In the first 30 years of mobile phone development, tech companies worked to make them smaller. Then, with the advent of the smartphone, we hit an inflection point where the size of the screen outweighed the portability of the device, and the race to miniaturize our smartphones came to an end. When it comes to the evolution of consumer camera drones, we’re in the early stages of experimenting with how small these gadgets can be while still delivering worthwhile results.
DJI’s Phantom 4 came out in March 2016. Six months later it released the Mavic Pro, which was about half the weight and, with its folding design, less than half the size. Eights months after that, and DJI’s latest drone, the $499 Spark, halves the size and weight of the already slim Mavic. If things keep up at this rate, DJI will be able to cram a full payload of its advanced sensors, stabilizers, and camera into a drone the size of a matchbox by Christmas of this year.
To deliver this form factor, however, DJI had to do something it’s never done before: compromise on performance. While the Mavic was much smaller than the Phantom 4, it actually packed more range and advanced flight features, while nearly matching the camera stabilization and speed. The Spark is the first DJI drone that clearly offers less range and lower image quality than units that came before, a trade-off that keeps its size and price to a minimum.
The big question is: does the Spark deliver a great experience? Having spent a week and half with the unit, I can say the answer is a definite yes. It makes getting in the air and capturing photos and video drop-dead simple in a way no drone, DJI or otherwise, has managed to do before. Pulling it out of your pocket, powering it on, and launching it from your palm takes about 10 seconds total. There’s no need to bother pairing it with a remote or a mobile app — just raise your hand up, and it will go into gesture control mode. From there you can send it flying about 20 feet away and start snapping aerial photographs. That is incredibly liberating and fun. Do it in front of someone and they will inevitably ask, “Can I try that?”
Is the Spark for everybody? Probably not. If you make your living taking photos and video, the Spark probably won’t deliver the quality you’re looking for. And if you already own a nice camera drone, especially something small like the DJI Mavic, the Spark doesn’t add much to your arsenal. But for anyone who has been thinking of getting a drone but was put off by price or complexity, this is the unit to buy.
Like all DJI drones, the Spark’s basic performance was excellent. The battery delivered between 12–15 minutes of flight time in my testing, depending on wind conditions and how aggressively I was flying. More importantly, the amount of power never dropped off suddenly, and the battery stayed firmly in the drone. The battery takes about 40–50 minutes to go from dead to full with the dedicated wall charger. If you don’t want to lug that along on your next vacation, you can also charge it with a standard Micro USB cable, but be warned: charging is much slower that way.
There’s a vision sensor on the belly of the aircraft, and in my testing, the Spark could definitely hold its position indoors. But, you need to be aware that buildings, especially big metal ones, wreak havoc on the internal compass of your drone, so plan to calibrate your compass in a more amenable spot beforehand.
Now, while the Spark is great at hovering in one place indoors, due to its small size, the Spark has to work overtime to stay in one place against even moderate wind. Flying outdoors on a windy day is going to cut down on your battery life and, since it’s a two-axis gimbal, some of that sideways movement will show up in your footage in a way that wouldn’t happen with a Phantom or Mavic.
The simplest way to fly the drone is with gesture control. Double tap on the power button and it will scan for your face, then take off. This worked really well and made it easy to fly in areas that might otherwise have been tricky to launch from. If you extend your palm in front of your face a few feet from the Spark, it will recognize your posture and enter gesture control. You can sweep your hand up, down, left, and right to control its movement. This worked very well in my testing. You can also walk forward or backward and the drone will keep its distance by moving with you.
The more advanced elements of gesture control were really fun when they worked, but a little bit less reliable. If you wave one hand like you’re saying goodbye, the Spark will fly away and up to a distance of about 20 feet. From there you can make a square around your face with your forefingers and thumb like an old Hollywood director checking the frame. That instructs Spark to snap a photo. Finally, to bring it home, you make a big Y with your arms above your head. I got all these commands to work, but I often had to repeat them multiple times. I still haven’t figured out exactly what the right posture or movement is to make sure the Spark gets it every time.
If you want to go beyond the photos and distances offered by gesture mode, you need to pair the Spark with the DJI Go 4 mobile app. The unit puts off a Wi-Fi network and in my testing it was simple to find and connect to. Once you’ve got the app open, you can see a live video feed from the drone’s camera. You can fly using your thumbs on the screen; in my testing, the unit responded quickly and precisely to these digital controls.
