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DJI's Mavic Air - An Amazing Announcement!

Published: 30/01/2018

Last week, DJI made an amazing announcement: The Mavic Air. It is getting very good reviews. Apparently, it is tiny (fits in a jacket pocket), light (under a pound), and practically uncrashable (capable of flying itself). The built-in camera shoots 12-megapixel stills, shoots 4K video, and 32-megapixel panoramas. It is set to start shipping on Jan 28th.

In this video, Casey Neistat puts it through its paces and compares it to the Mavic Pro, Mavic Sparc, and Phantom 4.

I am blown away by how the capability to shoot elevated exterior shots has changed over the past few years. Ten years ago, the only way to get 50 feet up was a huge hydraulic camera pole on a trailer. That kind of technology is crazy today! With a little drone, you could be finished with the elevated shot before you had time to get a hydraulic mast in the air.

These days, the biggest issue is just making sure the neighbors don't get upset that you are flying a drone near their home. What are readers' experiences with using drones for quick elevated shots? Is it getting easier or harder?

Larry Lohrman

14 comments on “DJI's Mavic Air - An Amazing Announcement!”

  1. Order mine the day it was announced and FedEx says Jan 31 2018 at my house! Can't wait to take it out. Started with the Phantom 4, then Phantom 4 Advance ( my Phantom 4 fell out of the sky this fall) Spark, just too cute and now the Mavic Air!

    Just LOVE DJI!

  2. Still have to get licensed, insured, etc. Just saying. Now to the air. I have a phantom 4 and Mavic. Had the Phantom on a shoot in Carlton (rural). A drone capable of 45mph in a 45mph headwind stands still. Battery lasted long enough to get close and landed it in a market parking lot. The Mavic would probably would not have made it back, the Air, well it may be fun and take the footage and shots needed but who knows how inclement the weather would have to be to lose it. So if for business I would avoid it. In fact my back up drone to the backup drone will probably be a phantom 4 pro.

  3. Sadly, DJI doesn't publish flight limitations (or much else) for the airframe, but focuses marketing fluff about how fast it will fly and for how long the battery is expected to last. Likewise, the FAA exam is heavy on technical but doesn't address practical decision making of the pilot in command for go - no go (but holds responsible is something goes wrong and labels it 'pilot error'). I wouldn't take a Cessna up in 45MPH (39kn) headwinds when the published limits are 22kn and crosswind limits 11kn - and yes I have done a full crab landing with crosswinds approaching that. At least drones are not limited to a runway, but crosswinds can definitely impact desired angle of flight required for video or maintaining for a still. 45MPH is way beyond the capabilities any small airframe - drone and single prop aircraft. A pole is your backup, but even then, knowing the pole/camera sway at 21' (my max extension) on a still day would hate to think of it with surface winds at 45 MPH, and wouldn't risk my camera. Making the go - no go decision is critical, pole or drone, and you need to be prepared for a no go discussion with a client. I have seen some drone service providers advertise "weather permitting flight operations" limitation which sets up the no go discussion nicely.

    The Mavic Air does look tempting. Wish it had the 1" sensor camera of the Phantom 4 Pro though.

  4. Like most of our tools, there are times when drones make sense...and times when they don't.

    Bill already touched on the fact that there is additional cost for the equipment, training and 107 license. All those additional costs need to be recovered somehow in your business model. In addition, there are the weather/wind limitations that may impact your scheduling. All of those issues are minimized with the use of pole photography the way it's always been done.

    Perhaps the biggest limitation currently is access to the airspace. If you're in a rural area or not near an airport or military base you'll usually be just fine. However, there are large segments of the country where the airspace is so restricted that being able to commit to photographing all your listings with a drone is just impossible. That may change going forward but it's the reality we deal with today.

  5. Just remember you get what you pay for. When you break down the costs of the DJI Mavic series drones, you're probably looking at a $200-300 camera. Dynamic range and color representation isn't very good. I have a Mavic Pro and I can get decent-enough photos, but they look terrible compared to the terrestrial photos taken with my real camera.

  6. Like everything else there are rules and laws and insurance and I want to make sure that I don't cross any lines. For instance, I just found that the city that I shoot my most profitable jobs and lends itself to drone shots because the homes are so large and set into the desert landscape does not allow drone flight in the entire city. So, we hire drone photographers when we need drone shots, but alas, not in Paradise Valley, Arizona where 60% of my profit for the year resides.

  7. Sounds very interesting to me. Probably would not use instead of my P4Pro but a close second as a back up. And you can almost put it in your pocket of you have to go to a vantage point where lugging around the much bigger P4P is a hassle. I saw some YouTube reviews and footage taken even in windy conditions where you would expect it at its small size and weight to wobble around in the gusts, but the video was steady as a rock.

