At the end of May DJI invited us along to Brocket Hall in Hatfield for a unique opportunity to get our hands on the all-new Spark drone. In this blog i’ll share my experiences using and piloting the craft in the multiple flight modes available. I’ll also run through each element of the system with detailed photos in to give a better feel for it.
The DJI Spark Drone
By now you have probably seen the drone in hands, up against coke cans and more; But it is difficult to get a feel for just how small it is until you see it with your own eyes, it is absolutely tiny.
Its takeoff weight is a svelte 300g yet it can fly for (a maximum of) 16 minutes and in sport mode can hit 31mph! It has forward facing obstacle avoidance like its big brother the Mavic Pro as well as the usual combination of GPS/GLONASS receivers to keep it rock steady in flight.
The mounted camera is a 25 mm equivalent f2.6 lens over a 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor that produces 12MP stills and 1080p video footage. It has an ISO range of 100-3200 for video or 100-1600 for video and a max video bitrate of 24 Mbps. People who buy on numbers alone might be disappointing with this relatively low specification, but in my opinion the output is more than adequate, largely thanks to the excellent gimbal.
The gimbal is listed as mechanically stabilised, but on inspection (and indeed chatting to the staff) it appears to be actively stabilised in both pitch and roll axis using tiny motors. This description is perhaps chosen to clearly separate it from the software stabilised cameras employed by many competitors offering drones in a similar price range. The gimbal allows pitch adjustment between -85° to 0° to move the camera.
It features optical sensors hidden behind a screen above the camera that give it a the ability to automatically avoid obstacles up to 16 ft (5 m) in front of it; But unlike the Mavic Pro, the maximum speed at which Spark is able to sense obstacles is just under 7 mph.
As shown above, the Spark also has downward facing sensors and even a camera that allows it to record the takeoff for more accurate landing later. DJI have as ever fitted status lights to the underside of the motors for visual feedback. For a refresher of the full spec and pricing, check out our previous release blog.
Controlling the DJI Spark
The Spark is DJI’s move to provide a cheaper and more accessible drone, targeting a more casual market. People who would have previously been interested in a drone and its capabilities but not felt that they could commit either financially or in terms of justifying its use.
So Spark is effectively an aerial photography drone, intended to give complete novices the ability to fly both indoor and outside, simply and safely. To make this happen, DJI have stuffed the Spark with a high powered intelligent flight control suite that can be operated in one of three ways.
This is the ‘killer app’ of the Spark and the feature most heavily pushed in videos and adverts everywhere. DJI were eager to show just how accessible the Spark is to fly, thus the first experience we had demonstrated taking off from the palm of the hand.
This is achieved by lightly pinching the drone with your finger and thumb around the battery, pointing it at your face and clicking the power button twice in succession. The drone will flash to acknowledge the request, spin the motors up and lift itself out of your hands; Its a fantastic sensation!
Once the drone is in the air you can stick your palm up in front of the drone to capture its attention. The lights on the front motors will flash and change to green to confirm you are in control. Then you can simply slowly move your palm around to make it follow it.
Walking towards the drone will make it back away, sweeping your hand slowly around will make it strafe sideways to follow. Slowly wave goodbye (as if you are wiping a window) and the drone will fly up and backwards a few meters whilst keeping the camera trained on you, using Activetrack technology to lock on and follow.
As with the Mavic Pro, it will take a photo of you when you give it the finger and thumb ‘frame’ gesture, with a nice long countdown timer (indicated by the lights under the camera).
If you want the drone to come back to you, simply stretch your arms out and up as shown below to summon the drone to return.
The system is set to avoid unsafe landings by refusing to descend until it detects a face in-front of it, but in practice you can some-what trick it by putting your hand under it from behind if it is already looking at another person.
As with the Mavic Pro, you can control the Spark via a WiFi link to a smartphone, the maximum range you can expect from this is around 100m. Its worth noting that the maximum altitude the Spark will climb to (From its takeoff point) is 50m when controlling it with the DJI Go 4 App.
You can fly the drone via Tapfly, or if you want finer control switch to the virtual sticks to pilot the craft. The app control works best on small tablets where in my opinion you can achieve finer control thanks to the larger screen. The drone can still be controlled via gestures.
DJI expect the majority of Spark sales to be of the basic package variety with no physical transmitter. As such offering this mode allows greater flexibility for moving the drone to take photos beyond the distance limits of the gesture system.
