Drones


Review: DJI Mavic Air Foldable Drone

June 19, 2018

By Greg Scoblete

Physicist Richard Feynman once famously observed that “there’s always room at the bottom.” Feynman was referring to what we now consider nanotechnology—manipulating atoms to build incredibly small machines.

We were reminded of Feynman’s quip when we first unboxed the Mavic Air. DJI isn’t building nano-drones (that we know of) but they have been at the forefront of building very small ones. Their newest, the Mavic Air, takes the folding propeller concept the company introduced in 2016’s Mavic Pro and shrinks it further. But as photographers well know, there’s a serious trade-off that comes when you start to shrink core imaging components like lenses and sensors. Does the Air manage it well? We took it for a spin.

Features

The Mavic Air is a foldable drone featuring a 12-megapixel camera placed on a 3-axis gimbal. The camera features a ½.3-inch CMOS sensor and an ISO range of 100-3200 for both stills and video. Where the larger Mavic Pro records at DCI 4K (4096 x 2160), the Air delivers a slightly lower resolution 4K capture (3840 x 2160). However, DJI has bumped up the bit-rate on the Air to 100Mbps from the 60Mbps found on the Mavic Pro. 2.7K recording is available at up to 60p and full HD recording can be captured at up to 120p.

The camera is fronted by a wide-angle, 24mm equivalent lens with a fixed f/2.8 aperture.

The Air has a few photo tricks up its sleeve, including a Panoramic mode to shoot 32-megapixel panoramic images stitched together from 25 individual stills.

While the Air accepts MicroSD cards, it also offers 8GB of internal memory and a USB-C port for offloading any stills and video you save to the drone.

On the flying side, the Air is outfitted with a slew of automated flying modes. There’s Active Track, to follow a subject; plus six QuickShots modes that automate cinematic aerial camera movements. You’re protected against unintended collisions by the Air’s FlightAutonomy 2.0 system, which uses a series of sensors on the front, rear and bottom of the drone to detect and route around obstacles.

The Mavic Air is capable of a top speed of 42MPH in Sport mode and 17MPH in normal mode—still zippy enough to follow a mountain biker.

Design

The Air features folding propellers that you pull out from the body of the drone. Fully folded, the Air measures 6.5 x 3.2 x 2.5 inches—more compact than a 5D Mark IV and a fraction of the size of a Phantom-class drone. Even with extra props and the remote, the entire Air package will easily fit into a camera bag with other gear in tow. At 15 ounces, it’s less than a third of the weight of the Phantom 4 Advanced and about half of the weight of the 5D Mark IV.

It’s incredible compactness does come with a caveat. The joystick controllers have to be unscrewed and placed inside a magnetized compartment in the remote control when not in use and we can imagine losing more than a few pairs of them.

Speaking of the remote, the Air includes a relatively simple control that requires a smartphone to operate. You can also fly the Air entirely from your phone, if you desire. Unfortunately, the remote doesn’t have a removable battery, so if it dies in the field, you’re out of luck.

The remote’s tactile controls are fine, though you have to be really gentle with them if you want to avoid jerky drone movements. We wish the gimbal dial would offer a bit more room to more gently turn the camera from its forward-facing position to 90 degrees.

The Mavic Air’s image quality doesn’t match that of DJI’s larger drones, but still does a very fine job considering its size and price.

Image Quality & Performance

DJI has made incredible strides in a very short amount of time with the camera technology on its Inspire and Phantom drones. The Air, however, is constrained by an action-camera-sized sensor and tiny lens, even if it does offer an improved bit rate compared to the Mavic Pro. If your primary concern is image quality and not portability, there are better DJI drones for the task.

That said, we weren’t disappointed by the Air’s image quality. Shooting in mid-day sun, the Air does a perfectly fine job rendering colors for stills and video. The dynamic range is adequate, though you don’t have a ton of latitude to pull details from shadows or highlights. Look closely in the shadow areas and you’ll pick up some noise. If you’re shooting towards the sun, you’ll get a fair degree of lens flare and some footage can appear washed out.

We were pleasantly surprised by the lens, which didn’t have very visible wide-angle distortion. Another, less surprising, facet of the Air was the gimbal—it was rock solid. We didn’t have gusty conditions during our flight but the camera remained nearly still even in the face of the occasional gently rolling breeze.

The battery is rated for 21 minutes of flight time with no wind. During a chilly March, with temperatures hovering in the mid 40s, our batteries would tap out after 7-8 minutes, if that. (Some batteries stowed in our camera bag were too cold to even turn on.) The base Air package only includes one battery, but we’d strongly suggest buying at least one more of the $79 packs if you’re considering the Air.

The Air’s object avoidance system worked well, sending out a series of loud, unmissable beeps if we navigated too close to a tree or building. With object information on the lower portion of the app’s screen, the DJI Go App can be a bit crowded on smaller smartphones (we tested the drone with an iPhone 8).

Bottom Line

If you’re in the market for a super-compact drone, we’d definitely recommend the Mavic Air. It’s smaller than the Mavic Pro and offers comparable video and still image quality. One of the closet competitors to the Air is the Yuneec Breeze. While the Breeze can’t fold down into as portable a package, it does weigh in about the same and takes 4K video and 13-megapixel stills. However, the Breeze has an even shorter battery life than the Air and lacks the object avoidance and automated movements that DJI has pumped into its newest Mavic.

www.dji.com

PROS: Incredibly compact; Nice selection of automated flying modes; Great object avoidance system; Rock-solid gimbal; Internal memory.
CONS: Small image sensor; Can burn through batteries; Gimbal control on remote should be more fluid.
PRICE: $799

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