Drones have become a technology icon over the past few years. Anyone can walk into Best Buy or click on Amazon and have a drone in their hands for less than a thousand bucks. But how many people do you know actually own a drone? Unless you participate in FPV racing, the answer is most likely not very many. DJI wants to change that. By shrinking the size, lowering the cost, and adding smart features, the company is making drones for the mainstream market. DJI’s latest drone, Spark, takes selfies, understands hand gestures, and lands in the palm of your hand for $499.
Spark may be a mini drone but it packs a mechanical gimbal, sufficient battery, and high-definition camera. Albeit, DJI has limited each of these features by fitting them into an accessible palm-sized package. The gimbal stabilizes pitch and roll, the battery lasts 15 minutes, and the camera shoots in 1080p. Furthermore, Spark boasts a suite of sensors for positioning, obstacle avoidance, and gesture control.
DJI wants everyone to own a drone, and they’ve made it really easy to do so with Spark. You don’t need to lug around a cumbersome protective case or fly with a joystick controller. Built-in sensors prevent you from crashing into things. Lastly, the camera records stunning footage with a gimbal. All in all, Spark is the drone anyone can toss in the air and capture practically whatever they want.
Spark spans the size of a soda can. It’s a dense drone that fits in the palm of your hand, and much of its bulk is in the battery. The body is constructed from a durable plastic with added texture and rubber in some areas too. Spark’s arms don’t fold up, but it’s small enough to fit in a bag or purse regardless. The props are collapsible to reduce damage should the drone crash, and they remove easily for replacement.
Unlike drones of similar size, Spark has a proper mechanical gimbal. It’s a 2-axis type, so it only stabilizes the camera’s pitch and roll. Regardless, footage turns out super smooth as you’d expect with a DJI drone. The onboard camera records 1080p 30-fps video and shoots 12-megapixel photos. In our testing, the video turned out clear without out any “jello” effects.
On the belly of the Spark are three sensors: one optical sensor to keep the drone’s position indoors and two infrared sensors for sensing the ground. We found Spark to be stable both indoors and outdoors (even in windy conditions). A front-facing sensor detects obstacles during flight, and during our review, the sensor worked spot on. We intentionally flew Spark towards obstacles and it stopped accordingly. The drone kept about a 2-feet distance between itself and the obstruction.
GPS is included with Spark. Over a dozen satellites lock onto the drone’s position, so it’s unlikely you’ll lose the tiny quadcopter. However, we’d recommend you keep eyes on Spark — especially if you’re flying without prop guards. There’s “Return To Home” functionality should you lose sight of the drone. Spark will return to where it took off, automatically sensing and avoiding obstacles along the way.
Perhaps the most talked about feature is the gesture control. Without a smartphone, you can launch Spark from your hand and have it snap a selfie. More impressive, Spark can lock onto and follow your hand. We tested each of these features, and some miss the mark. Spark will consistently snap pictures when you gesture a picture frame with your hands. Unfortunately, it’s unreliable at detecting a waving hand and flying upwards for a better shot. Spark does track your palm, but it’s slower than we’d like.
Spark offers a number of flight modes. For starters, there’s Quick Launch. Power on Spark, place it on your palm, and the front-facing sensors will detect your face and initiate liftoff. From there you can control Spark via hand gestures, no app needed. Gesture a picture frame and Spark will snap a photo. Wave your hand and Spark will fly away 10 feet. Hold up your palm and Spark will follow it. However, these controls might need some improvement if Spark is to attract the average person; we found the gesture control to be unreliable overall. If you’re going to take a selfie, don’t be surprised if Spark doesn’t recognize your hand gesture the first time.
For use outside of arms reach, you’ll need to pair Spark to the DJI Go app. Spark connects to the app over Wi-Fi to provide everyday pilots with a joystick-free flying experience. Sure, you won’t be flying outside a 300-foot radius, but for extended selfies and casual aerial shots, no joystick is no problem. In addition to tap controls, DJI Go displays pertinent Spark stats like battery life, range, and connectivity strength. For added safety, the app will display a subtle warning if you’re droning in restricted airspace. Spark also streams 720p video to your smartphone for a first-person view. The app suffers from a laggy interface, and when in ActiveTrack mode, Spark lost connection to our smartphone roughly 150 feet away. Albeit, Spark was flying in 13-mph winds. Overall, DJI Go serves as a quick and easy controller for mid-range Spark use.
We didn’t purchase the joystick controller at the time of this review, but there’s considerable advantage the controller has over the app. For starters, it extends the range to 1.2 miles. With improved responsiveness, the controller unlocks Sport Mode, so you can fly Spark up to 30 miles per hour. Physical joysticks are also a plus. By itself, the controller is $150, but there is a combo for $700. Additional accessories like a charging hub, a carrying case, and a spare battery are included.
Spark boasts four preset modes with QuickShot, including Rocket, Dronie, Circle, and Helix. Rocket flies Spark upwards with the camera facing down, and Dronie flies Spark backwards and upwards with the camera locked on a subject. Circle and Helix orbit around a subject, but Helix adds an upwards spiral.
Room for improvement
On our list of wishes for the next iteration of Spark (fingers crossed) includes more accurate gesture control and longer-lasting batteries. Gesture control is hit and miss. Spark understands the picture frame gesture but is slow when following palm movements. The batteries last 15 minutes before needing to rejuice and require cooldown time after use. For extended flight time, you’ll need a charging hub and two extra batteries. A Spark battery costs $50 and the charging hub is $70. One other complaint we couldn’t leave out of this review. Spark reacts dangerously around large metal objects. The internal compass goes haywire, causing the drone to fly upwards randomly. Our advice is to not fly Spark directly over, say, a car.
Spark offers features like no other drones of this size. It’s DJI’s first foray into mini drones and nails the portability and sophistication of a smartphone. The drone fits in a hand bag and recognizes your hand gestures. Albeit, it suffers from limited battery life, range, and camera resolution.
All in all, Spark makes for a good entry drone. It carries the nifty tech of a high-end drone and offers multiple ways to fly. You won’t have 3-axis stabilization, long battery life, and 4K video, but for a mini drone, Spark is the best in its class. DJI has Spark up for grabs starting at $499. There’s the Fly More Combo which goes for $699 and includes a handful of drone accessories.
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DJI's most accessible drone yet
A palm-sized drone that manages to carry some of the features you'd find in a larger, pricier drone. Spark falls short in some aspects of gesture recognition, and its batteries don't last that sweet 20-30 minutes. Albeit, for $499, it's one of the most capable mini drones we've seen.