DJI has continued their path of innovation with the Mavic Air, but the brand wasn’t able to shake a few of their past weaknesses with this drone. Is the Mavic Air a better travel drone than the Spark or the Mavic Pro before it? Overall, yes, but for some professionals, it won’t get the job done. Between the Wi-Fi controls and its more limited feature set, the Air will leave some pilots wanting more.

The Mavic Air shoots up to UHD 4K 30 frames per second (fps) and takes 12 megapixel (MP) stills. It has a three-axis gimbal and 8 gigabytes (GB) of internal storage in addition to a microSD card slot. The Air folds down to a smaller size than the Spark, and with up to 21 minutes of flight time, it will fly autonomously with obstacle detection and will even track one or two selected subjects. It can shoot up to 120 fps in 720 or up to 96 fps in 1080 and has a top flying speed of 43 miles per hour (mph) in sport mode.

The Mavic Air offers some improvements over the Mavic Pro. The Air is faster than the Mavic Pro by 2 mph and has a higher bitrate at 100 megabits per second (Mbps) vs the Pro’s 60 Mbps. The Air has a focus free lens, which means you don’t have to pick a focus point for something to be in focus. The Mavic Pro allowed you to choose the focus point, but that’s a step easily forgotten, leaving you with videos focused on the wrong subject. 

The Air doesn’t top the Mavic Pro entirely, however. The Mavic Air has a slower climbing speed of 13.1 feet per second (ft/s) compared to 16.4 ft/s with the Mavic Pro. Plus, for the log shooters out there, the Mavic Air does not offer D-log.

The biggest problem of the Air is that it has around half the flight range due to its Wi-Fi control system. If there is any feature that DJI messed up on, it’s Wi-Fi control, and here’s the reason: Wi-Fi is not as dependable as radio control. What could be worse than to lose control while flying and crash? Now we know the Air isn’t huge, but it’s sure to do damage if you came in contact with the props. Reading other reviews, written by both professionals and consumers, many complained about losing connection during flight. DJI reccomends flying with the landing gear down for best connection, but we still had a few video transmission issues. However, at no time did we ever lose control of the aircraft. We suspect that DJI chose Wi-Fi control so as to not impede on the market for Mavic Pro or its future replacement. However, it would have made the Air the de facto drone for hobbyists and professionals who don’t want to jump into the deep end with a bigger drone.

Soapbox Time

In every DJI drone review we do, we complain about the same thing: way too frequent updates. DJI either doesn’t care or might just not have the capabilities to do something about it. It might just be the nature of drone safety and being lawful, but it is terribly discouraging to be ready to fly, only to get an update notification just before you want to take off.

We will now step up onto our soapbox: When prepping for a planned flight, we charge all batteries and do all updates. We had planned on flying first thing in the morning, so the day before, we did updates and charged the batteries. Less than 12 hours later, we found we were unable to fly because of a pending update. We missed the light we wanted to capture, which forced us to shoot on another day. We could have done all this in the early morning before our shoot and possibly not run into the problem, but between having the update required before flight and the suddenness of the update, even those who are well prepared will likely run into this issue.

Controller with integrated phone mount

We would like to be able to bypass the update for a set amount of time — even just an hour or two. This would give at least one flight before having to do the update. Alternatively, maybe give a warning that an update is coming 24 hours in advance, so users can plan accordingly. Lastly, the most costly but possibly the best option would be a dock of some kind that would allow for updates to push overnight. OK, we’re done; we’ll step off our soap box now.

Perks and Quirks

In this section we’d like to address the little things that may be good or bad but not a huge deal either way. Starting off with the controller, we’re glad they included it with the drone. The joysticks screw on and off easily for effortless storage. The Air’s gimbal is much more protected than the one on the Mavic Pro. When flying fast, we experienced the gimbal wanting to tilt into the direction of flight. It didn’t always happen, but when it did, it wasn’t difficult to correct. It’s size makes it easier to fly indoors or in tight quarters. We flew it for multiple batteries very close to the ground and through obstacles and even with a light gust of wind, and it responded wonderfully.

