Why I chose the Mavic Mini as my first drone, and what I’ve learned

DJI Mini 2

As an experienced photographer, I decided to add new angles to my work. And the Mavic Mini proved to be just the tool for my first drone purchase.

A year ago, while in the relatively new scary and uncertain months of COVID-19, I found myself looking hard for distractions. I’ll admit, retail therapy was something I leaned on a bit for comfort. As a photographer, I felt I had exhausted that particular doomshopping angle and started looking elsewhere. While the six-month-old DJI Mavic Mini had blipped on my radar, reaching beyond a 6-foot distance may have influenced my deeper dive. This dive was my introduction to DroneDJ. So I’m delighted that a year after entering drone life, I have joined on as one of this website’s newest writers.

What was it that made me ultimately choose the DJI Mavic Mini as my first drone? Like other newbie pilots, it was the 249-gram weight that influenced me the most. It seemed that the low-weight laws made this new hobby simpler to start. The size allowed me to slap on the prop guards and try a living room launch. This didn’t please my cat, but it was an instant hook for me.

My very first (and worst) Mavic Mini photo. I have no idea why I kept it, but for this purpose alone, I’m glad I did.

For an item that could quickly turn into a broken pile of plastic, a sub-$1,000 price tag was a must. Lastly, DJI is a leader in the drone space. By buying their product, I knew that I was not only paying for quality, I was also paying for innovation. Down the road, I may buy an Inspire 2, but for me right now, the Mini is the logical choice.

I knew that keeping this thing in the sky and not crashing was separated by experience. Unlike my very first DSLR many years ago, I knew I couldn’t toss aside the owner’s manual and learn by trial and error alone. Not only did I have to fly, but I also had laws to follow. That first outdoor flight anxiety was real. I had never flown anything apart from a paper airplane. Well, would-be pilot, those fears, while real, diminished a great deal with flight time. But caution should always be at the forefront of your drone piloting adventures.

Below is a list of what I learned, and what I hope will help anyone considering purchasing the Mini. I hope it helps those who already own one but find themselves uncomfortable. I now own the Mavic Mini 2, but the tips I discuss apply to both versions. So, when I say Mavic Mini, I am referring to either or both.

RTFM

Or Watch The F**king Tutorials. To make a terrible flying pun, you really don’t want to wing your first, second, or third flights. At a minimum, you need to absorb the basic flying instructions and learn what all the sticks, wheels, and buttons do. Spoiler: None of them launch missiles. We’re all about #dronesforgood. But one of them may just save your drone. To find out which one that may be, well, you know…

How to improve piloting skills

How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Practice, practice, and more practice. As much of a technical marvel that these things are, flying any drone is challenging. It requires a certain level of coordination to divide your attention between the controller, DJI Fly app, and drone. Muscle memory is necessary to feel comfortable when your fingers are on the sticks. While I recommend practicing takeoffs, landings, and basic movements indoors, once the drone is well over your head, it’s a different ballgame. One feature, or lack thereof, that requires skill is the Mini’s lack of 360-degree collision avoidance. It only senses the ground while descending and won’t automatically avoid an obstacle in any other direction.

Protecting your Mavic Mini (and your cat)

The value of prop guards and DJI Care Refresh

Until you feel relatively confident that you’re not going to accidentally fly directly into a wall (or a cat), I recommend using prop guards. They’ll give you a sense of security while you get your skills up. The other way to feel somewhat secure is to register for DJI Care Refresh immediately. Don’t do what I did and miss the 48-hour window for easy registration, only to have to jump through hoops to just get it later. It’s a great program that offers peace of mind and instant flyaway protection.

The first Mavic Mini Fly More Combo came with a set of guards. The Mavic Mini 2 Fly More Combo (which I strongly recommend over the basic set) does not come with a pair. However, many are available and I recommend using them for low-altitude or indoor training flights.

Remember, pretty much anything heavier than an eyelash will take your Mini over 249 grams. Going over may put the drone into a more stringent set of laws. This all being said, you’ll need to get comfortable flying without guards eventually. So, see tips number one and two.

Don’t be a rogue pilot

I’m not the drone police, but I will point out that it’s the pilot’s responsibility to know the drone laws that exist wherever you’re flying. Ignorance is not an excuse. Your new drone can hurt people and damage property easier than you think. I tend to grab my Mini out of the air instead of land it, and after doing this dozens of times, I still got my finger whacked by a prop on a recent flight. That was all the reminder I needed of what this little wonder can do when I don’t give it my full attention.

