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Unless you’re a creative professional or need to inspect remote power lines without getting electrocuted, you probably don’t need a drone. That’s what makes buying one so tricky. The best consumer drone on the market right now—at least in my opinion—is the DJI Mavic Pro, but the $1,000+ price tag (which only goes up when you consider the mostly-necessary add-ons) reserves it for serious enthusiasts or the top-hat-and-monocle set for which $1,000 wouldn’t even cover their weekly caviar budget.
Enter the DJI Spark. Not only does it try to bring the price down closer to impulse purchase territory, but it also tries to reduce the learning curve required to send a craft up in the air.
At a $500 base price, this 10.5-ounce drone ports over some of the popular features from its higher-end sibling and adds some consumer-friendly tweaks to make it more accessible for the average consumer pilot who is trying to chase their kids around the park rather than make a major motion picture. Plus, it has gesture control that allows you to command this little aircraft simply by waving your hand, which has done wonders for our Darth Vader impression.
Setting up the Spark drone is a relatively simple process that takes about 10 minutes once you have the battery charged and the DJI app downloaded. Sync up a smartphone with the Spark’s ad hoc wifi signal and you’ll seen see a remote feed from the drone’s built-in camera.
Setup will, however, require that you register your new flying machine with DJI. Recently, the FAA stopped requiring users to register small craft like this, and DJI responded by implementing restrictions of its own. If you don’t agree to the terms of a DJI account, functionality like range and top speed is restricted.
You can use the smartphone app to fly the Spark or spring for the optional dedicated controller, which will set you back an extra $150. You’ll also want to make sure the Spark has the latest firmware installed.
Having flown just about every consumer-oriented model on the market and even a few high-end models, I contend that drones are still clunky to fly. Practice helps, of course, and there are some very talented pilots out there, but the process of learning to effectively operate a drone is often a tedious endeavor, experienced in 12 minute bursts between bouts of battery charging. That’s what makes the idea of a simple drone like the Spark or its main competitor, the Yuneec Breeze, so appealing.
But happily, getting the Spark off the ground is simple. The relatively low maximum speed of about 13 miles per hour (it can climb to 31 MPH if you add the optional remote) keeps things moving at a manageable pace, even when you try to push it. Using the sticks of the dedicated wireless controller feels a lot more precise than the app, but it also conflicts with the overall simplicity of the product, so I found myself preferring the app, even though it’s certainly less precise and responsive.
To further lower the learning curve, DJI has brought its Quick Shot modes, which automatically perform complex maneuvers without any input from the pilot. For instance, the Dronie (the name is a mashup of “drone” and “selfie) mode locks onto a subject, then flies away and up to create a shot like what you might expect to see at the end of a movie. Rocket sends the drone straight up over a subject to its maximum height, and Circle does loops around whatever it’s tracking. Helix mode might be the most interesting because it sends the drone in an expanding spiral while also climbing in elevation. It’s impressive to look at and would require serious piloting skills to pull off in manual mode.
These effects really do look impressive once you review the footage, but most of them require tons of open space. Even in a park full of sprawling soccer fields, the fly away and Helix shots were a little nerve-racking because the drone goes so far. You can stop the flight path early, obviously, but there’s a learning curve for gauging the proper venue for each shot mode.
Object tracking works well, too, even if it does sometimes go through a false start. I’d like to be able to track a little closer than the minimum range, but then I also don’t want to crash a drone into a running subject, so I understand the motivation.
The total range on the Spark lets it go 262 feet away and 164 in the air when controlling it with the app. You can greatly extend the range to 1.2 miles by using the optional remote, but the 12 minutes of effective battery life make that seem a little too far for comfort. For most purposes, the range with the smartphone app felt more than sufficient.
This is one area where the Spark has a considerable disadvantage when compared to its bigger siblings. Resolution tops out at 1080p at 30 fps, so don’t expect 4K if that’s what you’re looking for. You also can’t shoot in 24 fps mode, if you’re feeling cinematic. In terms of image quality, it looks like a modern smartphone camera, which is to say that it’s nice, but you should expect some blown-out skies and lots of automatic sharpening applied to the images, which, at times, seems a little like overkill.
