DJI’s $799 ‘smartphone-size’ Mavic Air drone starts shipping January 28

DJI hasn’t done a great job keeping its drones under wraps. As with the last couple of devices, the Mavic Air leaked out just ahead of today’s official unveiling. The drone is more or less what we expected, falling somewhere between the Mavic Pro and Spark and rounding out the company’s current line of consumer-focused quadcopters.

DJI says it “went back to the drawing board” for the Air, which folds up small enough to fit in a pocket. In fact, it’s so portable that the company’s director of North America actually stuffed two of the “smartphone-size” drones into his vest pocket at today’s event.” It’s roughly half the size of the Pro and weighs around 41-percent of its predecessor. 

There’s a 4K camera on-board, mounted on-top of a three-axis gimbal. Stills are shot with a 12-megapixel on-board camera, capable of shooting in lowlight. HDR is also on-board here, bringing better shots in areas like landscapes with uneven light. The company’s added several photography software advancements to the system, including the ability to stitch together 32-megapixel camera shots. 

The gimbal, like the drone, has been designed from the ground, up. The system is actually recessed directly into the system, giving the drone an even smaller footprint. There’s also 8GB of internal storage, so users can save photos and videos without adding a microSD card.

The Air is also the first drone in the line released since GoPro’s unceremonious exit from the space. The company’s Karma offering was arguable the Mavic Pro’s most direct competitor. In fact, the product was born out of a partnership between GoPro and DJI that ultimately fell by the wayside.

So too did GoPro’s drone dreams late last year, due in part to a limited feature set at launch and the company’s inexperience building its own flying vehicles, which resulted in drones falling from the sky.

The Air features Active Track, a feature sorely lacking from the Karma, which lets the drone follow its subjects as they move, making it possible to shoot action videos without the aid of an additional crew. New Asteroid and Boomerang features, meanwhile, shoot programmed panorama-style shots with the push of a button.

The Mavic Pro got off to a bit of a rocky start, with a launch that was peppered by shipping delays. Ultimately, however, the product has proven a success for the drone giant, ultimately leading to the announcement of the palm-sized model in May of last year. That device was the first of DJI’s to introduce gesture-based controls, with the company positioning the device as a sort of selfie-drone.

We ran into some trouble in our own testing that ultimately resulting in our producer slicing open a finger on one of the Spark’s blades. The gesture controls were also hit or miss, making the product an interesting step toward a true consumer, but not really all the way there. Hopefully the Air will correct some of those issues with an admittedly first generation product.

The Spark’s gesture control system has been updated here with the Smart Capture system. Pointing a palm at the Air will lift the drone off the ground and tilting the hand will control it while it’s in flight. In a quick demo at today’s event, the system does appear to be more sophisticated than its predecessor, but we’ll see for sure when we test it in a less controlled environment.

When you’re ready to end a flight, you put your hands together to return it to home and point down to land it. The feature works at a range of up to 19 feet. Using a smartphone to control the system bumps that up to 262 feet, and adding the remote boosts that to an impressive 2.5 miles. In “Sport” mode, it’s capable of speeds up 42.5 miles per hour.

The drone is capable flying for up to 21 minutes on a charge. There’s a USB-C port on board for recharging, a step up from its predecessors’ microUSB. There are a bunch of new safety and tracking features jammed into the drone’s much smaller body, as well.

Position tracking has been improved courtesy of seven on-board cameras capable of three-directional tracking. A new on-board ventilation system, meanwhile, pushes air through the drone’s body as it flies.

You’re also getting improved obstacle avoidance over its predecessors (while, admittedly, that didn’t go great the first time we tried it out with the Pro). The new system is capable of operating in wind speeds of up to 22 miles per hour, according to the company. 

The Air starts at $799 — that’s somewhere between the $399 Spark and $999 Pro. There’s also a $999 combo pack that includes two additional batteries and propellers, a charging hub and a travel bag. The new drone is up for pre-order starting today from DJI’s site. It’s set to start shipping next week, on January 28. It comes in white, black and red.

DJI calls the Mavic Pro is the “best selling drone of all-time,” and given the company’s dominant position in the market, there seems to be little reason to doubt the qualifiers here. Of course, while drone ownership has been on the rise, the devices haven’t managed to attain the sort of ubiquity the company dreams of for the product.

The Pro and Spark each represented an important step toward achieving that goal, through size, usability and pricing. The Air pushes the overall picture a bit farther and does appear to represent some key advances with regard to hardware. The product builds on many key advances made by its predecessors, executing them an even smaller footprint.

$799 is a good price point for professional and even amateur photographers looking to up their game with another key tool in the arsenal. As for consumers, I’m excited to take the thing for a spin out in a field in the coming days to see what kind of advances the company has made to its Jedi-style gesture controls, and hopefully not mutilate our video producer’s hands in the process.

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But even with an added focus on consumer-friendly controls, that $799 to $999 price point is still pretty lofty for what will amount for most non-professionals to an (admittedly cool) toy.