GoPro and DJI are going head-to-head in the foldable, compact drone stakes with their competing Karma and Mavic Pro drones. Both drones have many aspects that will make them compelling prospects to both seasoned pilots and newcomers wanting to take their video and photography to new heights – literally.
Video: DJI Mavic Pro vs GoPro Karma
Based on my time flying the Mavic Pro, though, GoPro is going to have its work cut out if it wants to amble into DJI’s air space. The new drone packs in plenty of clever features that make it a breeze to pilot, even for the inexperienced.
Here’s everything I learned from an afternoon piloting DJI’s diminutive drone.
The Mavic Pro is surprisingly tiny. With the legs and propellers folded in, it collapses down to "the size of a bottle", which is very, very small by drone standards. It makes transportation infinitely easier relative to some of the larger, more cumbersome drones out there. It weighs less than 800g, which will be important for regulatory reasons.
Folded up, it looks rather bug-like to my eyes. A bit like a grasshopper. The propellers are user-replaceable and there’s a "Fly More Combo" pack that includes some extra blades, batteries and a charging hub. The drone will fit inside a dedicated – albeit optional – backpack, meaning less worries taking the drone "on location". This also comes with the combo pack.
Even the remote control collapses down to a more transportable size. There are grips at the base that are designed to hold your smartphone, and these fold flat against the main body when not in use. The antennae at the top, too, collapse and lock in place to avoid them becoming damaged in transport. A lot of care has been taken to ensure that taking the Mavic Pro on the move isn’t a problem.
The remote control has a range of up to 7km, although this is reduced to 4km in Europe due to regulations. Its performance has been improved over older models, allowing for up to a 1080p live view through DJI’s new OcuSync technology. You pair the remote control with your smartphone through a physical cable. Three cables are included as standard: micro-USB, USB Type-C and Lightning. You then control functions and view the camera using the DJI Go app.
The remote control feels great in your hands and the control sticks are nice and responsive. There are no concerns about your smartphone becoming dislodged, either – no amount of shaking resulted in gravity taking over.
However, you don’t have to use your smartphone. You can use the remote control solo, but then you obviously lose out on a live view from the Mavic Pro’s cameras.
You can also just use a smartphone and the DJI Go app, which offers on-screen controls to pilot the drone. In this mode the app connects to the drone through Wi-Fi, so range is considerably less – around 50m with a clear line of sight. Still, for setting up a quick "Drone selfie", it will do the job. You’ll have to physically toggle a switch on the drone itself to swap between RC and Wi-Fi modes.
As for battery life, the remote control should last two-plus hours on a single charge, and the Mavic Pro around 27 minutes. Battery management is made far simpler with intelligent batteries that can oversee their own charging and discharging. Anyone who's ever used a high-performance RC car or helicopter will know that managing LiPo batteries can be a painful experience. Thankfully, you can just plug the batteries in to charge and not worry about voltages and the like. Charging takes about an hour.
During an afternoon of testing, there was obviously plenty of battery switching, but note that you’ll also need to be conscious of potentially monitoring battery life across three different devices: the drone, the remote control and your smartphone. On a number of occasions I was aware of the battery warning beeps, but it wasn’t immediately obvious which device was running low. Given more time, however, it shouldn’t be too difficult to keep an eye on levels.
Getting ready to fly the Mavic Pro couldn't be simpler. Just unfold the legs and find a safe spot, and you’re ready to go. You don’t even need to adjust the propellers since the motor will sort this for you as soon as they’re fired up. There are launch controls in the DJI Go app, or you can use the customary DJI manual controls by bringing the two sticks down and together.
For the more confident pilot, there is a Sport mode that unleashes the Mavic Pro’s top speed of 40mph. Now you’re drone racing – but it isn't all about speed. There's also a "Tripod" mode, which heightens the sensitivity and allows slower, more considered movements for documentary-like footage and easier indoor flight.
I tried out the active tracking, which worked fantastically well and happily followed a target around, complete with an on-screen target reticle. DJI says it learns the subjects size and shape, constantly adjusting its target as it moves around. This means that even if you turn around it maintains a solid lock, rather than easily being thrown off when the shape of the target changes based on the camera’s angle.
