I went for a long hike recently, up a steep mountain trail, excited to enjoy some crisp autumn air and beautiful fall foliage. In one pocket I had my smartphone. In another, I had a drone, the new DJI Mavic Pro. This was a pretty revelatory experience. Normally bringing along a drone means carrying at least a backpack, and most of the time a very bulky backpack. Now I was carrying a drone that was light enough I could forget it was there, slipped into the ordinary breast pocket of my Eddie Bauer vest.
There have been plenty of small drones on the market before the Mavic. Hardly a week goes by without a new company claiming they have created the world’s smallest camera drone, smallest 4K drone, smallest drone with live-streaming video. My kids love to play with quadcopters that fit in the palm of your hand. But in the past using a small drone typically meant sacrificing camera quality, flight range, battery life, and advanced features.
The Mavic Pro, which retails for $999, changes all of that. It’s definitely one of the most portable drones on the market right now, but it manages to deliver imagery, battery life, range, and autonomous intelligence that match up to what you get from drones more than twice its size. It feels like moving from the desktop PC era into the age of laptops, an evolutionary shift that allows the Mavic Pro to be a casual, everyday device in a way that no drone has been before.
The Mavic Pro’s small stature has a lot to do with its clever design. It has four wings that fold underneath and to its sides, and its rotors can be folded in half, allowing them to slip right alongside the belly and back of the drone. This form factor conveys the added perk of allowing you to keep the rotors on at all times, instead of having to attach and remove them for transport as you do with most serious camera drones. Ready to fly with rotors and battery, the whole unit still weighs just over one and half pounds.
The Mavic’s remote is also much smaller than the competition, about the size of an iPhone 6. Unlike DJI’s previous remotes, this one has a small LCD screen in the center, allowing you to fly the drone without DJI’s app while still getting all the basic telemetry you need to navigate safely. The screen gives you distance, altitude, and direction, and pings you with a little haptic buzz and warning message if the drone senses high winds or gets too far from your home point.
In another first for a DJI drone, the Mavic can be flown without a remote at all. You toggle a little switch on the body of the drone to switch from radio control mode to Wi-Fi. Connect your mobile device to the Mavic’s Wi-Fi network and you can use the DJI Go app to pilot the drone. Using it this way definitely takes away a lot of the fine-grained control you get when piloting with a remote, and switching from RC to Wi-Fi also cuts way back on your range. But it’s a nice option to have for short-range flights when you want to carry even less gear.
The third and most satisfying option for piloting the Mavic Pro is to combine the remote with your phone. The bottom of the remote unfolds so you can plug in your phone. Unlike the Phantom remote the connector cable for your phone fits into the housing of the Mavic remote, giving you one less piece of gear to worry about. Your phone provides the live video feed and access to the more complex autonomous modes and camera settings. The remote, meanwhile, provides much more fine-grained control over flight than the mobile app.
The Mavic Pro has a completely different form factor than DJI’s flagship drone, the Phantom. But when it comes to the components and software, the two have a lot in common. They share the same downward-facing optical flow sensors, allowing the drone to see the ground below it. Using that image, the Mavic Pro works to stabilize itself, and it’s rock solid, even in mild winds, when you take your hands off the controller and let it hover. Optical flow also allows the Mavic Pro to hold its position indoors when it doesn’t have a GPS signal. The Mavic even has a new "Tripod Mode" that is optimized for flying indoors or in tight conditions.
The camera and gimbal are very similar to what you find on the Phantom, only smaller. The camera uses the same sensor, shooting 4K video and 12 megapixel stills. The only difference is that the Mavic Pro doesn’t have as wide a field of view as the Phantom. The Mavic Pro does have the same forward-facing optical sensors as the Phantom 4, though, allowing it to detect obstacles and autonomously avoid crashes. It can also use its computer vision for gesture control. Wave your arms to have the drone lock onto you and frame your face with your hands to have it snap a photograph.
The Mavic’s camera system is a bit different than what you find on the Phantom in terms of how it treats focus. Phantom drones focus automatically, ensuring what you shoot will look good, but preventing you from tightening in on a particular subject inside of a broader landscape. The Mavic requires you to choose your subject. This led to some initial reviews criticizing Mavic footage as muddy and blurred. In our testing, so long as you remembered to snap focus during your shot, the footage from the Mavic was as crisp and smooth as what you get from DJI’s larger drones.
There are some drawbacks to the Mavic’s small size when comparing it with a larger drone like the DJI Phantom 4. When unfolded into its flying position it has only short legs keeping its belly off the ground. That means you don’t have a lot of clearance during take off and landing and will want to avoid tall grass that a Phantom’s rotors would easily pass over.
Despite its smaller size, the Mavic Pro delivers a top speed of 40 miles per hour and a promises a clear video stream from up to 7 kilometers away, besting the transmission range of its bigger sibling. That incredible range comes with a caveat, however. The Mavic Pro has smaller rotors and motors, something you need to stay aware of when pushing it to its limits.
During testing I got caught up in a beautiful shot, following a sailboat down the Hudson River. A warning popped up on my screen advising me that strong winds were present, and that I should plan my flight accordingly. But the drone was handling well and my video was smooth, so I dismissed it. My tiny flying camera was two kilometers from where I was standing when it stopped, having reached the maximum range I had approved in my settings.
I was, at this moment, in love with my new DJI Mavic Pro drone. The video stream at this distance was still incredibly smooth and clear. The drone responded without hesitation to my commands. The problem started when I decided to come home.
In hindsight I should have heeded the wind warning, recognizing that the sailboat speeding along the Hudson was taking advantage of a strong, continuous breeze. My Mavic Pro began making its way home under my control, but it seemed to be moving in slow motion. It crept one meter closer, than two meters, while my battery meter dipped under 10 minutes remaining.
The distance stopped shrinking. I had the drone at full throttle back in my direction, but watched, in horror, as it as my heads-up display showed it moving farther away. It was fighting against the wind, and it was losing. This is the downside of Mavic’s amazing form factor. Because it’s so capable and reliable, you can lose sight of the fact that it’s not nearly as powerful as a larger drone.
I still had 1,200 meters to go with just 8 minutes of battery life when I realized I wasn’t going to make it. At least not with me piloting. I gave my Mavic the command to return home, and it went into full autopilot. I don’t know what it did differently, but the distance began to shrink again, and then it began to shrink much faster. It landed in my hands just as a critical battery warning blared to indicate an imminent shutdown.
We’ve written a lot recently about how difficult it is to get excited about new smartphones, cameras, and PCs. The recurring theme in these product categories is that the technology has, to a large degree, plateaued. The hardware profile of these gadgets has been optimized to within a millimeter of their life. You might make it a hair thinner, the pixels a little sharper, but there is only so much more goodness you can pack in there before units just start catching on fire.
All kidding aside, part of the ennui in the world of gadget blogging comes from the fact that everything is already really good, and most of the improvements we’ve been seeing, at least on the hardware side of things, feel very incremental. In the world of drones, on the other hand, the Mavic Pro makes clear that there are still huge gains to be made in terms of how small and accessible a great flying camera can be.
For professionals photographers and filmmakers who want to push their drones to the limit, filming at long range and in rough conditions, bigger drones might have an edge over the Mavic Pro. But for the average consumer, and even pros on less demanding shoots, the Mavic Pro is the new gold standard, a combination of portability and power which leaves the rest of the competition far behind.
Photography by Amelia Krales