Spark with the Transmitter
Available in the ‘fly more combo’ or as an accessory, the Spark transmitter is pretty much a cut down Mavic Pro controller (note that it is at this time not compatible with the Mavic Pro). Whilst the drone has been built primarily for photography use, I was really impressed with how responsive it was in flight. In sport mode, its lightweight frame allowed rapid changes of direction.
We will be pitting it against the Mavic Pro and other drones as soon as it gets in for a more accurate comparison. You can find more information about the transmitter itself below.
DJI Spark Colours
The DJI Spark is available in one of five finishes, each with its own name.
My personal preference is for the ‘Alpine’ White drone which is also the release colour, but asking around at the launch I was surprised to see interest in all five finishes from other attendees .
I was hoping the top coloured lid of the drone would be user-replaceable (in the vein of 90’s Nokia phone cases) but this is sadly not the case. I envisage customisations such as skin offerings from companies such as Pgytech will be popular on this drone.
DJI Spark Case
As with the Phantom 4 range, the basic packaging that the Spark is delivered in doubles up as a carry case. Made of coated compressed polystyrene it fits the drone (battery and propellers still attached) along with two spare batteries.
Whilst there are plastic hinges holding the lid to the base, there is no physical clasp to hold the case closed, again most likely a cost saving measure. I imagine third party manufacturers will offer a superior option with space for propeller guards and even more batteries, shortly after release. That said, the case is impressively small and would fit in a large jacket pocket or say the seat pocket in your car quite comfortably.
DJI sadly did not have the ‘Fly More Combo’ case on hand which potentially has space for carrying the transmitter.
The propellers will be familiar to anyone who has used a Mavic Pro. Push down and rotate to attach or remove them. As with other DJI drones they are sided and coded to ensure the user fits the ‘white’ propeller to the white motor.
As with the Mavic Pro, these foldable propellers do not need to be removed to fit the drone in the case. They also do not need to be manually unfolded as the centripetal force produced when the motors rev at launch unfolds them for flight.
The propeller blades are short meaning the drone has a higher pitched buzz (almost like a bee or wasp) in flight, compared to the Mavic Pro. You receive two pairs of propellers with the basic package and four pairs of propellers with the ‘fly more combo’; Extra pairs are available for £9.
DJI Spark Smart Battery
The intelligent flight battery is a 1480mAh 11.4v (3S) LiPo battery with 6 pins and 4 contacts and a weight of just 95g
It takes 80 minutes to charge the battery using the standard USB charger. When using the charging hub it takes 52 minutes for one battery, 55 minutes for two and 86 minutes for three at the same time. If you are frequent flyer, buying the charging hub is a no-brainer.
As with other DJI smart batteries, the button the back doubles up as a battery charge indicator (one tap) as well as the master device power button (tap once, then press and hold whilst the lights light up in sequence). You can see the four status LED’s in the photo below.
The battery has four contacts on the bottom by the rear feet. We expect DJI to offer some sort of ‘base-charger’ that takes advantage of these pins to quickly charge the battery without physically having to stick anything into the drone.
To release the battery it from the drone, simply slide the two plastic release tabs (shown below) and pull the battery horizontally out of the back of the craft.
With it removed from the drone, you can see where the contacts connect at the rear step and also just how much of the overall drone it takes up!
The micro-USB charge port is hidden under the nameplate at the rear of the drone. Opening the flap also reveals the MicroSD card slot as show below.
DJI Spark Propeller Guards
For all the hand land/launch flights, the Spark drones were fitted with propeller guards. As such I am surprised that DJI is not bundling them with every drone sold, to minimise accidents. As a rough guide, as long as you keep your hands below the line of the coloured lid section, you should be clear of the spinning propellers.
The prop guards are just £25 and are in my opinion an essential accessory for using the Spark indoors or near anything that you care about. The guards are made of black plastic and are sided to match the propeller they protect. This is easily distinguishable via the white and black markings on the prop guard clamp, as seen below.
To install the prop guards, cup the motor housing with the cylindrical section (they go under the arms) with the prop guards rotated towards the ends of the craft. Then rotate them until the fixing clamp slips over the arm, before securing it by clipping the clamp down.
Take note of the markings on the motor and arm as it is possible to force the wrong propeller guards onto the wrong arms, which makes it difficult to remove them afterwards.
