DJI Mavic Air, is sky the limit?

The Next Big Thing team checked out the DJI Mavic Air. The drone is designed as an ultra-portable aerial photographer.

Photography or videography can mean needing a lot of gear. That can take up significant space–leaving precious little space for bringing along a drone for aerial shots. Fortunately, DJI’s Mavic Air solves this problem.

This drone is designed to be compact. It has a 12-megapixel camera, and offers several different flying and shooting modes. The Mavic Air is somewhat similar to other DJI drones: the Spark, Mavic Pro, and the Mavic Pro Platinum. However, there are definitely some changes. One of the big ones is obstacle avoidance.

At $799, the Mavic Air is not the cheapest drone on the market. However, it has more spark than some–including the less expensive DJI Spark. It is a good choice for the hobbyist or enthusiast who is wading into the world of drones and wants something with a wider range of options than the Spark.

Aesthetically, this is a drone that looks good. Unlike most drones, the Air boasts a sleek design that comes in attractive colors.

However, the real key to the Mavic Air is its portability. Everything about it, right down to its remote, is designed to this end. There is no other DJI drone that comes close to the Air when it comes to portability.

Although it was designed with portability in mind, that does not mean the Air is flimsy. In fact, the drone proved itself to be quite sturdy. The legs, which are foldable, snap neatly into place; despite their ease of transport, they are built to stand up to what is required. Also, the gimbal is hidden within the body itself; this is a change from the Mavic Pro.

The camera is modest but good. It is held back a bit by having a small sensor, which translates to a limited ability to capture a wide range of tones in a single scene. However, its video quality should please; it shoots 4K videos at 30 fps with a 100 Mbps bitrate. At 12 megapixels, the Air is the same as the other drones in the Mavic lineup.

There are three ways to fly the Air: wired connection, wireless connection, or the hands-free gesture control systems. For the wired connection, there are no wires involved; instead, it uses the bundled remote control coupled with your cell phone. The wireless connection is entirely reliant on a phone. The hands-free gesture control system is what the name suggests: a way to control the drone using gestures.

The controller is similar to the Mavic Pro’s, but it does not have a display. Plus, the thumbsticks need to be attached before the drone can fly. There also is not a second dial allowing the exposure to be adjusted–making adjusting exposure while flying a bit more complicated.

One of the things that sets the Air apart from the Mavic Pro is that the Air uses a wi-fi connection instead of a radio frequency. For many users, this will be a welcome change even though it does mean a bit less range.

One of the big changes with the Mavic Air is its flying assist mode. This mode is called Advanced Pilot Assistance System, or APAS for short. This takes it a step beyond previous DJI drones. APAS allows the drone to fly over or around objects rather than just coming to a stop. The feature works well–with the drone neatly steering itself around objects.

The Air also offers good video quality. It is only a slight improvement over the Pro Platinum. It has a slightly better bitrate, which is most noticeable in post-production. The slight video quality improvement are not likely enough in and of itself to warrant an upgrade from the Pro Platinum. However, it should be considered in conjunction with the drone’s other qualities.

Recording during daylight yields the best results–offering sharp, rich images. Unfortunately, the Air does not perform as well when a scene with high contrast is introduced. That means capturing a great sunrise a challenge with this drone.

With the Air’s ability to shoot RAW files, these issues do not pose as much of a challenge on the still photo side of things. With this ability, users have significant flexibility in processing the images after the fact.

One of the really cool features on the Air is “Asteroid.” This automatic flying mode is a bit addictive and produces an amazing effect that is especially fun to use in a video intro. In this mode, the user is the focus. The drone zeroes in on the user, focuses, flies backward and upward, momentarily hovers, and takes a spherical 360-degree shot.

There is also the option to take spherical 360-degree photos, which yields great results. The only downside users will find, however, is that the only way to display them is on your phone using DJI’s app. This app does all of the stitching; however, there is also the option to stitch them yourself.

The one thing that users likely will find disappointing about the Air is its short battery life. DJI says that it has a flight time of 21 minutes, and that is typically true for a fully charged battery. Of course, that is counting the time spent getting the drone up in the air as well as landing time. That shaves off several minutes, which brings flight time down to something more in the ballpark of 15 minutes. The basic kit includes only one battery; however, there is also a $999 option that adds two more batteries and some accessories not found in the standard kit.

Overall, the Air is a solid entry into the drone market. It offers some of the best of the Mavic Pro and the Spark while also delivering an improved camera in a smaller, more aesthetically appealing body. Those needing something for commercial work likely will find it not quite sufficient, but it is a great choice for the average non-commercial user.