DJI Mavic Air hands-on: Taking DJI’s most compact 4K drone for a test flight
It’s no secret that we’re massive fans of the DJI Mavic Pro drone – it won Drone of the Year at the Trusted Reviews Awards 2017, after all. Now, DJI is ready to unleash its follow-up to the ‘most popular drone of all time’, and I got the chance to test out some of its new automated flight modes.
DJI Mavic Air – Price and release date
The Mavic Air will be available for £769/€849, which includes the drone, remote controller, a battery, carrying case, two pairs of propeller guards, and four pairs of propellers in Onyx Black, Arctic White and Flame Red.
There’s also a Fly More Combo that includes three batteries, the remote controller, a travel bag, two pairs of prop guards, six pairs of props, a battery to power bank adapter, and a charging hub. That costs £949/€1049.
The Mavic Air is available to pre-order from today at the DJI Store and other drone retailers. You can expect pre-orders to ship from January 28.
DJI Mavic Air – Design and features
The Mavic Air takes the Mavic Pro’s foldable, compact design and makes it even smaller. Considering the DJI Mavic Pro was hardly a behemoth, that’s no small feat.
Now, when folded down, the DJI Mavic Air is just about larger than a phablet in terms of footprint, and about half the size of the Mavic Pro, which makes it DJI’s most portable model yet. While it’s unlikely to fit in your jeans pocket, it did fit reasonably comfortably in my jacket.
As a result of its new shape, DJI has had to add air vents in order to help streamline and keep the Mavic Air cool. The Mavic Air weighs just 430g, so will hardly prove encumbering on your next outdoor adventure.
Another first for DJI: the remote controller’s sticks can now also be detached and inserted inside the controller for added portability. It slipped happily into my other jacket pocket, meaning for the first time I could feasibly go out droning without a bag in tow.
The Mavic Air not only takes the folding design from its older sibling, but the 4K camera too. It means the Mavic Air sits between the DJI Spark (which doesn’t fold down and has only a 1080p camera) and the bigger DJI Mavic Pro.
In total, there are seven cameras and IR sensors onboard to help the Mavic Air keep track of objects and surrounding terrain. DJI says its more powerful capabilities and optimised algorithms will make for a better 3D map of the environment, as well as more precise hovering and flight performance.
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Object detection is present on the front and back, which has been improved to up to 20m; hopefully, you’ll now have fewer accidents. The Mavic Air has newly developed Advanced Piloting Assistance Systems (APAS) for object avoidance, adjusting its flight plan to actively fly over or around objects rather than just coming to a stop.
At least in theory, that is. The Mavic Air actually needs quite a large run-up (fly-up?) towards an object for the automatic avoidance to kick in. If it starts too close to the object, it will likely just come to an abrupt stop – which is still better than a head-on crash. It also struggled when there were two obstacles in close proximity. If the second obstacle is obscured by another, the Mavic Air isn’t going to see it and it won’t have enough time to re-draw a route around it.
Given a little more room to assess its surroundings, the Mavic Air can go up and over obstacles such as trees, or simply skirt around them depending on the situation, and I can see this being a useful safety net for novice flyers. You can simply toggle APAS on or off in the DJI GO app.
Video and image capture
The Mavic Air is packed with a three-axis mechanical gimbal that itself sits recessed and suspended from dampeners to reduce vibrations even further. This should lead to steadier shots and give it some much-needed protection from any accidental collisions.
The camera itself has a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor that captures 12-megapixel stills and has an equivalent 24mm f/2.8 lens. You’ll be able to capture mechanically stabilised 4K footage at up to 30fps with a maximum bit-rate of 100Mbps. You can even drop down to 1080p for 120fps slow-motion footage for some added aerial dramatics.
The brief footage I captured at the hands-on event looked as sharp and detailed as I’ve seen from the Mavic Pro.
You can also capture 32-megapixel spherical panoramic shots, with all the processing and stitching done by the Mavic Air in about a minute. There’s also HDR stills image capture thrown in.
You can see some example still images below:
Automated flight modes
QuickShot mode first debuted with the DJI Spark, allowing you to capture professional-looking videos automatically.