Related: DJI Phantom 3 Professional review
Other clever features include Terrain Follow, which tracks a subject and allows it to maintain a consistent height above the ground – perfect if you’re going trekking up a mountain.
You can also use gestures for taking "Dronies" (Drone Selfies). This uses active tracking and then waits for you to use a "photo frame" hand gesture before beginning a three-second countdown to take a photo. This allows you to take a more natural pose and is much better than always having one person holding a remote control or smartphone. There were a few times where it didn't trigger as expected, so perhaps there's a slight learning curve. There’s also Precision Hovering, which keeps the Mavic Pro at steady height you can use for long exposure shots.
Obstacle detection offers some peace of mind that you won’t have a collision, but it only works from the front. This limitation came to the fore when active tracking was locked on a target but manual controls were used to circle the target for that dramatic Hollywood-esque shot. With no obstacle detection from the back and sides, the drone managed to get caught in trees. Fortunately, no damage was done. I learned that getting a drone stuck in a tree is like the grown-up version of getting your frisbee stuck on someone’s roof.
The object detection worked great from the front, at least. This was evidenced when someone piloted the Mavic Pro directly towards my crotch. Fortunately it stopped.
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The Mavic Pro uses both GPS and GLONASS for positioning, but there are also downward-facing cameras used for its Vision Positioning System. This is used to great effect for its "Return to Home" function when landing. As it takes off, the VPS captures video of its take-off spot, then when called back to return it uses the GPS to find its launch point, but then once again takes a look at the ground using video.
This video is then intelligently compared to its take-off video to make sure it lands in the exact spot. The drone will even rotate itself to match. The cameras will struggle if landing on a spot with little contrast detail, however.
Firstly, I wasn’t able to take away any footage or stills from my test flights. But on paper at least, the Mavic Pro matches the Phantom 4 for performance, and that was already pretty fantastic. The Mavic Pro is able to shoot 4K video at up to 30fps or 1080p at up to 96fps. For still images, you’re looking at 12-megapixel images. The camera is supported by a 3-axis gimbal used to keep everything steady.
A plastic helmet keeps the camera safe in transport. For the less confident pilot, you can leave this on during flight. However, doing so means that your footage and photos will be more prone to lens flares and other negative effects. It’s best to get better at piloting so you can go helmet-free.
I was also able to try out the optional DJI Goggles. These provides a first-person view from the drone, letting you feel like a bird as you soar. The Goggles were a real surprise: the clarity of the display was very good. There are two 1080p resolution panels inside. These provide an 85-degree FOV. They’re nice and bright with vibrant colours, and you get all manner of flight details in a heads-up display.
I didn't actually pilot the drone while wearing the Goggles, that was left to a more experienced DJI pilot, which was probably for the best. Even without being able to predict how he would fly, I never felt motion sickness, which I thought might have been the case.
There are controls for adjusting the focus as well as navigating the menus. On the back of the rear headband is a wheel you can use to tighten the fit. The DJI Goggles are very big, however. When so much consideration has been put into making the remote control and drone as compact and transportable as possible, the DJI Goggles feel huge by comparison. They’re as big as the drone itself when folded up. They also feel large and heavy on your head. I'd need more time to see if neck fatigue kicks in after a long session.
There's no price information about the Goggles as yet, but for those wanting a more immersive drone-flying experience, these have the potential to be a great accessory.
I was extremely impressed with the DJI Mavic Pro. It's fun to fly and you can easily lose an afternoon trying out the different intelligent features. It would have taken me considerably more flight time to feel confident to unleash Sport mode, however.
There are plenty of features that will appeal to both drone newcomers and veterans alike. The active tracking and smart features are excellent and cover all manner of scenarios. The DJI Goggles are an intriguing accessory, too, even if they are rather bulky – but price will be an important factor here.
As far as the drone itself goes, it's the size and transportation capabilities of the Mavic Pro that will appeal to most. I recently went on holiday to Bali and trekked up Mount Batur. I wish I'd had the Mavic Pro with me, as it wouldn’t have taken up much space in my bag and I'd have been able to capture some amazing footage and images of both the journey up the volcano as well as the view from the peak.
We’re expecting to get the DJI Mavic Pro in for review soon so check back for our full review. In the meantime, let us know what you think in the comments below.