Review: DJI Air 2S takes a great drone and makes it even smarter

    While DJI released their Air 2 drone just over a year ago, that hasn’t stopped DJI investing in creating an even better version of was was already considered as a really great drone.

    When you add an S to the end of a model number, it may not seem like the Air 2S is a big upgrade over the Air 2, but after spending time flying the drone, I think this could have easily qualified for a full DJI Air 3 title. We’re told the S Stands for Superior and that’s a fairly accurate assessment of the drone’s new capabilities.

    Between the improved hardware sensors and camera, as well as some fantastic software improvements, this Air 2S is a seriously compelling foldable drone.


    Smart tech, smart design


    What DJI offers in terms of an array of sensors around the drone continues to develop in each iteration. With the Air 2S, there’s now not just forward-facing sensors to avoid collisions, but there are now 4 front-facing sensors that enable the drone to see obstacles as you fly up, down and bank to the left and right.

    At the back of the Air 2S, you’ll find 2 more sensors, positioned in a way to enable it to sense anything above or below it when flying backwards. There’s also 2 more downfacing sensors to detect the ground, ensuring you don’t crash and can land safely.

    While the drone has a great capacity to leverage this array of sensors to protect itself (from your inputs), there is one flaw that isn’t dealt with – sideways. If your panning directly left, or right, there are no side-facing sensors which means the drone will happily make friends with a tree, or power pole.

    Basically DJI have provided you with a lot of assistance when flying, but technically yes, you can still crash this drone if you really weren’t paying attention to your environment.

    When there are obstacles detected, there is a software control over what you want to occur. You can have the drone detect an object like a pole or tree and fly around it, which obviously can interrupt a planned trajectory for filming. Alternatively, you can have the drone just stop if it gets uncomfortably close to an object. The final option is to disable the smarts and take complete responsibility for the flight path, and I love that you get the freedom to choose with the Air 2S.

    When it comes to the hardware itself, the foldable design of the Air 2S means it’s really easy to transport between shoots. After coming off the back of the FPV review, where the arms aren’t foldable, you are definitely limited in your ability to throw it in a backpack. The Air 2S would happily go in a backpack, handbag, or even in the glovebox of your car. While it’s not as small and light as the Mini 2, I think I’d trade the stunning visual quality possible with the Air 2S, for slightly more weight and larger size.

    Having foldable, 3-piece props means they also collapse for transport. When you do arrive at your shooting location, it’ll take you just seconds to unfold, power on and go flying, compared to mounting the props on other drones.

    The Air 2S won’t win any prizes for its external design innovation, instead DJI went with the tried and true matte grey finish, black rotors and orange tips for the slightest hint of personality. While the colour of your drone really has no impact on your flying or filming experience, I would love to see a stealthy matte black and matte white version.


    How does it perform ?

    The star of the show here is the new 1″ image sensor, up from the 1/2″ CMOS sensor in the Air 2. With a 88° FOV, the camera just sees more of the world and the image doesn’t look distorted, compared to the 84° FOV in the previous version.

    Practically that means you can shoot with better image quality and that’s reflected by the increase in video resolution from 4k/60 up to 5.4K/30 fps (just bring your fastest microSD card). From the colours to the black levels, the video that comes from this drone just looks absolutely stunning and with an amazing camera, it’s then just up to you to be in the right place at the right time.

    Having extra visual quality means you can also incorporate some cropping of your footage to focus on a subject, while plenty of detail.

    On the DJI websites, they showcase some stunning city shots at night, which unfortunately is not legal in Australia, with CASA rules preventing night-time flying.

    Thanks to an improved high dynamic range (HDR) these low-light photos look absolutely stunning. Knowing how much photography is part of the use case of drone owners, DJI has included the ability to shoot in RAW format, which captures loads of light data, making post-production adjustments, all that much easier.

    When it comes to snapping some photos, you can take 20MP stills every time you press that button. While I personally don’t use drones to take many photos, there certainly will be some potential owners that will appreciate the ability to capture images with such a big sensor. With photography, it’s not all about megapixels, but rather the resulting image quality and the Air 2S really does a great job in this arena.

    For the majority of my use cases, there’s enough detail in still frames from the video that I rarely spend much time snapping photos, but if you do, you’ll be glad that DJI’s have built out the photography options.

    When it comes to shooting modes, there’s the single shot, burst mode. You can also achieve HDR photography with auto exposure bracketing (AEB) which will snap a series of 20 MP across a series of frames and merge the best exposures together. This helps capture both the bright and dark detail in your shots.

    If you’re trying to capture the action, you may be in a situation where you want to fire the shutter on a schedule and while you don’t get ultimate control, you do get intervals of 2, 3 ,5, 7, 10, 15, 20 ,30, 60s.

    Panoramas are also supported, which takes a sequence of photos with enough overlap for stitching, which enables some amazing wide-format images. Probably my favourite photography feature is to use these panoramas to create wallpapers for my 49″ Samsung Ultrawide monitor.

    The Air 2S can capture photos in a variety of formats including 3328×8000, 8000×6144, 8192×3500 and 8192×4096.


    Stand out features of this drone.

    One of the big new innovations on the software side of thing is a new feature called MasterShots. This leverages a bank of templates created by cinematographers that really know what shot types look good.

