Business Technology

Tuesday 14 August 2018

WATCH: Adrian Weckler reviews DJI’s recently released Mavic Air

DJI Mavic Air
DJI Mavic Air
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

If you’re wondering about a drone, DJI’s recently released Mavic Air is one of the models to consider.

I’ve been flying it for around a month and I’ve come to understand its strengths and weaknesses.

The Mavic 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 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 headphone case).

This means that you can easily bring it on holidays with you. Last year, I brought the Spark drone to Mayo, Kerry and even to the US, where I caught some amazing footage of the Great Lakes (you can check some of the footage on my Instagram or YouTube channels).

For flights, I was able to simply pack it into my carry-on bag — the entire apparatus (drone, case, charger, remote controller, spare batteries) took up about the same amount of space as two chunky hardback books.

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

Your phone or tablet connects to the remote controller, which itself is wireless 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 onto 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).

Compared to my previous drones, the Mavic Air has one or two common sense features that DJI should be applauded for. For example, there’s 8GB of built-in storage memory, meaning you don’t always have to rely on putting a memory card in. This is almost certain to be a lifesaver some day: more than once I have forgotten to re-insert a memory card in my drone. It can utterly spoil a day out.

Other improvements abound. The remote controller now has a ‘Lightning’ (for iPhone) and micro-USB (for Android) connector built into the remote control unit, giving you one less thing to worry about.

This actually makes things much quicker to set up from scratch than previous DJI drones. You just plug your phone in and, once you have the DJI app downloaded, it connects fairly automatically. By comparison, my Phantom 4 (around two years old) needs an external cable for the remote control to attach to the viewing phone or tablet. My DJI Spark drone (one year old) connects to the remote control over a wifi signal emitted by the latter device. Not only does this make initial set-up longer and more complicated, but things get tricky when you have to update units with new firmware. So the Mavic Air’s method is much better. (The only niggle is that there’s no built-in USB-C connection, meaning if you have a brand new Android phone, you’ll have to connect that cable to the remote controller.)

As for its camera and video results, the Mavic Air has basically the same camera (a 12-megapixel sensor) as its portable sister device, the Spark, but bests it by offering 4K video as well as ‘full HD’ video, while the Spark maxes out at full HD. Personally, I’m happy to stick to ‘full HD’ (at up to 60 frames per second), because I find that 4K takes up too much storage space on memory cards and whatever laptop, phone or iPad you’re transferring the footage to. Nevertheless, it’s a good bit of flexibility to have, especially if you want to edit a video.

The Mavic Air also flies for longer than the Spark, 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.

You really need the ‘Fly More Combo’ version (€1,049) which includes two spare batteries (which are essential).

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.

In short, this is probably the best drone set-up you can get for around €1,000.

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