Thursday 22 August 2019

Ask Adrian: Our technology editor tackles your trickiest tech problems


DJI Spark
DJI Spark
Microsoft Intellimouse
Canon G7X Mark III
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Question: I've been admiring some of the footage I've seen from drones recently. I might be ready to take the plunge in getting one. Which one should I get, and do I need a licence?


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I would recommend either DJI's Mavic Air (€1,049) or its older sibling, the Spark (€629). Both are good entry-level drones that will give you high-quality video footage and can travel a good distance.

The Mavic Air is the more recent model, although I'm not sure it's worth the extra money over the Spark. It is a little more powerful and high spec than the Spark while maintaining virtually all of the portability advantage.

Other than its 4K video footage (the Spark is limited to 1080p 'full HD', although that is absolutely sufficient in my experience) and general good handling, its best feature is its ability to fold up neatly so that it can fit into virtually any small bag or inside its own small case, which is around the size of a headphone case.

But this is generally the case with the Spark, too. I bought one two years back and still bring it on holidays with me.

For flights, I simply pack it into my carry-on bag - the entire apparatus (drone, case, charger, remote controller, spare batteries) takes up about the same amount of space as two chunky hardback books. And bringing small drones through customs and security and on to a plane is allowed by all airlines.

If you've never tried one of these drones before, the basic selling point is the surprisingly good camera and video footage. This is generally very smooth, thanks to stabilisation technology that resists almost anything up to fairly strong wind.

Your phone or tablet connects to the remote controller, which itself is wirelessly connected to the drone up to quite a long distance away (in some cases, 4km).

So you can see what your drone is flying past or flying over as you look at your phone or tablet. You can then choose to take a photo or a video (stored on to a memory card you put into the drone).

It's all guided by GPS technology, meaning that the drone knows exactly where it is relative to where it took off: if it suddenly runs low on power or loses contact with your remote control, it stops whatever its doing and starts heading back to the point from which it originally took off (probably where you're standing).

As for the other differences between the Mavic Air and the Spark, the former flies for longer than the latter, at around 18 minutes per charge compared to about 13 minutes with the smaller Spark.

And its range is roughly twice that of the Spark, at 4km. (I didn't find I consistently got this far with it, however.)

It also has sensors both front and rear to prevent collisions.

If you're considering buying one of these drones, I'm guiding that you should opt for the slightly more expensive 'Fly More' option (included in the prices I quoted above). The reason is that you get extra equipment, including two additional batteries which are absolutely essential. This is especially so on the Spark: you'll find that you'll need to swap out one battery for another every 10 or 12 minutes.

Thankfully, both drones can be recharged on the go through portable power banks.

There are a few other things to know. You generally can't fly any consumer drones in the rain. In practice, I have found that you'll get away with a very light drizzle. But it's just not a good idea.

Drones are also susceptible to wind, which can disrupt the stabilisation on the video footage or even make them lose control. The basic rule here is that the smaller and lighter the drone is, the worse it will be affected by wind. But in my experience, only a strong wind really stops you being able to use either the Spark or the Mavic Air.

I don't often recommend gadget insurance but in this case, I would highly recommend taking out DJI's protection cover. Drones get damaged more easily than most electronics you buy. You'll be very thankful you did.

And if you're wondering where you can or can't fly drones, or licensing, the Irish Aviation Authority does not require you to register drones under 1kg in weight, including the Mavic Air and the Spark.

However, know that in general, the law says that you can't fly drones in built-up areas like residential estates. The law defaults towards safety - and drones over houses are still considered to be risky. Similarly, you can't fly them in obviously dangerous areas, such as anywhere near an airport. And the IAA has a rule that you can't fly them over 120m (roughly 390 feet) in altitude or outside your direct line of sight, even these rules appear not to be always heeded.

My own experience is that I fly drones in depopulated, rural areas, often around coasts.

Happy flying!


Recommendation: DJI Spark 'Fly More' package (€629 from PC World)

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