DJI, the undisputed king of consumer-drone manufacturers, rolled out its newest product today at an event in Grand Central’s Vanderbilt Hall, promising “something huge.” That something huge turned out to be something very small: a drone called the Spark, palm-size and weighing “less than a can of soda.”
The big appeal of the Spark? It wildly reduces the complexity of using a drone. Users can hold the Spark in their hand, power up their Spark, and launch it right from their palm. They can then control the Spark with simple gestures — move your hand right, it moves to the right; move your hand up, it flies up. Wave at it, and it flies about ten feet away to get a wider shot. Frame your index finger and thumb together in that classic “picture frame” movement, and the Spark takes a picture. For more advanced flying, there’s a smartphone app that’ll control the Spark up to 107 feet away, and a remote-control unit that’ll control it up to 1.2 miles away.
DJI had a winner last year with its Mavic drone (my pick for the best consumer drone you could buy), a small quadcopter with high-powered optics and flight capabilities that folded into something smaller than a VHS tape. It allowed you to assemble your drone quickly and use it nearly anywhere. Unlike the larger Phantom models, which were hefty and awkward to carry, the Mavic could slip into your bag, purse, or even a (large) back pocket. But the Spark makes the Mavic look comparatively massive; the base unit without rotors looked no bigger than my smartphone.
The Spark seemed to hover steadily indoors, something the Mavic found difficult to do — though I’d probably still want to throw on the optional rotor guards, if I were going to be using this closely around people. Still, you can imagine breaking this out at a party or gathering for a quick group photo — something that would have been impossible to imagine even a year or two ago.
The one major downside? It doesn’t seem to fold like the Mavic. In a video showing off the Spark in action, it was carried on someone’s belt, but I’ll need to spend some time with it hands-on to see whether I’d feel as comfortable throwing it in my bag as I do with the Mavic; those rotors are thin, and it’s easy to imagine one snapping off.
The Spark is available for preorder today, and will ship mid-June (i.e., just in time for Father’s Day). It starts at $499 for the base unit, a jaw-dropping price considering the Mavic costs $999, and there’ll be a “Fly More” combo pack that’ll throw in an aircraft, two batteries, four pairs of propellers, a remote controller, propeller guards, a charging hub, and a shoulder bag for $699.
At this price point, the gesture controls, the palm takeoff and return, and its overall ease of use, the Spark may be the thing that finally breaks drones out of the hobbyist-photography market and into the mainstream. We’ll be very curious to see how it actually flies when we get our hands on one.