First Impressions of the DJI Mavic Air Drone

DJI Mavic Air drone
DJI Mavic Air drone

I’ve wanted a drone for a long time. I’ve seen drone photos and video from talented railfan photographers like Jeff Wizniak, and I appreciate the change in perspective that a drone can bring.

I had some “found money” late in 2018. I looked at a few different DJI drones – I considered a discounted Phantom 4 – but I decided on the DJI Mavic Air. I liked it for these reasons:

  • Very small size
  • 4K video
  • Control via remote controller OR phone/tablet
  • “Reasonable” price

The size was definitely important to me. It’s small enough when folded up that I can keep it in my camera bag all the time.

I expect to have it with me every time I go out to photograph trains, so that if the conditions are good and I am in an area where drones can be flown, up it goes. I know that if I have to think about bringing it, it’ll be left behind.

So… what do I think of it?

I like it. The size is good – what I expected – and it’s easy to bring along. So far I’ve only flown it a few times, with only one “real” flight where I consciously took photos with it, so I don’t have a good feel for battery life yet. I only have one battery but I expect I will buy one or two more. They are rated for about 25 minutes of flight, so one battery won’t be enough for any serious outings.

The photo quality is… well, it’s hard to know. The photos I took were JPG photos, not “raw” format, and it wasn’t a great day for photos anyway. You be the judge.

First drone train photos
First drone train photos

It’s backlit so it’s not going to be great, and since it wasn’t in RAW format, I couldn’t do a lot about the shadows. It’s a 12 megapixel camera, so it’s not going to be as good as my Canon 77D, but it has enough pixels for me.

My biggest frustrations to date have been with the controller and my phone.

The remote controller looks like a video game controller, with two control sticks and a few buttons. There is a cradle to hold your phone and a cable to connect it to the controller. I had a lot of problems syncing my phone to the controller, and reading through forums, I discovered that the supplied DJI cable is crap and you should use your own cable to plug into the standard USB port in the controller. Once I did that, I had zero problems connecting.

The other problem I had with the controller was that it kept beeping at me, with no indication of why. Worse, I couldn’t actually fly the drone. I could auto take off and auto land, but that was it… no lateral movement or altitude changes were recognized.

More forum searching suggested that I needed to calibrate the controller. It’s a quick procedure to move the control sticks in all directions so the controller knows where the physical limits are. Once I did that, the beeping went away and it let me actually fly the drone.

My frustration with my phone is due to the rapidly failing battery in my iPhone 6. It basically shuts down whenever it is cold, within a few minutes of being in a cold environment. This can be a problem when you are flying with it! Ask me how I know…

In the video below, I launched the drone with the “auto takeoff” function in the app on my phone. In previous flights I used the auto land, but in this first “real” flight, my phone shut down so my only control was with the remote controller. I tried landing it but the drone is a little too smart for its own good…

First real drone flight

There are cameras on the front, back and bottom of the DJI Mavic Air for collision avoidance. The bottom camera looks at the ground and the onboard software decides whether it looks like a good spot to land. If it doesn’t think you should land there, it will resist – and if the app is online, it will tell you. In my case, it basically hovered when I was pushing the stick down to bring the drone to the ground.

I was seriously wondering what I would do if I couldn’t get it to land. I knew the battery would run out eventually, and the drone will land when the battery is critically low. That still didn’t seem like a good option to me.

Anyway, after a few tries, I got it to land by holding the stick down after it started resisting. The drone landed safely and automatically shut itself off. WHEW.

I’m working on the phone problem and I may end up getting a cheap Android tablet just for flying the drone.

Now I am waiting for warmer weather so I can go fly my DJI Mavic Air again! Much more to come…

6 Replies to “First Impressions of the DJI Mavic Air Drone”

  1. Did you consider the DJI Phantom 4 Pro. ? Looking forward to your trials with the drone…thought about one myself. I’ll see how you make out first.

    1. I did consider the DJI Phantom 4 Pro – briefly – but it was too expensive for a starter drone.

      I’m enjoying the drone, but there’s a lot to learn!

    1. Thanks, Harrison. I would like more of a head on shot too. As long as you are far enough ahead of a train, you can do that…. you just have to keep a 30m separation minimum and not be a distraction to the train crew.

  2. It also sounds like you had to make a few “fixes” right out of the box to get this drone airborne..? I understood that these DJI Mavics were the Cadillac of drones….
    For the kind of $ they want for these gadgets, it seems a little poor. No? .

    1. Well, I had to do firmware updates. I also had to recalibrate the compass, but I’ve figured out that the reason I had to do that was because I was wearing gloves with magnets in them. Oops.

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