I’ve been wanting to get back into the drone/quadcopter game for a while now. I’ve had a number of drones over the years but nothing that could take decent photos or was easy to fly. In May, DJI announced the Spark, their newest aircraft. I was interested because it was the right size, functionality and price combo that seemed like an appropriate entry point for me. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not an inexpensive drone. It’s being marketed as a $500 drone (in US dollars – it’s ~$700 Cdn at retail) but the reality is that you’ll want to spend more for additional batteries, a more robust controller (versus using your smartphone) and a few other accessories.
I’m not going to lie, this video from Youtube superstar Casey Neistat is what helped me decide that it was the right choice:
DJI’s ‘Fly More Combo‘ makes the most sense to purchase although when I ordered mine, it wasn’t going to ship in time for a trip I had coming up so I ended up with the ‘Alpine White’ standalone Spark from Amazon. I’ve since supplemented this with two additional batteries, the RC controller, a hard case and a few other minor accessories. I ordered the RC controller and a battery from DJI directly (at the time, it was the only place that seemed to have it in stock) and discovered that DJI will ship it to you free (I’m in Canada) via courier and I didn’t have to pay any taxes, duties or import fees. Something to keep in mind if you’re considering getting one. It may not come quite as quickly as Amazon Prime but if you’re not in a rush, it might be cheaper in the long run.
I had the Spark for about a month with just one battery and my smartphone as a controller. It was a ton of fun and I had zero issues flying the Spark. I was getting pretty close to their advertised 16 minutes of flight time per battery charge. Everything worked as expected and I started to trust the Spark as well as my abilities to control it. The quality of the 12mp stills and 1080p (max) video was fantastic. DJI recently added a 180 degree panorama mode that takes 21 photos from a location and you can either stitch them in the app or use the DJI Media Maker desktop app to stitch the images together. I hope they add a 360 mode. There are 3rd party apps that offer this (DronePan, Drone Blocks and others) but the Spark is still mostly only supported in beta versions.
There are a ton of gesture features that it works with and you can even launch it right from your hand (palm launch) and it will track you and you can gesture for it to land back in your hand. These gesture modes don’t interest me though and I’d read a number of people having issues with tracking so I have yet to even try them. It might appeal to you though.
Once I got the remote controller though, it was like driving in heavy traffic vs hyperspace. The remote controller basically unlocks a much faster ‘sport’ mode that allows you to go MUCH faster (at a price) and is therefore a lot more fun (see Casey’s followup video covering the remote controller too). The downside to sport mode is that the gimbal can’t keep up so isn’t as functional when flying at speed and obstacle avoidance is disabled in Sport mode (more on that below). When you speed up or slow down, the Spark almost goes vertical ramping up/down speed which is great fun to fly but not so great when you want to film something as you usually end up with the rotors in the shot and being only a 2 axis gimbal, you don’t have side to side smooth video in this mode. Still, you can have a lot of fun in this mode and once practiced, can shoot video just fine. As you can see in the above photo, the bottom arms of the controller fold out and you clamp your smartphone into it. It pairs with your device via it’s own wifi access point and the controller pairs with the Spark’s wifi. You can also use an OTG cable to have a direct connection between your phone and the controller (there is a micro USB port underneath for charging and the OTG connection. I haven’t had any major connection issues but do have a cable to use if it gets bad. Reports online seem mixed on the need/usefulness of the cable so YMMV.
The remote has a number of additional buttons for controlling the camera gimble, switching between shooting stills and video, two programmable buttons that can be mapped to a number of different functions in the app – I have mine mapped to advanced camera modes and a quick gimble up/down mode. It also has a return to home, pause the flight and landing buttons. The joysticks feel really good and are immensely better than using the in-app onscreen virtual ones if you don’t have the controller.
The DJI Go 4 app is used to pilot the Spark. It has a myriad of options for controlling all aspects of the drone and camera system. I won’t go into them all but one feature I’ve really enjoyed is the ability to broadcast live from the drone to Facebook, YouTube or a number of other platforms. I’ve recently gotten into the habit of going for a flight or two and going live on Facebook where I can see the viewers and their comments in realtime while they get to see where I’m flying.
The app also caches all the footage the camera sees (in addition to the ability to record to the onboard SD card) and has pretty in depth flight records where you can review your flights and even see the flight path on a map as well as the controls you used.
Here’s a screen recording of the app during a flight:
I really like the dronie and rocket modes in the Quickshot settings. I didn’t realize at first that once you select a quickshot mode and your target, you can tap on the mode again and a slider appears to change the distance. Here’s a 120m Dronie and you can view the 90m rocket on Youtube:
A sad day with a happy ending
I had been flying with the remote controller for a few weeks when one day, I found a new spot to fly near the Port Mann Bridge. I had spent about 10 minutes shooting stills and video in that location and was bringing the Spark in as it was threatening to rain when disaster struck.
I came in a little too fast from over the river and drifted into tree branches right on the edge of the river. I could see that I was still in the air via the onboard video and hear the mulching of leaves. Unfortunately, I was still in sport mode so when I tried to coax the Spark out of the trees, it went a little too fast and clipped a branch and ended up dropping straight down about 30 metres. The whole time I could see on my phone the live video and when it landed, everything was still broadcasting. Fortunately, it fell about 5 feet short of landing in the river and the soft sand somewhat cushioned it’s landing. In the end, one of the arms was broken but I wasn’t getting any motor or gimbal errors in the app. You can watch the Spark’s POV of the crash if you’re so inclined. I took it home to figure out what to do next.
