DJI Mavic Air Hands-On Review Of The Smallest Pro Drone

With the introduction of the tiny-yet-powerful Mavic Air drone, manufacturer DJI has created the first drone that I can confidently say belongs in the camera bag of every photo and video professional. While the company has previously offered drones this small, and has offered drones with this level of video power, this is the first time those have been successfully combined into a must-have device.

That’s not to say it’s a perfect drone; there are some tradeoffs in a package this small that could limit its usefulness. But it’s a perfect combination of price, size, and performance, and it marks the start of the “there’s no reason you shouldn’t have one of these with you when you go to do a shoot” era of drone work.


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The Pro, But Smaller?

DJI borrowed heavily from Apple in both the naming convention for this drone, and in its presentation announcing the Mavic Air. Like with Apple’s laptop and iPad line, the “Pro” model represents a no-holds-barred approach to designing a professional-level product in a small form factor, while the “Air” model’s central goal is to be small and light—without losing too many features. Also, as with Apple’s typical approach, this new Mavic Air includes some features not yet seen on the rest of the company’s lineup—foreshadowing an update to both the Mavic pro and Phantom lineup.

The Flying Burrito

When wrapped in its form-fitting zippered carrying case, the Mavic Air feels pretty similar in size and weight to a Mission-style burrito. The majority of the weight comes from the battery, but the whole package is nicely distributed. It’s so small when folded that DJI’s presentation of the drone involved their U.S. director removing several of them from various pockets in a vest and a pair of pants.

The drone, when folded, measures about 7” x 4” x 2”, and only weighs around a pound. Much of that is the weight of the battery; when that’s removed the Mavic Air feels strangely light. The Mavic Air easily fits into a lens slot in a camera bag and into a glove compartment, which means there’s no reason to leave it at home whenever you head out. For the photographers and videographers that don’t feel complete unless they leave the house with a camera, the Mavic Air could well become as important.

The controller for the DJI Mavic Air is nearly as big as the drone itself, though the Mavic Air can be operated with just a smartphone or tablet if need be. This allows for quick flights without having to bring the controller along, though the altitude and range are limited without the use of the controller.

DJI have added USB C to the Mavic Air, a welcome nod to new standards and reduction of the number of cables that a creative needs to bring on a shoot.

 

By The Numbers

Despite the small size of the Mavic Air, it’s impressively powerful. In Sport mode (not the mode most photographers and videographers will select) it can hit 42.5 MPH,  and up to 18MPH in standard operation. It can climb at nearly 10fps and descend at around 7fps, and withstand wind speeds of up to 23.5 MPH. The 16,000’ maximum ceiling puts its operational capacities well above FAA flight restrictions, able to hit an altitude where commercial planes operate. Published maximum flight time is 20 minutes but I’ve had flights as long as 25 minutes on a single charge, and as short as 17 (usually in high winds).

The three-axis gimbal rotates from -90º to 17º, for a very nice range of coverage. The gimbal system houses the camera, with its 1/2.3″ CMOS sensor. This is the same size sensor found in the Mavic Pro but is smaller than both the 1-inch sensor in the Phantom 4 updates and the sensor in the DJI Zenmuse X7. The focal length equivalent in full-frame cameras is 35mm, a nice wide angle for a drone, though less versatile in some landscape situations than if it were wider.

Thankfully, DJI has included 8GB of memory onboard the Mavic Air, overcoming the dreaded “I can’t believe I left the memory card at home” syndrome that’s so common to drone pilots. Eight GB isn’t a ton of space when you’re shooting 4K, but it’s enough to get a single battery worth of video and save the shoot. I expect we’ll see onboard memory becoming common with drones, and I’m looking forward to a future model with 128GB of memory.

Obstacles And Scenes

The Mavic Air has obstacle avoidance in three directions, forward, rearward and downward. To my mind, every drone should have at least these three directions covered—it’s far too easy to back the drone up for a shot and run it into something. Even the excellent Phantom 4 drone doesn’t have rearward sensors, so this gives the Mavic Air a leg up over the company’s more expensive drones.

The Mavic Air does not have side-sensing collision avoidance, which I usually wouldn’t mention as no photo/video drone does, but it’s important when using the built-in capture preset modes called QuickShot. The Mavic Air can perform a few automatic maneuvers to capture cinematic shots—panning smoothly around a subject, rocketing back from a subject, circling in an elliptical orbit, etc. Generally, these work excellently and make it easy to capture smooth footage without a lot of takes.

However, as there’s no side-facing collision-avoidance, it’s important to pay attention to the surroundings during some of these maneuvers. On my first test of the QuickShot mode that flies circles around the subject I sent the drone out a few hundred feet to a clearing and started the QuickShot. The drone glided slowly sideways until it hit a tree it almost had enough height to clear and fell to the ground.

The Mavic Air also has a new collision system that’s designed to allow the drone to find a new path around an obstacle, instead of just stubbornly hovering near it. In theory, users push forward on the controller with this new system and the drone, encountering an obstacle will find a path around the object.

This works, though occasionally as best as the size of the object seems to play a part in whether or not the drone can find a way around it. Fly the drone at a small tree and it tracks around it. Fly it at a large, bushy tree, and it just hangs out in the sky.

Shot on Mavic Air—www.dji.com
Shot on Mavic Air—www.dji.com

Footage

The Mavic Air can capture 4K footage at 24, 25 and 30 fps (100 Mb/s MP4 via H.264)—there is no ability to record in an uncompressed format, as is the case with the Zenmuse X7. Still images are captured at 12MP and are able to be saved as a JPEG and/or DNG file. The camera also captures panoramic images, including spherical panoramic ones, automatically, and create the panorama in-drone.

