I bought a drone. Twice. In the same week.
Is the drone I bought so good that it needed to be bought twice? Was it missing features that could only be made up by buying a second one? Or was it something else entirely? Weighing in at two-thirds of a pound and small enough to literally takeoff and land in the palm of your hand, the DJI Spark is the smallest drone in the Chinese drone maker’s lineup. At $399 for the basic drone, or $599 for the Fly More kit that includes a remote, extra battery, carrying case, and a multi-battery charger, it’s also their cheapest.
DJI has 4 tiers of drones. The Inspire is their high-end, professional level model. The Phantom is the semi-pro/enthusiast model. The Mavic is for the casual user, or person who needs something highly portable. And then there’s the Spark. Unlike it’s bigger brothers, the Spark is marketed towards first time drone owners and people who don’t want or need more professional settings.
To be honest, I wanted the Spark’s big brother, the Mavic Pro. The 4K video and RAW image format opens up a lot of possibility, as does the extra 3 miles of range, the 40mph top speed, and the 30 minute battery. But the Mavic and kit costs $1300. That’s not cheap.
The Spark shoots 1080p video. It has the same 12MP sensor as the Mavic, but sacrifices pixels to image processing in order to simulate a gimbal’s yaw axis. There’s still the same full resolution photos, but they’re JPEG only, not RAW. The Spark also has only a 1.5 mile range, 32mph top speed and a 15 minute battery. On paper, it seems a significant cut in features, but in reality…it’s different.
It’s a 1080p world, since most people don’t have 4K devices. For YouTube and Facebook, the majority still watch videos on their phones, where 1080p still looks great. On the photo side, unless it’s low light, or another harsh lighting scene, the extra detail in a RAW file is usually unused. So, while those features are nice to have in the Mavic, they’re not needed. As far as the performance difference goes, I’ve only needed to go beyond 1 mile once. 4 miles is a long ways. Sure the Mavic is faster, but to me, the best shots are at slower speeds. I rarely want to go past 10mph. And for the battery, yes bigger is better, but if I go into a situation with a set of planned shots to execute, I find I have plenty of battery remaining, even at the Spark’s lower limit. Plus, the fact that it can takeoff or land in the palm of my hand means I never have to worry about finding a flat landing spot. For the price, the Spark is great for real-world needs.
And speaking of the real world, Hawaii has some epic sunrises, something to serve as a good early test of the drone. What better way than to fly it along the Nu Mokulua Islands, just of Oahu’s coastline. The islands are about 1 mile offshore, well within the 1.5 mile range. I launched the drone and set off.
Switching into sport mode, the drone flew the over the ocean surface in no time, and even though I was watching the battery life through my phone’s display closely, it was uncomfortable having the device so far away, with only open water beneath it. I shot some video, attempted some of the advanced photo modes such as the 360° photosphere and, noting I still had plenty of battery life left, I flew over the larger of the two islands. Then I lost my connection.The issue with drones like these is that, unlike their military cousins, these drones require line of sight communication between the drone and the controller. Mountain ranges block that. I expected my drone to instantly climb up to its max altitude and regain the connection. And I expected that once the battery hit a critical threshold it would jump up and return home. Neither happened. The drone was lost on the island, along with the all of the footage I had shot. The only thing that remained was the lower quality footage that was streamed to the phone during flight. Luckily the DJI Go app saves that to a cache.
Days went by, and with work in the way, I was unable to get the time to row out to the islands in attempt to find it. So, I did the next logical thing and bought a replacement.
Once the weekend came, I rented a kayak and began rowing out. I knew I wouldn’t find anything, but I was curious. The islands are popular with locals and tourists alike, and had the drone survived the fall down the jagged cliff side, someone would’ve picked it up. But I was curious.
I stopped a couple of times along the way and launched the Spark. The drone hovered in place, though the ocean current pushing me towards the shore made the drone appear to be drifting away from me.
2 miles later, having started from a beach further away tthan I wanted, I landed onto the island and began my trek. The ground was rocky and wet, the crashing waves creating small tidepools. I circled to the back side of the island, and launched my replacement drone to get a view from above.
I circled around and not seeing anything, I spent the rest of my battery life practicing coordinated movements between the camera gimbal and the control axis’s. The controller makes flying the drone easy. Light and gentle touches are much easier with a physical joystick than with a digital one.
I plucked the drone from the sky, and placed it back in my dry bag, then set back off for my kayak and the long row back.
The fact that I could do this at all speaks volumes for the little drone. If the best camera to use is the one you have with you, there’s nothing better than the Spark. When carrying it in the Fly More bag, even with spare batteries and controller, the weight of the kit is easily forgotten. And, when the drone is able to be launched seconds after pulling it from the bag, there’s no wasted time in setup. Just power it on, and go. What more does anyone need?