Palm-size. Supports gesture controls. Smartphone-controlled flight. Automated shots. Subject tracking. Forward obstacle avoidance. GPS stabilization. Safety features, including return-to-home.
Dedicated remote control is a pricey add-on. Limited range and speed when controlling with phone. Video limited to 1080p.
- Bottom Line
The $500 DJI Spark is a small selfie drone for the masses, with ease of use and gesture controls promised as headline features.
By Jim Fisher
DJI wants everyone to be able to fly a drone. At least, that's the message it seems to be sending with the Spark ($499), the company's smallest aircraft yet. It's a selfie drone you can interact with just by waving your hand. It's also a short-range quadcopter that can be controlled with your smartphone, complete with forward obstacle avoidance and subject tracking capabilities. Add an accessory remote and you've got a very capable bird, with a 31mph top speed and a robust operating range. Can it be all things to all people? Probably not. But it's certainly aimed at the mass market. We're in the process of testing the Spark now but have some initial impressions.
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The Spark is tiny. It measures 2.2 by 5.6 by 5.6 inches (HWD) and weighs 10.6 ounces—DJI points out it weighs less than a can of soda. It's not foldable, though the propellers do fold in for easy transport—you don't have to remove them for storage, so the Spark is always ready to fly. And there are colors. You can get it in Alpine White, Lava Red, Meadow Green, Sky Blue, and Sunrise Yellow.
It uses microSD memory to store images and video. A removable battery promises 16 minutes of flight time per charge—not what you get with DJI's bigger drones, but much better than the six minutes you get with tiny selfie drones like the Dobby. There's a micro USB port, so you can plug the Spark into a portable battery pack or your laptop to recharge its battery.
The camera sports a 1/2.3-inch CMOS image sensor, the same type you find in a typical pocket superzoom and slightly larger than the sensor in an iPhone. The lens is a fixed 25mm f/2.6 equivalent, capable of capturing 12MP still images and 1080p video. There's no support for Raw image capture or 4K video—look at the Mavic Pro instead if you want those features. A two-axis mechanical gimbal keeps footage stable during flight.
The normal array of safety features are baked into the design. You get GPS/GLONASS satellite positioning to keep it steady when flying outdoors and to bring it home automatically if communication is interrupted, or on demand. Forward-facing sensors detect obstacles at distances of up to 16 feet, and the Spark is smart enough to change its flight path and fly around them. And you've got the Vision Positioning System (VPS), a downward-facing sensor array that keeps the aircraft hovering in place when flying indoors without the aid of GPS.
The Spark's announcement is timed with news from DJI that it will severely limit the functionality of its current product line if you fail to register it via a DJI Go account. This comes on the heels of a court ruling that states that the FAA doesn't have the authority to charge you $5 to register a drone.
The Spark is heavier than 8 ounces, so it would have fallen under the FAA's registration requirements if they were still in place. When you see and hold the Spark in your hand, it's easy to realize that the 8-ounce figure the FAA cooked up is a bit silly—the average adult pigeon weighs about 13 ounces and the FAA hasn't tried to regulate them, at least not yet.
With the FAA temporarily out of the registration business, DJI has stepped in. I'm all for responsible drone ownership, and I'm pretty confident that DJI's implementation will be a nominal concern for most neophyte pilots. It's not impossible to get in trouble flying the Spark—don't fly it on a crowded city street or in a packed sports arena—but the small size and weight, along with the limited range when using the smartphone as a control, means less cause for concern.
If you are vehemently opposed to registration, don't buy a Spark, or any DJI drone for that matter. There are alternatives—the Yuneec Breeze is similar in design to the Spark and, at press time, Yuneec won't make you set up an account to obtain full functionality.
I've only had a chance to fly the Spark using gesture controls so far, but that's the whiz-bang, head-turning feature that sets it apart from other small aircraft.
You may be wary of putting a device with fast-spinning rotors in your hand. I've been cut by a drone propeller before and it's not a pleasant experience. As long as your fingers don't extend into the colored top portion of the Spark, you're safe. A DJI rep stated you may cut yourself if a finger catches the edge of one of the blades, but due to their folding nature, you won't do much damage if your finger slips closer to the center of the prop. I haven't tested this personally, but be careful. If you plan on doing a lot of hand takeoffs and landings, invest in a set of propeller guards—they add $19 to the cost.
The Spark is small enough to fly indoors, and its VPS keeps it hovering in place even without the aid of GPS. I wouldn't recommend flying it in small confines, but if you've got a large sitting room or space, you can certainly break it out for some interior aerials. Realtors should pay attention to this one.
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So here's how it works: You hold the Spark in the palm of your hand, camera facing you, at arm's length, and tap its power button twice in quick succession. The camera pans up and down, until it locks on your face. Its front lights blink green, and its motors spin up. You need to let it go to take flight. I had a hard time doing so the first time, but it's something I'm sure I'll get use to after a few more takeoffs.
Take a step back and place your palm toward the camera. The front lights will go green when it recognizes you. Move your hand left and the drone flies to your left. It's really cool—this is tech that's meant to turn heads.
Waving back and forth makes the drone pull back and up, about 15 feet in each direction. It's a fun way to shoot a selfie that reveals your surroundings. If you want to snap a shot just put your hands together, mimicking a picture frame. Throw your hands up straight into the air when you want the Spark to land. It will fly toward you and hover in place. Place your hand out underneath it, palm up, and the drone gently lands. It's pretty neat.
What if something goes wrong? If you can't get control of it and are flying by gesture alone, you can just wait until it runs out of battery and lands automatically. Or you can grab it from the air and twist it so the rotors are perpendicular to the ground—they'll turn off immediately.
Before you even use gestures to fly, you have to perform an initial setup in the app. And as of now there's no way to trigger the Spark to start recording video footage using gestures, so you'll need the app for that as well.
There are some automated flight modes—Circle, Dronie, Helix, and Rocket—that are available via the app. And of course you can use on-screen controls to fly manually. There is a limitation, a geofence of about 327 feet (100 meters), and you won't be able to fly as fast as you can with the remote control. You can fly at up to 31mph in Sport mode when using the remote, with a maximum range of 1.2 miles (under ideal conditions). DJI doesn't list the cruising speed when flying with a smartphone, but we'll perform some test flights to find out.
The dedicated remote control is similar to the one used by the Mavic Pro, though not exactly the same. It's priced at $149, but it isn't on sale yet. You can also get the remote as part of the Fly More Combo, a $699 bundle that adds propeller guards, extra propellers, a spare battery, a multi-battery charger, and a compact carrying case.
We'll update this with some more thoughts on gesture flight, as well as a discussion about flying with a smartphone as a remote control, when we've had more time with the drone.
Flying a drone by waving your hand is pretty cool. I was surprised to see just how easy it is, and happy to see it work well. I'm eager to check out some of the new automated shots with a smartphone, and also to see how the Spark handles when using your phone in lieu of a physical remote.
Once I do some real test flying, I'll also be able to report back on image and video quality, the new automated video editing features in the DJI Go app, and real-world battery life. Check back soon for a full review.
By 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 retailer B&H Photo, where he wrote thousands upon thousands of product descriptions, blog posts, and reviews. Since then he's shot with hundreds of camera models, ranging from pocket point-and-shoots to medium format… More »
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