I’ve been in love with helicopters since I was a very small boy.
I can remember receiving a Vertibird when I was about 8 years old. It was a small helicopter on the end of a long stick that rotated around a motorized base. It was as close to a remote control helicopter as you could get in the early 1970s.
Fast-forward 45 years, and today’s remote control helicopters (drones) are exactly what I wanted back when I was 8.
I’ve reviewed a few cheap drones in the past, but anyone who flies drones knows that Chinese company DJI makes really good ones.
A few months ago, DJI sent me its Mavic Air, which is an amazing machine released in early 2018 that’s a favorite of commercial and hobby drone flyers.
During my testing, DJI released a new Mavic model — a cheaper and smaller drone called the Mavic Mini.
DJI was nice enough to send me the Mavic Mini so I could compare it with the Mavic Air, but I ended up spending a lot more time flying the Mini, so this review will concentrate a bit more on it.
DJI has about 70% of the global drone market.
I first became aware of DJI with its Phantom line of quad-rotor drones that began with the Phantom 1 in 2013. The current model, the Phantom 4 Pro V2, costs $1,729.
It has a three-axis stabilized camera with a 20-megapixel sensor. It also has four-direction obstacle avoidance and a six-camera navigation system so it will avoid crashing into things as you fly it at up to 31 miles per hour.
This is a rather large drone that uses a wireless control technology called OcuSync HD to allow for a range of up to 4.3 miles (unobstructed).
The Phantom is a wonderful quad, but its size (11.39 × 11.39 × 7.71 inches) is on the large side, and you’ll have to register it with the FAA.
In 2016, DJI introduced a new type of drone called the Mavic Pro.
Mavic is a line of DJI quads, ranging from large to small, but they all have a folding arm design to make them easier to pack and carry.
The Mavic Pro was followed by the cheaper and smaller Mavic Air in early 2018.
Now we have the Mavic Mini, which is even cheaper and smaller than the Mavic Air.
The Mavic Air ($919) is DJI’s midsize Mavic drone that can shoot 4K video.
You can fly the Air with just the DJI app on your smartphone or tablet, but you’ll get more range and speed if you use the controller.
The range of the Air using the smartphone as a controller is about 250 feet, while the range with the controller is up to 2.4 miles.
The controller uses your smartphone to show you what the drone’s camera is seeing as you fly.
The Air has a maximum speed of 42.5 miles per hour and it has forward and backward obstacle avoidance.
The Mavic Air folds up for easy carrying. Extended for flight, the drone measures 6.61 × 7.24 × 2.51 inches, but folded for travel, the Air measures 6.61 × 3.26 × 1.92 inches.
It weighs less than a pound (15.16 ounces) and it has a flight time of 21 minutes.
In October of 2019, DJI introduced a much-anticipated, smaller, cheaper and lighter quad called the Mavic Mini ($399).
The Mini weighs in at just 8.78 ounces, or 249 grams, which is important.
Drones that weigh 250 grams or more must be registered with the FAA. Drones under 250 grams don’t have to be registered if you fly recreationally, but you still have to follow the drone laws.
Unfolded, the Mini measures 6.29 × 7.95 × 2.16 inches. It folds down to 5.51 × 3.22 × 2.24 inches, which is small enough to fit in the palm of your hand.
As you might expect, the Mini is not as full-featured as the Air.
You can’t shave $500 from the price without leaving out some things.
The Mini’s camera shoots 2.7K video (vs. 4K for the Air). Video from both drones looks amazing.
The Mini does not have any forward or backward obstacle avoidance. It does have downward obstacle sensing, which will warn you if the drone senses its landing area is not safe. The downward sensing also helps to stabilize hovering.
The Mini also can’t be controlled from a smartphone alone. You must connect your phone or tablet to the Mini’s controller.
