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Pocket drones pack powerPocket drones pack power

Pocket-size drones are more capable and easier to fly than ever, and some of the newly arriving "smalls" are just about autonomous, though proper piloting remains imperative.

DJI's Mavic Mini is appealing to new drone pilots with low cost, easy flight controls and compact size. Photo by Terry Jarrell.

Drone technology seems to be picking up steam with all sorts of advancements and new ideas rolling out all the time. The cameras keep getting better, form factors keep evolving to be more compact but deliver the punch of much larger models from a few years ago, and the software that controls these things seems to move at the speed of light.

Major drone manufacturers are mindful of the number of new drone pilots entering the world of droning as well as the growing demands of professional drone operators. They are responding with some pretty fascinating offerings that we will explore here.

It’s how small?

DJI has for years been the world’s leading drone producer. The company's hugely successful Phantom and Mavic lines set a high bar for quality and efficient flight, and its more pro-level Inspire and Matrice lines have done many jobs well in more demanding flight environments.

The just-released Mavic Mini is setting a whole new standard and tossing that "bigger is better" notion right out the window for many use cases. For newer operators, it can be nerve wracking to start off with a fairly complex model such as a Mavic Pro, not to mention you have that gnawing feeling in the back of your mind about just how expensive a crash or flyaway could be as you learn the ropes.

The Mavic Mini is perfect for new operators by being not only small, but controlled by the new DJI Fly app that is simple to use and gives you everything you need to get started. It has some basic “Quickshot” modes to simplify snazzy video shooting, but the main focus is getting you comfortable with the sticks and how to manage the flight without lots of clutter on the screen. As your skills evolve, it makes for an easy transition up to bigger DJI siblings with familiar, yet more complex, flight controls and capabilities.

Even professionals and semi-pro photographers will find this bird useful when bells and whistles or 4K video are not required. This is an extremely small and portable drone you can carry literally everywhere. Another old saying comes to mind: The best camera is the one you have with you.

DJI has apparently hit a home run with the Mavic Mini as it is reasonably priced at $399 for the base kit or $499 for the Fly More Combo, which is a much better value. This makes it a good bit more palatable to get started flying on a budget.

It is worth noting that one point being marketed heavily is the low weight of 249 grams for the Mavic Mini. Yeah, OK. The point of this magic number is that it edges up just below the FAA requirement of having to register any drone 250 grams or more. We are talking 1 gram of difference. One little, tiny GRAM. Obviously, all you need to do to break this magic barrier is to snap on those fancy prop cages that came in your Fly More Combo or pop on an ND filter (when they start hitting the shelves); even a couple stickers or skin wrap can push you into the “heavyweight” zone and require registration.

And what about Part 107 commercial uses? You guessed it, you need to register anyway.

An important bit of confusion and misconception I am seeing floating around on the internet about this sub-registration-required weight is that it also means you can fly with no regard to standard flight regulations. Um, nope. You still need to be aware of and adhere to the same flight regulations such as not flying over people, keeping the drone within line of sight, and staying below 400 feet above ground level. It would be a good idea to visit the FAA DroneZone website to learn about all these rules to maximize flight safety and learn more about drone operations in general.

My advice? Just go ahead and register the Mavic Mini. It is quick, cheap, and easy, and it will avoid potential confusion down the road.

Now, that is one smart drone!

While the Mavic Mini is more of a stripped-down, basic drone flying pretty much like most others by manual control or a few automated routines, along comes the absolutely mind-blowing Skydio 2.

There is nothing currently like this game changer on the market, particularly at the accessible price point of $999 for the base kit.

Skydio 2 takes us a step closer to Skynet by being incredibly ahead of the others in terms of taking care of itself in the air. With six 4K cameras totally dedicated to constantly surveying its surroundings and a NVIDIA Jetson TX2 supercomputer brain with 256 cores processing up to 1.3 trillion operations per second that builds a real-time 3D, 360-degree model of its surroundings at lightning speed, the Skydio 2 can react to avoid obstacles, even at full speed. Unlike some other models that can swerve left or right to go around objects in their path, the Skydio 2 can fly over, under, around, or pretty much however it needs to in order to keep the seventh 4K camera, which is used for photos and video, focused on the subject.

This obviously has advantages by letting the drone handle more of the flight mechanics while you concentrate on your photography. We can only imagine the production quality of even the average user’s photos and videos looking amazing.

The early pre-release reviews are simply glowing over this upcoming bit of technology, so you can stay tuned here for my full review once my pre-order arrives in a few weeks. 

Too much of a good thing?

All this sounds great, and it really is, but while technological advances make it easier to fly, it can potentially lead to bad habits or some complacence by the operator. Having powerful AI (artificial intelligence) on board the aircraft doesn’t mean you are exempt from maintaining your duties as remote pilot in command.

Even though these amazing new drones make it quick and easy to get off the ground, there is no substitute for capable and competent manual flying skills. For example, in professional production work such as cinematography you will often be mapping out very specific shot angles and routines that the AI isn't designed to handle. Other industries also have their own demands for manual flight control for detailed and intricate maneuvers.

Most important is the ability to take manual control in an emergency situation. AI is a great companion tool, but not something you want to rely on entirely. There any number of reasons—unexpected air traffic, flyaways, interruptions on the ground—that could require you to take immediate and full control of your flight, so you have to keep your flying skills sharp to have the best reaction time.

No matter what level of operator you are or what model drone you are flying or even how much on-board AI you have, always make it a best practice to be prepared as usual. Don’t fall into shortcuts by forgetting your preflight checklist and practice flights. All these new fancy bells and whistles are there to enhance your flying and aerial photos and video but not to replace real piloting skills. You are still the boss (and responsible) while your aircraft is in the air. The more you can learn and assimilate about your particular drone, the better equipped you will be for any situation.

Get out there and fly safe, and have fun!

Terry Jarrell

Terry Jarrell is a remote pilot who owns Black Dog Drone Operations in central Florida. He has worked for nearly two decades as a technology consultant, instructor, and writer. Terry also works with Stallion 51 Flight Operations in Kissimmee.
Topics: Unmanned Aircraft

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