    Discussions of whether to use drone photography for RE is, of course, a related but no on the point of this post, set of topics. Getting your 107 Remote Pilot's license does not have to cost anything beyond the $150 for the test. I took the free course ( and coupled with some Googling to get a bit more information based on taking the also free sample tests, I was able to pass somewhere in the middle of the crowd. And most of the test is technical that appears to have little to do with flying our sophisticated toy quad copters, but also has a lot of good information to know about commercial and military flight paths, no fly zones, restricted zones and how airports work, how to read sectional charts to know what risks and other air space users that may be around where you want to fly. All good stuff to know even if you don't use it most of the time. If I, who is hopeless at rote memorization, can pass then anyone can pass it with enough study.

    Over 66,000 people have now gained their 107 license so the competition will continue to grow leaving behind those who don't pick up the new markets. I find my clients are slow in adopting video although they all want drone stills but not so keen on paying more for them. We may well find ourselves in the situation where we may just have to include some drone stills to all coverages where they would apply and just suck up the additional expense if we want to stay level with the competition. So a small, inexpensive DJI can let anyone have a drone that will take quite capable imagery, for a small investment. Just a couple of jobs can pay for it. Which you might not get without it. Poles are good especially where you can't fly drones but have limited height. Many local ordinances are blocking drone flying. But perhaps if we all make ourselves known to our local government, city and county, and offer what we know that can help them make more informed regulations, it could benefit us all moving into the future.

    I plan to make a presentation (when I get some time) to my local police force. They are even more confused and misinformed than most of us. They only seem to have a passing sense of what the FAA controls vs what the local ordinances, if any, cover. They are concerned, from my experience, with aerial trespassing and invasion of privacy, and the nuisance factor of noise and if horses or other live stock are upset. So they have a point. Just because we fly in Class G air space which is unregulated by the FAA, our presence can cause other issues that can make local and state laws and ordinances start to apply. Horses can think they are being attacked by a swarm of bees. So we also have to fly equipped with print outs of not only our license and insurance but with paper work that shows what national, state and local laws, rules and regulations are in force where we are flying.

    In California, Google searches show, only one state wide bill was presented and Gov. Brown vetoed specifically aimed at Drones. It was written badly and filled with misinformation by Hannah Beth. Everything else in force are bills and laws passed to try to control paparazzi, land based trespassing and so on. So local authorities are wading around in a soup of undefined and chaotic regulation, as are we.

    If you live in a hilly or mountainous region, a drone is without equal for being able to see at eye level a hillside house. I am surround by hills, mostly burned off now with the Thomas fire, but without a drone I am now very limited in my ability to show views of houses and their properties as many properties are large and climb up the hill sides.

    So for me, being able to have the Mavic Air tucked into my glove compartment for just in case, is a great idea.

  8. There are lots of people getting their Part 107 license, but they are definitely not photographers. After spending $2k+ on a drone, license and insurance, will they also be able to spend that amount again for cameras, lenses and lighting? I get asked a lot about drone photos and do my best to talk agents out of them except for hillside homes or large properties. I'm also asking them if they know any good, licensed operators I could take with about partnering up. The agents are seeing that most drone operators can't make interior photos and also tend to go too high with their drones.

    I have plenty of photo items on my list and the ROI for a drone in my area is going to be years as nobody is willing to pay for the service. The Mavic isn't all that cheap. If it were $200-$300, I might be able to squeeze that into the budget somewhere. $1,000 + government graft is out.

    Getting into a business with a very low barrier of entry is always risky. You have to be very good at marketing to be able to sustain a price that will net a worthwhile income. There also isn't a tremendous learning curve with drones. If it was possible to pay back the costs over 20 jobs, that might be ok, but the agents I talk to don't want it to add more than $20-$30 to a package. That's closer to 100 jobs just to break even and I don't see that I am losing work over it. Every once in a while a customer will try somebody, but they are very disappointed with the "money" shots.

  9. 2015-2016, I used to get questions about aerial photography. Only one paying job, commercial, came out of all the questions. Outsourced it. This time last year, 2017, decided to invest and be ready in time for the upcoming season. I just barely made it. Customers started actually spending on aerial photography last year. Within a month of getting my license and insurance, I had my first paying client.

    Paints a rosy picture, but only 3 ended up paying last year. That said, I've used it 3-4 times afterward as an alternative to pole aerial photography...for my own benefit. With demand outstripping supply, photography demand in my region was generally low. Homes were selling before the photography could even be scheduled. This year, I am curious to see how the supply/demand ratio works out and whether the aerial photography demand continues to grow.

    With only 3 paying flights, it clearly hasn't paid for the drone, the coursework, insurance, and the exam. That's fine, while I'd love to have paid for it all first year, I decided I wanted the experience sooner rather than later.

    My experience with neighbors/observers? Generally very positive. Only twice have I had any even mildly negative experience. The only potentially 'negative' was a guy in an apartment complex I was asked to shoot, "you're not shooting me are you...?" Let him know why I was there, he just went inside for about 10 minutes.

