The Mavic Air is tiny and films in 4K, but does it deliver? What is the image quality like? Can it handle wind? What about the battery life and range? After a month of intensive use, here is a detailed review of this new drone.
1. The Hardware
The standard package ($800) includes the drone, the remote controller, a battery, eight propellors, cables, and a basic charger for $800, but DJI also offers the “Fly More Combo” at $1000, which includes three batteries, 12 propellors, two carrying bags (a pouch and a shoulder bag), and a charger with four slots. My review is going to be based on “Fly More Combo,” because it’s the bundle that I purchased.
The Mavic Air
After years of traveling with bulky drones that take up all the space in my carry-on bag, the Mavic Air feels like a liberation. I was surprised by the size of the aircraft. It’s quite tiny and I can hold it in my hand. Equipped with a battery, the drone weighs less than a pound (0.95 lbs / 430 grams). Small and light, it fits in a single lens slot inside my camera bag. The weight of the drone with the controller is similar to a standard 24-105 mm f/4 lens. The drone is very well made and nothing about it feels cheap.
The microSD card slot is located on the back of the aircraft next to the USB-C connector and under a protective cover, which is not compatible with standard micro USB. This port is used to access the internal 8 GB memory and connect the Mavic Air to the DJI Assistant software on a computer.
The Remote Controller
DJI recycled the bad controller from the Spark, but the Mavic Air controller comes with detachable sticks for easier transportation. The bundles includes an extra pair of sticks in case you lose one. The main problem is the poor quality of the top wheel to control the gimbal. I find it hard to tilt the camera precisely up and down because the force of the spring holding the wheel is poorly adjusted and you can easily apply too much pressure to it. The wheel is also too small. The other issue is the lack of a second wheel to control the shutter speed or exposure value. In real life, there is no way to quickly adjust the exposure. You must pause the flight and manually tap on the screen to change the shutter speed or the exposure value. In this respect, the controller of the Mavic Pro is much better.
Unlike the Spark, the connection to the smartphone and tablet requires a cable and cannot be done via Wi-Fi. You have the option to plug the device to the microUSB connector on the left side of the controller or to a regular USB port in front. The handles can be stretched to receive an iPad mini.
Based on the state of discharge, each battery takes 45 to 60 minutes to be recharged. The charging station included in the Fly More Combo can take up to four batteries, but the recharge is not done simultaneously. The charger charges each battery one by one in a sequence, and it seems that the charger starts with the emptier battery. Unlike the Spark, the Mavic Air cannot be charged directly by plugging the cable to the USB-C connector in the back of the drone.
Two USB ports are located in front of the charger, so one can be used to recharge the controller via the extra microUSB connector. A full recharge of the controller takes about three hours.
2. In Flight
Despite its size, the Mavic Air is surprisingly agile and can handle a reasonable amount of wind up to 15 mph. Beyond that, the drone will struggle to move forward against the wind and maintain a precise trajectory even if the gimbal can stabilize the video correctly. Don’t expect Phantom 4 performances and wind resistance, but the Mavic Air does a good job. Of course, the Sport mode that allows the drone to tilt forward more aggressively can unleash more speed, but at the expense of erratic gimbal stabilization and with the propellors appearing in the field of view of the camera. Nonetheless, the sport mode can be useful to fly back against strong winds or quickly cruise to the desired point of interest. The maximum speed announced by DJI in sport mode is 42 mph (68 kph), and I was able to confirm this speed during my flights. For comparison, the Mavic Pro reaches 40 mph (65 kph). Thus, the Mavic Air is slightly faster than the Mavic Pro in sport mode.
As usual with DJI drones, the altitude hold and stabilization is very accurate. The GPS receiver can decode signals from GPS and Glonass systems. The manufacturer also doubled the IMU sensors with two gyroscopes and two accelerometers to prevent flyaways.
As usual with most drones, the 21 minutes of flight time advertised by DJI is very optimistic to say the least. You should expect to fly for 15 minutes before reaching 20 percent of battery life (normal cruising, no sport mode). You may drain the battery down to critical level for another two minutes or so, but don’t expect to fly more than that.
