Gadget Review: DJI Spark Drone


One of my quibble about my DJI Phantom 3 drone is its size and portability. When carried in its own case, the quadcopter could be as bulky as the  allowed carry-on in airplanes. This could be a pain when traveling, as I would be carrying two backpacks with me. 

The Phantom 3 also takes some time to set up - installing the propellers, the RC remote, and the app in the tablet or phone. The boot up sequence, including finding the GPS fix, could also be lengthy. I love my Phantom, I think it's a great drone, but sometimes I wish I had a smaller drone that's easy to pack and carry when traveling.


The DJI Spark in its carrying case

With the release of the DJI Spark, I think my prayers were answered.

The Spark is the newest drone from DJI, the same maker of the Phantom series. What's so distinctive about Spark is its size - about the size of a smartphone - making it perfect for traveling. I got mine as soon as they're available in the Philippines.  See the unboxing video that I made below.



Like its older and bigger sibling, the Spark is also a quadcopter-type drone, with four rotors driving the propellers. It is also battery-powered, and can be controlled by a radio controller or through a smartphone connected via WiFi.

I've flown the Spark several times now on varying conditions for this review, including flying it on a beach in San Felipe. 


DJI Spark initiating

Features
Despite its diminutive size, the Spark actually has features that are not in my Phantom 3 Standard (which I crashed in Tinipak), or the Phantom 3 Advanced (the replacement for the crashed one).  

One of the new features, which is available in the newer Phantom 4 and Mavic drones, is the collision avoidance system, which makes it easier to fly and helps you avoid accidents such as clipping a tree branch or crashing the drone into a wall.  This feature is only on the forward side of the drone though, so you still have to be careful when flying sideways or backwards. The collision avoidance system can sense obstacles up to 5 meters in front of the drone. 

The vision positioning sensors at the bottom of the aircraft  enables it to hover in place - useful when flying it indoors even without GPS.  When outside the drone can precisely.


Using the gesture control with the Spark
The Spark also has a 3D sensing system that can recognize faces and hand gestures, which you can use to control the drone, which I think is very nifty. Examples of gesture controls include:  making a box with your fingers in front of the drone will command it to take a photo; waving with your two hands will make the drone fly backwards then hover in place; making a Y gesture with your hands will make the drone fly forward and hover in front of you; and positioning your palm beneath the drone will make it land on your hand. During my tests I find the gesture controls to be hit-or-miss mostly, so I still fly the drone using the smartphone as controller.  You can control the Spark using a phone for up to 50 meters up and 100 meters in distance. 

The RC controller is not yet available when I got the drone, but I intend to buy one. I still find physical controls better than using the phone as a D pad. Using the radio controller will also enable you to control the drone up to 2 kilometers away.

Camera
The Spark is basically a camera that flies - and again, despite its small size, it is able to pack almost the same functionalities as its larger siblings. It has a 1/2.3" CMOS sensor and f2.6 wide-angle lens, capable of taking photos with 12 megapixel resolution and 1080p video (a step lower than Phantom 3, which can take 20MP and 2.7k videos). It also has a mechanical gimbal for stabilization, although it is only 2-axis, with the yaw movement missing. The photo quality is almost indiscernible compare to pictures taken using the larger drones, aside from the number of pixels. 


Controlling the Spark with a smartphone

The Spark has a variety of shooting modes. It can take horizontal or vertical panorama, and using the 3D vision, it can create photos with shallow depth of field. It has TapFly and quick shots, which help you compose videos with cinematic quality. These modes include the rocket, in which the drone will fly up while pointing the camera downwards; the dronie, in which it will fly backward and upward with the camera locked at the subject; circle, which takes video while circle around the subject; and helix, which is spiraling around the subject and flying upward. I am only able to do this on my Phantom 3 manually. 

Another feature it has that's missing in Phantom 3 is the active track, which allows the drone to follow a subject automatically. You just draw a box around the subject on the smartphone, and the Spark will automatically follow the subject around. 

You can connect the Spark to a pair of DJI Googles for a first-person perspective while flying, but I have not tested this. 


Sample un-retouched photo, taken with the Spark

Performance
The lithium polymer (LiPo) battery has enough juice to fly the Spark up to 16 minutes. In my experience it is around 12-15 minutes, depending on the wind and how much you use the camera. The battery can be fully charged in 80 mins, and can be charged using USB (yes, a power bank can charge it too). 

It can fly fast too, up to 50 kph in Sports mode. It can fly on conditions with wind speeds between 20-28 kph.


Impressions and Verdict
The Spark feels solid and well built, and you can feel the heft when handling it. The propellers are foldable, and you do not have to remove them when stowing the drone. This saves time when  you take it out of the box to fly it. 

All in all I think the Spark is a great drone to take when traveling. It has a great camera, is easy to set up and fly, and with it's small footprint and carrying case you can just shove it in your carry-on. The gesture controls need some work though. 

Price and Where to Buy
I got mine from Henry's Camera in Trinoma Mall for PhP 30,500, but you can get it online from DJI for $499. The package with the controller and additional battery and accessories will set you back $699. 

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