They say competition breeds innovation, but it's hard to say that axiom holds up in the prosumer drone market. Because nobody has been able to touch DJI since the first Phantoms launched, and yet this company seems to push ahead with an incredibly rapid upgrade cycle that consistently keeps them two or three steps ahead of the field.
Today, we get our first look at the Phantom 4 Pro, which expands impressively on the capabilities of the excellent Phantom 4 and makes it an even stronger tool for the aerial filmmaker who needs a portable (but not ultra portable) drone that fits in a backpack.
Here are the key upgrades:
Upgraded 4K/60fps camera
The sensor, the lens, the camera mechanism and the image processing engine have all been upgraded for the new Phantom. The big ticket spec sheet item is probably the more powerful video processor, which is now capable of recording 60 frames per second at 4K UHD resolution.
But the physical camera upgrades might actually make a bigger difference to the overall video quality; a mechanical aperture and focus appear for the first time, with the goal of eliminating rolling shutter jelly distortion and giving a better image at high speeds. Here's some sample vision from the new camera (full screen it for best results):
Obstacle detection and avoidance now operates in five directions
This was an obvious one. The Phantom 4 was the first consumer drone to bring in obstacle avoidance capabilities, but they only worked in the forward direction, which to me was always the direction I needed the least help in.
The Phantom 4 Pro has the same pair of forward facing stereo cameras the old model uses, plus another pair that point backwards. On the sides, they've used infra-red sensors similar to the ones on the bottom of the aircraft.
So there's now obstacle avoidance on all four sides, as well as technically the ability to sense, if not avoid, obstacles below the drone. This'll hopefully save a lot of Phantoms from ending up tangled in trees, and give aerial filmmakers more confidence to fly the things sideways and backwards, which is where a lot of the most compelling shots come from.
New remote with built-in, super bright touch screen
Finally, you'll be able to use your Phantom without burning your mobile phone or tablet battery or squinting at a screen that's not bright enough to compete with sunlight.
The Phantom 4 controller can be optioned up to have its own screen built-in – a 1080p, 5.5-inch touch screen about the same size as an iPhone 7 or Galaxy Note 5, but twice as bright. That means one less fiddly step in setup, as well as an optimized environment for the DJI Go software and a generally tighter user experience. Hopefully with the ultra-bright screen there won't be any need for screen shades.
The screen has a built-in HDMI port and MicroSD card slot, plus a microphone, speaker and Wi-Fi connection; DJI is positioning it for quick on-the-go editing and almost instant sharing of footage. The battery life for the controller and screen is now an impressive 5 hours, more than enough for a day's shoot and edit, and you'd need a ton of batteries for the airframe to outlast the controller.
Whether or not you go for the touchscreen option, an improved Lightbridge video and control transmission link gives the Phantom 4 Pro an astounding 7 km (4.3 mi) range, up from 5 km. Personally I've flown one about 4 km away in the open plains of Western Mongolia, and I found that quite terrifying enough.
The drone is out of visual range well before it's a kilometer away, and in most jurisdictions aviation law requires you keep it within visual distance anyway. So perhaps the final range isn't the big story here, more likely the link is more stable and interference-free than previous versions, with the addition of a new ability to switch between 2.4 and 5.8 Ghz transmission to find the cleanest signal in a given environment.
Upgraded flight and camera modes
The Phantom 4 Pro packs a bunch of new and improved flight modes, some of which look quite useful.
ActiveTrack, DJI's visual tracking system, is upgraded with the ability to recognize and track more subjects, including vehicles and animals as well as people. When it recognizes what kind of subject it's tracking, it adjusts its flight dynamics to suit.
There's also multiple ways the aircraft can fly while ActiveTrack is activated. Trace mode follows behind or in front of the subject while avoiding obstacles. Profile mode flies alongside for a side-on profile shot, and Spotlight mode lets you fly the drone wherever you want while keeping the subject in view.
TapFly was an interesting inclusion on the Phantom 4, and the new upgrades might make it very useful for filming. You can now tap on your screen to fly forward or backward, but the more interesting option is TapFly Free, which sets the Phantom flying steadily in a certain direction, but lets you rotate the camera freely. So it's kind of like a nice steady dolly where you get to operate the camera.
Draw mode is new; it lets you draw a path on the screen for the drone to follow. You can then either leave the camera pointing forward, or set it free so you can manage the camera as it flies.
Gesture mode is also new, it lets you wave your arms to initiate a three-second selfie countdown.
The Phantom 4 Pro has an upgraded Return to Home mode that's designed to do a much better job of flying back to the start point through complex environments. Effectively, the drone's obstacle avoidance systems let it build up a picture of its environment as it flies, and if it decides the path home is not a clear one, it'll retrace its steps to fly back safely. It also records vision of its takeoff point with its downward facing cameras, so it can hit its mark more precisely when it lands as well as being able to detect whether you're trying to land it in a puddle so it can warn you.
Battery and flight time improvements
The Phantom 4 Pro gets about two minutes more flight time than the Phantom 4, thanks to a 5,870 mAh pack that gives it just under 10 percent more battery capacity. Total flight time is now 30 minutes, which is pretty amazing – to get there, DJI has used a titanium/magnesium airframe to keep the weight of the drone low while packing in a bunch of extra sensor gear. That should also improve the rigidity and strength of the shell, so hopefully it'll be slightly more crash resistant as a result.
All in all, this is a solid and impressive update for the new top of the line Phantom prosumer drone. Multidirectional obstacle avoidance is a great idea, the new flight modes look useful and we greatly anticipate seeing how the vision looks out of the new camera setup. With a retail price of US$1,499, it's still an affordable tool for most filmmakers, and particularly with the new built-in touchscreen (an extra option for US$300 more) we feel it pushes the game another two big steps forward. Without doubt, if you're in the market and you've got the cash, this is the state of the art.
Check out the demo video below.