Very small. 21-minute flight time. Improved obstacle avoidance. High bit-rate 4K UHD video. HDR and Panorama still capture. Raw and JPG support. Automated flight modes.
Doesn't support USB charging. No 4K DCI video.
- Bottom Line
The DJI Mavic Air is the company's smallest, most portable drone, and is just as full-featured as its larger siblings.
DJI's first real effort to sell drones to the masses wasn't as rousing a success as you'd expect from the company, which has dominated the marketplace in terms of quality and sales since consumer drones have become a thing. The Spark, released last year, was hamstrung by really short battery life and a control interface that needed some refinement to be ready for mass consumption. The Mavic Air ($799) is what the Spark should have been—foldable, with a 4K camera, and a battery that keeps the drone flying for about 20 minutes at a time. It packs a lot of tech into a small package. I haven't had a chance to fly it yet, but have some first impressions to share.
The Mavic Air is the smallest drone that DJI makes. When folded it measures 1.9 by 3.3 by 6.6 inches (HWD), small enough to fit into most jacket pockets, and it weighs a little bit less than an iPad, at 15.2 ounces. After it's unfolded and ready to fly it measures 2.5 by 7.2 by 6.6 inches. You can buy it in an Arctic White, Flame Red, or Onyx Black finish.
Unlike the Spark, a remote control is included in the base package. But you don't need to use it—the Mavic Air can be flown with hand gestures or with your smartphone. As with any drone, you'll get smoother, more pleasant manual control when flying with the remote, as well as extended operating range. DJI says the Mavic Air has a 2.5-mile control range with the remote, but just 262 feet when flying with a smartphone.
The remote is similar to the one you get with the Mavic Pro Platinum, but like the Air, it's smaller. The control sticks detach for storage and there's no information LCD. It has clips to hold a smartphone at the bottom, so you can fly with the control sticks and enjoy a first-person view from the drone's nose-mounted camera.
The battery installs in the bottom of the chassis, rather than the top, a departure from the Mavic Pro Platinum. Unlike the Spark, you can't charge it via USB, you need to use the included charger, which also replenishes the remote's internal battery. If you need extra batteries, think about the $999 Fly More bundle. It includes everything in the base package, plus two extra batteries, a power hub to simplify recharging, and three sets of propellers (the standard package includes two sets).
The Air has 8GB of internal memory and a USB-C port to offload files to a computer. It also has a standard microSD slot, with support for microSDHC and microSDXC media.
Like other DJI drones, the Air is equipped with both GPS and GLONASS satellite positioning. They pinpoint its location on the globe, enabling automated and semi-automated flight modes, as well as steady hovering and the important return-to-home safety feature.
There are a number of ways to control the drone. It supports the same gesture controls—DJI calls it SmartCapture—as the Spark. Wave your hand and the drone will take off the from the ground and follow its movements. The control system has some extra functions, including the ability to tell the drone to move farther away from you in order to get a wider shot—it will move up to 19 feet away from the person controlling it. You can still make a picture frame gesture to snap a selfie, and now you can angle your palm downward to tell the Air to land. Taking off and landing in your palm is a trick reserved for the less powerful Spark—the Mavic Air is better suited for launching from the ground.
Phone control is available via the DJI Go 4 app, for Android and iOS. (Like other DJI drones, the Mavic Air has an open SDK, so third-party app control will come in the future.) If you just use your smartphone you'll be limited in operating range, and you'll need to use on-screen control sticks for manual flight. I'm not a fan of phone control in general, as the tactile feedback you get form real sticks makes smoother manual flight possible. But if you leave the remote at home, or if it's out of juice, it lets you get up in the air and grab a shot.
Using the phone by itself is better suited for the automated flight modes. The Mavic Air has pretty much everything DJI has cooked up included. That means it can track a subject using the ActiveTrack system—just draw a box around what you want to follow on the phone screen and it will keep it centered in frame. It also supports TapFly, the mode that lets you fly simply by tapping on your phone's screen. See something interesting? Tap it, and the Mavic Air will fly toward it.
And it supports QuickShots, first seen in the Spark. These automated camera shots move the drone through the air in a pre-determined pattern. You get Rocket (an upward flight with a downward-facing camera shot), Dronie (a back-and-up reveal shot), Circle (an orbit around a point in space), and Helix (a corkscrew orbit). New to the Mavic Air are Asteroid, shown above, a reveal that combines some video with a Little Planet style image, and Boomerang, a reveal that flies away, and around you, before circling back home.
Finally, you can simply pick up the remote control and fly the drone manually, the old-fashioned way. The Air will fly at 17.9mph with obstacle avoidance enabled, or at up to 42.5mph in Sport mode, a mode in which the obstacle detection system is disabled.
The Mavic Air's obstacle detection and avoidance system is better than what we've seen in previous drones. It has forward, downward, and rear sensors, so you can fly backward with more confidence. The front sensors leverage the new Advanced Pilot Awareness System (APAS). Instead of simply stopping in place when they detect an obstacle blocking the drone's path, the Mavic Air examines the environment and automatically adjusts flight to avoid it, either by flying to the side or rising above it. We'll have to test the drone to see how well this performs in the real world.
Video and Imaging
Despite its size, the Mavic Air has a 4K camera, mounted in the nose and stabilized using a three-axis gimbal. It promises to deliver smooth, high-quality video. It records in 4K UHD resolution at 24, 25, or 30fps with 100Mbps compression. It also supports 2.7K at standard frame rates up to 60fps, and 1080p and 720p at up to 120fps. There is no support for the wider 4K DCI standard, as you get with the Mavic Pro Platinum and Phantom 4 series.
For still imaging, the camera is 12MP, using a similar 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor paired with a 24mm f/2.8 (full-frame equivalent) prime lens. You can capture photos in Raw (DNG) format, or in JPG. If you shoot in JPG you'll have the option to enable HDR capture, to better highlights and shadows, or in a new Panorama mode. The Mavic Air rotates about its axis to capture a series of photos, stitching them together into a wide shot. You can shoot a three-shot vertical pano, a nine-shot horizontal, or a 21-shot 180-degree image. There's also a spherical mode, which captures 25 photos, to simulate the spherical effect you get with 360-degree cameras.
The Mavic Pro showed us that small drones can be just as capable as larger ones. The Mavic Air promises to take things one step further, putting a powerful aircraft and 4K camera into a form factor that you can slide into a large pocket. It doesn't have the same type of battery life as the Mavic Pro Platinum, which netted 28 minutes in our tests, but aside from that, there aren't many compromises made to achieve the delightfully small form factor. At least not on paper. I'll test fly the Mavic Air to see if it the real-world experience matches what DJI has promised.
The Air is available to order today and will start shipping on January 28. I'm going to start test flying it soon, so check back for a full review in a couple of weeks.
About the Author
Jim Fisher Senior Analyst, Digital Cameras
Senior digital camera analyst for the PCMag consumer electronics reviews team, Jim Fisher is a graduate of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, where he concentrated on documentary video production. Jim's interest in photography really took off when he borrowed his father's Hasselblad 500C and light meter in 2007. He honed his writing skills at re… See Full Bio
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