Both the still and video footage are great from the Mavic Air, the only surprising thing about the quality of the video being how good it is relative to the price point. It’s pretty impressive that at this point in the development of drones, the video and still quality has gotten so good.

The improved panorama modes allow for smooth, internally-stitched panos, without needing external software, something that’ll be even more valuable as VR takes off. The HDR shot combines exposures in-drone for a much better looking exposure than a single shot can produce. It’s possible to do burst shots and combine for an HDR shot in post, but for quick, excellent-looking images, the HDR performs very well.

The Mavic Air won’t compete with cameras like the Zenmuse 7 on the Inspire 2 (you can read our review here), largely because the sensor in the Zenmues 7 is so much larger than that in the Mavic Air. It’s a perfect drone to capture video for everything from YouTube to broadcast, and the small size means that it’ll be carried along on a lot of shoots to gather some b-roll footage.

I’m a big believer in using these small drones as scouts. The Inspire 2 ranges in cost from $3000 to $20,000 depending on the configuration, and I like to fly an $800 drone to see if I’m going to be able to get the shot I want before taking $20,000 of drone gear out of the box.

Constraints

As I mentioned earlier, there are some design compromises needed to make an $800 drone with the image quality of the company’s larger, more expensive systems. One of those centers around the communications protocol between the DJI Mavic Air and the controller. Ignoring the limited range available when flying with only a smartphone or tablet, and without a dedicated controller (which is to be expected due to the low power of the WiFi signal in a phone or tablet) the range on the Mavic Air isn’t on par with the company’s more powerful systems.

The Mavic Air uses “Enhanced WiFi” to communicate with the controller, essentially a high-power WiFi transmitter in the controller and a redesigned omnidirectional antenna in the landing gear of the Mavic Air.

DJI have two more powerful systems for extended communication between drone and controller, Lightbridge and OcuSync, which are found in the more expensive Mavic Pro and Phantom 4. These communication protocols are much less prone to interference than Enhanced WiFi.

Many of my drone tests take place on my property, not just for convenience sake, but because my house, and my neighborhood is a highly saturated WiFi environment. I can see anywhere between 10 and 15 WiFi access points, depending on where I’m sitting in my house. My house is also a large signal black hole, having been built in the 1800s the walls are made of lathe and plaster—a combination of metal and stone that makes it hard for signals to get through.

The smaller DJI Spark, the company’s recreational drone, has trouble connecting to the controller while on my property, the WiFi saturation is so high. If I’m even wearing my Apple Watch while flying the Spark, I get errors about the connection being poor. If I fly the Spark to the far side of my house, so that the building is between us, I’ll often get poor connectivity warnings.

The Mavic Air uses the same communications system, but with a much more powerful transmitter and receiver. My watch doesn’t cause any issues with the Mavic Air, and it’s fine flying around the house. If the house is in the line-of-sight to the Mavic Air, I get stuttering much sooner than if I were flying the Phantom 4, which has no range issues.

Over the Hudson River (where I like to do my distance tests because the lack of population in the way, and the clear line of sight) I was able to get the Mavic Air out more than 3km with no problems with signal strength. Occasional stuttering in the video feed is common at that distance, but the drone is still receiving signals fine, and it’s recording video perfectly well.

If you’re operating in an urban environment, the Phantom 4, with its robust connection systems may be a better choice.

The small size of the drone is both a pro and a con, as the compactness and light weight make the Mavic Air more prone to buffeting in the wind than the more solid Phantom 4. I tested the Mavic Air quite a bit in high winter winds of the Mojave Desert and found a few (expected) issues. Looking closely at the footage from the Mavic Air it was clear that the little craft was struggling to stay level—there is some bobbing in the wind that I feel would not have occurred with the more powerful Phantom 4.

Because the drone is so small the blades are relatively close to the camera, which means that the propellers will appear in the footage more often than with a larger (or at least taller) drone because it takes much less of an angle to pitch the blades in front of the lens than if the blades were higher up.

I also found a number of shots where the blades themselves weren’t in the frame, but where they caused a flickering in the video as they rotated in front of the sun and briefly cast a shadow across the lens.

Compared To Others

The Mavic Air is an interesting drone. For photographers and videographers, it makes the Spark a nonstarter. Even at such a lower price point, the Spark just can’t deliver the same quality footage. It also steals the thunder from the Mavic Pro, who it’s now mostly on-par with, with a lower price point.

Image quality isn’t as good as the newest Phantom 4 models, which makes the Phantom 4 a better choice for commercial work where portability isn’t the chief concern. If you only drive to your shoots, the Phantom 4 has better image quality and better handling.

I verified with DJI that the Mavic Air is a new product line and not a replacement for the Mavic Pro. To speculate here a bit, based on the naming convention that DJI adopted from Apple, I suspect that the Mavic Pro will update to give it a much better position over the Mavic Air. The most likely upgrades will be with the imaging sensor. I’d love to see a Mavic Pro with the 1” sensor of the Phantom 4.

I suspect the Phantom 4 will also upgrade soon. I have fewer speculations about a new Phantom model, though personally, I’d like to see interchangeable lenses and ProRes support, making it more like a mini Inspire 2/Zenmuse setup.

If you’re shooting video commercially, the Phantom 4 is a much better choice, as it provides for a number of video formats and codecs not available on the Mavic Air.

But if you’re looking to travel with a drone, especially in adventure-sport areas where bringing a Phantom 4 isn’t practical, the Mavic Air is the best choice, hands down.

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