When The Verge began covering “drones” three years ago, we got a lot of grief about using that word: drone. These were just remote control toys, they couldn’t fly themselves! When drones got smart enough to navigate using GPS, and to follow people around, the naysayers pointed out they still couldn’t see anything. It could follow you, sure, but not while avoiding trees. At CES the last two years we finally saw drones that could sense and avoid real-world obstacles. But those were just tech demos, R&D projects which so far haven’t been made commercially available.
That all changes today with the introduction of DJI’s new drone, the Phantom 4. It’s the first consumer unit that can see the world around it and adjust accordingly, the next big step towards a truly autonomous aircraft. Try and drive it into a wall, the Phantom 4 will put on the brakes. If you ask it to fly from your position to a spot across a river, and there is a bridge in between, it will make a judgement call: increase speed to clear the obstacle or, if that isn’t possible, stop and hover in place, awaiting your next command.
The Phantom 4 accomplishes this feat with the help of five cameras: two on the front and two on the bottom, plus the main 4K camera that has always been onboard to capture video. The images captured by these cameras are run through computer vision software which constructs a 3D model of the world around it that the drone can intelligently navigate.
I got to spend a few hours with the Phantom 4 and was impressed with how well its autonomous features worked. It easily picked up and avoided walls and buildings. It even detected and avoided individual people, allowing for some rather daring shots where the drone autonomously raced towards a human, gaining altitude just in time to whiz over our heads. “With the Phantom 4, we are entering an era where even beginners can fly with confidence,” said DJI CEO Frank Wang. “People have dreamed about one day having a drone collaborate creatively with them. That day has arrived.”
Avoiding crashes is a great new feature, and something you can have switched on all the time. Expert pilots can turn it off if they need to fly in close quarters. But DJI is using the computer vision technology to do more than just that. A new feature called TapFly eliminates the need to learn the two-stick controller. Push one button to take off, set a maximum distance the drone can travel, and just tap on the live video feed that appears on your screen. The drone will move towards the horizon in the direction.
This feature is especially nice for helping to smooth out video footage. I have always struggled to pan horizontally while flying, often adding in distracting twitches and jerks while trying to perfect my framing. This has been a category-wide problem. Now you can tap on your screen and the drone will automatically adjust its orientation with a single, smooth motion. Combining TapFly and obstacle avoidance also let me capture much tighter close-ups of faraway buildings, passing overhead with just a few feet of buffer, a much riskier shot than I would feel comfortable capturing manually.
The new sensors also make the Phantom 4 more stable when hovering. It now has two cameras and two ultrasonic sensors on its belly, twice what the last version had. DJI says that overall the new unit is five times as good at holding its position, and in the few hours we spent flying it I was shocked at how stable it was while resting in place. Previous version of the Phantom would stay in place, drifting and correcting a few inches depending on wind. The Phantom 4 looked as though it were frozen in air.
The second new autonomous feature, ActiveTrack, is even more impressive. Trace a circle around a subject you want to keep it in frame: a runner, race car, or mountain bike. The Phantom’s onboard computer builds a 3D model of that subject and then automatically tracks to keep it in frame. The pilot can use the remote to make fine-grained adjustments to the focus, framing or camera settings, or they can just sit back and let the drone do all the work.
While it’s moving forward, the Phantom 4 can track and avoid obstacles at the same time. It can also do it from much closer in. Follow modes that use GPS typically have an effective range of 10 to 15 feet. With ActiveTrack that shrinks to just 4 to 5 feet.
I’ve been piloting for three years now, but I still struggle to execute a perfect 360-degree orbit around a subject, even one that is standing still. Orbiting a moving target is trickier still. With ActiveTrack you just pick a subject and hold left or right on the stick to execute a perfect orbit. It’s fairly mind-blowing to set yourself as the target, then capture a perfect tracking orbit of a conversation while walking across a field.
The new Phantom isn’t cheaper than previous versions: in fact at $1,399, it’s more expensive than the top-tier Phantom 3 was at release. But the pitch from DJI to consumers, especially beginners, is different this time. With the new suite of autonomous features you are way less likely to wreck your aircraft, and you don’t need to spend any time mastering manual piloting to capture great aerial footage.