The Mavic Mini has a range of up to 2.4 miles (unobstructed). I found the controller had trouble keeping the connection to the drone between 1 and 2 miles away in the city, with buildings and trees in the way. Flying over a lake allowed for much greater range, and I was able to fly more than 2 miles out.
Legally, you need to maintain a visual line of sight to your drone at all times. This can be challenging with a drone as small as the Mini. There will be times when you are flying solely via the video screen. Hopefully those times are short.
Because the Mavic drones have GPS, they have a feature called Return To Home, which will bring the drone back to you with the push of one button.
The Mavic drones will also return to home if they fly too far away and lose connection to the controller for more than 20 seconds or if the battery level gets critically low.
The Mini’s camera sits on a three-axis mechanical gimbal, so the video is very steady. It is amazing to see the drone get buffeted by the wind and still provide video that looks like it was shot with a tripod.
The Mini has three flying modes: Speed (the fastest mode), Position (standard mode) and Cinematic, a very slow, deliberate maneuvering mode that is great for getting smooth videos.
How do they fly?
The Mavic Air and Mavic Mini are unbelievably easy to fly.
Snap your phone into the controller, power everything on, and when you see “OK to takeoff” on the screen, press one button to launch the drone to hover a few feet off the ground.
These drones have sophisticated electronics inside (downward vision sensing) to make them hover quite easily, especially if you let go of the control sticks.
If you’re learning to fly and you’re headed toward a crash, just let go of the controls and the drone will stop and hover until you are ready to move it again.
I’m pretty sure I could teach my 8-year-old self to fly the Mini in about 30 minutes. It’s best to get familiar with the controls in an open field.
The DJI app makes taking off and landing as easy as pushing a button.
There are two control sticks. The left stick controls altitude and direction (up/down and rotate left/right). The right stick controls movement (forward/backward and left/right).
People who grew up playing video games will take to drone flying quite easily.
Everything you need is on the screen.
There are readings for altitude and distance away (in feet or meters) as well as your speed. There is also a countdown timer showing how much fly time you have left on your battery.
You’ll also see pop-up messages when your GPS is experiencing interference or when high winds might be a factor in your flying.
You will occasionally crash. I did.
Luckily my crashes were from very low altitude (less than 6 feet) and over grass, so no harm was done. Spare rotors are not hard to install. There is also an available plastic guard you can install to protect the rotors if you want to fly indoors or are just learning.
Videographers will especially love Quick Shots, which are video modes for automating some complex video shooting. There are too many to mention here, but my favorite is Circle. With Circle, you pick a subject on the screen and the drone will slowly circle the subject, keeping it centered as it flies a huge circle. It’s epic.
The Mavic Air costs $919 for the drone, one battery, the controller, a carrying case and accessories.
DJI also offers a “Fly More” kit that adds two extra batteries, a battery charging hub, extra propellers and a travel bag for $1,149.
The Mavic Mini costs $399 for the drone, one battery, the controller and the accessories.
The Fly More kit for the Mini costs an extra $100 and adds two more batteries, extra propellers with screws, a battery charging hub, the propeller guards and a travel case.
Do yourself a favor and buy the drones with the Fly More kit. The extra batteries are worth the cost alone.
Flying the Mavic drones are the most fun I’ve had in a long time. I’d wake up on rainy weekend days lamenting about not getting to fly. I got on my wife’s nerves by taking it on picnics and walks, but she eventually asked to fly it, too.
The Mini is a logical first drone for someone who wants to learn to fly and eventually buy better-featured and more expensive drones in the future.
I can see why drones like the Mavic Air cost what they do. They can do serious work. The video produced is high-quality and could be used for TV shows and movies. I also see how they could be useful in helping law enforcement locate missing persons.
Pros: Unbelievably easy to fly. Great range. No FAA registration for the Mini. Gimbal for steady video.
Cons: A little expensive.
Bottom line: If you want to fly drones, do yourself a favor and skip those really cheap ones. Save your money for a Mavic Mini. You won’t be sorry.