Last month, DJI pulled the curtain back on its newest drone — a pint-sized powerhouse called the Spark — during a press event in New York City. It’s the company’s most compact drone yet, so we stuffed one in a backpack, brought it back to Portland, and have been flying it nonstop for the past two weeks. Here’s how it went:
A lot of features for a Twinkie-sized drone
If there’s one thing DJI is good at, it’s stuffing a ton of features and functionality into increasingly small drones — and nothing showcases this talent more than the Spark. Despite the fact that the drone’s hull is roughly the size of a Twinkie, DJI somehow managed to cram in many of the same goodies you’d find under the hood of the Spark’s bigger, bulkier, and more expensive brothers.
Aside from its tiny and hyper-portable design, the Spark’s biggest feature is arguably its dearth of intelligent flying modes. In addition to DJI’s standard stuff, the Spark sports a handful of brand-new modes, including Rocket, Dronie, Circle, and Helix (more on those in a moment). The drone also comes with gesture recognition abilities, which allow it to be operated without a smartphone or controller.
Spark is one of the hardiest drones we’ve ever encountered.
Another big addition is Spark’s obstacle avoidance system. While the ability to sense and avoid objects is usually a feature reserved for larger drones, DJI went ahead and built one into the hull of the Spark. It’s not quite as robust as what you’ll find on the Phantom 4, or even the Mavic Pro, but it still serves its purpose, and helps you avoid crashes.
Oh, and let’s not forget about the camera. In addition to a 12-megapixel camera that shoots video in 1080p at 30 frames per second, the Spark also sports a two-axis gimbal. This lets it mechanically stabilize the camera and cancel out any jarring, shaky movements — resulting in smoother, better-looking footage. This also gives it a leg up on the competition; most selfie drones only feature single-axis mechanical stabilization.
A sturdy, colorful little drone
We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: DJI makes some of the sturdiest, most well-designed drones in the game — and the Spark is no exception. It might actually be the toughest drone the company has ever produced. With short arms, no legs, and a tucked away camera, there’s not much on this drone that’s likely to break in the event of a crash. We wouldn’t trust it to survive a big plummet onto a hard surface, but if you’re flying over grass or carpeting, this little guy could probably drop two-dozen feet without suffering any serious damage. The most likely items to break are the props, and those are cheap and easy to replace. All in all, Spark is one of the hardiest drones we’ve ever encountered, and the build quality is top notch.
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
Bill Roberson/Digital Trends
The overall design isn’t particularly remarkable, though. Sure, it’s small and compact — but not so tiny that it’s a game-changer. Truth be told, it’s not really much smaller than the competition. Yuneec’s Breeze drone is only slightly larger than the Spark, and drones like the Hover Camera Passport and ZeroTech Dobby are actually more compact and portable. Don’t get us wrong — the Spark is extremely well designed and impressively small considering the tech it carries, but it’s definitely in the middle of the pack when it comes to portability.
There is one design element that really helps the Spark stand out from the crowd — both literally and figuratively. Unlike any other drone we’ve seen, this little bugger comes in a rainbow of different colors. The swappable top plate is currently available in white, red, yellow, blue, and green — and we’re willing to bet other colors/patterns/designs are on the way. It’s not a groundbreaking addition, but it’s certainly nice to have color options.
DJI Spark Compared To
Average fly time and recharge speed
DJI’s official specs say the Spark’s battery is good for 16 minutes of flight time with a full charge and optimal flying conditions. Real-world performance is usually a different story — so we grabbed a stopwatch, sent the Spark into the air, and let it hover in place until it had to come down for an emergency landing. From takeoff to touchdown, the drone managed 14 minutes and 10 seconds of airtime. During normal flight — while making full use of the drone’s motors, sensors, and processing power — we averaged about 13 minutes of flight time.
That’s not the full 16 minutes that DJI printed on the box, but it’s still decent — and puts the Spark well ahead of competitors like the Yuneec breeze (~11 minutes) and Hover camera Passport (~9 minutes). That said, all these mini drones come with two batteries, which means the Spark can get about 26 minutes of flight time per outing, as compared to the Breeze’s 22 or the Passport’s 18. DJI has an edge when it comes to stamina.
You can expect to spend about 45 minutes on the cradle to juice it back up to 100 percent. This will vary depending on how much you drain the battery, but if you go until the Spark performs a low-power emergency landing, that’s about how long it’ll take. If you land after the first low battery warning, it will only take about 30-35 minutes.
Nimble, stable, and packed with intelligence
On paper, the Spark doesn’t really stand out from the competition all that much — but you can feel the difference once you get it in the air. In terms of raw flight performance, DJI leaves everyone else in the dust.
