Aircraft, camera and controller

The Mavic Air is extremely compact and easy to carry. The controller, including phone-holding arms, joysticks, and antenna fold down to create a sleek device that can fit in a larger pocket. The arms on the aircraft body fold into themselves without the need to remove the propellers, allowing it to fit easily into nearly any bag or possibly even a large cargo pocket.

Key takeaways:

  • Small footprint for both the aircraft and controller due to collapsible arms, propellers, and joysticks
  • Excellent flying experience
  • Reliance on Wi-Fi for signal transmission is more limiting than DJI's Lightbridge or OcuSync technology
  • Includes obstacle avoidance – but not on the sides
  • Active Pilot Assistance System (APAS) for flying around obstacles is effective, but only works in manual flight mode
  • Aircraft is loud and more likely to draw attention than some other models

The incredible portability of the Mavic Air is arguably the best feature in its design. The drone has a smaller footprint than even the Spark model, thanks to its folding arms, which the Spark lacks. The two landing legs attached to the front arms also fold into themselves and the propellers stay attached when the drone fits into its carrying case.

In its case, the Mavic Air is small enough to fit in most bags, or even a large cargo pocket.

Despite the overall brilliance of its portability, there are a few annoyances to be aware of in the Mavic Air's design. Perhaps the most frustrating of these is removing the microSD card from the back of the drone. The location of the slot cover and slight indentation of the opening make the microSD card challenging to take out using only fingers.

Aircraft and gimbal

The biggest improvement relative to the Mavic Pro is the gimbal construction and design. The Mavic Pro's flimsy gimbal broke easily on impact, and sometimes registered a gimbal overload when filters were attached. It was also more exposed from the aircraft body. The Mavic Air's new 3-axis mechanical gimbal is nestled into the shell with no noticeable overload issues and it's much more likely to survive an impact.

The gimbal works well when the drone is traveling fast or fighting a hard wind, but you may get some propellers in the frame, particularly in sport mode when the drone tilts forward at its highest speeds. The camera consistently maintains a level horizon, usually without calibration before each flight. ND filters are easy to attach using the built-in threads, but the the ring covering the threads needs to be removed.

The Mavic Air's 3-axis mechanical gimbal is very effective and maintains a level horizon even in windy conditions. It's also nestled into the drone's shell to provide better protection from damage.

The Mavic Air's all-new obstacle avoidance system, called Flight Autonomy 2.0, includes forward, backward, and downward sensors to attempt to avoid obstacles in the drone's flightpath. The Mavic Air uses machine learning to build a 3D map of obstacles in real-time as the pilot is flying forward, and if it encounters an obstacle in its way, it will move horizontally, vertically, or stop completely to avoid the obstacle, then continue flying forward.

The drawback of the APAS implementation in the Mavic Air is that you must manually enable it and that it only works when flying manually, not in any of the drone's intelligent flight modes. The technology is promising though, and it seems to work as advertised. APAS is the beginning of DJI's continued development into active obstacle avoidance and it will likely advance further in future models.

The biggest improvement relative to the Mavic Pro is the gimbal construction. The Mavic Pro's flimsy gimbal broke easily and could register a gimbal overload when filters were attached.

The Mavic Air introduces two new flight modes: Boomerang, and Asteroid. Boomerang mode creates an arcing flight path for the drone as it flies away from the subject and returns in an oval-shaped pattern, all the while keeping its camera trained on the subject. Asteroid mode creates what some call the 'small planet' effect, as the drone combines a video with a spherical panorama image to give the appearance of zooming off into space. It also includes DJI's previous flight modes such as Dronie, Helix, and Rocket.

These modes make it easy for any beginner to get nice looking shots, but it's important to remember that none of the modes incorporate the APAS avoidance system while flying, and if the drone is flying sideways in an automated flight mode it will have no obstacle avoidance at all.

Examples of some of the Mavic Air's intelligent flight modes. Video by Reza Malayeri.

Battery life isn't stellar, but is probably reasonable considering the size, providing up to 21 minutes of flight time. Usable time is closer to 18-19 minutes thanks to DJI's implementation of auto landing at 10% remaining battery. Auto landing can be countered with a firm upward press on the joystick, but it's something to do with significant caution, especially over water.

Extra batteries cost $80 and are useful to have considering the drone's limited flight time. When removing the battery, it's necessary to fold the arms inward in a certain order: front landing legs into arms first, then front arms, then rear arms. It can be a bit frustrating at first, but gets fast with practice.

