UNLEASH THE FORCE ON THIS BITE-SIZED QUADCOPTER.
WHOEVER COINED THE phrase ‘good things come in small packages’ probably didn’t realise how true the cliché would be for DJI’s latest drone. The quadcopter company has outdone itself with the new Spark, a pint-sized model that can do pretty much everything its bigger brothers can — and then some, in some spots. With a main body that’s about the size of a can of soft drink, the Spark can sit comfortably on your palm (and take off and land on it, too, but more on that later) and while that makes it feel a little more toy-like than its siblings, its diminutive size belies how packed full of features it is. In fact, despite sharing many of the capabilities of the Mavic Pro, it makes the latter look enormous. If you’ve been holding off buying a drone because you’re intimidated by their size (or their price point), the Spark could be the one that changes your mind.
THE BEAST WITHIN THE BEAUTY
The DJI Spark has spunk, too. Gone are the days of the boring grey, white and black drones — instead, the Spark comes in five bright colours. Plus, weighing in at just 300g — and housed in its own little hard foam case — the Spark can fit into your backpack, with all its extras included.
Unlike the GoPro Karma (see issue #66, page 18), the Spark’s limbs don’t fold into the body, although the propellers do come together to make the entire package tiny. The Spark also doesn’t have any landing gear — just two little stubby feet which are perfect for a palm landing.
To make a pint-sized quadcopter, DJI has had to make a few compromises on performance. The Spark’s top speed of 50km/h is slower than the Mavic Pro’s 64km/h, and it can’t fly as far as its bigger brother either, with a maximum transmission distance of just 2km (when using the remote controller) compared to the Mavic Pro’s 6km. There’s a maximum runtime of 16 minutes from the removable battery, and the 1080p camera and 2-axis gimbal falls short of the Mavic Pro’s 4K/3-axis combo. Despite those shortcomings, the Spark is still whippet smart — it not only features obstacle avoidance, but also comes with extra sensors for its intelligent flight modes called QuickShot, TapFly, ActiveTrack, and Gesture.
The Spark has one particular party trick up its sleeve — it’s interactive, with the ability to take off and land on your palm and take instructions from hand gestures, making it easy to unleash your inner Jedi. Hold it at face level, double-tap the power button and the mini drone can recognise the user, take off and hover or move according to the user’s hand movements. Taking a selfie in Gestures mode is as easy as holding four fingers around your face like picture frame.
Gestures mode doesn’t always work perfectly, and does take time to get used to. Move too fast and the camera has a hard time tracking you, but go too slow and it can get confused as to what a gesture means. Every gesture basically has to be perfect for hand control to work seamlessly and the only way to tell if your hand gestures are working is to keep an eye on the front propeller lights — green is go. Once everything is in line and you’ve mastered the gestures, however, it’s actually a lot of fun. In fact, gesture control makes it relatively easy for anyone — beginner or pro — to control the Spark. That said, if you do plan on using Gestures a lot, we’d recommend you invest in a set of propeller guards (available for $29) to keep your fingers from getting nicked.
Flying the drone manually, either via an app or the remote control (which is available
separately for $259, or included as part of the $1,199 Fly More Combo), is just as easy. If you’re a newbie and not comfortable with jumping straight into the pilot’s seat, you can get some basic flight lessons from the simulator mode built in the DJI Go 4 app. Once you’ve got a hang of it, flying the drone is easy as pie. If you’ve flown a drone before, you probably won’t need to use the optional Beginner Mode, which limits the drone’s speed and joystick sensitivity. The Spark is the first DJI drone that the company says can be flown indoors, thanks to the combination of its smaller size and built-in obstacle avoidance tech. However, we wouldn’t recommend indoor flight if you’ve got an expensive chandelier or small rooms, especially given that it’s got no rear-facing sensors.
The little drone is nimble in the air, but hovering takes up quite a bit of power, as does flying the drone in wind, but the Spark has DJI’s standard Return To Home (RTH) feature — where it’ll fly back to its starting point — which should ensure a safe landing before the battery completely runs out of juice. In fact, RTH automatically kicks in even when the connection to the controller or your smartphone is lost — although it won’t work indoors, as it requires a strong GPS signal.
If you find the virtual joysticks in the app a challenge, the TapFly mode makes things easy. Selecting TapFly in the app’s Intelligent Mode brings up the scene (or landscape) on your screen. Tap a particular point on the screen and Spark will slowly make its way there. TapFly doesn’t always work indoors when space is an issue, which is perhaps for the best, but in wide open spaces, it’s a joy to use. Thanks to extra sensors, the Spark can even track a moving object while dodging obstacles.
The final smart-flying feature, QuickShot, allows you to send the Spark on four preprogrammed flight paths, but it’s important to keep in mind that the quadcopter’s Wi-Fi range drops off after 300m horizontally and 150m up vertically when using your smartphone. For someone just stepping into the world of aerial photography or video, the Spark is a great place to start. Balanced on a dual-axis gimbal, the camera live streams footage to the screen of the remote controller or your smartphone at 720p, but video is recorded at Full HD 1080p to a microSD card inserted directly into the drone itself. Still images are captured in 12MP (3,968 x 2,976-pixel) resolution and we found them to be sharp with rich colour and contrast. While the electronic image stabilisation and two-axis gimbal eliminate most of the vibrations from flight and wind, it’s important to remember that the Spark is an entry-level drone — so if you’re into cinematography or professional photography, one of DJI’s higher-end offerings with 4K would arguably be a better option.
But while it may not be the most powerful drone in the market, this tiny quadcopter sure makes flying a drone a heck of a lot of fun. DJI clearly wanted to make a drone for the masses and, with a price point of $859 and the Spark’s impressive ease of use, the company’s definitely succeeded — with flying (or should that be ‘hovering’?) colours.
THE SPARK HAS DJI’S STANDARD RETURN TO HOME FEATURE — WHERE IT’LL FLY BACK TO ITS STARTING POINT WHICH SHOULD ENSURE A SAFE LANDING.
DJI SPARK From $859 www.dji.com CRITICAL SPECS 12MP (1/2.3-inch) CMOS sensor; 1080p @ 30fps video; 2-axis gimbal; 16 minutes max flight time; max speed 50km/h; 14.3 x 14.3 x 5.5cm; 300g No heavier than a can of soft drink, the Spark can sit comfortably on (and even take off from) your palm. 4
Removeable batteries, available for an extra $69 each, gives Spark some extra flight time.
For a beginner, learning to fly the Spark is super easy with the Flight Simulator in the DJI Go 4 app.