With the Phantom 4, DJI Takes the Fear out of Flying

March 1, 2016

By Greg Scoblete

The Phantom drone is getting smarter.

DJI, the company that has done much to popularize the flying camera, is releasing the fourth generation of its Phantom drone with an emphasis on intelligent, autonomous flight. 

Key to the Phantom 4’s new autonomous flying features will be a new set of front-facing sensors that enable the drone to form a clear picture of obstacles in its path, and avoid them. The goal, according to CEO Frank Wang, is to enable beginners to fly with confidence and for people to “collaborate creatively” with their quadcopters. 

Think of them as aerial assistants–or harbingers of the robo-apocalypse.

The Phantom 4’s new Obstacle Sensing System features two forward-facing optical sensors that scan for obstacles and automatically direct the aircraft around them. It can detect an obstruction up to 15 meters in front of it, scanning 60 degrees horizontally and 30 degrees vertically. If there’s no easy path around the obstruction, the Phantom 4 (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 (if, for instance, you’re flying indoors).

The P4 can now track objects using a new mode dubbed ActiveTrack. Using the DJI Go app, a user simply taps on an object (typically a person) to track and the P4 will follow it and keep the camera centered on the subject as it moves. While other drones have tracking modes, they typically follow a remote control or other hardware device. With ActiveTrack, the P4 will simply follow 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 as the Phantom 4 keeps the subject framed in the center of the shot autonomously. They can also pause autonomous flight at any time (until the robo-apocalypse, that is).

Also new is a TapFly function in the DJI Go app, which lets users double-tap a destination for their Phantom 4. 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 will use the same 4K sensor that’s found in the earlier Phantom 3 models. It will, however, offer a new option for 120 fps slow motion recording at 1920×1080,  The optics have also been improved to deliver better corner sharpness and less chromatic aberration, DJI said. The lens will still offer a 94 degree field of view and an f/2.8 aperture. 

Footage promises to be steadier, too. The camera gimbal has been redesigned to further dampen vibration and repositioned on the body of the drone for a better center of gravity. The body of the Phantom 4 is slightly heavier, with a new composite core, to further improve stability in flight. Despite the added weight, a new smart battery and intelligent power management system combine to deliver longer flight times than the previous model—up to 28 minutes in the air vs. 23 minutes for the Phantom 3 Professional.

The Phantom 4 is also faster in the air than the Phantom 3, clocking in at a brisk 20m/s compared to the 16m/s of the previous generation. The P4 can hit this top speed when set in its new sport mode, where it will also accelerate and ascend/descend faster than in normal flight mode. 

Rounding out the P4’s feature set:

* Lightbridge video transmission system supports real-time HD video stream to devices up to 3.1 miles away

* new push-and-lock propellers which are more secure in flight

* redundant global positioning system sensors

* redundant inertial measurement units and dual compasses onboard

The Phantom 4 will retail for $1,399. It will initially be sold through both and and then in both the DJI store and Apple stores starting on March 15. You’ll have to wait till March 23 to pre-order at other retailers with delivery expected beginning April 1.

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