The efficacy of the gimbal (the rotating mount that gyroscopically stabilizes the camera) would almost be surprising if DJI didn’t already have a very solid reputation in that arena. It needs some adjustment to get things perfectly level before take off, and you may notice a little tilt in the horizon on some of my sample videos, but it does a solid job of keeping things steady once you’re up and running. Changing the angle of the camera, however, is a little jerky, especially if you’re using the app, so it’s best to set that before you start filming rather than adjusting on the fly, so to speak.
There’s a camera on the bottom of the drone to help it hover in place, a feature with which I was very impressed. I expected stability from a DJI drone, and I got it.
The 3D object avoidance system is on the front of the drone, so if you fly directly toward an object like a wall or a tree, it will avoid them with aplomb. But if you start flying it around backward or even sideways, you’re free to smash it into whatever object you want. This isn’t so much an issue if you’re keeping control over the craft, but it makes me a little wary of trying things like having it trail a subject running through a trail in the woods.
Controlling the Spark with the wave of a hand was a big selling point when it was first announced and it really does look cool the first couple times you do it. Landing it in your hand is also a pretty nifty trick. After regular use, though, it’s clear that gesture control isn’t quite ready for many practical uses. You have to move slowly and in a pretty exaggerated fashion for it to really work, and even then, it has to be in very close range. It’s cool, but it’s not quite ready to redefine the drone experience just yet. However, DJI has a history of improving features with firmware updates, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see the gesture control improve considerably, even before the next generation comes along.
As a package, the Spark has a lot going for it. Each battery claims about 16 minutes of juice, and that actually seems pretty accurate in terms of total runtime. When you get to around four minutes left, the app will start squawking at you to bring your craft home, so it’s better to plan for around 10-12 minutes per charge if you don’t want to be biting your nails as it tries to land before the last seconds tick off the battery clock. Other things like extensive maneuvering and strong wind can also have an effect on battery drain.
Twelve minutes of effective flight time might seem short, but that’s the nature of these little flying machines. The Mavic Pro promises 27 minutes on a single battery, but that’s also a bigger, more expensive craft. That said, if you’re going to drop $500 on the Spark, I would automatically factor in the cost of at least one extra $50 battery, if not more.
The GPS and location settings worked well and I didn’t have any runaway drone scares, which I’ve had in the past. The app is diligent about alerting you about flight restrictions in your area. I found that most places have some kind of alert, though I was still able to fly without a problem. One thing that takes some getting used to is what happens when you push the “return home” button. Rather than flying straight to its home base, it first climbs to a higher elevation, which can be a problem if you’re in an area with lots of obstacles like trees or utility wires.
While the Spark’s small size makes it easy to carry around, it doesn’t do much to quiet the horrible buzzing sound produced by the propellers. So, while it’s nimble enough to fly indoors, it certainly isn’t inconspicuous. Even when it’s high above your head, you can still hear a pronounced whir from the propellers.
I genuinely enjoyed my time with the DJI Spark. The app feels a little rough around the edges at times (the adjustment slider for the camera angle drove me nuts), but the overall package is much closer to the balance of quality and price that makes sense for the average consumer. If you’re enchanted by the gesture control, I’d recommend you temper your expectations a little, at least for now, since future firmware updates could improve it considerably.
If you’re going to pull the trigger, I’d also recommend thinking long and hard about upgrading to the Fly More Combo, which comes with a battery charger, an extra battery, propeller guards, a carrying case, and the dedicated controller, which is $150 all on its own.
Ultimately, the Spark is a good entry-level option for people who want to take drone flying more seriously. Once you get better at flying it, you can gravitate away from the automatic shooting modes and take more creative control before stepping up to a bigger model. And if you’re just looking for a drone to mess around with, the Spark is great in that regard too, if the $500 price tag fits your budget.
App compatibility: iOS and Android Battery life: 16 minutes (max) Price: $499 (drone only)