Review: A mini drone for amateurs

A feeling of dread swept through me as I squinted to see where exactly my drone had crash landed. The “find my drone” function on my app had pinpointed its location at the edge of a dense Scottish forest. But with a canopy 20 metres above ground, it was impossible to see it.

Over the course of several days — and helped by an eager friend with a chainsaw and a patient farmer with a cherry picker — I tried in vain to retrieve it.

This was not the first time I had lost a drone and, judging by my luck, probably not the last.

For months I and other drone enthusiasts had been waiting for the release of DJI’s new Spark (now on sale in the US for $499 and UK for £520). Flying drones in big cities is illegal in many countries and a serious safety issue, so a looming trip to the family farm in Scotland seemed like the perfect opportunity to test-fly my Spark.

All went well until, after three days, my Spark crashed on a tree — it appears that the trees interfered with the WiFi signal and it got tangled up on a branch.

But, if first impressions are anything to go by, size is arguably Spark’s most striking feature. Weighing just 300g and being able to fit on a hand is impressive, especially if you consider its top speed is about 30mph.

On past trips packing a drone has usually meant a dedicated flight case or bulky backpack. DJI’s larger drones — such as the Phantom 4 — weigh about 1.3kg and are not exactly what you would call portable. Add a couple of batteries and a controller and you are talking about at least 2kg of equipment.

On this trip I was able to fit the drone, two spare batteries and a controller in my shoulder bag and still have room for a point-and-shoot camera and a couple of spare lenses. To properly put the Spark through its paces I brought along my own DJI Mavic Pro, a slightly larger drone that retails close to double the cost of a Spark.

After a couple of days back in Scotland, I was blessed with a pause between rain storms for some flying time.

It took me a few attempts to connect my phone to the drone via the DJI Go app but once connected, the layout of the flight app is easy to use and — most importantly — leaves plenty of room to view the image streamed by the Spark’s onboard camera.

Taking off involves a simple swipe of the finger on the touchscreen and the drone will automatically hover to a safe height. Controlling the drone with the phone app is relatively simple but it does require some getting used to.

A gentle swipe to the left or right and the drone can veer off sharply, so less is best if you are trying to fly it with precision. I was using an iPhone 6 Plus, which does have a fairly large screen, but I imagine it might be trickier to use on smaller screens.

I found that controlling the gimbal — the mechanism that keeps a drone camera horizontal and allows it to tilt up and down — on the phone app fiddly, and for the best part of the first day I forgot to use it.

When I finally figured out how to control the gimbal I found its movement a little too fast, even when using the remote controller, which detracts from that smooth panning cinematic look most aerial photographers aim for.

While Spark’s lightweight size is clearly a bonus when it comes to travelling, when confronted by a light breeze (this was Scotland after all) it was buffeted quite a bit, which naturally affected the quality of the video.

This brings me to the camera. In the bad old days, aerial cinematography could easily bankrupt you. Chartering a helicopter is expensive, no matter how you cut it.

But since drones started being fitted with decent cameras they have become almost ubiquitous in filmmaking and photography.

The Spark packs a 12 megapixel camera that shoots 1080p video in 30 frames per second. The camera’s sensor is roughly the same size as those in most mobile phones, while the lens has a 25mm field of view — a standard wide angle lens. Still photo mode is acceptable, with a burst mode that shoots three photos continuously.

I found some of the footage to be a little grainy but that should be expected from a small sensor camera.

But, perhaps the biggest drawback for aspiring aerial filmmakers, is the lack of 4K resolution video. Other compact drones, such as the GoPro Karma or the Mavic Pro film excellent 4K video in a variety of frame rates.

Having said this, DJI has clearly marketed and priced Spark at the consumer end of the drone market, so perhaps the lack of 4K is not a deal-breaker for most.

DJI has made a big deal about hand gesture flight mode, which seems to be aimed at users wanting a glorified flying selfie stick. While the marketing videos make it look easy, I found it slightly awkward to get used to and the video footage I filmed shook a little.

The battery life of drones has never been generous and the Spark is no exception. Flight time for each battery is close to 15 minutes, which means it would be wise to consider investing in a few spares (about $50 each).

Overall, the Spark is a great first drone and if you are looking for something to document your holidays and do not want to break the bank too much, this might be for you.

There have been reports of Sparks switching off and dropping from the sky, and while this did not happen to mine, DJI has said it is looking at the issue and considering a firmware upgrade for the Go app.

I would guess that pilot error is behind most drone crashes and, as I learnt from experience, it is better to fly with caution — and take out insurance.