With the obstacle sensors off, the controller still beeps to indicate when you get close to something. We prefer this, because when the sensors are on, the drone’s performance is choked significantly to keep you from running into something. The new avoidance system is good, and instead of stopping the drone, it will fly around the obstacle. This is good for learning, but the Air is so easy to fly, the avoidance system shouldn’t be needed for long. One thing missing from obstacle avoidance is sideways sensors. If you were in a autonomous orbit around something, the drone won’t see what’s coming up on either side and could fly right into something.

The new avoidance system is good, and instead of stopping the drone, it will fly around the obstacle.

For this review, we received the Fly More package. We would recommend getting this bundle since it includes a handy sling-style bag, charging hub and three batteries. These extra batteries are really nice to have on-hand. During our tests, the average flight time per battery was around 20 minutes, depending on wind conditions and the type of flying we did. Two notes on the batteries: you can’t charge the batteries through the drone and the hub only charges one battery at a time, regardless of how many are plugged in to it — two very strange design flaws.

The battery latch on the drone is very visible, and it’s red when not latched. This will help prevent the battery from falling out by accident. What we don’t like about the design is the location of the on/off button; it’s on the bottom! The underside of any drone is far more likely to be dirty than any other part. You’ll have to flip the drone over to turn it on, then flip it back again to take off.

Flight Modes

The Mavic Air steps up the video quality from the both the Spark and the Mavic Pro. Higher bitrates and frame rates give video content creators the necessities to do most of what they need. Additionally, there are some useful Intelligent Flight modes for autonomous flying.

Starting with ActiveTrack, you are now able to track two separate objects simultaneously to keep them in frame. Although a fun trick, the tracking is not as smooth as it would need to be to do a long cinematic shot. However, if you only need a few seconds, it’ll do the trick. With TapFly, you simply tap on the screen where you want the Air to go, and it will go there. It isn’t as good as controlling the drone with the controller, but if you need to focus on the camera, it will be helpful.

Tripod Mode has been in many of the past DJI drones. It allows for a drone to be a tripod in the sky. Cinematic mode will slow down any quick or jerky movements allowing for smoother video capture. A drawback for some is that it slows down the speed of the drone overall. If you require a fast move, it might not be achievable in cinematic mode. Point of Interest mode, like in past DJI drones, works well; it lets you control the speed and direction as the drone circles a specified point.

SmartCapture allows for gesture control of the aircraft. You don’t need to use a controller to access SmartCapture, but you will need to connect a phone to the drone to put it into SmartCapture mode. Because you have to connect your phone first, we dont see this as being anything other than a marketing ploy. It’s not going to be very helpful to content creators. It’s a fun party trick at best. With that said, it works much better than on the Spark.

The next mode, Quick Shots, offers a few autonomous flight paths. The first is asteroid; it makes the drone fly away like a missle and ends by combining a panorama shot into a little planet shot — great for social media, but if you use it for narrative projects, it will be a once and done shot. The next Quick Shot is Circle. Like Point of Interest mode, this mode has the drone circle a subject. However, it works by selecting a target instead of setting a point of interest. It’s a bit more intuitive, and if your subject is moving, it will work better since, if the subject moves, the flightpath also adjusts. Last up is Helix. It’s our favorite of the Quick Shots. The Helix circles a subject and also increases the altitude at the same time. Again, it’s for a very specific use case but fun nonetheless.

Marketplace

DJI has a huge slice of the digital imaging drone market. We’ve already talked about the Mavic Pro and Spark, so we’re going to focus on the marketplace around other manufactures and what they offer with similar specs.

First, is the GoPro Karma for 1,000 dollars. GoPro has discontinued Karma, so it’s likely to be found for a good deal over the next year. It can capture 4K 60 video and 12MP photos when paired with the included HERO6 Black. It has a combo game-style controller with touchscreen. It also offers some flight modes like Selfie, Cable Cam and Orbit. The coolest feature on the Karma is that the gimbal and camera are detachable for use outside of the drone.

