Decades of science fiction have conditioned us to view robots warily. For every helpful R2D2, there’s a menacing T1 or HAL looming in humanity’s future. DJI’s new flying camera/robot, the Phantom 4, definitely falls into the first category, even if it’s now smart enough to make the dystopian-minded among us just a wee bit uneasy.
The Phantom 4 (P4) has one overriding purpose: to make drone piloting simpler. It achieves this by cramming advanced sensors and software into the quadcopter. Compared to the Phantom 3, the P4 requires a lot less manual piloting. There are smaller, but still appreciable, improvements to overall build quality and camera optics as well.
The P4 features a new set of forward-facing sensors that comprise an Obstacle Sensing System that help the drone detect objects in its flight path. The system can detect an obstruction up to 15 meters in front of it and scans 60 degrees horizontally and 30 degrees vertically. If there’s no easy path around the obstruction, the P4 will hover in place until the pilot steers it in a new direction. The sensors also ensure that the drone doesn’t slam into anything when a user engages the “return to home” function to recall the drone back to its take off point.
Like the Phantom 3, the Phantom 4 also has a series of ground-facing sensors to help orient the drone if a GPS connection is lost or if you’re flying indoors where the signal is weak or nonexistent.
The P4 can now track objects using a new mode dubbed ActiveTrack. Using the DJI Go app, a user simply draws a square around an object (typically a person) to track; the P4 will then follow it and keep the camera centered on the subject as it moves. While other drones have tracking modes, they typically follow a signal from a remote control or other hardware device. With ActiveTrack, the P4 simply follows whatever object has been tapped on the smartphone display.
Pilots will retain control over the P4 during ActiveTrack and can move the camera around the tracked subject while it is in motion, and at the same time the Phantom 4 keeps the subject framed in the center of the shot. They can also pause autonomous flight at any time.
Also new is a TapFly function in the DJI Go app, which lets users double-tap a destination for their Phantom 4 to fly to. The drone will then calculate and fly an optimal route to the destination, avoiding obstacles in its path. If it encounters an obstacle it can’t avoid, the craft will stop and hover in place. You can tap another spot on the app and the Phantom 4 will smoothly transition towards that destination.
On the camera front, the Phantom 4 uses the same 4K sensor that’s found in the earlier Phantom 3 models but it now offers a new option for 120 fps slow motion recording at 1920 x 1080. The optics have also been improved to deliver better corner sharpness and less chromatic aberration, DJI said. The lens has the same 94-degree field of view and fixed f/2.8 aperture as found on the P3.
The P4 is a lot sleeker and sturdier than earlier generations of the Phantom. DJI says the build has been refashioned for greater aerial stability and we’ll absolutely attest to that. We took the drone out during a period of very strong wind gusts—up to 30 mph in some cases—and the drone was able to stay more or less in place. It did naturally wobble and drift under the influence of strong wind, but the camera footage was remarkably steady, barely betraying the fact that the drone was being buffeted. We teamed with New Jersey photographer and director David Patiño to take the Phantom 4 for a spin and he tells us the P4 was rock solid in the air—even sharp accelerations and banks wouldn’t rock the footage. “It’s super responsive and very stable and the image stabilization is impeccable,” he tells us.
At 3 pounds, it’s slightly heavier than the P3 as well as rivals such as the Chroma 4K drone we tested for the February issue. Out of the box, it’s remarkably easy to assemble. The props pop in and lock quickly with a single turn and the battery slips in and out seamlessly.
It’s clear that image quality wasn’t the focus of the new Phantom update and while there are improvements in that department, they’re not earth shattering. That’s not to say you’ll be disappointed with the P4’s image quality, particularly when upgrading from a Phantom 2 or 1. We found far less over-exposure and more consistent color reproduction in the P4’s footage, although we noticed that some DNG format stills had strongly saturated blues.
DJI noted that the optics were improved to dampen lens flare and when filming in bright daylight with the sun in the frame, there was very little streaking light even if it’s not totally banished. We also experienced less over-exposure and fewer washed out skies with the Phantom 4 than we did when using the comparably priced Chroma 4K drone.
You’ll enjoy a limited amount of control over exposure, with the ability to adjust shutter speed and ISO, but not aperture. That said, you can shoot RAW stills as well as set color profiles for both stills and video.
Patiño took side-by-side footage using the P4 and the more expensive Inspire 1 (with the original Zenuse X3 camera on board). The P4’s colors were a bit more muted and sharpness dropped off a bit more toward the edges of the frame (particularly at the bottom) but all things considered, the P4’s footage held up remarkably well next to the significantly more expensive Inspire 1.
The P4 is faster than the P3, reaching a top speed of 6 m/s, and it took us a while to get a handle on its acceleration, particularly vertically, where it felt like it rocketed skyward. Patiño says that even when pushing the throttle, the P4 did an excellent job keeping the camera level, even as the body of the drone reared back as it darted forward.
Connecting the P4’s remote to our iPhone and navigating through the DJI Go app was a breeze, but the menu is definitely crowded—and we own an iPhone 6s Plus. We imagine on smaller phones, particularly a new iPhone SE, it would be downright cramped.
Obstacle avoidance, we learned to our chagrin, is off by default but once you enable it, it works as advertised. We flew toward large obstacles (walls and fences) as well as smaller, potentially more difficult ones (the tops of evergreens) and the P4 consistently stopped before plowing into them. We flew the drone inside Patiño’s studio where it was similarly able to steer clear of obstacles. What the P4 can’t see and route around are obstructions above it, and encountering those obstacles is not uncommon. (Patiño’s Inspire 1 once began a “return to home” under tree limbs and wound up colliding with them.) Ultimately, sensors that can cover any conceivable trajectory would be ideal.
Given all the features DJI is rolling out, the menu system on the Go app is getting a tad complicated and features like Active Track are not as easy to find as they should be. Once you do discover it, ActiveTrack works very well—at least on human subjects in bright daylight. We followed a runner around a wide circle. Tap to Fly was similarly impressive. With the Phantom 4 flying its predetermined route, you’re free to frame the scene and monitor the camera more closely. Both modes enable solo operators to focus more on composition and camera positioning than on steering and in our time with the P4, we never lost contact with the craft or had it fly in an unpredictable manner when it was in an autonomous mode.
DJI worked closely with Apple on the launch of the P4, giving the electronics juggernaut an exclusive hand at distributing the quadcopter during the opening weeks of its availability. We couldn’t help but think of Apple when using the P4. Just as Apple has a knack for synthesizing and improving many existing innovations from competitors into its own products, some of the P4’s innovative flying features (tracking people, following routes swiped on screen) have been available in other drones from smaller firms and startups in one form or another prior to the Phantom 4. But no other company outside of possibly 3DR has really integrated them into a coherent, robust and easy-to-use whole like DJI has in the Phantom 4. No other company makes a quadcopter that looks as sleek, either.
The Phantom 4 represents a significant and welcome advance when it comes to flying smarts. The quality of the imagery is excellent for a drone, but we’re still hoping that DJI pays the camera a bit more attention in its next update. A larger image sensor, improved dynamic range and low light performance would be high on the list.
PROS: Sleek design; fast performance; improved optics; intelligent flying features.
CONS: Fixed aperture lens; crowded menu; sharpness can fall off at corners.
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