It is worth noting that the basic carry case does not offer anywhere to store the prop guards, but they seem robust enough to transport in a jacket pocket.
DJI Spark Transmitter
The Spark controller appears to be a cut down version of the Mavic Pro unit. Its a dual band (2.4Ghz/5.8GGhz) transmitter with the same dimensions, and it will accept the same mobile devices. It has the same 2970mAh battery so will doubtless offer similar run-time (potentially marginally longer due to the lack of LCD readout).
DJI Have removed the side mounted USB port and shrunk the bottom port down to micro-USB size, potentially in a cost cutting move. There is no mention as to whether the device cable would be included this time round but we will be able to clarify when the fly-more combos arrive later this summer.
The key feature of the transmitter is the hardware sport button, sliding it over unlocking the faster 31mph top speed of the drone. This provides the craft with more aggressive flight capabilities such as a steeper flight angle, and (in my opinion) makes it much more entertaining to fly.
The increased transmission power of the control also gives it a best-case control range of 2km (FCC) compared to the limit of around 100m when using the WiFi mode with a mobile device. It is an expensive upgrade at £159 on its own, so we’d recommend purchasing the ‘fly more combo’ if you ever think you will want to use the transmitter.
DJI Spark Storage
As mentioned before the drone has its microSD card slot under a flap at the rear of the drone. Its a standard push-to-release sprung slot. Note that when using a smartphone and app to control the drone, by default a low resolution preview of footage and photos will be saved to your phone automatically.
DJI recommend branded (genuine) Micro SD cards from manufacturers Sandisk, Kingston and Samsung with a rating of UHS-1 or above and a capacity up to 32GB for SDHC or 64GB for SDXC.
With the DJI Goggles
Unlike the DJI Mavic Pro, the Spark does not support occusync, thus requires you to own the transmitter and a suitably long USB cable. The setup can be seen below, in use by none other than FPV champion BanniUK.
DJI promise more information regarding the compatibility of the Spark with the DJI Goggles at a later date but I did note that they did support the 720p60fps ‘fluid’ mode when I tried them on.
I was really impressed with the startup time. Albiet with a warm GPS fix, the drone could be up and flying in seconds, compared to nearly a minute for older DJI drones to warm up their systems.
The frame seems incredibly robust consider it is plastic. I saw the drone hit a tree whilst in sport mode with no propeller guards and all it required was a new propeller before it was up and flying again! A similar strike in a Phantom 4 would have required an expensive new body and the many hours re-shelling the entire craft.
This drone has the potential to open a fantastic hobby up to many, and as such it needs to be able to deal with idiots and accidents. I did try and trick the drone during a hand-held takeoff, jerking my hand away as soon as the props had ramped up in speed. Impressively it only dropped a few inches before regaining its stored altitude and hovering steady.
My concerns for battery life (with its reported 16 minutes max) were unfounded with several extended gesture (doubtless the bread and butter of its use in the real world) flights completed before the DJI pilots suggested we swapped out the battery.
Live view was robust even in WiFi mode, albeit in the low-interference grounds of the manor house. The transmitter happily dealt with a flight over the lake to the UK limit of line-of-sight flight and I watched several of the DJI pilots send the drone well over the manor house with no loss of control.
Is the DJI Spark for me?
If you are new to the world of drones and were considering picking up a Yuneec breeze or similar drone, you should strongly consider the DJI Spark. Whilst it is more expensive, its stabilised camera and incredible autopilot ability make the Spark a substantially better product.
Its also an ideal (if generous) birthday or Christmas present for anyone who loves gadgets, photography or just taking selfies. But remember that the Spark is not a toy and at a minimum should be operated with adult supervision.
Order your DJI Spark Today!
At time of writing the only colour available to order is Alpine White. It can be pre-ordered on our webstore here as a basic package with the drone, carry case, usb charge cable and adapter, 3 pairs of propellers and one battery. Alternatively you can purchase the Alpine white drone in the ‘Fly More Combo‘ which includes a transmitter, two complete sets of propellers, propeller guards, charger, storage box, shoulder bar, two batteries and the battery charging hub.
We envisage that demand is going to be high on this item and would strongly suggest ordering soon to reserve your place on what is a pre-order, first-come first-served basis. Product launches of this nature can often come with delays so your patience regarding this is appreciated.
Have you noticed any errors in this blog? Perhaps you have questions regarding the DJI Spark? Please leave your comments below!