New York- If you thought those drones buzzing around on the beach were annoying, just wait and see what happens when they become cheaper than iPhones.
Whether you like it or not, drones — miniature remotely controlled aircraft — may be on the cusp of going mainstream as they plummet in price. DJI, the world’s largest consumer drone maker, which is based in Shenzhen, China, will soon release Spark, its first $499 drone. That’s roughly half the price of the most popular drones on the market, or three-quarters the cost of an iPhone, which starts at about $650.
I tested Spark over several days this week and found it surprisingly capable for a low-cost drone. Unlike most expensive drones, which operate with a physical remote control, this machine was designed to work primarily with a smartphone app; you can also make hand gestures to move Spark or make it take your selfie. It shoots superb high-definition video, weighs about a quarter of a pound and is so compact you could stuff it in a tote bag.
I was able to confidently fly Spark, the first drone I have ever used, after several sessions, a testament to its overall ease of use.
Unsurprisingly, Spark isn’t perfect. Its app can be tough to grasp without reading an instruction manual. The battery lasts only about 15 minutes, and there are some bugs in the software that could send your drone flying off erratically.
Yet I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend Spark for people who are curious about trying drones for taking aerial photography or for experiencing the sheer joy of flying an object. Considering how small and lightweight this drone is, Spark will also make a great stocking stuffer this holiday season.
Here’s what you need to know about what you’re getting from a budget drone.
Easy Setup, Rough Start
There are a few basic components to Spark: propellers, motors, a camera and a battery. To set up the drone, slide the battery into the bottom of the device. Then install the smartphone app, scan a bar code on the carrying case to register the drone, turn on the gadget and connect to it via Wi-Fi. From there, you use the app to change settings on the drone and make it take off.
Inside DJI’s app for controlling Spark, there are virtual joysticks for making the drone rotate or move up, down, forward or backward. Initially, the app will be confusing to use. It took me three sessions, or 90 minutes of flight time using two batteries, to get the hang of it. The app buttons do not intuitively state what they do or how to use them. In the end, I had to flip through a 50-page instruction manual to learn how to better operate Spark.
There is an option to skip using the app altogether by enabling PalmControl, a mode that lets the drone respond to your hand gestures. To enable this, hold your palm flat toward the camera, and the drone will lock in on your hand and follow it around as you move. You can hold out your thumbs and index fingers to form a frame around yourself to make the drone automatically take a selfie of you. Wave your hand at the drone and it will ascend and fly backward.
Spark was ultimately inconsistent with reacting to hand gestures. Sometimes it responded quickly, but often the drone failed to recognize the gestures and continued to hover.
Pros and Cons
The Spark has several features that make it well suited for those who are new to drones. The killer feature is a menu of shortcuts called QuickShot: These are automated motion sequences for shooting some neat drone videos. You select a subject (like a human or a dog) to record, choose a QuickShot mode and tap a button to commence the sequence.
One QuickShot mode called Circle makes the drone automatically circle a subject while recording video of it. My favorite QuickShot mode was Rocket, which caused the drone to lift dozens of meters into the air while continuing to shoot video of me and a friend from overhead. The recording was a delight to watch and share on Instagram.
Typically, you would need a lot of skill flying drones to shoot these types of videos adequately. By including these automated video-recording sequences in its app, DJI has made Spark very accessible as an aerial photography tool.
There are downsides, of course. One of the QuickShot modes, called Helix, did not work properly in my tests. Helix is supposed to cause the drone to fly upward and spiral around the subject.
But in three different test locations, activating Helix caused the drone to fly upward and so far away that it lost its Wi-Fi connection with the smartphone. (This may have been related to interference caused by nearby Wi-Fi routers.) The drone is programmed to return home, or land where it took off, whenever it loses connection with a smartphone — but nobody would blame you if you chased after it out of anxiety.
By far Spark’s most annoying feature is its carrying case. The case snugly fits the drone, two batteries and some extra propeller blades, but it lacks room for the propeller guards, which are essentially bumpers that help prevent the spinning propellers from cutting people or objects.
DJI said that because the propeller guards are optional accessories that are sold separately, the compact case has no room for them. But to me, this was an oversight: Any beginner should equip the propeller guards, and they should be part of the overall package and fit inside the case.
That brings up another issue with Spark: The $499 price tag is misleading when you add the extra accessories you are likely to need. After buying the propeller guards ($19), you probably also need at least one extra battery ($49) and the battery charging station ($69). In the end, you’ll probably spend roughly $640 just to make flight sessions last half an hour, given the device’s 15-minute battery life.
Even so, $640 is still cheaper than an iPhone or a high-end Android device like the Google Pixel (also priced at about $650), which makes it a compelling potential gift for tech and photography enthusiasts. Spark is a solid product for a relatively low cost, and it seems inevitable that drones will become more commonplace at parks, beaches and tourist attractions.
The New York Times