Even before the DJI Spark was released, American YouTube personality Casey Neistat intrigued me with a review of a DJI Spark prototype. So I started doing my research, spoke to the consultants at Outdoorphoto, and decided to get myself the DJI Spark mini-drone later in the year. I had planned to pay full price for it and its accessories but as luck would have it, it went on special just as I was pulling out the wallet so, needless to say, I grabbed myself one!
I was really looking forward to getting my drone, so I went over to the Outdoorphoto store one weekend to get a flavour of what it could do. But, alas, they didn’t have a demo unit. Luckily one of the consultants (a self-professed drone guy) had a DJI Mavic – the Spark’s marginally bigger brother. If the Spark and the Mavic were siblings, I imagine they’d be the two young ones in the DJI family, with the DJI Phantom being the demure teenage sister and the Inspire the stately sibling who’s already completed their degree and now working full-time.
Seeing the Mavic in action was quite amazing but in the end, the price point justified my decision to get the Spark which, after all, is meant to be more fun. Whereas the Spark is about R8 000 – R9 000, and the Fly More Combo about R14 000, the Mavic is closer to R20 000 (and that’s just for the drone). Since the Spark would be my first drone and I felt that I had a lot to learn still, getting the Spark just made more sense.
So, the Monday after the weekend, I ordered the drone and eagerly awaited its delivery. On Tuesday, the parcel arrived at my home and after having supper, I unboxed it – only to open up a world of frustration for the best part of the next three evenings…
Finding the battery charger
The Fly More Combo comes with a battery charger that can simultaneously charge up to three batteries. It also comes with a bag, extra propellers, propeller guards, a Wi-Fi remote amplifier and the cables (USB and charging) required. So, I started unpacking – I found the drone in a snug case, and all of the accessories in the main body of the bag – except for the charging dock. Where was it? I took a good 15-20 minutes before finding it tucked neatly into the front pocket. Being so thin, the pocket appeared empty. Why it was packed separately from the other accessories eludes me.
Fitting the propeller guards
Before getting the Spark I had one of those CX-10 mini-drones, which I tried to fly for more than a year and a half. Because of its built-in drift mode, it went everywhere except where I wanted it to. Being afraid that it would hit someone before I had the chance to react, I was glad that the Fly More Combo came with propeller guards. So naturally, they were the first things I tried to fit on the drone while charging the batteries.
There was a specific order in which to install the propeller guards, so I used the instruction booklet. It said to install the propeller guards with white marks, only to find that all of the propeller guards have white markings on the edges. Eventually, I managed to locate to propeller guards with smaller white markings on the prop-shaft itself. Now, I thought, the drone was ready to fly.
Black sand beaches in Santorini.
The Santorini Hotel.
Updating the DJI GO 4 APP and firmware
I downloaded the DJI Go 4 App, which you need to operate any DJI drone, and switched on the Spark. (From almost dead to full, full charge only takes about 50 minutes). With the app downloaded, I was now ready to connect the Spark to my phone. I noted the Wi-Fi connection details underneath the battery slot and tried connecting it, but nothing! I tried scanning the QR codes, but still, my phone could not pick up the drone’s Wi-Fi signal. After much frustration, I decided to call it a night.
The following evening, I tried scanning the QR codes once more. They did not work, so I turned to the Internet and soon found that many people struggled to connect their drones to the Wi-Fi.
At one point, I turned over the remote control to see a small sticker with a Wi-Fi name and password. Finally, this was it! I make the connection and suddenly the app works. My app prompted a large firmware update needed to pair the remote and the phone. With the remote on and connected to the phone (not the Wi-Fi) it meant using expensive cellular data. Luckily, I did not have to pair the remote with the drone too, as this was already done. I make the connection, and up pops another firmware update – this time for the drone itself. Eventually, I can access the drone on the app, and I’m ready to fly. Well, almost. The compass on the drone still needed calibration, and I also still needed to update its home points. I changed the battery, which was more than 50% drained from all the updates, and the another No Fly Zones update relevant to the logged home position. Finally, the green light comes on and the Spark is ready for take-off!
It was after 9 pm and too dark to fly, so I moved indoors. After take-off, the drone is meant to hover at 1.2 m while awaiting its next instruction – only mine was still finding its bearings and balance on the first flight. It took off and started drifting almost immediately! After a few nerve-racking seconds, I decided to land the Spark and watch more tutorials on the app.
PS: I found it really frustrating that you could only access tutorial videos for the Spark once you had connected it to your phone – some of the videos could have been used before. That said, I found them really useful.
I turned to Casey and, once again, he inspired me to it give it another chance. At last, Thursday evening, I could fly my little Spark. The neighbour’s kids were intrigued by my “toy” and the security guard gave me strange looks before asking me what I was doing.
At James and Ethel Park.
Parking in Johannesburg.
Getting a microSD card
Sometime Wednesday evening, I realised that the drone only took microSD memory cards, which would all be well and good if you had a few lying around, or in your phone perhaps to swap with your drone. But I only had standard SD and CF memory cards, which meant that I had to buy a new, fast, large and rather expensive memory card that could handle HD video. And it’s always a good idea to get a spare as well.
Fitting the drone into the bag and carry case
My last frustration came on Saturday morning when I arranged to go out to learn some basic controls with my pal Herbie at a local park. The storage box only fits the Spark, which means that you have to carry the remote controller separately. I understand that it fits snugly around the Spark to protect it, but did the drone and carry support design teams not communicate with each other? And the storage box did not fit into the shoulder bag either.
The storage box was probably meant for travelling as it comes with two slots for spare batteries and slots for spare propellers, but it did not even have a handle with which to carry it. All-in-all, I was literally carrying the shoulder bag with the controller, a couple of cables, and the battery charging station in one hand, and the storage box with the batteries, propellers and spare batteries in the other. The Spark has the advantage of beginning small and portable, yet the carry solutions aren’t really that mobile-friendly. (Note that you need to remove the propeller guards when fitting the drone into the storage box).
I’m writing this a week later and I still cannot connect my phone directly to the Spark. But, flying the drone in the open of James and Ethel Grey Park, and also at Zoo Lake over the weekend was a pleasure. I’ve played around with different shooting modes and will now be trying editing the footage I got.
The drone gets up quickly and is responsive to the remote. I have been flying cautiously, but the obstacle sensor seems to work well as I have not hit anything yet. Even though the first week had its ups and downs, the Spark is relatively easy, and I would definitely recommend getting the Fly More Combo as it’s much more costly buying the accessories separately.
Overall, I’ve really enjoyed the experience of getting to know the Spark, but I am still tempted to get myself a Mavic hoping that it would be easier to plan shots – With the Spark, I have to plan my flight times carefully as it only flies about 10 minutes on a battery. Apart from flying for longer, I’d also like to fly the drone further away from me and take longer videos.
© Pranesh Lukan