Next up, is the Autel Robotics EVO for 1,000 dollars. The EVO looks a lot like the Mavic Pro, even down to the way the props flip out. It can shoot 4K 60 fps and up to 120 fps in HD. It will also shoot at bitrates of up to 100 Mbps in 4K with its Sony 1/2.3 inch sensor. With 94 degrees of field of view, it offers the Ambarella H2 image processor and shoots in either MOV or MP4.

Last, is the YUNEEC Typhoon H  for 1,000 dollars. With a three-axis gimbal, retractable landing gear and the ability to shoot 4K video, this drone is feature rich. The controller, the ST16 Ground Station, is substantial and doesn’t require your phone for operation. The Ground Station has a 7-inch touchscreen for viewing and operating the drone and camera. It also has collision avoidance and can fold up for easier transport, though it’s certainly not small like the Mavic Air. During our review, we had our Typhoon H fly away from us and destroyed itself. It could be a one-off problem, but you have been warned.

Final Thoughts

We really enjoyed flying the Mavic Air. It’s unfortunate that it’s Wi-Fi controlled, but it captures beautiful video. DJI packed in loads of value but made a few strange design choices. From the on/off switch location to having to charge the batteries outside the drone, we know DJI can do better. With that said, it’s a solid travel drone. If you want to have fun and sometimes use it for work, don’t look past the Mavic Air. 

DJI
www.DJI.com

$799

STRENGTHS:

  • Great looking video
  • Folds to be very compact
  • Flies great

WEAKNESSES:

  • Wi-Fi control
  • Frequent updates
  • On/off switch location

SUMMARY:

The DJI Mavic Air has a feature-set that is sure to get your attention. From 4K video to obstacle avoidance and a small form factor for easy travel, you need to know more about the Mavic Air.

RECOMMENDED USERS:

  • Enthusiast filmmakers & Home video shooters
  • YouTubers & Social media enthusiasts
  • Travel videographers
  • Action sports enthusiasts
  • Educators

TECH SPECS:

Maximum Horizontal Speed

  • 42.5 mph / 68.4 km/h (S Mode)
  • 17.9 mph / 28.8 km/h (P Mode)

Maximum Wind Resistance: 23.61 mph / 38 km/h
Flight Ceiling: 16,404' / 5000 m
Vision System: Downward, Forward, Backward
Operating Range: 1.6 to 98.4' / 0.5 to 30.0 m
Obstacle Sensory Range: 1.6 to 78.7' / 0.5 to 24.0 m
Transmitter Operating Frequency:

  • 2.4 GHz (2.4 – 2.483)
  • 5.8 GHz (5.725 – 5.850)

Maximum Operating Distance:

  • 13,123.36' / 4000 m at 2.4 G
  • 13,123.36' / 4000 m at 5.8 G

Connectivity: 1 x USB Type-C, 1 x USB Type-A
App Operating System Requirements: iOS 9.0 and later, Android 4.4 and later
Sensor: 1/2.3" CMOS
Effective Pixels: 12 MP
Focal Length: 24mm / 35mm (35mm Equivalent)
Lens Field of View Diagonal: 85°
Aperture: f/2.8
Photo Resolution

  • 4:3: 4056 x 3040
  • 16:9: 4056 x 2280

Photo Format: JPEG, DNG
Video Format

  • 3840 x 2160p at 24, 25, 30 fps (100 Mb/s MP4 via H.264)
  • 2720 x 1530p at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, 60 fps (100 Mb/s MP4 via H.264)
  • 1920 x 1080p at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, 60, 120 fps (100 Mb/s MP4 via H.264)
  • 1280 x 720p at 24, 25, 30, 48, 50, 60, 120 fps (100 Mb/s MP4 via H.264)

Recording Media: microSD (Up to 128 GB)
Battery Chemistry: Lithium-Ion Polymer (LiPo)
Weight: 0.95 lb / 430 g

Chris Monlux thinks soon every video content creator will need a drone. He is also Videomaker’s Multimedia Editor.

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