This is probably the main issue of the Mavic Air. Unlike the Phantom and the Mavic Pro, DJI didn’t implement Lightbridge and OcuSync radio link technology on the Mavic Air. Instead, the drone comes with a so-called “enhanced” Wi-Fi link. What does this mean? Is it a better algorithm, a more advanced signal treatment, an optimization of antenna placement, an electronic noise management? No one knows, and DJI is not very responsive about that. Marketing issues aside, my tests shows that the radio range is better than the Spark but falls short of the performance of the Phantom and the Mavic Pro.
In the countryside, free of any radio interference, a quick range test gave me more than a mile of range before seeing the first video lags on the screen. However, the situation is considerably worst in urban and suburban neighborhoods where you may struggle to reach as little as 1,000 feet (300 meters). Switching between 5.8 GHz and 2.4 GHz bands won’t help much. In any case, remember that FAA regulations require you to fly the drone within visual line-of-sight. On a side note, lags on the DJI Go application and on the video feed may come from the smartphone or tablet. Make sure to use a recent device to handle the load. I conducted several tests with old and modern mobile devices and found that many video and reception issues came from underpowered smartphones.
But US pilots are lucky because FCC regulations are relatively permissive with radio transmission power. Bring your drone overseas and the Mavic Air will automatically switch to the low CE (European) transmission power setting based on the GPS coordinates. In this mode, the Mavic Air is simply useless in urban and suburban areas. During recent trips in Europe and Latin America, I sometimes struggled to maintain a decent connection when the drone was flying at 300 feet (90 meters) from my position.
Lee Morris asked for it and DJI did it. They installed an additional set of anti-collision sensors in the back of the drone. The Mavic Air can now see obstacles in the back and in the front. The sides of the drones are still vulnerable, but the back and front anti-collision sensors offer a relatively large field of view (50 degrees) to detect uncooperative buildings or trees located in your fly path. Below the drone, two additional cameras facing the ground cover the vertical axis, helped by a 3D infrared module. This system ensures precise stabilization and position holding even during indoor flights where the GPS signals are unavailable. This downward position system works up to 30 feet (9 meters). Overall, the anti-collision system is very effective and was able to detect fine foliage and tricky tree branches during my tests. When the drone approaches an obstacle, several warnings appears on the video feed with an indication of the distance of the obstacles (e.g. 10 feet / 9 meters). Past a certain point (3-4 feet / 1 meter), the drone will refuse to move forward and “push back” against the pilot command if you are on collision course. That being said, keep in mind that the system can fail during fast flight (with back wind) because of the limited range of the sensors. Finally, note that the anti-collision system is not available in Sport mode.
Intelligent Flight Modes
The Mavic Air offers several intelligent flight modes and some features can be commanded by using hand gestures. In these modes, the drone performs a series a pre-programmed flight patterns such as flying in circles around a subject or spiraling upward. The drone records a video according to the selected shooting mode and then automatically generates a 10-second video, which is ideal for beginners who want to share quality content on social media. These flight modes work very well.
Another interesting feature is the “Active Track” that allows you to mark and track several moving objects on your mobile device’s screen. No external tracking device is required. The Mavic Air can automatically identify and track people, vehicles, and boats and use different tracking strategies for each. Does it work? Yes, but be aware the limitations of the anti-collision sensors of the drone. First, remember that the Mavic Air has two blind spots on its sides where there are no sensors. Any intelligent flight mode involving side motion such as “Circle” or “Profile” is vulnerable to collision with the outside world. Secondly, past a certain speed, the Mavic Air may not have enough time to react and detect small obstacles such as power lines. Use these flight modes with caution and keep checking your environment at all times. Prior scouting of the location is strongly recommended before enabling this type of automatic flight mode.
