The DJI Mavic Air is an easy-to-fly drone that shoots great 4K video, packed into an impossibly small package.
It's the latest -- and in many ways greatest -- consumer drone from DJI, the name that's effectively become for drones what Apple and Samsung are for smartphones. The Mavic Air effectively combines the best aspects of the company's top-end Mavic Pro -- my go-to consumer camera drone recommendation since it was introduced in October 2016 -- with the portability of its more casual-focused, travel-friendly Spark, while adding some great new capabilities to the mix, including better obstacle avoidance and an improved 4K video camera.
Starting at $799, £769 and AU$1,299, the Air is a clear step up from the Spark, but its position against the $999 Pro is more hazy. The Mavic Pro has a couple features the Air doesn't, but the opposite is also true. Mainly, the Pro has a slight edge on battery life and video transmission range and can record video at a "true" 4K resolution of 4,096x2,160 pixels. There's also a Pro Platinum edition that's quieter and flies a few minutes longer than the baseline Pro model.
The Air, on the other hand, is a much smarter drone than both the Spark and Mavic Pro thanks to new tech inside that not only makes it safer for you to fly, but keeps the drone itself out of harm's way as well. For nonprofessionals looking for a camera drone that does more than snap selfies, but is still amazingly compact for travel, the Mavic Air is just about perfect.
DJI spec comparison
|Spark||Mavic Air||Mavic Pro|
|Price||$399; AU$649; £449||$799; AU$1,299; £769||$999; AU$1,599; £1,099|
|Dimensions (LWH)||143×143×55 mm||168×83×49 mm (folded); 168×184×64 mm (unfolded)||198×83×83 mm (folded); 305×244×85 mm (unfolded)|
|Camera||12-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch image sensor; f2.6 25mm lens||12-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch image sensor; f2.8 24mm lens||12-megapixel, 1/2.3-inch image sensor; f2.2 28mm lens|
|Video resolution/Max. bit rate||1,920x1,080 (30fps); 24Mbps||3,840x2,160 (30fps); 100Mbps||4,096x2,160 (24fps); 60Mbps|
|Photo resolution (pixels)||3,968x2,976||4,056x3,040||4,000x3,000|
|Formats (video/photo)||MP4 (H.264/MPEG-4 AVC)/JPEG||MP4, MOV (H.264/MPEG-4 AVC)/JPEG, DNG (raw)||MP4, MOV (H.264/MPEG-4 AVC)/JPEG, DNG (raw)|
|Storage||microSD card||microSD card, 8GB internal||microSD card|
|Camera stabilizer||2-axis mechanical gimbal plus electronic stabilization||3-axis mechanical gimbal||3-axis mechanical gimbal|
|Control modes||Gesture, mobile device, remote controller||Gesture, mobile device, remote controller||Mobile device, remote controller|
|Obstacle sensing||Forward||Forward, backward||Forward|
|Max. transmission distance w/controller||1.2 miles (2 km)||2.4 miles (4 km)||4.3 miles (7 km)|
|Max. flight time||16 minutes||21 minutes||27 minutes|
Before diving into the features, let's talk battery life. The flight time for the Air is up to 21 minutes. That's in ideal conditions with no wind. In my testing, I typically got between 15 to 18 minutes of continuous flight with wind. You can, and probably should, buy extra batteries; DJI has a "Fly More" package for $999, £949, AU$1,599 that adds additional propellers, two extra batteries and a multibattery charging hub. Few things are more disappointing than traveling out to a scenic spot only to run out of flight time. However, also keep in mind that a spare battery won't do you any good if you're 400 feet in the air over the ocean and running out of time to get back safely.
Like flying a drone using the Force
There are several features unique to the Air, but its new SmartCapture mode is a good demo of its intelligence, letting you fly the drone with simple hand gestures. The Spark has a similar Gesture mode so you can launch and land the drone from your palm and take photos for video clips while it's in the air, all without a phone or controller. The Mavic Air's gestures give you more control than the Spark, though.
You can enter SmartCapture mode through the DJI Go 4 mobile app or, thanks to a Feb. 9 firmware update, double press the light/button on back. Using your hands you can make the Air take off or land on the ground as well as fly it away from or toward you, increase its altitude and have it track your movements. Flashing a peace sign will snap a photo, while making a frame with your thumbs and forefingers will start and stop video recording. It's all very cool, but mostly as a way to get wows from your friends and family because much of this and more can be done just by flying it around with the mobile app.
