I don’t remember the last time I was so excited about buying something that wasn’t a plane ticket! I’ve wanted a drone for a while and after deciding against buying one of the cheap pocket drones, I opted for the DJI Spark…which is still tiny…but amazing. I was worried that as a newbie pilot I would be awful at flying it but it was fairly easy to pick up!
I paid $449 (+tax) for the basic package which included the drone, a USB cable, 1 battery, a carry box and 1 spare set of propellors. It DOESN’T come with an SD card, but it uses the same as the GoPro so I had plenty of spares. The next package up was $699 but included a shoulder bag, a remote control, a second battery, a battery charger and propellor guards. As a newbie I went for the cheaper package because I was worried I wouldn’t get the hang of it, struggle to find places to fly it etc.
Flying a DJI Spark without a controller
Here’s my opinion on flying the Spark with a ‘smart phone’.
Without a controller, the drone is operated and flown through an app on a smartphone or tablet. TYPICALLY my iPhone is too old (5C…but it works with the 5S) but it works on my 6th Generation iPod (has to be a 6th gen or newer). Some pilots like to use tablets for the bigger screen but I actually like the fact I can control it with something small, this works great for travel.
The screen is similar to how it looks when connected to a controller, so you have all the menu options etc. The only real difference is, when you fly without a controller you have to outlines of circles on top of the live image of what the camera is seeing. You use these as joysticks to fly the drone. I don’t find this too much of a problem though. You can also configure them just like you can on the remote controller.
I perfect to have the left joystick as: up/down and rotate and the right as: left/right and forward/backwards.
DJI Spark Range Without Controller
The only problem I’m finding with the more and more I fly, is that I’m restricted by the Spark’s range without a controller. It has a height range of 50m and a distance range of 100m. But then if you look at the rules and regulations for flying a drone, you can only fly at a height of 400ft. 400ft is around 121m so the height is just under half of what you can legally fly to anyway.
Along with being small, my second requirement was that I wanted a drone that could take shots looking directly down. The gimbal on the Spark is awesome. The gimbal helps to stabilise the image as well as allowing you to film from several perspectives. The first time I flew it, it was in 20mph winds, which is about as high as they recommend, I didn’t go to the full height (because I was scared it would blow away) but the footage came out perfect (if you ignore my jolty controlling, something I’m sure I’ll get used to)!
Related Reading: Tips For Travelling With A Drone
I absolutely LOVE it for taking selfies. It makes solo travel so much easier! Obviously if you are taking a selfie then you don’t need a controller as flying high or far away would be a bit pointless, because then you’d just be a tiny little dot in the distance!
DJI Spark Intelligent Modes
The intelligent modes on the DJI Spark don’t use the controller anyway!
The ‘Dronie’ mode (aka selfie video mode) is one that you see used in a lot of drone videos. The drone flies directly upwards and backwards at a diagonal, away from the subject. It reaches the set distance and then automatically flies back ‘home’. I found it a little tricky to get it to actually work…and then was worried it would just keep flying and flying on to the next town! The Spark doesn’t come with a proper instruction manual and even the downloadable version doesn’t have step by step instructions.
If I remember correctly, the video below was set to 30m and I’m very happy with how the shot came out! You can see the iPod in my hand, there’s definitely no other controller in sight! (I was a bit nervous as this was the first time I had flown it out over water!)
Gesture Control Mode
A really fun mode is the Gesture Control mode, I honestly felt like Harry Potter. This mode works without even using a controller or a phone! By double clicking the power button while holding it in front of you, it recognises YOU as the controller. It takes off straight from your hand and will then follow you or your hand wherever you move it. You can wave at it to make it fly away, tell it to record (yet to try that), take a photo (did that by mistake), beckon it to come back to you AND THEN make it land in the palm of your hand! It felt like my little pet that was actually alive!
‘Follow Me’ Mode
You can also set the DJI Spark to automatically track and follow you with the ‘follow me’ mode. It kinda has a mind of it’s own, I was hoping it would follow me on the side and get some of the scenery in, but instead it let me get in front of it and then looked directly down at me.
The down side of the DJI Spark.
The battery life. It lasts around 10 – 15 minutes which doesn’t give a lot of time to practise all of the modes. However, the further you fly, technically you get a shorter flight time as it monitors how long it’ll need to automatically fly back if the battery gets to low. If it’s already ‘close’ the return to base time is shorter!
The most annoying thing is without the charging hub, it takes 4 HOURS to charge 1 battery back up. The manual says it should take 1 hour 20 but it is definitely no where near this when the drone is plugged directly into the wall. I’ve since purchased the charging hub so I can charge 3 batteries at once.
The manual suggests not to fly it in temperatures below freezing (0C/32F) which wipes out most of December – February in Iowa. However, I HAVE taken it up when it’s been colder than that. I’ve actually found that when flying without a controller, my fingers give up before the battery life! I don’t trust trying to fly it with touch screen gloves on as it’s harder to control. If you had a controller then I’d imagine you could use gloves with the joysticks.
Should I have bought the ‘Fly More’ package?
The only things I really wished had, was the spare battery ($49) and the battery charging hub ($69). So it’d be worth buying the Fly More just for these extras.
In the USA and UK, if the drone weighs above 0.55lbs (250grams), you have to register with the FAA (Federal Aviation Authority) or the CAA (Civil Aviation Authority). Currently I’m registered for recreational while I’m practising and using it for visuals, it costs $5 in the US and £9 in the UK and you have to write your operator ID number somewhere visible on the drone.
I’d recommend calibrating the sensors and do the firmware update before you even leave the house. You’ll have to recharge it again before taking it on a flight (unless you have a fully charged 2nd battery). I connect the drone to my laptop to do the updates.
Make a note of the surfaces around you. I’ve recently bought a foldable landing pad which has been great for taking off on uneven ground, especially sand!
I went with DJI because they seemed to have the best information when it comes to ‘no fly zones’. They have an advanced flight planning map on their website, where you can see all the places you can’t fly or need permission to then ‘unlock’ the zone. It seems that some brands don’t allow the unlocking feature. (For example, you can’t fly near airports or in National Parks.)
Want to buy a Spark yourself?
(The following links are affiliates)
DJI Spark, Alpine White (without a controller)
SanDisk Extreme 32GB MicroSDHC UHS-I Card with Adapter (I always use the extreme for my GoPro and now my drone)
I’m more than happy flying my drone without a remote…maybe it’s easier with the controller but it’s something that I’ve got used to now!
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Disclosure: Please note some of the links in this post are affiliate links, which means I will receive a small commission if you make a purchase after clicking and it comes at no extra cost to you! As always, opinions are my own.