It is hard to believe that the drone market as we know it today barely existed five years ago. DJI, the Chinese company that effectively invented the consumer drone category, first launched its Phantom series of quadcopters in 2013. Then, the world was unprepared for a flying camera that cost little more than $1,000 — as proved by the outcry regarding privacy and safety that quickly followed.
Today, the technology continues to advance in price, safety and capabilities.
An unresolved question, though, is whether drone users have been tamed. Last year, the US Federal Aviation Administration reported a sharp rise in the number of drones flying in off-limit areas, such as near airports, hitting a record of 260 reported incidents in June.
Often, technological development runs way ahead of regulation. My recent experience testing DJI’s latest drone, the impressive Mavic Air, suggests the rules have more than caught up with consumers’ usage. Today, the restrictions may even go too far.
The Mavic Air is the successor to DJI’s Mavic Pro, which was released in 2016 as the company’s first drone that could be folded into a truly pocketable unit.
But the new Mavic also shares DNA with last year’s Spark, which was billed as DJI’s first real assault on mainstream consumers.
The Phantom range had a steep learning curve, and while that was improved by the first Mavic and Spark, for ease of use I had preferred the Hover Camera Passport by another Chinese start-up, Zero Zero Robotics.
In my test last year, I loved how the folding cage around the Passport’s propellers made it much safer to carry, launch and land. Its automated flight modes made it simple to capture elaborate aerial selfies.
Grabbing a Mavic Air out of the sky might risk clipping your fingers but, in most other ways, DJI’s latest outclasses the Passport.
The Mavic’s 4K (ultra high definition) resolution and compact three-axis gimbal make for smooth, cinematic video, which is noticeably better than the Spark’s 1080p (standard HD) footage. The Air’s battery lasts for about 15 to 20 minutes, depending on conditions and usage, which is about 10 minutes less than the Mavic Pro but a bit longer than the Spark. The precision with which the Air is able to land back at the exact spot from which it took off, to within a couple of inches, is quite astounding.
While the DJI controller is still somewhat intimidating to use at first, there are some neat design touches. For instance, when it is time to pack it away in its case, the two little sticks that protrude from the Mavic steering controls can be unscrewed and stashed in a space-saving slot beneath the controller, where they are held with tiny magnets to avoid losing them.
But the biggest leap forward for DJI’s latest drone is in its expanded range of automatic flight modes, called QuickShots. These allow you to take spectacular video without needing to use the controller at all.
At their simplest, QuickShots keep you in the centre of the frame as the drone flies in a circle or spiral around you. But other modes include the “rocket”, which flies up vertically with the camera pointing directly down, and “boomerang”, which swings around in an oval-shaped flight path.
These would be hard manoeuvres to execute manually, especially if you want to be looking up at the drone as it films you instead of down at the controller and smartphone screen. In my tests — one on a windy Southern Californian beach, another in an isolated desert close to Death Valley — the results were stunning.
The Mavic Air is capable of versatile manual control too, including the ability to detect and fly around solid obstacles before it crashes into them, but it gives you plenty of value while you learn the more advanced stuff.
I did find a few familiar drone quirks when testing out the Mavic Air. There are still those surprise software updates that can delay take-off and narrow flight time. As with previous models, the drone’s internal compass — vital for its navigation — needs re-calibrating more often than I would like; this is a cumbersome and dizzy-making process of spinning the drone on its axis a couple of times. The propellers can sometimes get in the way when folding up the legs at the end of a flying session.
None of these issues would make me hesitant to recommend the Mavic Air as easily the best drone out of the several I have flown in the past few years.
What does make me hesitate is the legal dimension and the fundamental problem of finding somewhere to fly.
Several apps are available that show maps with no-go areas, including DJI’s own and AirMap. Trying to test the Mavic in and around Los Angeles, AirMap showed me only one small strip of coastline at Hermosa Beach that avoided the blocks on National Parks and nearby airports. But when I got there and started to fly, a lifeguard stopped me and told me even there was out of bounds. I am still unclear whether he was right but waving an app at him did not, unsurprisingly, persuade him that he was wrong.
More experienced drone pilots may know their rights better than I do, but as DJI tries to bring its technology to a general audience, this sort of encounter is off-putting for the casual user.
I managed to find another coastal area, another half an hour’s drive away, that the app suggested would be OK. However, after googling to check, I found that the local authority only allowed it if I was a member of the local model aircraft club and had been issued a permit.
I am well aware that drones can be a nuisance at best and a safety hazard at worst. It therefore seems reasonable to expect drone pilots to prepare properly before they go flying.
But the amount of due diligence required as cities and local authorities establish their own nuanced rules for drones makes this preparation rather daunting.
Drones should of course be regulated and I am not arguing for a free-for-all. But for me at least, it feels as though many of the most photogenic places — like beaches and parks — are out of bounds. DJI and others can improve the technology all they like but it is not much use if there is nowhere to take advantage of it.