If there’s a drone that can claim ownership of consumer airspace, it’s DJI’s Phantom. The company’s white, 4K-camera-toting quadcopter is the Prius of the skies; hip, accessible, and ubiquitous.
Chat with a drone pilot at your local park, there’s a good chance they’re flying a Phantom. But if you chat with a pilot who’s flying DJI’s latest offering, the Phantom 4($1,399), he might even be able to have an entire conversation with you while the drone flies itself.
This latest iteration of the Phantom drone contains enhancements in two key areas: the automated flight control, and the collision avoidance system. It’s not yet a fully autonomous drone that you can command to do your bidding with a flick of a finger, but it seems things are headed there, because this bird is remarkably easy to fly, and the on-board sensors keep it from zipping head-on into a tree.
The Phantom 4 looks similar to the Phantom 3, though the props have changed. Each of the four motors now sit outside the fairings over the propeller arms, which makes the Phantom 4 look a bit sleeker and less bulky. Also, there are no prop guards. The new object avoidance system gets messed up if you snap the guards on (you also have to buy the guards, $19 for a 4-pack). I occasionally missed having the guards there, especially when flying indoors around people. But you shouldn’t do that anyway, right?
You’ll Miss This
The most important enhancement in the Phantom 4, however, is the new object detection and avoidance feature. The pitch is that the Phantom 4 will stop you from flying your drone into trees, and will somehow miraculously make it possible for anyone to fly no matter what their skill level. The truth is more prosaic. The obstacle detection features only work when you’re flying forward. It relies on forward-facing cameras that can recognize large objects. Those cameras cannot warn you about obstacles when you’re flying in any other direction. Want to hit a tree? Just back up. Or go left. Or right. Or slightly off center.
That’s not to say the collision avoidance system isn’t useful. It is, but it isn’t enough for you stop worrying about flying into things. It works best on large dark objects. I flew it directly toward a volunteer subject. It stopped about four feet in front of him and refused to get closer. It was however happy to fly straight into his raised arms, which where not sufficiently big enough to detect. It was also happy to fly into bushes—again, the bushes were likely not dense enough to trigger an override. The Phantom 4 will also not detect what might be a drone’s greatest enemy: power lines.
Still this is the first iteration of DJI’s object detection system, and it’s not hard to imagine future releases adding more cameras around the body of the Phantom to make detection possible on all sides. It will also be interesting to see what sort of software upgrades DJI might offer to make the system stronger.
Automatic for the People
The collision detection is at its best when combined with what might be the best new feature in the Phantom 4, TapFly. This feature allows you to use your touchscreen device to simply tap any point in the drone camera’s field of view and have the Phantom fly toward it. There’s a horizon line you can use to control the altitude of your automated flight, and the collision avoidance system will keep the copter away from most solid objects.
I used TapFly to navigate gaps between trees that I would never have attempted on my own. That alone makes the Phantom 4 worth the upgrade. Again, it’s also not hard to see how this capability might improve in future releases. For example, DJI could add a way to slow down and speed up the drone at specific points in the flight path.
The other new automated flight control system is an object tracker, which works well for tracking people in relatively open settings. The idea here is that you can train the drone’s camera on a subject like a cyclist or a runner, then have the drone follow them, flying above and behind them as it captures a smooth, gliding shot. It’s not perfect. The software sometimes gets confused if someone of similar appearance crosses paths with your subject. But barring shooting in crowds, this works well—well enough to be moderately creepy and stalkerish, especially if the Phantom is at shooting an unknowing subject from max range, one half mile straight up. (I didn’t test this because it would be against FAA regulations.)
Luckily for the paranoid, while the Phantom’s camera has been improved, it still probably couldn’t pick out individuals from that altitude. (And don’t worry, the police have a drone for that.) The Phantom 4’s camera improvements are subtle, but when looking at footage from a Phantom 3 next to footage from the 4, you’ll notice the latter has considerably less chromatic aberration, less noise, and slightly less distortion.
Fire in the Sky
The new sport mode is one of the highlights of the Phantom 4. The Phantom line was already the nimblest of the half dozen drones I’ve tested, but the sport mode puts it in a class all its own. With a top speed of 45 miles an hour, an ascent rate of 20 feet per second, and the ability to turn so fast the craft nearly flips over, sport mode is not necessarily the best way to shoot incredible video. In fact, at top speed the props will be in your shot, and there will be some vibration in the video you shoot. But it sure is fun to fly that fast. Shooting forward while flying backward looks good well above normal mode speeds (though again, not at 45 mph), which will enable professional filmmakers to better track high speed sequences like chase scenes or races.
Sport mode does come with a price: the battery drains much more quickly. Also, you can’t use any of the automated flight controls or collision avoidance features. Sport mode is very clearly aimed at experienced pilots. If you happen to be one, it’s a lot of fun.
DJI claims the Phantom 4 is five times more stable than previous models, and while I have not empirical way to test this, it sounds correct based on my time with it. When watching footage where the Phantom 4 was just hovering, I frequently found myself thinking I had accidentally paused playback because the video shot did not change or shake at all. Even in moderate wind, the Phantom 4 managed to hold its position with hardly a waver.
Much of that stability comes from the Phantom 4 expanded array of downward cameras and sonar sensors. The Phantom 4 has double the number of downward facing cameras compared to the Phantom 3. This comes in handy indoors, which is one place the Phantom 4 is nothing short of incredible. Flying a drone indoors is a nerve-racking experience, even with the relatively stable Phantom 3. The Phantom 4, however, maintained its increased stability even inside when I flew it around an unused ice hockey rink. It was actually enjoyable to fly inside, though the lack of prop guards made me reluctant to get it too close to the walls.
The Phantom 4 is DJI’s best Phantom offering yet. While the automated flight features might not entirely live up to the hype, they do make possible things that would have previously been very difficult or even impossible. They also pave the way for even better automation in future releases.