DRONE MAKER DJI announced an update to its popular Mavic Air quadcopter today. The Mavic Air 2 will cost $799 when it ships to US buyers in late May. That’s the same price as the previous Mavic Air model, so the drone stays as DJI’s mid-range option between its more capable Mavic 2 and its smaller, cheaper Mavic Mini.
The Mavic Air 2 is still plenty small, but the new version has put on some weight. DJI says that testing and consumer surveys suggested that most people don’t mind lugging a few extra grams in exchange for a considerable upgrade in flight time and, presumably, better handling in windy conditions. Even better, thanks to a new rotor design and other aerodynamic improvements, DJI is claiming the Mavic Air 2 can remain aloft for 34 minutes—a big jump from the 21 minutes of flight time on the original Mavic Air.
The big news in this update is the new larger imaging sensor on the drone’s camera. The Mavic Air 2’s camera ships with a half-inch sensor, up from the 1 2/3-inch sensor found in the previous model. That should mean better resolution and sharper images, especially because the output specs haven’t changed much. The new camera is still outputting 12-megapixel stills, but now has a bigger sensor to fill that frame with more detail. There’s also a new composite image option that joins together multiple single shots into a large, 48-megapixel image.
On the video side, there’s some exciting news. The Mavic Air 2 is DJI’s first drone to offer 4K video at 60 frames per second and 120 Mbps—previous DJI drones topped out at 30 fps when shooting in full 4K resolution. There are also slow-motion modes that slow down footage to four times slower than real life (1080p at 120 fps), or eight-times slower (1080 at 240 fps). Combine those modes with the more realistic contrast you get with the HDR video standard, and you have considerably improved video capabilities in a sub-$1,000 drone.
More interesting in some ways is DJI’s increasing forays into computational photography, which the company calls Smart Photo mode. Flip on Smart Photo and the Mavic Air 2 will do scene analysis, tap its machine intelligence algorithm and automatically choose between a variety of photo modes. There’s a scene recognition mode where the Mavic Air 2 sets the camera up to best capture one of a variety of scenarios you’re likely to encounter with drone photography, including blue skies, sunsets, snow, grass, and trees. In each case, exposure is adjusted to optimize tone and detail.
The second Smart Photo mode is dubbed Hyperlight, which handles low-light situations. To judge by DJI’s promo materials, this is essentially an HDR photography mode specifically optimized for low-light scenes. It purportedly cuts noise and produces more detailed images. The final smart mode is HDR, which takes seven images in rapid succession, the combines elements of each to make a final image with a higher dynamic range.
One last note about the camera: The shape of the camera has changed, so if you have any lenses or other accessories for previous DJI drones, they won’t attach to the Air 2.
If you dig through older YouTube videos there’s a ton of movies that play out like this: unbox new drone, head outside, take off, tree gets closer, closer, closer, black screen. Most of us just aren’t that good at flying, and the learning curve can be expensive and steep. Thankfully drone companies began automating away most of what’s difficult about piloting a quadcopter, and DJI is no exception.
The company has added some new automated flight tricks to the Air’s arsenal. DJI’s Active Track has been updated to version 3.0, which brings better subject recognition algorithms and some new 3D mapping tricks to make it easier to automatically track people through a scene, keeping the camera on the subject as the drone navigates overhead to stay with them. DJI claims the Point of Interest mode—which allows you to select an object and fly around it in a big circle while the camera stays pointed at the subject—is better at tracking some of the objects that previous versions struggled with, like vehicles or even people.
The most exciting new flight mode is Spotlight, which comes from DJI’s high-end Inspire drone used by professional photographers and videographers to carry their DSLR cameras into the sky. Similar to the Active Track mode, Spotlight keeps the camera pointed a moving subject. But while Active Track automates the drone’s flight, the new Spotlight mode allows the human pilot to retain control of the flight path for more complex shots.
Finally, the range of the new Mavic Air 2 has been improved, and it can now wander an impressive six miles away from the pilot in ideal conditions. The caveat here is that you should always maintain visual contact with your drone for safety reasons. However, you aren’t going to be able to see the Mavic Air 2 when it’s two miles away, let alone six.
Despite a dearth of competitors, DJI continues to put out new drones and improve its lineup as it progresses. The Mavic Air 2 looks like an impressive update to what was already one of our favorite drones, especially considering several features—the 60 fps 4K video and 34 minute flight time—even best those found on the more expensive Mavic 2 Pro.