The DJI Spark Is a Great Beginner Drone
Starting today, drone giant DJI releases its cheapest, smallest offering: the entry-level $500 Spark. And starting just a few days before, it helped me become a drone pilot for the very first time and introduced me to what I fear and assume will become a lifetime addiction to drones.
Before I got the Spark, I’d never flown a drone before in my life. I’ve actually never even seen one in person before. Sure, I’m very familiar with watching silly Youtube videos, which was more than enough to plant the seeds of desire. But before the Spark, I had exactly zero hours of actual flight time.
And yet, the Spark was still downright easy to fly. At least, once I got it connected to my phone so I could control it, which was no small feat. The Spark has an optional physical controller complete with actual joysticks, if you’re willing to pay the $150 premium. But frankly I found the prospect of assuming such direct control kind of intimidating, so I went with the (free) app to start.
Connecting the Spark to the app was probably the toughest part of the whole experience. The app told me to scan the QR code (high tech!) that was helpfully printed on the drone, the case, and each individual battery. These QR stickers were tiny, and it took me around 20 minutes of trial and error to get my phone to focus on one long enough to scan it.
But once that was out of the way, I could finally open the flight controller app and fly my drone. The app is pretty simple, but with more advanced options there if you want to use them. The important stuff is helpfully right in the middle, and the more complicated options fan out around the edges. The sheer number of buttons was disorienting at first, so I mostly focused just on the flight controls, which are the two circles in the center of the screen.
The app makes flying the Spark incredibly easy. A single tap on the takeoff button and the drone hovers in the air a few feet off the ground. Another tap sends it moving forward. When you take your hands off the controls, the drone stays perfectly still, so there’s zero effort required to actually keep the drone in flight—it just patiently waits for your commands. A camera attached to the bottom of the drone keeps track of its position and prevents it from drifting, even in high winds.
The abundance of cameras and sensors is probably the single best thing about the Spark, and also what sets it apart from dirt cheap, manually-controlled microdrones that can be had for a fraction of the price. There’s that downward camera for positioning, a 3D sensor for obstacle detection and avoidance, and a forward-facing camera for navigation. That, in conjunction with the software the Spark has to control them, gives you a few different ways to fly.
One of the easiest is TapFly, which lets you simply tap at a location on the screen and the drone flies there itself. You don’t have to worry about controls or hitting obstacles, because the drone takes care of all of that for you. In fact, it’s barely like “flying” a drone at all, but rather just deciding what you want to happen and delegating the actual work to the cameras and software.
The Spark also comes with unique gesture controls, which let you control the drone without looking down at your phone all the time. With gesture controls active, you can launch and land the drone, reposition it, and take photos all with a series of hand movements. And just like in every mode, the Spark’s default state is to settle back into a stable, stationary hover. That level of security makes the whole enterprise very low stakes because you never have to actually save the drone with piloting if things go wrong—you just have to stop and the drone handles itself. Otherwise, controlling the drone this way would be more than a little terrifying.
The Spark hovering a few feet off the ground. If I left it alone it would have stayed in this exact spot until its battery ran out.
Flying is great, but the Spark is also great for taking photos and video. You can take a photo or video manually from the app using the on-board cameras, everything from quick selfies, to telling the drone what you want to film, and sending it off to go shoot all by itself.
Specifically, the app’s QuickShot feature gives an easy way to set up cinematic video clips with only a few steps. Highlight what you want to film, like a person or an object, and the Spark’s software will track it even if it moves. From there, you can choose one of four preset maneuvers for the drone to pull off. I’m about as experienced with cameras as I am with drones, so this feature is a welcome addition.
Even though I liked QuickShot, I found the object tracking unreliable. The drone would often lose sight of the object it was supposed to be looking at, and sometimes that would send the Spark careening off in a random direction. There’s an emergency stop button in the app for this type of situation, but I still came closer than I would have liked to several trees.
The Spark is also highly portable, and collapses to about the size of a small tablet.
Despite Spark’s extensive training wheels, I still made a bunch of mistakes, though the Spark was able to save itself in ways that other more directly-controlled drones might not be able to. At one point I flew the drone out of visual range behind a building and immediately lost the signal to my phone. I couldn’t control the drone or even see what it was doing.
And yet, the Spark handled the situation beautifully. The drone is programmed to return to its launch point if anything bad happens, and that’s exactly what it did. By default, the Spark gains some altitude first before returning to the launch point, and that was enough to let it clear any obstacles on its way home, at least in my case.
I’m not sure whether the Spark could have recognized and avoided the building it was lost behind were that building a little taller—and I’m not confident enough to test it—but you can increase the return altitude in the settings if you’re flying near some particularly tall objects.
Similarly, when I ignored the low battery warnings for too long, the Spark automatically returned to the launch point, slowly flying over to my location and gently settling on the ground. That was helpful and saved me from having to track it down. If I did end up having to track it down, the app has a helpful GPS locator explicitly for that purpose.
Sometimes you want to land before you flirt with catastrophe, and for those times there’s the “land” button, which immediately sets the drone down on the ground directly below it. I can also use the “return to home” button, which calls the drone back to the launch point before landing. I typically use this second option when the battery is getting low or I’m done flying. Just beware: the launch point, tracked by GPS, is actually a circle a few feet wide, so even though the Spark has smarts, it pays to think ahead when you’re flying it.
For more experienced drone pilots—something I still am not—the Spark does let you take those training wheels off. If that’s your bag, you’ll have to buy the optional dedicated remote controller to use instead of the mobile app. The controller comes with an option to toggle “sport mode” that increases the drone’s max speed to around 30 mph and removes most safety features.
The Spark’s optional pro controller, which I am still not brave enough to use.
If you’re a beginner, you’ll find there’s a lot that the Spark can do, and a lot to learn about flying it. I’ve yet to want for any other features, or feel like I’m not a good enough pilot to use the ones that are there. The Spark has a ton of features that make it great in pretty much every situation. You can use it as a mobile selfie stick, as a recreational drone, or as a serious flying camera for more cinematic pursuits. The Spark is versatile and adept.
But to me, the Spark’s best feature is how I never felt overwhelmed when using it. There’s a lot to learn about the Spark, but the learning curve is shallow, and I had no trouble moving at my own pace. Spark’s software and guided modes took away most of the danger of screwing up, and the extensive safety features kept the drone alive when I inevitably did that anyway.
Even though I’ve only been flying the Spark for a few days, I’m much more confident flying it now than I was at the start. I really like flying the drone now, and I’d be in the air with it right now if I didn’t have work to do here on the ground.
I suppose the next logical step after this might be to buy a larger drone, but to be completely honest I’m not sure I want or need to. The Spark packs in enough camera prowess and automated features that I can’t see the need to spend over $1,000 for the next step up. At least not yet. The Spark may be entry level as far as quality quads go, but for first time fliers, it’s all you could need and more.