Finally, the “Smart Capture” feature is a gesture recognition that allows you to take selfies, record videos, and control the aircraft using simple hand gestures in front of the camera. The smart capture was introduced with the Spark, but this feature works much better on the Mavic Air even though the success rate of the system is not perfect, especially in certain situations like backlight (sun behind you), or when there are too many shadows and moving objects around the pilot.
Selfie modes and Instagram aside, serious pilots can count on a series of interesting flight modes to improve the smoothness of the video capture. The ultra-slow Tripod mode is still here. In this mode, the maximum flight speed is limited to 2.2 mph (3.6 kph) and the responsiveness to stick movements is also reduced for smoother, more controlled trajectories. In Cinematic mode, the aircraft’s braking distance is extended and its rotation speed is reduced. The aircraft will slow down gently until it stops, keeping the footage smooth and stable even if control inputs are choppy. With the point of interest mode, the pilot can simply select a subject, set the circle radius, flight altitude, and flight speed, and the aircraft will fly around the subject according to these settings. Once again, remember that the drone won’t detect obstacles coming from the side.
3. Image Quality
The three-axis gimbal performs extremely well and the image is very stable except during abrupt maneuvers such as sudden braking. The gimbal isolation is also very good, and I didn’t notice any serious “jello effect” (rolling shutter issues) even during bright daylight hours with high shutter speeds. Despite its size, the tiny gimbal can receive screw in ND filters for those who want to reduce the shutter speed and respect the 180-degree shutter rule.
The 60 Mbps bit rate in 4k on the Mavic Pro was clearly a dealbreaker. This limited data flow was not enough to handle the high resolution and the image was full of artifacts ruining the video. Personally, I sold the Mavic Pro a week after purchasing it because of that. DJI solved the problem on the Mavic Air, as this drone can now record at 100 Mbps. No more weird compression artifact in the image. Unfortunately, this high bit rate is not available in lower resolution modes. Here are some of the average bit rates observed depending on the resolution and frame-rate:
- 4K at 24, 25 and 30 fps: 100 Mbps
- 2.7K at 24, 25, and 30 fps: 50 Mbps
- 2.7K at 48, 50, and 60 fps: 90 Mbps
- 1080 at 24, 25, and 30 fps: 35 Mbps
- 1080 at 48, 50, and 60 fps: 70 Mbps
- 1080 at 120 fps: 25 Mbps
In 4K at 100 Mbps, don’t expect to recycle the previous microSD card from your Mavic Pro. You will need a faster card. Take a look at the list of cards recommended by DJI.
Resolutions and Crop
On the specifications list, the focal length of the Mavic Air is shown at 24mm in 35mm equivalent. But camera manufacturers often omit the video crop and DJI is no better. First, you’ll notice a little bit of horizontal crop when switching from stills to video mode. But the main crop comes from high frame-rate video formats. Anything above 30 fps will crop significantly both in 2.7K and 1080. Strangely, the 1080 at 120 fps doesn’t crop, but the video quality is so bad that I would never use this setting. Finally, the video is not recorded in 120 fps but converted to 30 fps like the variable frame rate on the GH5.
Like most DJI drones, the image suffers from complex distortion. There is a little bit of mustache distortion with small drops near the edges of the frame. Barrel distortion is also present. In real life, you won’t notice it much unless you film straight lines such as the flat horizon or get very close to an object. Overall, the image distortion is well controlled for this focal range.
Sharpness, Noise and Dynamic Range
Usually, the image on DJI drones is razor sharp and many pilots dial down the sharpness setting. For some reason, the image of the Mavic Air in 4K is softer than usual, which is not a bad thing. Is this due to a default setting by DJI or does the “plastic” lens of the drone tend to soften the image? I’m not sure, but the image is pleasing and additional sharpness can be added in post if necessary. As for dynamic range and low light sensitivity, there is no miracle. The Mavic Air comes with a tiny 12-megapixel 1/2.3” CMOS sensor and you can notice the presence of noise in the image, even at base ISO. This noise is not a dealbreaker, but it’s there, especially in the shadows. In terms of sensitivity, I would never venture beyond ISO 400. At ISO 200, additional noise is already visible.
