Drone juggernaut DJI revealed its newest model today, plugging the gap between its entry-level Spark ($399) and its prosumer Mavic Pro ($999). The Mavic Air, at $799, splits the difference between the two in more ways than one, and brings a few of its own surprises for good measure — if you’re going to buy just one drone, this should be it.
1. It’s a featherweight and packable for any adventure. DJI designed the Mavic for the traveler and the outdoor enthusiast. In both endeavors, size and weight are huge. As someone who regularly totes his Mavic Pro around the globe, I can attest that it can sometimes be a cumbersome add to the travel kit — though it more than makes up for it with the results you can achieve. (How far we’ve come: the original Mavic was a breakthrough in portability, but we’re already slagging it as too heavy!) The new Mavic Air weighs 430 grams compared the Mavic Pro’s 734. It also has folding rotor arms like the Pro, but its footprint is barely larger than your outstretched hand.
2. A near-perfect design. DJI has honed in on thoughtful design and product streamlining in recent years. The Mavic Air has a variety of smart touches that reflect that experience. For instance, the camera is recessed into the body, whereas in the Mavic Pro and the Spark it just kind of hangs out there, inviting damage, stressing owners whenever they put it on a rock or stuff it into a bag. Also, its legs pop out of the motor housing, which helps keep things nice and tidy when tucked away. Similarly, the controller’s joysticks can now be removed and stashed in special compartments in the controller, eliminating another worry point when packing the gear up.
3. It’s easy to fly. The new drone brings some new flying tricks to the table, including a panorama feature that automatically stitches together 25 photos for a 32-megapixel image in horizontal, vertical, and 180-degree scans. It has several of the familiar video modes — Dronie, Circle, etc. — but also two new ones, including Asteroid, which zooms in from a spherical view, and Boomerang, which generates and oval-shaped flight path for a more organic quality to orbital videos. Finally, it supports the hand gesture controls that debuted in the Spark, allowing you to make it do your bidding without always toting a controller around.
4. It’s all about photos and videos. At first glance, the Air’s image quality seems right on par with the Mavic Pro, with a 24mm-equivalent f/2.8 lens and smooth, stabilized 4K video. Shooting at 1080p, however, you can capture slow-motion video at 120 fps, which opens up a wide range of possibilities for really cool airborne videos of motorcyclists, animals, athletes, and more.
5. Intelligence. The Mavic Air has seven onboard cameras that conspire to keep you in the air instead of in the trees or on the ground, in pieces. Its FlightAutonomy 2.0 system constructs a 3D map of your surroundings, which the company says can contribute to more precise hovering and obstacle detection. It will also avoid objects automatically while in transit, bouncing gently above obstacles before returning to its path.
Final Thoughts: The Mavic Air has a lot going for it. It may not have quite the stamina of the Pro, with a 21-minute flight time to the Pro’s 27; and its transmitter is solely Wifi-based, rather than using a radio signal — thus diminishing its range from a crazy five miles to a less-crazy 2.5 miles — but those concerns are only for specialized applications. (I’ve never flown more than a mile or so away, and flight times are important but not deal-breakers at this price level. A few extra batteries does the trick.) Also, it’s quick: 42 mph in Sport mode. Which means, of course, that this thing will fly off the shelves.