At first, I contacted my credit card company about purchase insurance but that only works after you’ve used your house insurance and my deductible was too high to justify using that. I then figured I’d contact DJI Support and see what my options were. It appeared to me that I just needed a new arm (presumably a new unibody set of arms since it’s all just plastic). I had read that they will assess the damage and give you a quote. I didn’t have DJI Refresh – similar to AppleCare for the Spark where you pay a fee to fix or replace your drone. It wasn’t offered to me when I first activated the Spark. But they sent me a UPS shipping waybill and I sent my Spark in. It took a few days to get to California and then it was another day before I got an email from DJI with the damage. In the end it was only $126 to replace two motors, the arms, the lid and the gimbal. The bulk of the cost was labour ($65/hour) with the parts being pretty reasonably priced. The email had a paypal link to pay for the repairs and it was pretty quick to get that dealt with.
Remember when I got the Alpine White Spark because that was the only option available? Well, the Alpine White lid was a $4 replacement part. I emailed DJI support (with my case number) and asked if I could get the ‘Meadow Green’ lid instead. I got a response almost immediately saying they couldn’t guarantee it was possible (depending on where the repair was in their workflow) but they would try. A few hours later I got another email saying that I did get the green lid. About a day later I got notified that my repair was complete and it would be shipped back to me in 1-3 business days. I got a UPS tracking email the next day and it was on it’s way back to me. All in all, it was about two weeks door to door repaired. I was pretty happy with the result. It’s also worth noting that DJI paid for UPS shipping BOTH WAYS (Canada to California) – despite me not having Refresh. That was a nice touch too. When I got the Spark back, I had a new serial number to activate and this time, Refresh was offered to me in the app and I purchased it. It gives me two replacement options in one year (with a small fee that goes up on the 2nd replacement) but basically it covers most user damage – you just have to recover the drone and send it in.
There has been a flood of third party accessories for the Spark since it came out. Many of these are also compatible with the Spark’s bigger brother, the Mavic. Here’s some of the things I ended up getting to make flying the Spark more fun and useful:
Hardcase: I alway like to protect my investments in a hardcase and this case is tiny, lightweight and has some nice features specifically for the Spark. It holds 2 batteries, the remote controller, extra propellers, charge cables and USB brick. The only thing it doesn’t hold is the charging hub (included in the fly more combo) but that usually lives at home or in my car anyways. It easily fits into a backpack too and it’s also dropped a little in price since it came out. There are a lot of case options out there from hardshells like this one to softbags. The Spark actually ships in a small foam box that can also work in a pinch.
Landing Pad: there are tons of these on Amazon and Ebay and they are basically just a big, round mousepad (neoprene) circles that make landing in tall grass, dirt, sand, etc. easier. Prices range from a few dollars to about $30 depending on the size and color you want. Mine came in a zippered pouch with tent spikes to hold it in place (the props tend to push a lot of air).
OTG cable: The remote controller has a USB port on the bottom and some people prefer to connect their smartphone or tablet directly to the controller using an OTG cable. I haven’t had much need to use one…I’ve tried a few different OTG cables and even ordered a dedicated OTG cable to Lightning cable from China but I’ve found my stuff has worked just fine using wifi which is also the recommended method by DJI.
Gimbal cover: $3 on ebay – just some clip on protection for the gimbal while handling it. Fits on the Spark while in the case too
3D printable case: I found this really well designed print file when I was looking for Spark stuff to 3d print. It does cost a little more than a latte but is works very well and is a nice minimalist holster for the Spark that you can clip onto your belt or backpack if you just want to take the Spark and nothing else.
Star Wars Imperial Cog & Mr. Robot decals: In case you were wondering, I have a vinyl cutter (a Cricut Explore) so I make my own. There are a ton of full cover skins available now for the Spark, controller and batteries though. I numbered my batteries with the Mr. Robot font because I can.
Where to fly and what are the rules?
The biggest issue has been finding a place to fly. In Canada, Transport Canada recently relaxed (somewhat) the rules for flying your drone (just before I bought the Spark which also contributed to the decision) but they are still reviewing them and there is an expectation that before the end of the year they will be revised again. Obviously this is a concern/issue for any potential drone pilots and the rules that are currently in place are fairly straightforward. The main issue is proximity to airports, helipads and seaplane terminals. Unfortunately, the Vancouver area (where I live) is dotted with these places so it makes navigating a safe and legal place to fly challenging. I’ve been using the Airmap app (iOS | Android) on my phone to check for suitable locations to fly. The DJI Go app (used for flying the Spark) also alerts you to any flight restrictions and actually won’t let you take off if you’re inside a no fly zone. Last year, the US also relaxed their drone rules and removed the requirement to register your drone with the FAA. Time will tell if Transport Canada’s review drastically changes the rules in the new year. One of the main concerns that has been suggested is the requirement for any drone pilot (regardless of size/use of drone) to have liability insurance. I don’t mind this rule as long as it doesn’t become an expensive requirement that could exceed the value of the drone itself.
I’ve had a lot of fun with the Spark. It’s lived up to my expectations and has been a blast to fly. I do wish that the Spark could shoot 4K video and had a 3 axis gimble but at roughly half the cost of a Mavic, it’s just the right mix for my use. I can always pick up a Mavic when I want to go ‘pro’ but for now I’m having a lot of fun with the little Spark.
Updated Sept 2, 2017: updated a few images and added screen recording of the DJI Go app during a flight.