For professionals the new unit lets one person do a job that used to require three. Instead of a pilot, camera operator, and spotter, you can rely on the drone to fly itself safely and to track your subject, while you focus on fine-tuning the shot. In the meantime the price of every Phantom 3 model has already been cut by $200 or more.
For its latest model, DJI has also secured a high profile sales partner. Starting March 1st the Phantom 4 will be available for purchase on DJI.com and Apple.com. On March 15th it will be available in-store at DJI’s flagship store in Shenzhen, and as the first drone prominently featured in Apple Stores around the world.
To most people, the Phantom 4 looks virtually identical to its predecessor, but veteran Phantom owners will notice a number of small tweaks to the hardware and design of the latest model. The company traded in its matte white exterior for a shinier plastic, and the body and legs have been slimmed down and smoothed for better aerodynamics. The gimbal that holds the camera is now attached on both sides, meaning there is an extra motor. A large section of the gimbal has also been moved inside the body of the drone, which DJI says will reduce drag and better align the camera with the craft’s center of gravity.
Despite the slimmer body the Phantom 4 is 100 grams heavier than its predecessor. The extra weight comes mostly from the battery, which has been expanded from 4480 milliamp hours to 5350 mAh. DJI says the bigger battery and more aerodynamic frame bumps battery life from 25 to 28 minutes on a single charge, no small feat given the extra power draw from the new cameras, sensors, and onboard processor.
Of course, you only get that in normal mode. Sport mode is another matter. This is DJI’s version of Tesla’s insane setting. Toggle sport mode on and the top speed of the drone increases from 35 to 45 miles an hour. I got to play with this feature and for anyone who enjoys flying in manual it is a true joy, turning the Phantom into an incredibly fast and agile aircraft, an experience much closer to flying the high-end Inspire 1 than flying any previous Phantom.
The belly of the Phantom 4 is now a rubbery gray, breaking the all-white aesthetic used on Phantoms thus far. The colored bands on the arms, which were used to differentiate previous models, have been removed and the motors are now exposed, adding a gleaming metallic gray in place of white plastic. The overall design is a little more aggressive, something in between the ultra-friendly Phantoms that came before and the downright menacing design of DJI’s high-end Inspire 1. DJI says the change was intentional, meant to demarcate that this generation of Phantom is a much bigger break with the past than previous releases.
Previous version of the Phantom had what DJI calls "intelligent" flight modes, and those are still present on this craft. You can set a series of waypoints for the Phantom to navigate, or make the craft follow, orbit, or track a user based on their phone’s GPS. But all those modes assumed you had the basic ability to maneuver the craft into position using the traditional two stick RC controller. With the Phantom 4, DJI is offering beginners the ability to fly and film quite complex shots without ever learning manual controls.
This starts pushing up against the edge of what the Federal Aviation Administration considers safe flying practices. While autopilot is allowed, the agency’s guidelines expect that pilots will keep the craft in sight at all times, and that they will always be able to shut off the autopilot and fly manually in the event of an emergency.
DJI says it expects anyone who flies to follow these rules, to learn how to pilot, and to keep their hands on the controller at all times. But as we saw with the self-driving software update pushed out by Tesla last year, when you give human being the ability to take their hands off the wheel, at least a few of the more reckless ones are going to start flirting with disaster.
I asked Adam Najberg, DJI’s head of global communications, why the company had chosen to only put cameras on the front of the aircraft, ruling out the ability for it to autonomously execute shots where it panned along from the side or track a subject while traveling in reverse. There is a tradeoff, explains Najberg, in trying to balance autonomy with battery life and with price. The technology for more complete autonomy is already live on DJI’s developer drone, the Matrice, which has sensors on all sides. The Phantom 4, says Najberg "is definitely just a first step."
We have recommended the DJI Phantom as the best drone you can buy for the last two years running. It has never been the cheapest option, and in the past competitors have bested it on certain features. The Phantom was sort of the iPhone of drones, the best overall package of price, power, and ease of use. But with the Phantom 4, DJI’s drone isn’t just the best overall offering, it’s also the most cutting-edge