    Most folks are very respectful that I need to be attentive to what I'm doing. Even the sheriff's deputy that shoo'd me out of a local park...heard him walking up behind me, waited to talk until after I'd landed. By far, most folks do one of two things. Congregate near me to watch and ask questions. Or, stand a couple hundred feet away and watch.

    For quick elevated shots, PAP's dead for me. In 5 minutes I can have the Mavic out, dbl-check B4uFly, and be in the air.

    Regarding competition? Yes, there are some drone operators, but none seem to be serious competition. Researching their sites last year, every one of them indicated something along the lines of, "due to FAA regulations, cannot fly within 5 miles of an airport." If you look at a sectional chart of my area, 50% or more of the metro area is controlled airspace. I've been acquiring phone numbers to the local airport ATCs. Generally not published, you can simply call the tower number, tell ATC what you want to do (I have my 6 pieces of info ready), and be good to go.

    Last note on image quality from the Mavic, in particular. I fly it as I would an air balloon. Daylight hours, winds 10 kts or less. The one difference is hot air balloons tend to stay in the first, or last, 2 hrs of the day when winds are minimal. The drone gives me more flexibility. Even though I can fly in stronger winds, that impacts image quality.

    Windspeed, even with something as stable as a Mavic (or other heavier, self-managing drones), impacts image quality. Lower windspeed simply makes it easier to have a stable platform and get decent images. They're at least on par with my popping a point'n'shoot atop a pole. One item that helps, is a polarizer filter. Learning that one trick, has definitely helped with overall image quality as well.

    So, in general, the first year flying commercially has proven to be educational. As weather improves in the next 6 weeks or so, I'll be back out flying frequently again, to rebuild proficiency after a few months off-season hiatus.

  10. JT and Ken. I understand what you are saying and I think your points speak to the vast differences in markets and photo demands. I shoot drone shots on about 80% of my shoots. I may be asked for it but if I feel it won't add to the coverage, I try to talk them out of it. I do charge quite a bit more for it. But since I also supply video, my higher end clients shooting high end properties all want video to day as well. Not just drone video but ground based and interiors. So I am offering the who enchilada. Since I can often do all of it in the same property visit (not including twilight shots which to shoot drone stills and video as well as ground based video and stills just can't be done where in my area twilight does not last very long - about 20 minutes of suitable photo time max) I can offer bundled/package prices which makes it less expensive for my client to hire me rather than a still photographer, a videographer and a drone photographer. Also the results all have consistent look and feel across the 3 platforms.

    But that is my market and even in my market, there are few agents who will fork out for the extra cost. Usually they hire these services for house over a million. But if they feel any of these services would help make a smaller, less expensive property (never less the $500k) look better, sell faster or if it needs any of the above to get the idea of it across fast and appealing to the eye, they will do it anyway. So I have some tiered rates that will include a small amount of drone work or larger amounts. A high end video using my Canon 80D on a slider or my GoPro5 on an EVO stabilizer.

    In such a small market, I want to reap the biggest part of the pie. I do have one competitor who under bids me. But he also cuts corners and it shows in the results. I don't believe in shooting for small prices. People think of our quality based on how much they pay for the results. Sad but true. So I do think drone vs no drone is very much a function of the particular market you are in as to whether you can command a price for it that not only makes it worthwhile but serves up a good return on investment. But soon, I think agents will see that if they want to sell properties, the owners are and will be demanding video and drone. So if an agent wants listings, they may just have to get on the train. So its good to be prepared to be able to fill that need as it arrives.

  11. @ Suzanne Fienberg
    Hi Suzanne,
    Replying to your statement that Paradise Valley will not allow drone flights I would like to refer you to some information from the FAA and what happened when the exclusive Town of Palm Beach tried to regulate drones.
    Bottom line is the the FAA controls air space that no other state or local goverment can regulate.
    I found this information from Paradise Valley published in 2015. This law clearly violates FAA policies and practices as did the laws erroneously passed on Palm Beach in 2015.
    I would be intersted to see how this plays out because what Paradise Valley is attempting to due is in clear violation of Federal law.
    Best Regards,

  12. I can't really understand how size could be a factor -- how much smaller do these things need to be?? But what DOES matter, to me, is the image quality. I'm a bit skeptical about the camera on a teensy machine like this. Even the X3 that came with my drone was worse than my iPhone. The X5 is better, but still substandard. I don't get the sense that DJI takes still photography very seriously.

  13. @ Scott, you might want to take a look on Aliexpress. The drones they have are more DIY, but there are packages that will hold a something like a Sony A6000 or another compact/mirrorless camera.

    I agree that the image quality from ready-to-fly drones seems to be well below standards. The ISO standard consumer is going to be more concerned with price over image quality. They will be thrilled with just taking photos and video and not be very critical so that's what companies such as DJI will cater to. The aerial companies I have worked with all have large drones that will lift at least a 5D with a medium telephoto lens. One company was using a fairly big drone with a RED. I'd love to have one of those budgets to work with.

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