DJI Spark: the perfect starter

  • Footprints for scale
Date:7 August 2017 Author: Lindsey Schutters Tags:, , , , , , , ,

This is the best drone you can buy if you’re still only low-key into drone photography. But definitely get the “FlyMore” combo with the 3 batteries and the remote controller. Why? because without it, the DJI Spark will make you look like a hero and a fool in a very short amount of time. The thing I find surprising about DJI is that in a market that the company dominates outright, it still keeps bringing the best products to market. Mavic Pro was a phenomenal success. I still covet one, but not as badly as i did before I took delivery of a Spark test unit.

Spark was the right drone at the right time for my family vacation up the Garden Route. Small enough to sneak into my sling pack so my wife wouldn’t admonish me for taking work on a family trip and relatively quiet enough to not cause a scene when I eventually happened upon the perfect opportunity to test it. I say relatively because there’s no such thing as a quiet quadcopter, but this one won’t wake the neighbours. It’s more like an edge trimmer than a chainsaw. But I digress.

Importantly, Moore’s Law has progressed to a point where DJI could half the size and the price of the Mavic without making too many compromises. Yes the camera sensor tops out at only 1080p video, but that’s 60 frames per second and it looks smooth. The remote controllers weren’t available when I took delivery so I was stuck with my cellphone WiFi range limitations (about 30 metres) and also a top speed limit of 35 km/h, but that is fine for just messing around in small spaces. Spark is never going to be your main drone if you get serious about flying or aerial footage, it’s there as a novelty.

That limited range is actually the biggest downside as evidenced by my Australian Cattle Dog’s bloody snout and my wet pants. The dog was a bit too curious after I had lost control of the drone through a WiFi disconnection – my phone decided to connect to my home WiFi after a brief loss of tether to the DJI Spark, which prompted the drone into recovery mode where it hovers about 30 cm off of the ground. My wet pants came from having to run into the ocean to within WiFi range to then issue a return to home command after the drone disconnected during an autonomous recording mode.

Flying the DJI Spark

I should’ve learnt my lesson with those two incidents to avoid having to cling to the Strandveld fynbos while desperately searching for the device after it crashed into the side of a dune on a spiral filming pattern (watch the end of the video). If DJI can do any upgrades to the Spark it surely must be a beacon siren to make locating a lost minicab easier. Even more crucially, instead of front obstacle avoidance, rather include side obstacle sensors. The wisdom from all of this, though, is to never fully trust the automated modes. Those features are very handy for epic selfies, but unpredictable with technology this young. Always keep eyes on your drone, especially when not in full control.

Spark is a really well-built device and took all of my teething pains in its stride. there were two crashes where I thought I would need the replacement propellers, but the drone emerged unscathed. The biggest downside is the flight time. I got about 12 minutes from a full charge in mild wind conditions. That said, those motors do a great job of maintaining DJI’s hallmark positioning. When you leave the controls the Spark will stay in that place, although I did notice some slight deviations indoors when GPS is obviously off. But I’m sure that stabilising will be fixed with a software update, unless I knocked the craft out of tune in the dune crash.

For a novice pilot who is a slave to the 50-50-50 rule (50 metres from people, buildings and roads) and spends as much time as possible on a drone flight simulator, this is a great way to get good footage of my family or leisure activities. All the now standard DJI features are here: object tracking, autonomous flight, return to home, self-levelling, GPS as well as the included simulator. For under R9 000 it’s a great deal, but get the FlyMore combo to really enjoy what this little drone can do.

I had mixed results with the DJI Spark’s launch from hand and gesture control party tricks, but that’s not really my style of flying. It mostly works.

Big thanks to Orms for loaning this test unit.

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