Tuesday, March 1, 2016

DJI's Phantom 4 drone is insanely fast and the closest step yet to an autonomous drone

The world’s biggest consumer drone maker is back with its smartest compact quadcopter yet: The Phantom 4 automatically dodges obstacles, takes amazing video in all directions, and makes you look like a drone pro—even if you’ve never touched one before.

The new Phantom 4 is available for preorder today for $1400, and if you’re interested in drones at all, you need to check this thing out. Yes, it’s $150 more expensive than the starting price of its predecessor, the Phantom 3, but for the extra money you’re getting a lot of new smart features.

DJI’s Phantom drones have defined what regular people can expect from a camera-equipped quadcopter in the last few years. With each iteration, the Phantom drone’s flight gets a little smoother and its camera gets a touch better. With the Phantom 4, though, it stops being just a camera with wings that’s easy to fly. This drone is near sentient.

The Phantom 4's image quality inches forward this time—the camera has a new lens that should be sharper around the edge of the captured picture. But it’s a huge leap forward in robotics.

The coolest feature by far is the Obstacle Sensing System, which will hopefully help you avoid a bulk of the tree branches and garage doors that get in your way. The system works using two forward-facing optical cameras that scan for objects the Phantom might run into.

The obstacle-sensing software automatically redirects the Phantom 4 around any object that would disrupt its flight. What’s even cooler is that if the drone senses it can’t fly around an obstacle, it’ll hover in place and wait for your next command, like a floating robotic puppy. When the “return to home” function is activated, the Phantom 4 will avoid obstacles on the way back, too.

Of course this system isn’t perfect, and it can’t avoid what it can’t see. So you still have to think before liftoff—if the drone tries to fly over something and bangs into the tree branch above it, that’s on you.

The Phantom 4's sharp robotic mind comes in handy with a feature called ActiveTrack, which turns the drone into a smart videographer that follows whatever subject you tell it to. Using the DJI mobile app, simply tap on the subject you want the Phantom 4's camera to stay on, and the drone will always keep that subject centered. We’re told there are some limitations to the tracking powers, but really, if it works at all, it’s sort of magical. Life-logging will be enabled in a whole new way.

The Phantom 4 also comes with a Sports Mode that lets hit solid speeds of 45 mph, while maintaining nimble ascent and descent rates. It’s supposed to give you a taste of what drone racing could be like, even if you only bought this thing only to shoot video.

There are some cosmetic and hardware changes this time around, as well. The Phantom 4 has sleeker, more aerodynamic lines, which help it achieve a new top speed without using much more power. The propeller motors are now exposed, allowing for improved heat efficiency. The propellers also attach with a new screwless locking mechanism that works a lot like the top of a medicine bottle: It screws on easy, and then to release it, push down and unscrew.

Preorders start today on DJI.com and Apple.com. Expect your shiny, new, flying camera with a mind of its own to arrive sometime after March 15.


  • Price: $1,400
  • Weight (battery included): 3.04 pounds
  • Max flight speed: 44.7 mph (sport mode)
  • Max flight/ascent speed: 13.4 mph (ascent), 8.9 mph (descent)
  • Flight time: over 28 minutes
  • Camera range: up to 3.1 miles
  • Obstacle sensing system range: 2.3 feet to 49 feet
  • Video positioning system range: 0 to 32.8 feet
  • Slow motion video recording resolution: 1920 x 1080 at 120 frames per second
  • Battery capacity: 5350 mAh

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