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Confession time! I am a freakazoid who actually enjoys being on airplanes. I like the smell of burned coffee and jet fuel. I delight in receiving the unexpected upgrade. I find turbulence fun. And I especially love the feeling of soaring thousands of feet above the ground.
Last year I clocked just over a quarter of a million miles of air travel. This year? Far, far fewer! Which, at first, seemed Very Cool. I was waking up in my own bed every single morning, and my body clock was no longer hopelessly wrecked. Then, a few months ago, I began to feel the itch to fly. I missed the hurried trips to the airport, the bad in-flight meals, and the random bit of rough air that jolts you around in your seat. Hell, I even missed awkward pat downs from the TSA. I wanted to soar again, dammit! But without a good reason to board a commercial jet and lacking the bankroll for a private plane, I resigned myself to being grounded. That was, until I got my hands on the DJI Mavic Mini, an entry-level drone that gives you the thrill of flying without leaving terra firma.
It is seriously small.
DJI calls this thing the Mavic Mini for a dang good reason. When folded it’s about the size of a thick paperback novel and when unfolded for flight it’s roughly as big as an RC car. This makes it very easy to transport. I tossed my unit into a duffel bag along with a charger and some spare propellers (more on that later) and still had enough room for a technical jacket, a couple of sandwiches, and a bottle of water. It didn’t weigh me down either, tipping the scales at just over half a pound, or 249 grams. Does that 249-gram figure sound a little, er, random? It’s not. Most states require you to register any drone that weighs 250 grams and over. The Mavic Mini can be classified as a toy and doesn’t require a special license to operate.
It packs serious features but is seriously easy to use.
DJI claims the battery provides 30 minutes of total flight time—impressive for a unit this small—but I ended up getting around 20 minutes. The onboard camera records video at 2.7K, which is sharper than 1080p but not quite as clear as 4K. It’s not a big deal though, since most likely you’ll be looking at the majority of the footage on your phone. Still images are recorded at 12MP and are clear with vibrant colors. The three-axis gimbal ensures footage is smoother than warm creamery butter. Oh, and you know those videos that you see in practically every YouTube and Instagram post where someone zooms out to reveal they’re standing in front of some crazy waterfall in an exotic location? A cinematic mode on the Mavic Mini allows you to take shots like that by slowing down the drone’s speed.
Another confession: My maiden voyage did not exactly go well. After lifting off, the front rotors lost power and my test unit flipped over, crashing into the ground and damaging the rotors. I popped a spare pair of blades on—they’re sold for $ 13 on the DJI website—and did a firmware update. After that, the Mavic Mini performed fairly flawlessly. The controller consists of a pair of joysticks that move the drone up and down, backward and forward. You’ll also need to plug your smartphone into the controller in order to get a bird’s eye view of whatever the drone’s camera is trained on.
Above all, it’s seriously fun.
Operating the Mavic Mini is thrilling. It’s probably the closest one can get to—turns up Steve Miller Band—flying like an eagle. (By the way, birds of prey do not seem to like drones as evidenced by quite a few online videos.) I found it most fun to fly in places without many people or animals or powerlines around. (Good! Abandoned buildings and remote fields. Bad! Day care centers and national parks.) My chief complain with the Mavic Mini? It makes me want to get into drone racing, steadily upgrading to bigger, faster, and, ugh, more expensive machines. Oh, and while it is relatively quiet, it still makes a sound that can be described as “agitated weed wacker.”
Admittedly, I’m not a master pilot yet. That’ll take a few more months (maybe years) of practice, but thankfully there are countless online forums—including a particularly boisterous subreddit—that provide valuable advice to novices. I can’t wait until I can safely board an airplane again, but until then, you can catch me soaring with the help of my flying robot friend.
Photography and prop styling by Allie Holloway
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