Picture Profiles and Absence of Log
Unlike the Mavic Pro and the Phantom, the Log curve is not available on the Mavic Air. The closest to a flat picture mode is the Cinelike-D profile, and seasoned users can customize the picture profile in the settings. I tried to tune the Cinelike-D to emulate some kind of log curve by lowering the contrast and reducing the saturation, but the footage becomes very noisy if you push the settings. My go-to settings are Cinelike-D with contrast, sharpness, and saturation set to minus 1 or 2. Thanks to the 100 Mbps bitrate in 4K, the latitude for grading and color correction is much better than the Mavic Pro.
As I mentioned earlier, the controller lacks a second wheel to adjust the shutter speed and/or exposure value. In manual exposure mode, the only option to adjust the setting is to pause the flight and tap the screen to select the correct shutter speed and EV. Personally, I assigned two buttons to manage the exposure: one button to lock the exposure and another one to open the camera setting menu and adjust the EV. In auto mode, the exposure corrections are too brutal and can be noticed in the footage.
In still mode, the image quality is similar to a mid-range smartphone and the corners of the image are on the soft side. The 12-megapixel sensor delivers acceptable images and the Mavic Air can record the files in DNG (raw), JPEG, or both. The camera can take HDR images based on three bracketed stills. The HDR picture is generated automatically and the three source files are saved independently on the card. The drone is also able capture and stitch a 360-degree panoramic image together in a 33-megapixel file (8192 x 4096).
Conclusion: A Great Compromise Between Portability, Flight Performance, and Image Quality
Jack of all trades, master of none? The Mavic Air does not break records in any category, but considering its size, this drone is extremely capable. The three-axis gimbal delivers rock stable footage and the 100 Mbps bitrate is finally enough to capture 4K video correctly. Yes, the Wi-Fi radio link is bad in urban environments, the flight time is a little short (16 minutes), and I wished the noise in the image would be more discrete, but for the size and price, this drone is very convincing. To give you an idea, the Mavic Air fitted with a battery is lighter than a single Phantom battery. In the end, it depends on your priority. Do you prefer the image quality and flight performance of a Phantom class drone or can you trade performance for convenience? As a frequent traveler, I’m no longer bringing my Phantom with me on trips. The inconspicuous nature of the Mavic Air makes it an ideal companion, especially in situations where I would not have been able to bring a Phantom or Mavic Pro. The best drone is useless if you can't take it with you. But there is one major caveat. In many countries outside the USA, the drone automatically limits the transmitting power output to CE mode, severely affecting the range and video quality in urban and suburban environments.
Below is the video of Buenos Aires filmed with the Mavic Air (the time-lapses are from a Canon 6D). Overall the footage is pleasing and easier to grade than the Mavic Pro.
- Portability and size.
- Three-axis gimbal and stability of the video.
- Build quality of the drone.
- Adequate video bitrate at 100 Mbps in 4K (versus 60 Mbps for the Mavic Pro).
- Resistance to moderate wind (less than 15 MPH).
- Speed and agility in sport mode.
- Built-in 8 GB memory when you forget your memory card at home.
- Effective forward, backward, and downward anti-collision sensors.
- Acceptable battery life for this class of drone (16 minutes).
- Radio link based on Wi-Fi, which can be bad in urban and sub-urban environments.
- Noticeable noise and grain in the image even at base ISO.
- No log curve.
- Unadvertised crop in video mode (but nothing dramatic, especially in 4K).
- Bad image quality in 1080/120, but it’s there and is better than nothing.
- The real battery life (16 minutes) is less than advertised by DJI (20-21 minutes).
- The auto-exposure adjustments are a little brutal.
- Lack of a second wheel on the controller to adjust the shutter speed or exposure value.
- Horrible signal quality and range in CE transmission mode (in many countries outside USA).
- Poor design of the wheel on the controller to tilt the gimbal up and down.
If you're interested in purchasing the DJI Mavic Air, you can do so here.