    With MasterShots, you select an object (i.e. you riding a bike) and it’ll string together between 10 to 15 sequences while recording the action. The video you get out of this feature really could be confused for work done by highly paid professionals with years of movie experience. If you want some drone content assembled to a shareable clip for social media, then it’s hard to go past MasterShots.

    If you have any kind of video editing skills, you could certainly produce the same thing, but it would take you much, much longer to create. This is such a fun, efficient way to create a highlight reel from your recording that it’s now one of my favourite features from DJI. I’ll definitely be looking for this on all future drones.

    Whenever you are flying the Air 2S, there’s the ability to simply draw a bounding box on the screen to select an object. Having this always available is great, but it may not be immediately obvious to people, compared to selecting different video modes from the menus.

    Once you have a car, bike or person selected, you’ll have the choice of 3 different flight types. The first is Active Track which lets individuals who don’t happen to have a friend around, use the drone to capture their activity. The drone will follow you either from behind (Trace) or from the side (Parallel) and avoid obstacles like trees and fences. While it takes a little time to trust the system, in my testing, it works great.

    What is impressive is the drone’s ability to re-find a subject, if it or they disappear completely from the camera’s view, without the pilot having to do anything. This is really quite impressive and something not possible just a couple of years ago.

    The next mode is Spotlight, which also locks the camera on to a target, but also allows the controller to still move the drone around the subject. This means you can control the positioning of the drone relative to the subject and adjust it as you need. As an example, you may wish to start with a higher flying position while following, then move out to the side and fly lower to the ground to emphasize speed.

    The final option here is Point of Interest (POI). This enables a fairly simple fly-around of a selected object. It’s certainly useful to have, but I definitely found more utility in Active Track.

    When pilots launch their drones into the air, their focus is really on capturing the right shots and not crashing into obstacles. We also need to be on the lookout for aircraft and as per the CASA regulations, immediately land the drone if any other aircraft are in the sky. Thankfully there’s a new technology called ADS-B or Air Sense, which is a digital system onboard newer DJI drones like the Air 2S, that scans online sources for the location of surrounding aircraft and will immediately land if they detect something. This is a fantastic technology that you get in these higher-end consumer drones that just aren’t available in cheaper alternatives.


    Not everything’s perfect

    After completing a flight, you’ll bring the drone back to your desk and want to transfer the footage to start editing. One of my frustrations with the Air 2S is that you have to unfold the arms to access the microSD card. While the internal electronics are tightly packed inside the body, with just a slight adjustment to this position, it would be far more accessible without unfolding the drone.

    This would help speed up the workflow from shoot to editing, which would be appreciated by those who fly occasionally, but critical to those flying daily, that may use this drone for work.

    I do appreciate that with the Air 2S, you can rotate the rear leg out of the way, without having to first unfold the front leg, which was a design flaw in earlier Mavic drones.


    How much and when can you get one ?

    The DJI Air 2S drone is available now directly from DJI’s website and costs A$1,699. That’s definitely not cheap, but given what’s on offer, I think DJI will have no problem in demanding that number for an incredibly accomplished gadget.

    If you want the DJI Air 2S Fly More Combo, this is available for A$2,099 and includes 2 additional batteries and a triple charger, taking your total flight time to around 1.5hrs. Due to limited new product availability, each customer can only purchase one unit.

    If you like the idea of a dedicated controller, the DJI smart controller costs A$1,099 and is available now from DJI’s website.


    Final thoughts

    The set of features and capabilities that DJI has assembled here with the Air 2S makes it an incredibly compelling offering for the drone industry. Like GoPro, DJI lead the space and rather than resting, they are relentless in their pursuit to make the best drones possible.

    The Air 2S certainly isn’t a cheap drone, but for what’s on offer here it’s well justified. While there were minor complaints about access to the battery and SD card while folded, they’re fairly minor and are unlikely to be deal-breakers for many.

    The important takeaways from spending time with the Air 2S are these, the drone now has an array of sensors that take us to a place that is rapidly approaching an uncrashable drone. The ability for the Air 2S to not just stop ahead of an obstacle, but fly around it, really demonstrates DJI’s ability to recognise hazards and reposition to the available space. There are times where this readjustment can actually enhance the videos you shoot, but mostly, it’s protecting your investment.

    Having the array of flight modes available to you as a Pilot means you’ll likely find more use cases for the drone, which allows you to extract more value from the drone.

    I still love the 30min flight time, it just feels so generous and if you opt for the fly more package with 2 extra batteries, really does improve your capacity to fly long enough to get the perfect shot.

    DJI also included the Smart Controller for review, which is compatible with the Air 2S (after a firmware update) and while it costs A$1,099) it’s a much better controller than the default option. Not only does it have an amazing 5.5″ display, but the positioning of the screen below the thumbstick controls, along with the battery in the handles, means the weight distribution is much better than having your phone hang off the top of the standard control.

    Having a screen built-in, also frees up your own phone for other duties. One of the worst experiences is being in the middle of a flight and having a phone call come in, or if you want to use your phone to take a photo or video of the drone, it’s already committed.

    Jason Cartwright
    Jason Cartwright
    Creator of techAU, Jason has spent the dozen+ years covering technology in Australia and around the world. Bringing a background in multimedia and passion for technology to the job, Cartwright delivers detailed product reviews, event coverage and industry news on a daily basis. Disclaimer: Tesla Shareholder from 20/01/2021

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