DJI just broke GoPro. The Chinese brand’s just-announced Spark drone weighs about a half pound, is about the size of a can of Coke, and flies with simple gesture control. And it costs a mere $100 more than GoPro’s non-flying Hero5 Black camera (and $300 less than the GoPro Karma drone).
The size stops you in your tracks, but most mind blowing is the gesture functionality. To get the Spark airborne you double tap the power button and it takes off from your hand. It senses your hand as the controller, and you use your palm to tell it where to go by waving it toward or away from you. If you want it to back off a bit, say to chase you from above as you mountain bike, give it a wave and it’ll still keep you in the frame but follow from above at a distance of about ten feet. Make a square with the thumb and forefinger of both hands and it reads that as a sign to snap a still. Wave at it with both hands and it comes in for a landing, right back to your open palm.
Debuting the Spark at New York’s Grand Central Station, DJI’s director of strategic partnerships Michael Perry explained that beyond too-complex flight controls, the other major problem with drones and action cams is video editing. So using DJI’s new software called Go4, he displayed how you can plug a smartphone directly into the Spark, draw out its recorded stills and video, and have them automatically integrated into a short video with transitions, fades, music, and titles, all created in less than a minute on your phone. The sample wasn’t exactly a Teton Gravity Research spine tingler, but if the point is instantly shareable highlights from your day, this is obviously preferable to a few hours grinding through clips on your laptop after your day skinning the O.B.
The “but” in your head is whether this thing can shoot beyond selfie mode. And yes, indeed, it can. You can fly the Spark manually up to 109 yards away using just a smartphone, and that includes several new pre-canned flight modes, called QuickShots. Rocket points the camera down on the subject and sends the Spark straight up; Dronie does the classic fly up from the subject, keeping them in focus, then pans the camera up to reveal the broader landscape; Circle keeps the subject at the center of focus while, duh, circling them; and Helix does something similar but continues to unravel in a widening corkscrew, flying farther and farther away. For all the canned QuickShot modes you also get a 10-second edit of that footage, for social media insta-sharing. You can also do more advanced flying with an optional remote control, that yields range of up to 1.2 miles, and with both the remote and smartphone flight you can use DJI’s ActiveTrack that automatically tracks any subject you choose and keeps them in the frame. (Past DJI drones have also featured ActiveTrack, and we’ve seen mixed results, but DJI claims they’ve improved the tech so that it maintains subject tracking even during fast action.)
Spark also features both object avoidance sensing (a good thing since it defaults to buzzing mere feet from its subjects) and scanning tech that works as a kind of live terrain mapping that functions outdoors with GPS/GLONASS as well as indoors. As for specs, the camera has a 1/2.3-inch CMOS sensor with 12MP resolution. Video may not be extraordinary, but we’ll want to wait and see on that. DJI is promising 30fps at 1080, which isn’t the ultra-rich frame rate we’re all pretty used to even from basic smartphones. And we’ll also want to see how well it handles shadow-to-bright transitions; cheaper sensors can blow out pretty easily trying to manage this. For stills we’re also intrigued by a new auto-pano mode that stitches together a panoramic shot like your iPhone can do, and ShallowFocus, a software trick that defines the subject and then softens contrast for the background, as if the camera was shooting with very short depth of field.
DJI says you can pre-order now, with Sparks beginning to ship mid-June. They’re up-selling one bundle, the Spark Fly More Combo ($699), that adds the remote controller, plus two batteries, four pairs of propellers, prop guards, a charging hub, and a shoulder bag. It’s $149 for the remote alone, $49 for an extra battery, so this is a pretty good deal. And probably, so is the Spark itself, though we’ll wait to test one to know for certain.