The DJI Spark: An Intriguing Glimpse of What Drones Could Be

The DJI Spark lifting off next to an issue of New York.

Judging from Kickstarter, there is this dream of a “selfie drone.” It would be something small, light, and easy to carry. Something that would launch quickly and quietly. It would easily follow you around, and snap pics of you (preferably from those flattering downward-looking angles).

The DJI Spark, shipping June 15, is small, light, and intriguing — and just $499. And after watching its flashy debut at Grand Central Terminal here in New York a few weeks ago, I thought perhaps that something like a flying selfie stick had finally arrived. After spending some flight time with the Spark, I don’t think it fully delivers on that promise — but I still think there are plenty of people who should pick one up.

There’s a lot to recommend the Spark. It’s incredibly light. It’s small enough to fit into your bag. It’s cheap for DJI: Starting at $499, it’s half the price of the $999 Mavic Pro. There are other drones at similar prices points, but none with the features and camera quality you’re getting with the Spark. You don’t need a remote to fly it. And you can launch it right from the palm of your hand in about ten seconds from powering up to being in the air.

Which brings us to DJI’s biggest gee-whiz feature: gesture control. Hold the drone in the palm of your hand, double tap the power button at the back, and wait for the drone to recognize your face. It’s propellers will whir into motion, and you can set it gently aloft, where it hovers in place. Hold up the palm of your hand and wait for the Spark to recognize it, and you can control the drone — waving your hand up and down, to the left or right, pushing it away or pulling it toward you. When it works, it’s incredibly fun — it feels a bit like playing with a pet.

The DJI Spark in gesture-control mode.

Make your thumb and index finger on each hand form a rough rectangle, and the drone will take a snapshot. Wave at the drone, and it’ll move about ten feet back and eight feet up, allowing for more aerial shots — and also follow you obediently around. Hold your arms up and wave it back, and it’ll return to you, ready to land in the palm of your hand.

Or, at least, that’s how it should work. In practice, I found the Spark often lost track of my palm, and waving it away for an aerial shot, or getting it to return, had about a 25 percent success rate. (If you want to feel cool, hang out near a high school and wave your arms frantically at a drone hovering overhead for a while.)

I reached out to DJI about my problems getting gesture controls to work overall, and they emailed this response: “This is groundbreaking drone control technology, and our engineers are refining the firmware based on the results of their tests as well as feedback from the first round of testers like you. We expect it to be even more responsive and easier to use with every iteration.”

Future firmware updates may help the problem. (One introduced midway through my testing seemed to help matters a bit.) But for now, the gesture controls are an exciting but frustrating experience, reminding me of early attempts at voice recognition — the machine wanted very badly to do what I wanted, but it just couldn’t understand me. There’s no doubt that someday this sort of gesture control could be extremely useful, but for right now, it feels more like a party trick than a feature you’ll actually end up using.

There’s also bit of a learning curve in using that palm-launch-and-landing feature, as I found out the hard way. While I was using the recommended prop guards for the Spark, they only go so far — the drone’s props are still exposed to the open air. The first time I used the drone outside of DJI’s offices, I (stupidly) attempted the grab the drone out of the air, and got two deep nicks on my thumb for my effort. (Learn from my painful mistake: The best method is to gently pinch the drone out of the air.)

Luckily, there are other ways to fly the drone than gesture controls. By connecting to the drone via Wi-Fi, you can control it to about 108 feet in any direction. (If you buy a separate remote, you can control the drone up to 1.2 miles away.) The controls are intuitive after a few minutes of use: You use the left side of the screen to control where the drone is pointed and altitude, and the right stick to control forward, backward, and side-to-side movement, and to adjust the angle the camera’s pointed along the right side of the screen. It comes with many of the features that DJI has made standard, including the always appreciated “return to home” function, which has the drone return and land softly from where it took off.

For weighing as little as it does, the drone performs like a champ, even in windy conditions. You can see below, as I slowly lowered the drone during a gusty day — thanks to a combination of DJI’s ground sensors, its built-in flight stabilization, and a camera gimbal that accounts for slight shakes — that the shot remained nearly perfectly smooth all the way down.

It’s also small and steady enough to fly indoors. You’ll want a gentle touch, but it’s not difficult to get it to hover in place in a room in front of you and snap a picture. Still, as one friend who tried it out said, it’s a bit like being around a flying lawn mower — that high-pitched whine wouldn’t make for the most relaxed of party pics.

The camera shoots 1080p video and 12 MP pictures — great for your social feeds, but maybe not something you’d want to watch blown up on a high-end TV. The drone also comes programmed with a few “Quick Shot” modes, which allow it to execute a variety of cinematic moves, from the classic orbiting shot to something called “Helix,” which takes the drone out in ever-widening circles. Unfortunately, in the firmware version I was using, this often meant that the drone went out of my phone’s Wi-Fi range — DJI says a firmware upgrade is coming, which should fix the problem. Regardless, you’ll want to pull these moves off with a large amount of space around you.

The DJI Spark hovering.

The Spark can also automatically shoot panoramic shots, or shoot photos that simulate the depth-of-field effect. But you’ll likely need a few sessions of flight to try out all the features — the battery life is short. While DJI promises 16 minutes of flight time, I found I was usually at 10 percent (the point where DJI recommends bringing the drone in for a landing) within 10 to 12 minutes, unless I was flying on a completely windless day (it takes more energy for the drone to fly or hover when there’s a strong wind buffeting it around). While you can buy multiple batteries for the Spark, I only had one. With a battery needing about 60 to 80 minutes to fully recharge, this made for short bursts of flight followed by long periods of charging.

Which brings us back to price. While the Spark is $499, I can’t in good conscience recommend that you buy just the Spark. If you’re serious about getting one, DJI is selling a “Fly More” bundle, which runs $699 and includes things like a remote that ups the range you can fly, extra batteries, prop guards, and replacement propellers. At the very least, you’ll need the $19 prop guards if you plan to use the gesture controls or launch it from your palm (or fly this anywhere near other people) — it’s odd that the prop guards aren’t included with the base unit.

The drone camera is still firmly an “enthusiast” product — you need to really want to take to the skies and get a view of the world around to justify paying $499. But at the pace DJI is shrinking down its drones, I’m willing to bet that within the next 18 months, we’ll see something even smaller, cheaper, and easier to use.

In the meantime, while the DJI Spark isn’t the selfie drone the market seems to be waiting for, it’s still an incredibly fun drone to fly. And it represents a great starting point for someone curious about getting into drone photography — there are no other drones at this price point with the Spark’s combination of portability and performance.

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The DJI Spark: An Intriguing Glimpse of What Drones Could Be