Just like the company’s Mavic, Phantom, and Inspire drones, the Spark provides a very tight and responsive flying experience. It’s quick, nimble, and impressively stable for a drone of its size. Even in windy conditions, it does a fantastic job of mitigating drift and holding its position. When you let off the control sticks, Spark stops dead in its tracks and stays there until you command it to do otherwise. Usually, smaller drones are squirrelly and unstable, but nothing could be further from the truth in this case.
Another big plus is the Spark’s built-in obstacle avoidance system. This is something you simply won’t find on other portable drones, and it adds to the flying experience in a big way. With a maximum sensing distance of just 16 feet, it’s not nearly as robust as the sense-and-avoid systems built into DJI’s more expensive drones, but it’s still pretty damn decent, and saved us from crashing on more than one occasion. Even if you’re not an experienced pilot, the Spark’s sensing system helps you fly with confidence and vigor.
What really makes Spark special, though, is its wide range of intelligent flight modes. This thing was designed from the ground up to be super easy to fly. In addition to DJI’s standard offerings like TapFly and Active Track, it sports a handful of brand-new modes that allow anybody to capture really good-looking, cinematic footage without any piloting skills whatsoever.
Aside from the standard stuff that’s included in every new DJI drone, the Spark has four new flight options. There’s Rocket (in which the drone will quickly ascend with camera pointing down), Dronie (where it will fly up and backward while staying locked on subject), Circle (orbit while staying locked on), and Helix (orbit outward in a spiral pattern). All of these can be executed with just a few taps on your smartphone, which is pretty cool. Thanks to DJI, you don’t need to be a seasoned drone pilot to capture professional-looking shots.
Sadly, it lacks 4K shooting
Perhaps the only downside to the Spark is the fact that it doesn’t have a 4K camera, or the ability to shoot raw photos. The drone’s shooter boasts a 1/2.3” CMOS sensor that can shoot 12 megapixel stills and capture video in 1080p at 30 frames per second. That isn’t necessarily bad, it just isn’t 4K, which is something that a lot of other portable drones offer — including the Yuneec Breeze, Hover Camera Passport, and ZeroTech Dobby.
You don’t need to be a seasoned drone pilot to capture professional-looking shots.
Since DJI was late to the game and had every opportunity to outdo the competition here, it’s puzzling why the company chose not to include a 4K camera. Everything else on the Spark is at the top of its class, so why not the camera? We don’t have any proof, but our theory is that DJI was worried about cannibalizing Mavic Pro sales. The Spark has a very similar set of features and abilities, but costs just half of what the Mavic does, so if DJI gave the Spark a 4K camera, suddenly there wouldn’t be much reason to choose the Mavic anymore.
The lack of 4K is definitely a bummer, but the Spark’s camera does have a bunch of other features that the competition doesn’t, like a two-axis gimbal for stabilizing your video, and a variety of different shooting modes for still photography — like burst shooting and auto exposure bracketing. It also has a new feature called Shallow Focus, which uses the drone’s vision system to blur the background and create an artificial (but convincingly realistic) depth-of-field effect.
All things considered, it’s definitely not a bad camera. It might not have the resolution that other portable selfie drones have, but what it lacks in pixels it (mostly) makes up for with other features.
The Spark is easily one of the best portable drones available right now. Despite the fact that it can’t shoot 4K video like some of its competitors, it outshines the competition in just about every other regard. It’s faster, smarter, can fly for longer periods of time, and is definitely the most reliable in its class — so if you don’t mind shooting in 1080p, this drone would make a fantastic companion on your next adventure.
Are there better options available?
That depends entirely on what you’re after.
If you want high-resolution video, then no. You’d be better off with a Yuneec Breeze or Hover Camera Passport. If you don’t mind dropping a bit more moolah, DJI’s Mavic Pro also offers 4K video in a compact and portable form factor, but it costs $1,000.
If what you’re after is bang for your buck, then go with the Breeze. It’s been around for nearly a year at this point, so its price has dropped from $500 down to under $400 — yet it offers many of the same features that the Spark does.
If you’re a beginner looking for something affordable and fun to fly, then Spark is your best bet. It’s durable, reliable, and has sensors that will help you avoid crashing. It also has upgrade options that allow you to scale up and grow your skills as you progress as a pilot — such as a physical controller that boosts responsiveness and extends the drone’s range up to 1.2 miles. For more thoughts, read up on our favorite drones, favorite cheap drones, and favorite drones for beginners.
How long will it last?
DJI has a pretty solid track record for pushing out regular firmware updates for its drones, and there’s no reason to think Spark would be an exception. Barring any catastrophic crashes, this drone will probably last for upwards of five years.
Should you buy it?
Yes. This is a damn fine little drone, and definitely one of the best in its class.