Hands On With the New DJI Mavic Air 2
While those of us who are loyal Mavic Pro users will have to wait a bit before “the 3” comes out, in the meantime DJI has introduced a tantalizingly feature-rich successor to the Mavic Air. The Mavic Air 2 ($799) upgrades just about every aspect of the original and even has a few features that go beyond what the Mavic Pro 2 can do. We were fortunate enough to get an early review unit and have access to a safe area to fly while sheltering-in-place, so we got it up in the air to check it out.
DJI’s Mavic Air 2 by the Numbers
Reading the camera specs on the Air 2, it’d be easy to think you’d mistakenly wandered into a smartphone launch. Basically, the photo and video capabilities are now, at least on paper, on a par with flagship smartphones. The camera features a 1/2-inch-format 48MP Quad-Bayer that is normally in a “binned” 12MP mode. It’s the first Mavic that can record 4K video at 60fps (up to 120Mbps), and also offers 4x and 8x slow-motion recording at 1080p, as well as an HDR video mode. There is the usual array of QuickShot modes and support for both RAW stills and a D-Cinelike video color profile. There is also an 8K Hyperlapse mode that supports either Free or Waypoint flying, which should be a lot of fun. The Air 2 has 8GB of internal storage available, and a microSD card slot. Both it and the remote have mercifully moved to USB-C for charging.
On the computational imaging front, the Air 2 adds many of the tricks we’re now used to seeing in phones. It can perform automated multi-frame HDR by combining seven frames, and it has a low-light, multi-frame, mode called Hyperlight. It also has some scene recognition AI built-in for custom processing based on the type of subject. An HDR Panorama mode fills in an important hole for those of us who’ve had to literally stitch together workflow for that task ourselves. All this fits into a sleek, 570-gram folding package that is smaller than the Mavic Pro, although probably not enough to switch unless you need its other features.
Speaking of features, like the Air, the Air 2 lacks a USB-A port for easy cabling to a tablet or phone, so you’re stuck relying on DJI’s own solution. Personally, I’ve found their attempt to provide low-profile short cables that tuck into the remote more trouble than they’re worth, and so far I feel the same way about the one used in the Air 2’s remote. Yes, the cable can be hidden inside the remote, but it is barely long enough to use with a large phone, and fairly tricky to get plugged and unplugged. The Air 2’s remote does put the phone at the top of the remote, for better visibility and balance, which is nice. But, because the clamps are on the sides of the phone, you need to be really careful that you don’t position your phone so that the remote presses one of its buttons.
Flying the Mavic Air 2
The Air 2 has a redesigned electronics and battery system that bumps its quoted flight time to a maximum of 34 minutes. In my limited testing, it certainly does seem to stay up longer before you need to start worrying. One thing I learned from the press materials is that apparently drones (at least DJI’s) use more power while hovering than moving. I wouldn’t have guessed that (and I suspect a lot depends on how fast you’re flying). The Air 2 has obstacle sensors forward, rear, and down, but unfortunately not up or sideways. One feature I found annoying is that it complains often and loudly when you are near anything. In my case, taking off from my front yard I have either trees or the house within about 20 feet in any direction, so the remote squawks loudly until I get up and over the treetops.
You fly the Air 2 using DJI’s newer flight app, DJI Fly. It does a much better job of hand-holding you through various settings and modes (although the incessant video popups can also prove tiresome). It also doesn’t offer all the same options (at least in its current form) as the more traditional DJI Go app. In my case, I also do a lot of flying with the third-party app Litchi, especially pre-planned routes. Litchi supports the original Air, so I assume they’ll also be supporting the Air 2. One impressive-sounding new feature of the Air 2 is APAS 3.0 obstacle avoidance. As long as you’re not shooting something trickier than 4K @ 30 fps, APAS will try to route you around obstacles. This wasn’t the sort of feature I wanted to test with the review unit, but it sounds promising.
The Air 2 also comes with an upgraded system, OcuSync 2.0, for communications between the drone and the remote. It is rated at a theoretical maximum range of 10 km. The next sentence says to keep the drone within sight, for what it’s worth. Anecdotally, in the limited area I’ve been able to fly it safely given current travel restrictions, the connection was rock solid and the video quality was excellent. Unfortunately, like the Air, the remote for the Air 2 doesn’t have an LCD. I often find myself looking at the LCD for my Mavic Pro drones, as it can be easier to read in the sun and more than once my phone app has gone sideways and I’ve had to fly the drone using the remote’s display.
The great news is that the Air 2 is fun to fly, extremely stable, and very responsive. You can see the upgraded stability when using the unit’s built-in cinematic modes. This orbit was performed automatically, and tracks the object more accurately while moving more stably than the same orbit I did when reviewing the original Air:
QuickShot Video Gallery
After some basic flight tests, I wanted to see how well the QuickShot modes performed. Orbit worked really well, and is a nice improvement in image quality and stability over the original Air.
Given the rather strict stay-at-home order locally, I wasn’t able to come up with any super-interesting subjects for testing the Air 2’s other QuickShot modes, but I was able to record examples of three of them that I aimed at the “Field Closed” sign in a park near my house. Personally I liked the Boomerang best, although it didn’t track the saw horse perfectly. I wasn’t that inspired by the others, but then again I use Litchi software for pre-planned shots. Certainly, these QuickShot modes are better than what most drone pilots can do when flying manually.
Rocket was the first one I tried. Seemed fine, but not all that exciting:
Dronie is very similar:
Boomerang was pretty cool, but seemed to lose track of the subject towards the end. It would be hard to duplicate using pre-planned waypoints, so that adds to its value:
DJI’s AirSense Brings ADS-B to a Consumer Drone
The Air 2 is DJI’s first consumer drone with AirSense. That allows it to receive ADS-B signals from other aircraft and alert the drone operator if there is an aircraft nearby that might be of concern — as well as showing the aircraft’s location. Now, this sounds pretty cool, but I’m not sure how much difference it will make in real life for most people. In my case, when traveling to remote locations, we’re often flying near where planes land on the beach or on dirt roads, so it might prove useful. Seldom-used airstrips or Helipads might be another environment where it might be valuable. Note that this is a receive-only capability. The Air 2 doesn’t transmit ADS-B. Also, due to supply chain issues, initially only the North American units will have AirSense. Other geographies will start getting it over time.
Is the Mavic Air 2 the Right Drone for You?
If you want to get the most drone you can for under $1,000, the Air 2 is an impressive option. At $799 for the drone (pre-orders are being accepted now, and US shipments should start by mid-May) and remote, or $988 for the Fly-More combo pack, it gets you in the game for substantially less than the Pro 2. If, like me, you have existing Mavic Pro or Pros, the choice is less clear. While the Air 2 is smaller and has a lot of improvements over the original Pro, it doesn’t have an LCD on the remote and uses the slightly stripped-down DJI Fly app. So if you’re not in a huge hurry, it may pay to wait and see what the Pro 3 will eventually offer.