Getting lost in the moment

I found that after I developed a bit of comfort and understanding, I started pushing the drone a bit. Once I was up there and my mind was being blown, the temptation to ascend higher, fly closer to buildings, and push the Mini past my visual line of sight was STRONG. You, this earthbound creature, are effectively IN THE SKY. The power can be overwhelming and the first domino to fall is often your judgment. That you can capture the next viral video frays common sense even more.

Mavic Mini and Mother Nature

I strongly recommend using an app to monitor weather conditions. I use UAV Forecast before taking my Mini up, and most importantly, I (almost always) follow its recommendation. If it shows a condition that makes flying dangerous, I’ll aw-shucks my opportunity and wait for the next one. This past winter, after I got my new and upgraded Mini 2, I was eager to fly her maiden voyage. However, I experienced day after day after day of strong winds and gusts. Having that app show that flying would be a huge mistake made me patient enough to wait for the right conditions.

Test the Mavic Mini RTH function

If you don’t know what RTH stands for, please go back to tip number one. RTH stands for Return To Home and it has a pair of uses. First, it’s triggered by a long disconnect between the drone and controller. After a certain duration, your drone will automatically rise to a preset altitude and return to its homepoint. The first time this happened to me, I freaked out and lost my composure. I forgot how to fly for a moment. Had I tested it prior to being triggered, I would’ve realized that it’s not as scary as the alarms on the app make it out to be.

RTH can be fun

The second use for RTH is something pilots use all the time to end the flight. Pressing and holding that button makes the Mini fly directly home. It’s pretty fun to be a momentarily less active pilot and take in the sights or focus on capturing footage while it’s returning. Some pilots have found cool things to do with RTH. That being said, because the Mini lacks collision sensing, you need an awareness of tall objects in that direct path home.

Always capture footage with your Mavic Mini

This seems obvious, but I will admit to the entire internet that I have forgotten to do this. Or I think I have started to shoot video and forget to confirm that it’s recording. The reason why I think this should always be done is back to tip two. Practice. With all the skills it takes to pilot your drone, adding “take a pretty picture” or “capture silky video” makes it harder.

For the times when you’re in a particularly beautiful location, you don’t want to search for proper exposure. You want to send your Mini up toward the clouds with confidence. And you don’t want to rely on Auto settings if you intend to step up your footage. Until I learned what it took to get cinematic video, my flying skills were amateurish, jerky, and vertigo-inducing. When I realized that slow was smooth, my touch began to naturally lighten.

I’m far from Roger Deakins, now but with each flight, my skills improve, or at least my awareness does. You can always delete footage you don’t want to keep. However, you’ll be relying solely on your memory of any amazing flight that you don’t record. To top this tip, I recommend double-checking that you have a micro-SD card in the Mini.

DJI Mavic Mini drone shot I took of the Muskoka River, Ontario

Manage your Mavic Mini’s power

It’s tempting to push that drone just a bit further or higher after you’ve been flying for 19 minutes. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that you need to bring your Mini home with enough battery life to land safely. This is an aspect of getting lost in flight when you shouldn’t give in to the maverick urge. If you have spare batteries (and for fun and safety you should have more than one), you can do a quick swap and get back flying.

Enough tips, buzzkill. I just wanna fly

This list could go on, and there’s no doubt other, more experienced pilots will have additions or substitutions. However, as a baseline, these tips are important to note, or to remember. If I can impart a final tip, it’s probably one that I don’t follow enough, and it’s easy to dismiss as important. Have fun.

I love flying, and even a few minutes spent in the air feels rewarding and mood-improving. But my facial expression doing so is rarely an enormous grin. I’m serious when I fly, usually because I’m concentrating on not screwing something up. When I fly my Mini, there’s a part of me that thinks almost a thousand dollars is going up into the sky never to return. While that caution is important in understanding how serious a mistake can be, it can also stand in the way of the fun of flying.

Fun goes hand in hand with thrills. Fun sometimes lives close to the edge. Fast can be dangerous, but it can also be a lot of fun. Short of waking up with wings, launching your drone into the blue sky is the easiest way to see that view and control where to go. That’s the magic of flying a drone, and it’s the reason even the most seasoned pilot finds something special in every flight. So, find the balance between fun and safety, and try to stay within those bounds. What’s best for your pilot brain is to view your Mini without dread. Leave that feeling to the cat.

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