In 2016, DJI released the Mavic Pro, a small, foldable drone with a 4K camera that records in the same bitrate as the much larger Phantom 4. Now, not even a year later, there is the Spark, a short-range drone that’s so tiny that it can take off from the palm of your hand and so intelligent that you can control it with hand gestures.
Besides being the smallest drone DJI has ever built, the Spark is also the most affordable drone the Chinese company offers. At $499, it costs half the price of the Mavic Pro, yet the two drones aren’t too far apart regarding their capabilities.
This is particularly exciting news for beginners and casual drone users looking for an easy-to-use drone to take on all sorts of trips and adventures and use it to record beautiful aerial shots or snap stunning group selfies. The real question then is whether DJI has lived up to their excellent reputation and produced another brilliant drone.
Available in Alpine White, Lava Red, Meadow Green, Sky Blue, and Sunrise Yellow, the Spark ships inside a custom-molded hard-shell case. When purchased without any optional accessories, the Spark comes with three pairs of propellers, one battery, a charging hub, and a Micro-USB cable.
The drone measures only 2.2 by 5.6 by 5.6 inches and weighs 10.6 ounces, which, as DJI points out, is less than a can of soda. Protruding from the sleek body are four rotor arms and a 12 MP camera mounted on a 2-axis mechanical gimbal. The camera has a 25mm, f.2.6 lens and shoots 1080p video footage at 30 frames per second and 24 Mbps. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to switch to 24 frames per second for more cinematic shots, nor it is possible to record slow-motion footage at 60 or 120 frames per second.
The Spark records videos and takes pictures that are roughly on par with higher-end smartphone cameras. As with the latest iPhone or Samsung, you can expect to take well-exposed shots consistently without much effort. Of course, the relatively small image sensor inside the camera sometimes misses the mark and produces pictures with blown-out skies or too much digital sharpening.
The small mechanical gimbal can be a bit fiddly to get it perfectly level, but, once set, it keeps the footage surprisingly stable even in difficult wind conditions.
The biggest selling-point of the Spark is its ability to recognize hand gestures, which makes it possible to control it without a remote control. To start the drone, you hold it in the palm of your hand, aim it at your face, double-tap the power button, and watch as it automatically takes off. Once in the air, you can wave at the drone, and it will come toward you. Move your hand left or right, and the Spark will react accordingly. To snap a picture, you simply put your hands together, as if mimicking a picture frame.
The gesture control works fine for what they are, but we expect that many will find it too awkward for practical use. The gestures have to be exaggerated to be recognized by the drone, and they work only at a very close range.
Fortunately, the Spark can also be controlled from a smartphone app or using the optional controller, which DJI sells for $149. When controlled from the app, the drone has a range of 262 feet horizontally and 164 feet vertically. With the controller, the maximum range is 1.2 miles, but the drone’s limited battery life of just around 12 minutes in real-world conditions means that it’s best to stay within a few hundred feet. Also limited when controlling the drone from the app is the maximum speed, which is about 13 miles per hour. The dedicated controller extends it to much nimbler 31 miles per hour.
Supported are all the common flying features such as follow or return to home, but the Spark also comes with several pre-programmed shots, called Quick Shots, which allow anyone to perform impressive maneuvers without any input. The Dronie mode automatically pulls up and away while keeping the subject in the center, the Helix mode flies upward, spiraling around the subject, the Rocket mode sends the drone straight up over a subject, the Circle mode loops around the subject, and the Panorama mode automatically stitches together a mesmerizing panoramic shot.
The Spark also features a useful obstacle-avoidance system, with one downward-facing and one front-facing sensor. The sensors work great, and we expect them to save many Sparks from destruction
The Spark begs to be compared to the Mavic Pro, which promises 27 minutes of flight time on a single battery. Of course, the Mavic Pro is also twice the size and the cost of the Spark, at least without any extra accessories. Purchase the dedicated controller, which retails for $149, and the two drones get close in price to each other.
Does it matter? Not really. The Spark is intended for a different audience, and it succeeds at what it does, which is being a compact, easy-to-use drone for people who either like the simplicity it offers or would like to use it as a stepping stone to a bigger model.