What I find much more useful than SmartCapture are the drone's QuickShot flight modes, a group of preset flight paths that record short video clips while tracking a subject. There are six in all on the Air including two new ones -- Asteroid and Boomerang -- and to use them requires little more than tapping on the subject you want it to follow. The end results are bite-size videos great for sharing on social.
That's one smart flying robot
While the automated QuickShot modes and SmartCapture are nice for occasional use, eventually you'll want to pick up and use its controller. It's similar to the Spark's in that it's small and simple and you need to also have an iOS or Android device for a screen. But it has removable sticks that store in the body of the controller for easier travel.
You get full control of the drone and a 720p-resolution view from its camera from up to 2.4 miles (4 km) away -- twice the range of the Spark. While having the option to fly with just your phone is nice, using the controller is much more enjoyable. Plus, it leaves your whole screen for flight data and framing your shots and adds physical controls for controlling the camera on back. It also gives you access to the drone's Sport mode, which lets you fly at up to 42.5 mph (68.4 kph).
The thing is, even pilots who know how to control a drone still get into trouble with obstacles. That's where the Mavic Air's system of seven -- seven! -- built-in cameras and infrared sensors comes into play, helping to map the drone's environment so it knows just where it is and where obstacles are as well.
The Mavic Air can avoid flying into obstacles in front, beneath and below it. But what's new in the Air is that it can go over or around obstacles automatically using its new Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems, or APAS. To test out the system I flew it straight toward a waterfall and next toward a stone wall and every time it automatically went up and over the obstacle. So then I did what any good reviewer would do: I flew it directly at myself. This time instead of going up and over, it stopped and slowly flew around me.
Even with the APAS off, the sensors will trigger a warning on the screen letting you know you're getting a little too close to something or someone. The thing to remember is there are no sensors on the sides or on top, so flying up, say under a tree canopy, will still cause you to crash. (The Air also has trouble seeing bare tree branches.) The sensors don't work in Sport mode, either. Still, if you want a small drone that will save you from yourself, this is your best bet.
New drone, new camera
On paper, the Air's camera might look like it's the same as the one in the Mavic Pro, but DJI used a new image processor to handle things like creating 32-megapixel panoramic photos (and the aforementioned Asteroid QuickShot) and recording 4K-resolution video at up to 30 frames per second at a bit rate of 100Mbps. Among the other frame rate options are 2.5K at up to 60fps and full HD at up to 120fps for slow motion. High bit rates and fast frame rates result in big files, though, and while DJI built in 8GB of storage (and a USB-C port to quickly transfer your files off), you'll want to have a card for its microSD slot.
The high-bit-rate 4K video looks sharp and is loaded with fine detail. You will get the best results flying in daylight and the small sensor costs you some dynamic range. If you want better, you'll need to step up to the much less travel-friendly Phantom 4 Advanced or Pro. Though the tiny Air does get tossed around a bit in high winds, you wouldn't know it from the video. The three-axis motorized gimbal keeps the camera balanced and the video looking smooth.
Although DJI played up the QuickShot and SmartCapture modes for the Air's launch, the drone has other video options. Tripod, for example, drops the speed of the drone down to a crawl so you can more easily get the framing you want, while Cinematic extends the stopping distance so you don't get jerking movements in your video.
ActiveTrack on the Air is capable of detecting up to 16 subjects to track. Tap on a subject and it will follow from behind or the side. I found it works best on slow-moving targets in a small open area and at lower altitudes. (Think kids playing soccer and not bombing downhill on a longboard surrounded by trees.) It can track faster-moving subjects like bikes and cars, but they still need to be moving relatively slowly and in a straight path without anything obstructing the drone's vision.
Best travel drone you can buy right now
As is the case with any camera, the smaller a drone is, the easier it is to travel with, the more likely you are to take it with you. That's how we all ended up ditching regular cameras for the ones in our phones, after all. The size is no doubt the most immediately remarkable thing about the Mavic Air, but once you realize all the tech crammed into it, you realize where your $800 went. Battery life is always shorter than we want it to be, but if you want a safe, stable camera drone for more than occasional, casual use, this is the one you want.
Correction, 1 p.m. PT: A firmware update on Feb. 9 added support for using SmartCapture without a remote controller and DJI Go 4 app.