These predefined flight paths resulted in some seriously dramatic shots. These include ‘Rocket’, which locked the camera on a target and then shot straight up in the air; and ‘Circle’, which had the camera fly around a target while keeping them in frame.
The Mavic Air is getting all of these and more, with the addition of two new QuickShots in the form of Asteroid and Boomerang. Asteroid, in particular, is very cool. It starts with a spherical image that zooms in as the drone descends towards the subject on the ground. It’s all a little bit Deep Impact.
Here’s an Asteroid video I shot where the footage was taken off the memory card. It’s worth noting that when saved through the DJI GO app, the app saves a version of it played back in reverse to live up to its Earth-crashing ‘Asteroids’ name. The drone actually records as flying away from you rather than towards you, however. The below is played back the way it was recorded:
The DJI Spark’s SmartCapture also returns, allowing you to control the Mavic Air with hand gestures to capture selfies, follow you around and more. That means you won’t have to dig out the remote controller whenever you want to grab some footage – making you feel like you’re controlling the drone with The Force.
DJI also adds new gestures such as using two hands drawn apart or brought together to control the Mavic Air’s distance while it’s locked onto a subject. Throwing up a ‘peace’ sign now tells it to take a still image.
Overall, the palm gesture recognition’s accuracy seemed improved over that of the DJI Spark, which I often found struggled to get a lock. It’s still far from perfect, though. It requires a conscious effort to keep the drone under control and focused on your hand, and I wouldn’t feel comfortable using it in a busy environment.
You’re also meant to be able to use palm gestures for take-off, but I and others at the event often struggled to get this to work.
You can expect about 21 minutes of flight from the Mavic Air, which is again more than the DJI Spark managed, but below the Mavic Pro. It should be able to withstand blustery environments up to 22mph and you can expect top speeds of up to 42mph in Sport mode for those feeling particularly brave.
Having had a very brief fly in Sport mode, I found the DJI to be super-quick and nimble. It’s going to be an exhilarating drone for anyone who enjoys racing, since it’s the fastest Mavic yet.
The remote control has a range of 2.5 miles/4km with 1080p real-time transmission, which is an improvement over many consumer drones that only allow 720p video transmission. One puzzling aspect is that the remote control is charged through Micro USB, whereas the drone itself uses USB-C. That means potentially carrying two different cables around. The controller is otherwise similar to the Mavic Pro’s, minus the screen and a wheel that could quickly adjust the exposure.
The Mavic Air will also work with the DJI Goggles, for those fond of a first-person view, making that 1080p transmission all the more welcome.
DJI makes improvements in the area of storage too. The Mavic Air features 8GB on board, which is a first for DJI. It doesn’t mean you’ll lose out on microSD storage if you want to expand this further, mind. I expect most people will still use a microSD card, but that 8GB will be welcome if you find yourself without a memory card.
A USB-C port has also been added in place of micro-USB, so data transfer from the drone will be faster if you do need access to that onboard storage.
At this point, DJI is almost just competing with itself in the consumer drone space, such is its recent dominance. The DJI Mavic Pro presents some big shoes to fill, but I feel that the Mavic Air could actually manage, and even improve, on it in many areas.
The smaller, more compact size is one of the biggest improvements. The fact that it can still capture video and images that look as good as those from the Mavic Pro but in a tiny body is super-impressive. The small form factor makes transporting the Mavic Air even simpler, just because it can now fit into a big pocket.
The improved stabilisation was also evident from the footage I shot, and the new QuickShots are fantastic fun. The spherical 360 stitched photos are a great addition, too, allowing you to capture your surrounding environment in a novel way. I’m still not a huge fan of QuickCapture, simply because I’ll never feel completely confident in its palm recognition; it’s more a nice-to-have than a must-have feature.
In many ways, I feel like the DJI Mavic Air is going to cannibalise the market of those interested in the Mavic Pro. Aside from the longer flight time, there aren’t many reasons to opt for the larger model now. I suspect DJI will have something up its sleeves as a replacement for the Mavic Pro not too far into the future.
Ultimately, the DJI Mavic Air is shaping up to topple the current drone king, and that’s very exciting indeed. I’m looking forward to getting more flight time for a full review very soon.