app itself is still quite difficult to navigate: Functions are hidden in sub-menus that are tough to find, and the information overlaid on the screen as you’re flying is almost impossible to keep track of.
You’ll still need a carrying case. The tininess of the drone almost doesn’t matter. Between the extra batteries, the propellor guards (which you should probably use if you plan to fly anywhere near living things), and the charger, you’ll still need a bag to lug everything around. DJI offers a package deal that includes a travel bag, among other goodies. I tried to just drop the drone and the controller in my backpack, but felt awkward about potentially snapping the propellers if I dropped my bag. At the very least, you’ll need to zip it up in the little case DJI provides.
It’s still quite expensive. Although the Air is considerably smaller and cheaper than its predecessors, it starts at $800. The package deal (which includes three batteries, a bigger charger, and extra propellors), comes in at $1,000. Given the short flight time of a single battery, it seems likely that many people would want to opt for the more expensive package.
Should you get one?
If you’re a fan of drones, have been flying for a while and are looking for an upgrade, this is likely the drone for you. It’s got everything you’d need if you’re a vlogger, an amateur filmographer, or serious hobbyist drone pilot, wrapped up in a tiny package. It’s an impressive drone if you’ve seen what a much larger Phantom can do, and really feels like a new standard for prosumer-level video drones. The Mavic Air gets us closer to a reality where having and operating a drone is as easy as operating a smartphone.
But if you’re new to drones, there probably isn’t a compelling reason to buy the Mavic Air over a Spark. For about half the price you get nearly as much drone in the Spark (which Quartz also loved). It can’t shoot in 4K, fly as quickly, or for quite as long (it has a 16-minute maximum flight time), but if you’re just dipping your toes into the world of drones, I’d recommend it over the Mavic Air. It’s as easy to fly, nearly as compact, and about as fun to play around with.
But if you know what you’re doing and have already incorporated a drone into your filming, your travel bag is about to get a lot lighter.