Hands-on review: DJI Mavic Air Fly More Combo
DJI's Mavic Air is a foldable drone that you can put in your pocket. It has a built-in camera capable of capturing 4K video at 30fps, HD video up to 120fps, 12-megapixel stills and 32MP spherical panoramas. It's a pretty neat package.
In a few short years Shenzhen-based DJI have dominated the drone industry. Their equipment is used to capture incredible shots for shows like Game of Thrones, shot that would have been impossible, or at least very expensive a decade ago. This same Emmy Award winning tech has filtered down from expensive Hollywood-standard UAV camera platforms to affordable commercial drones.
In rather quick succession DJI has released the prosumer drone, the Mavic Pro, the hobby-based Spark and earlier this year, the Mavic Air. In theory the Mavic Air sits somewhere between the Mavic Pro and the Spark. In practice, the Mavic Air's new technology gives it the edge over it's bigger brother, the Mavic Pro.
For starters, you really need to understand how small the Mavic Air is. When folded it can fit in your jacket pocket. The thing has a footprint slightly bigger than my mobile phone, smaller than a Nintendo Switch!
The on-board camera is capable of taking 12MP HDR still images via a 1/2.3” CMOS, that's 4056x3040 at 4:3 or 4056x2280 at 16:9. Video can be shot up to 4K at 30fps or at 1080p up to 120fps for slow-motion capture.
The Mavic Air camera is mounted to a 3-axis gimble. The result is a rock solid, smooth video even in windy conditions. For one of my tests I took the machine up to 80m and shot some video. Apart from moving cars, you really could tell that it wasn't a still.
Flying the Mavic Air is simple. The days of needed to constantly correct a quadcopter's flight are over. Once launched, the drone should just hang there, suspended in the air, awaiting your command. The Mavic Air is capable of such solid positioning in the air that it looks un-natural and somewhat sinister.
The drone is designed for use with GPS. It will work using optical sensors, but for pinpoint precision, you really need location data via 13-15 GPS satellites. The more satellites the less likely for something tragic to happen. My first tests in the back yard were cut short due to interference from what I believe to be the main electricity cable to the house upsetting the drone's internal compass. Moving the launch area recalibrating the compass sorted the problem. It is recommended that the compass is recalibrated if you travel over 30 km in distance between launch sites. Compass issues can cause erratic performance and even drone flyaways.
Once in moving flight, DJI's FlightAutonomy 2.0 sesnor system gives pilots an extra level of safety. The Mavic Air's Advanced Pilot Assistance Systems uses sensors that can detect obstacles in front, behind, above and below. The enables the device to piece together a map of the flight environment. In practice, whilst photographing the drone in flight, I approached the device a bit to close resulting in the drone autonomously moving away from me which was both cool and weird.
The Mavic Air can be controlled, via Bluetooth, over a short distance, directly from a mobile phone. But you don't spend all that money to fly a precision piece of kit like the Mavic Air by sliding your fingers across a screen.
The Mavic Air's controller is just a little bit smaller than the actual folded drone. The controller's joysticks unscrew and are stowed in the controller body when not in use. A mobile phone is used for the drone's display, running the recommended the DJI Go app or a third-party alternative. Two arms for griping a mobile phone fold out from the bottom of the controller. The phone is connected to the drone via a USB cable. The kit comes with a USB-C, a Mini USB and a Lightening cable. The phone is used as a heads-up display and to display the drone's camera view via the DJI Go 4 app.
The controller can be set up for Mode 1, Mode 2 and Mode 3 configurations. With helicopters I've always flown Mode 2, as is common in the ANZ region. At the advice of a friend I flew the Mavic Air using Mode 3, with great success. This was due to one reason: the Mode 3 configuration is the same as those for a console first-person shooter. The left stick is forward/backwards/strafe left/strafe right and the right up/down/turn left/turn right.