If thumbsticks are too challenging, the Spark offers a couple other options for piloting. There is TapFly mode, where you simply click on the screen to indicate which direction the unit should go. The Spark, despite its small size, has sensors that allow it to detect and avoid obstacles when moving forward. You can use TapFly to get a lot done, but it’s less precise than a controller and the drone will often decline to move through tight spaces.
The Spark also has ActiveTrack, which uses computer vision to automatically follow a subject. When moving forward in this mode, the Spark will dodge obstacles. It can also trace alongside a subject or follow you moving backward, but in those cases the pilot needs to ensure it doesn’t smash into anything. The tracking works well, but it isn’t foolproof. If a person is moving among a crowd, say an athlete in a jersey on a field of teammates, the Spark can get confused and start following the wrong player.
The final option for piloting, and the one you’ll probably use most, is called Quickshot. The app offers four preprogrammed shots: a “dronie” mode that sends it flying up and away, a circle that moves around you at a fixed radius, a rocket that goes straight up, and a helix that moves in an ever-widening circle, making you the star of your own personal Michael Bay movie. Like ActiveTrack, these moves are all locked to a subject and can adjust to track them as they move through space.
In my testing Quickshots worked well, but they also highlighted the limitations of the Spark. When you fly it using a mobile app paired to your phone over Wi-Fi, the Spark’s range tops out at about 300 feet away and 150 feet up. When executing the dronie and the helix, both of which pull away from the subject, my unit lost its connection to my phone. Both times it was less than 300 feet away. Once, when flying near some large metal poles, I lost my connection at less than 50 feet.
Now these connectivity issues aren’t a knock on the Spark in particular. It’s something that happens with all Wi-Fi-connected drones, and was a regular occurrence when I was flying the Solo from 3D Robotics and the Bebop from Parrot. And the Spark always made the best of a bad situation, automatically returning home and landing safely. But for beginners, these moments — when your drone is hundreds of feet away or hovering over water and you suddenly lose your video signal and ability to control it — can be terrifying. And with just 16 minutes of battery life, these disconnects burn a lot of power that could have been better spent.
DJI is offering a $150 remote control that would extend the Spark’s range to over a mile and up your top speed to 31 miles per hour. Your best value, if you want to upgrade, is the Fly More Combo. That gets you the remote, extra battery, portable charging hub, and additional rotors and rotor guards for $699. Having this around to ensure connectivity and extend range sounds like a big improvement, if you don’t end up using the sticks to fly. But since the remote is not available for purchase yet, I won’t dwell on it in this review.
I would love to see a software update for the Spark that adds adaptive range. When the video signal starts to fail, meaning the drone is on the edge of losing its Wi-Fi connection with your phone, the unit should automatically move back into range of a strong connection. If it can continue executing a preprogrammed move while ensuring connection, even better. At the very least, perhaps it could pause at the limit of its connection and ask the user if they want to continue the shot or move back into range.
There are a couple other drones on the market that promise to launch and land from your hand, then automatically track a subject. One, the Hover Camera, is the same price as the Spark. But it has just eight minutes of battery life, a one-axis gimbal, performed terribly in wind, and, in our testing, did a poor job of actually finding and tracking people. Another, the Dobby, flies for just nine minutes and has no gimbal or obstacle avoidance at all.
I’ve been asked a dozen times over the last few years to recommend a drone for people who are interested in the hobby but aren’t sure if it’s for them. At $499, the Spark is exactly what they are looking for. It’s cheap, for a camera drone, and easy to use. You can get photos and video that are worth sharing on social media, albeit not quite professional quality. And you’ll get a sense of what you’re missing, leaving you the option to step up to a larger, more expensive unit if drone flying turns out to be something you enjoy.
Does that mean the Spark is the best drone you can get at this price? It depends what you’re looking for. At $499, the Spark is the same price as a Phantom 3 Standard. So you can get a drone with a three-axis gimbal that shoots 2.7K video, lasts 25 minutes on a single charge, and has range of over half a mile. Or you can get a drone that’s one-quarter the weight, far easier to transport, and launches from the palm of your hand, but offers less battery life, range, and video quality.
The ideal drone depends on what you’re after, and I would describe the Spark as the best starter drone on the market right now. It’s easy to carry around, simple to control, and safe to fly indoors and out, while retaining just enough oomph to capture imagery that will look absolutely epic on your social media feeds. For the casual drone user looking to get a taste of this technology without breaking the bank, there is no better option.