For the uninitiated, owning a drone looks like sheer, unadulterated fun. Even those who are prone to be skeptical of these flying cameras will often admit – after seeing captured footage, or watching one fly – they’re pretty cool. But actually flying a drone for the first time can be a bit intimidating, especially if you’ve had little to no experience using remote controls. Add to this anxiety the knowledge that a mistake could quickly cost you hundreds of dollars in repairs, and it’s easy to see why novices might not want to shell out $1,000 or more for something like a DJI Mavic Pro.
Thankfully, DJI’s recently introduced Spark, makes the jump into drone ownership easier on the pocketbook and a breeze to get flying. Here’s my take on the company’s smallest drone yet, and why I think the Spark checks almost all the boxes for first-time fliers.
By far the most unusual and impressive feature of the Spark is that it is literally ready-to-fly right out of the box. Normally that term “ready to fly” suggests that everything you need to fly comes with the drone, but there is always some set-up, or configuration required before you get going. Not so with the Spark. Even on the partial charge with which its battery ships from the factory, getting this drone airborne for the first time requires only a few presses of its power button. Of course you can pair the Spark to your smartphone, or to the optional remote control unit, but the key is this: You don’t have to.
Flying, following, filming, and photographing can all be done with nothing more than your hand, which makes the Spark the easiest drone on the planet to use.
A SIMPLE GESTURE
This magic of which I speak is thanks to the Spark’s combination of facial and gesture recognition software and hardware. Using both its forward-facing 3D sensor and its 2-axis gimbaled camera, the Spark can lock onto you, follow your hand, and respond to simple movements like a wave. It’s not perfect – there are times the drone will lose its lock on your hand for instance – but it’s an incredibly effective and easy way to use a drone as your personal, flying paparazzi. Having friends and family all exclaim, “No way!” as they watched me land the Spark on my hand after beckoning it back to me, was a very satisfying moment. The one gesture I had a hard time mastering was “Away and Track,” which is a side-to-side wave of the hand, but it always worked eventually.
I’m not exactly a pure novice when it comes to drones – I briefly owned a Parrot AR.Drone 2 a few years ago, before misfortune ended that relationship – but I’d hardly consider myself a capable pilot. In fact, if that AR.Drone could talk, it would probably use more colorful language. So I was pretty hesitant at first while working the controls to fly the Spark manually. But the Spark’s default mode greatly reduces the effect that using the “sticks” – whether on-screen or using the remote – has on the drone’s movements, which for me meant that I didn’t suddenly careen into a wall when all I wanted to do was move sideways a little.
I still prefer using a physical remote to the on-screen controls, but either way, flying the Spark is an intuitive, almost sublime experience, and after a little more than 30 minutes of flight time, I felt totally confident that I could get the tiny quadrotor to go where I wanted.
TOUGH LITTLE DRONE
Not that my time with the Spark was without mishaps. I did in fact, manage to fly it into a brick wall after underestimating the time I would need to slow it down. If I had taken the time to attach the optional rotor guards I was sent, the impact would probably have caused the Spark to bounce gently off the wall – it was already going very slowly when it hit – but as luck would have it, I had decided that an outdoor flight didn’t need them, and so, down it went, onto unforgiving pavement, after a two-foot drop.
Amazingly, even though one of the LED lens covers snapped off on impact, I was able to snap it back into place and the Spark was once once again ready for action, with a few scuff marks on its rotor blades the only indicator that tragedy had struck. Lesson learned: Buy and use the prop guards if you suspect there’s even a remote chance you’ll be flying near objects.
When I first read that the Spark’s gimbal was only 2-axis, instead of the 3-axis found on drones like the Mavic Pro and Phantom series, I was concerned it wouldn’t create smooth video. I needn’t have worried. Turns out the Spark is stabilized across all three axes, it’s just that it uses digital stabilization for the third axis. DJI doesn’t advertise this, but it’s the central reason why the Spark shoots in 1080p HD even though it can take 12MP still photos – it uses its extra resolution to smooth out the bumps. The resulting video is silky smooth, and I doubt most folks will even notice that it’s not 4K – there’s plenty of detail.
My main interest in drones from a photo and video point of view is for capturing scenes and vistas that I couldn’t capture any other way. The Spark is just as capable as its larger cousins for doing this, but it excels at selfies, or should I say, dronies. In fact, it comes pre-programmed with four different selfie modes: Rocket, Circle, Dronie, and Helix.
Each mode keeps the camera pointed at your chosen subject (to pick one, just drag a finger over their body in the app) while the Spark then executes one of the programmed moves. These work really well, but I learned quickly that you’ll need plenty of space – hundreds of feet in some cases – for the Dronie and Helix modes, while Circle mode is less expansive, and Rocket is the easiest as long as there’s no roof, or other obstacle immediately overhead.
ActiveTrack is another feature I grew to love right away. As a motorcyclist, I’ve always wanted to see what I look like while riding, which is pretty much impossible unless you know someone who is willing to ride or drive beside you while filming. The Spark’s ActiveTrack feature is the answer. Whether set to Trace or Profile mode, it will dutifully follow you wherever you go as long as you don’t exceed its maximum speed. We got some cool overhead shots using this feature, though it’s worth noting, this needs to be done with caution, and always while observing local regulations.
As a relative drone beginner, I was delighted with my time using the Spark. Its size, convenience of operation, automatic modes, and video quality all exceeded my expectations. At $499 USD, it’s not cheap, but if you routinely find yourself wanting the kind of shots that only a drone can offer, I can’t think of a more affordable way to get going with drones without sacrificing quality. If you do decide to buy, I highly recommend spending an additional $200 for the Fly-more package. Not only does it get you two additional batteries (at 15 minutes of flight time per charge, you’ll want ‘em), but you also get the prop guards and separate remote control, both of which I now consider must-haves to get the most out of the Spark, not to mention peace of mind.
If you haven’t heard, DJI has an important firmware upgrade for The Spark. You can find details here.