The DJI Go app allows owners to select from a number of pre-prepared Quickshots that enable even the most novice pilots to create professional-looking video footage. The six movements, dronie, circle, helix, rocket, boomerang and asteroid are activated with a button press on the DJI Go app. Asteroid is by far the most impressive, creating a special zoom that pulls back from your subject into a spherical panorama that wraps around itself creating a tiny planet/asteroid effect. All of the post processing is done by the drone, the footage rendered and waiting for you in the Air's memory.
The Mavic Air also features something called SmartCapture. Using gestures, you can launch the device and control its position at a range of up to 10 metres. You can instruct the drone to follow you, take a photo and start filming without touch the controller. This Jedi-like control system is a bit of a novelty and is probably more for the more casual selfie-set. The numerous distances and gestures types were too much for my fish-like memory. I can't say it's a mode that I'll have much use for.
It's worth mentioning that ANZ versions of the Mavic Air Go software is set as the European CE version and not the North American FCC version. This means that the wireless signal is not as strong for us as in the US and the Mavic Air's range is more like 2km as opposed to the 4km that you'll see all over the internet. There is a way to fool the software, but I don't recommend doing so if only because you'll likely not be able to see the drone at 2km, let alone 4km, and New Zealand's CAA rules state that you must keep the drone in visual range at all times.
Whilst the app will store a low-quality copy of your video, the good stuff is stored onboard the Mavic Air. The drone comes with 8GB of memory and a slot for a microSD card expansion. Remember to get a 4K capable card. The card slot and a USB-C port can be found above the camera at the front of the drone under a little plastic flap. Connecting the drone to your PC allows you to transfer your video and /or photos for editing or storage.
The Mavic Air effectively has three speed levels. The beginner mode, which is recommended for novices (with the rotor guards attached), limits the drone to about 5kmh and 30m distance from the controller. P-mode, which is the normal operating mode with the front, back top and bottom sensors switched on, can travel at about 25kmh horizontally and about 14khm vertically. S-mode (sport mode) switches off all the APAS features (so use at you peril) but boosted the Mavic Air's top speed to 60kmh- which is ridiculously fast for a tiny drone like this (an absolutely bloody awesome). But for your day-to-operations, P-mode is fine. The piece of mind offered by the very effective APAS collision avoidance system should outweigh the need to push the machine too much.
The Mavic Air is available either on its own or as part of the Fly More Combo. The actual drone comes in a choice of red, white or onyx black. Whilst visible, the red is very shiny and will easily show scratches, whilst the white will nigh on impossible to see against a cloudy sky. The onxy black gives you a fairly reasonable visual range.
You can pick up a Mavic Air, which comes with a battery, a controller and a charger, for NZ$1,499 (AU$1,299). But, for an extra NZ$300 (AU$200) you can go for the Mavic Air Fly More Combo.
The Fly More Combo comes with two extra batteries, some prop guards (handy for your first few flights), a multi-battery charger, two spare sets of propellers and a travel bag. For the cost of the extra batteries alone, the combo is worth the extra money.
Bizarrely, DJI's Care service isn't available in New Zealand for the Mavic Air. Australian owners can pay an extra AU$149 (as long as it is within 48 hours of first activating the drone) to insure their drone against accidental damage. If your drone is damaged DJI will replace it twice during the year. The fee is AU$129 for the first time and AU$169 for the second. I would imagine it is only a matter of time before this service is available for NZ owners, but for the moment DJI have been unable to confirm anything with me.
The Mavic Air, despite it's small size is a very sophisticated piece of technology. It is not a toy. Whilst it can virtually fly itself, misuse or any risk-taking with the machine could be disastrous. Flying in an undisciplined manner could easily damage the drone, or even worst, hurt someone. If you are thinking about getting a Mavic Air, you will be investing in a robust, well-made quadcopter, capable of capturing truly remarkable, high quality video. It's also fun and relatively easy to fly. As long as you fly it safely you will have a great time with the Mavic Air.
For the moment DJI's Mavic Air offers professionals and hobbyists, alike, the best drone experience you can get from an output quality, ease of use, portability and cost point of view.