Business Technology

Thursday 26 April 2018

Spark's stunning drone is a miracle of engineering but it also suffers from undeniable electronic issues

Tech review: DJI Spark, €599 (or €799 for recommended remote control combo pack)

DJI Spark Drone
DJI Spark Drone

DJI's miniature Spark drone is both a miracle of engineering and a source of frustration. I've been flying it for almost two months across Ireland and the US and I've experienced its excellence and its maddening glitches.

First, the good stuff. Physically, the Spark is a triumph in drone design. It packs most of what's good in bigger, more expensive models (such as the Phantom 4, a model I also own) into a machine that's no bigger than a man's hand.

In other words, you get stunningly crisp, stabilised video (in 1080p high definition as opposed to 4K). Some of the footage is genuinely astounding for such as small device. I've sent it off cliffs on the wild north Mayo coast, the Great Blasket Island and into the forests of rural Minnesota and Maine (for examples, see my Twitter, Instagram or YouTube channels or the video section).

The clarity and resolution of the video it has recorded, whether of churning waves, gushing waterfalls or sun-kissed pine trees, is absolutely stellar. In decent lighting conditions (which I often had over the summer), its footage would not look immediately out of place in a BBC-style nature documentary.

Because it fits into a light carry bag, I have brought it places I'd never consider lugging any of the bigger Phantom drones to. Like on small ferries to islands off Ireland's west coast, or deep into woodland hikes in the Appalachian mountains or the forests around Lake Superior.

To be sure, its small size limits some of its technical features. Its battery life is really, really short. Whereas you can expect over 25 minutes' flight time from standard-sized drones, it's around 12 minutes with the Spark. This means you really need to have at least one spare battery. (I got two with the €799 Combo pack but bought another one to have in reserve. I usually use all three when I bring it out with me.)

It's also a lot slower than its bigger drone counterparts. This is especially noticeable at altitudes of 100m or so, as the landscape seems to go by really slowly. In addition, it is less stable in breezy conditions than its larger kin. This is completely understandable as it's physically so much smaller and lighter. And to be fair, I've often flown it in light to moderate wind and the drone handles it quite well. But in a country like Ireland, it's a material consideration.

However, the Spark has had one killer problem: its firmware. For non-tech readers, this is basically the code that makes the drone fly properly. For weeks, my Spark (and hundreds of others, judging by the public outcry) had a recurring problem where it regularly lost contact with my remote controller in mid-flight.

Mostly, it reconnected. But one time, it didn't. I was flying the drone over a thick area of rural forest when the familiar disconnection issue occurred. It was already slightly low on battery power and the reconnection process was taking a while. Eventually out of power, the Spark started to descend into a far-off area of dense green trees. I searched the area for hours. Eventually I recovered it, thanks to its second-by-second GPS-location activity recorded on my phone. But I was fuming. Furthermore, despite knowing about the disconnection issue, DJI weren't great when I called: they essentially told me to recover it myself and bring it back the retailer.

This specific disconnection problem appears largely to have been fixed by DJI in its latest firmware update. That firmware upgrade is the only reason I am willing to keep flying the Spark, which I duly am. The overall package of ultra-portability and superb video quality means that the risk is just about worth it. But buyer beware: this drone has had chronic electronic problems and may have others I have yet to discover.

However, if you are interested, go for the combo pack, which includes the remote control plus an extra battery and a convenient multi-battery charger. It's an extra €200 but in my view, the dedicated remote control is absolutely essential. Not only because it makes it easier to control the drone (and its camera), but because it gives the drone a proper range of up to a kilometre away. The Spark can work just using your smartphone. But doing it this way limits its reach to around 75 yards from you, nowhere near flexible enough to capture things that will wow you.

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