Updated 19/7/17: we've now taken the Spark's controller (available as part of the extra RM400 Fly More combo pack) out for a spin to see how it compares to using the smartphone app. Scroll down to read our findings in the 'DJI app and controller' section below.
For most of us, drones are still a bit like camcorders were in the '80s – great gadgets to have around, as long as someone else is responsible for them.
They're just a bit, well, needy. First, there's the cost. Then carrying the thing around. Followed by finding somewhere to fly it. Then, most likely, a humiliating tree-based incident.
But the Spark is different. DJI’s previous mini drone, the Mavic Pro, is a real zinger, but it costs S$1499 and comes with a slightly intimidating controller.
With the Spark, that controller is an optional extra, because it’s aimed at complete beginners. You can control it with just a few taps of your smartphone (or even a wave of your hand), thanks to some excellent auto-flying modes.
This alone would be enough to make it a bundle of gadget joy, but it’s also impossibly tiny. And despite weighing the same as a compact camera, it’s packed with high-end tech, including a two-axis gimbal for steadying its 1080p video.
The Spark may not be perfect, but it is one of the most fun gadgets I’ve played with in years…
DJI Spark design: more than a flying GoPro
When you consider what the Spark can do, it is astoundingly small and light. Mini drones aren’t new, but ones this capable are. Its rivals may as well be paper aeroplanes.
At 300g, the Spark is less than half the weight of the Mavic Pro and is 200g lighter than its closest rival, the Parrot Bebop 2.
Those smaller dimensions don’t quite make it pocketable – unlike the Mavic Pro, you can’t fold down its rotors, so it’s only slightly more portable when tucked into its case. But it easily fit into my small cycling bag, and was barely more noticeable than my water bottle. It’s really what the GoPro Karma should have been.
So what has DJI packed into a drone that weighs the same as our favourite compact camera? A ton of sensors, for a start. There’s a forward-facing vision system (to stop it flying into things), a downward-facing camera that helps it auto-return to the exact spot it took off from, and the main 12MP, 1080p camera.
That camera is stabilised very nicely by the two-axis gimbal. And you also get GPS and Wi-Fi, for sending a livestream of its view to the iOS and Android app – or even FaceBook Live.
Of course, DJI hasn’t quite overcome the laws of physics – the two main drawbacks are that it can’t record 4K, and its 16-minute (maximum) battery life.
That first limitation is perfectly fine - the Spark’s 1080p video is more than good enough for YouTube and social media. But in practice, that battery life means you really do need a couple of spare batteries. These cost S$70 each, or you can get two plus the controller with the S$1199 ‘Fly More’ bundle. Suddenly, it's very much in two or three birthday presents territory.
Still, you’ll be able to show whoever kindly bought a Spark that it’s far from a plastic toy – this is a really well-built little thing. In two unplanned meetings with a tree, the result on both occasions was merely a broken propeller blade, which cost S$15 for a pair. The Spark also comes with propeller guards, which even seasoned drone flyers would be wise to clip on.
DJI Spark gesture controls: could be more handy
The Spark’s sci-fi party trick is its ‘gesture mode’, which lets you control it using hand signals. That’s right, no controller or smartphone needed – just your arms and, well, quite a bit of patience.
The idea is to give you an easy way to take aerial stills or selfies (video isn’t possible in gesture mode yet), without having someone in the shot faffing around with a smartphone.
When it works, it does feel like you have telekinesis. Hold the Spark in your palm and, once it’s registered your face, its props will start whirring and you can release it into the air. You can then move it around with your palm, wave it away to take an aerial selfie from a few metres back, and ask it to take a shot by making a rectangle with your fingers (which doesn’t at all feel ridiculous).
Sadly, all of this all only worked for me about half of the time. At least with the Spark’s current firmware, it’s simply too easily distracted either by other people or bright sunlight, or a combination of the two.
The feedback system of red, yellow and green LEDs takes a little getting used to, and you have to keep a very regular distance from the Spark to avoid losing your gesture mode connection. Without any rear sensors, it’s also not wise to do this around trees or expensive chandeliers.
Still, none of this really matters. Why? Because 'gesture mode' is merely the icing on an otherwise amazing flying cake…
DJI Spark auto modes: your robo-director in the sky
The great thing about the Spark is that it isn’t just a dumbed-down version of DJI’s more expensive drones.
Like the Mavic Pro, there are stacks of ‘auto’ recording modes, and it even has some new ‘set piece’ shots that, right now, you can only get on the Spark.
You can see these four ‘QuickShot’ modes in the video above. In each one, the Spark will perform a 30-second routine around your chosen subject (which you choose by dragging a square around it), resulting in a clip that might just convince Facebook friends that you’re Alfonso Cuarón’s nephew.
In ‘Rocket’, the Spark will fly vertically upwards with the camera facing down. With ‘Dronie’, it’ll fly backward and upwards away from you, like a 100m-long selfie stick. And with ‘Circle’ and ‘Helix’ it’ll fly around you, with the latter providing a dramatic, ‘final scene’ arc.
'Helix' did admittedly provide me with my only Spark-based ‘Fenton!’ moment, when it decided that it quite liked the scenery and flew out of range behind a tree. But like a returning superhero, it then reappeared above a tree as its ‘return to home’ mode kicked in.
You can easily spend a weekend just playing around with these QuickShots, but they’re just tasters for the Spark’s more powerful auto modes.
Like the Mavic Pro, it also has ‘ActiveTrack’, a much-improved mode that first debuted on the Phantom 4 and lets you choose a moving subject to lock on to and follow. Similarly, ‘TapFly’ lets you touch a point on the screen for the Spark to fly to at its current altitude, while using its sensors to weave around obstacles.
All of these work incredibly well. Together, they give you loads of options for making a short film with varied cut scenes, rather than just a classic ‘waving at the drone’ aerial shot. Drones must be sick of people doing that.
There are a few limitations. When controlled by the smartphone app, the Spark has a max range of about 100m, which does quickly run out. The Spark can also take a little while to respond to fast-moving objects like cyclists, which means you’ll often get a following shot.
OK, so you’re not quite going to recreate the motorbike chase from Skyfall. But these modes are brilliant for making pro-looking snippets that can be woven together into a little, soundtracked souvenir film of your barbecue, beach visit, bike ride or football match.
You’ll be able to watch this back on a TV too, because the Spark’s video quality is great. The gimbal keeps your footage buttery-smooth, unless there’s a real gale blowing. And while it can’t record 4K and struggles slightly as day turns to dusk, the Spark does have the same size image sensor as the Mavic Pro. This means good dynamic range and extremely crisp videos with lots of detail.
Ready to move beyond the Spark's auto modes? Just like a proper camera, there are lots of manual controls to be discovered too...