The welcome addition of 8GB of internal storage records every type of the drone's media and it's accessed via the USB-C port at in the back of the body.

The location and slight indentation around the drone's microSD card slot can make it challenging to remove.

Controller

The Mavic Air's controller is similar to the one for the Mavic Pro, but has several differences. The joysticks unscrew and pack into the main housing of the controller, and a very short cable plugs into your smartphone instead of relying on Wi-Fi for its connection; it includes Lightning, microUSB, or USB-C options. It lacks the screen found on the Mavic Pro and relies entirely on the smartphone display to provide flight information through the DJI GO 4 app. It's easy to use, and has lots of great features to help you fly safely and get solid shots. It also has one customizable button that can be assigned a variety of functions.

The Mavic Air's controller attaches to a smartphone using a wired connection. Note that the joysticks can be unscrewed and stored inside the controller, making it exceptionally easy to fit in a pocket or small bag.

The controller uses an extended Wi-Fi connection to communicate with the drone, though the signal is not as robust as other options like Lightbridge and Ocusync. DJI claims the video transmission distance to be 4 km (2.5 mi), but this would have to be under perfect conditions. Depending on the amount of competing signals from other Wi-Fi, radio, etc., the true image transmission range can vary greatly.

The controller also includes dedicated video and photo buttons, which saves a lot of time compared to changing modes using the touch screen. The app will sometimes have a lag when communicating with the drone, so the dedicated buttons reduce the chance of missing a shot. There's also a rear dial to tilt the camera, the sensitivity of which be adjusted in the app.

The Mavic Air responds to hand motions with decent precision; these are often unnecessary for content creation, but can be fun to use

DJI also includes gesture controls, which it calls SmartCapture. This mode can be selected as an intelligent flight mode from the main control page of the DJI GO 4 app. Once in SmartCapture, the drone responds to various hand motions with decent precision. These gesture controls are often unnecessary if content creation is the primary goal, but they can be fun to use.

Finally, the Mavic Air can also be controlled directly from a smartphone when paired via Wi-Fi. The app adds two virtual joysticks to the touchscreen which allow control via the operator's fingers.

The flying experience

The Mavic Air is easy-to-use, portable, responsive, and functional, with only a few downsides that an operator should be aware of.

Flight performance is outstanding. The Mavic Air is fast for its size and extremely responsive as long as you're within range. It can also get slow cinematic shots if that's your goal, especially when in tripod mode, which dampens the controller inputs. The Mavic Air stays still while hovering in a way that's comparable to the Mavic Pro.

Signal strength on the Mavic Air is good for Wi-Fi. When flying the drone within a half mile, and away from significant signal interference, there shouldn't be many problems. It's still susceptible to the pitfalls of Wi-Fi interference though, so if any objects are in the way or the drone is at a distance it may drop the connection, disrupting the smooth movement in a cinematic shot. This is no big deal when doing non-critical production work, but it's not recommended for jobs without the flexibility for multiple takes.

The Mavic Air is quite shrill and isn't the drone to take with you if you want any level of stealth

The controller's dedicated buttons for photos and video are a plus and the controller has most of the things you need and few of the things you don't. The ergonomics of it may feel slightly small for those with bigger hands though.

The Mavic Air is quite shrill. This isn't the drone to take with you if you want to operate with any level of stealth. However, it's small enough that many people consider it a toy and ignore it.

The whole system can be set up and packed down faster than almost any other drone on the market; the only factors likely to slow you down are the lack of access to the battery without unfolding the arms and the difficulty of removing the microSD card.

The Mavic Air is an incredible, portable creative tool with a few quirks that might go unnoticed without extensive use. Perhaps the most important of these to be aware of is the lack of sideways obstacle avoidance. There are many shots - like the helix pattern, profile tracking, etc. - where the drone needs to fly sideways in order to keep the camera on the subject. In these cases, the drone has no eyes in the direction it's flying. This is something to be keenly aware of as an operator since it can result in a crash, even with obstacle avoidance and APAS turned on.

What we like

  • Incredibly portable, DJI has put a lot of thought into the compact design
  • APAS helps avoid obstacles and is promising technology
  • Excellent performance, whether flying quickly or creating a slow, cinematic shot
  • Controller is well-designed

What we'd like to see improved

  • Reliance on Wi-Fi for signal transmission limits range and is more prone to disruption
  • Motors are louder than Spark or Mavic Pro, producing a high-pitch sound
  • APAS works only in manual flight modes and does not include side sensors
  • Plastic door over card and USB slot is small and microSD slot can be difficult to access