Ahead of the game: DJI's Phantom 4 introduces obstacle avoidance, ActiveTrack and Sport Mode
With the 3DR Solo hot on its heels and a GoPro drone getting set to launch, DJI's Phantom 3 has been coming under pressure lately. No longer. Ever a step ahead of the game, DJI today released an impressive new Phantom 4 that features the first true obstacle detection and avoidance system we've seen on a consumer quadcopter. Enhanced autonomous flight modes let it track targets and fly itself better than ever before. There's also a new Sport mode that lets the Phantom match the Inspire One's top speed of 45mph, as well as a redundant secondary compass and IMU to make the Phantom 4 one of the first consumer quads that's starting to approach industrial levels of reliability.
The Phantom 4 is essentially an upgraded version of DJI's Phantom 3 Professional with multiple improvements to that device's vision positioning, propulsion system, gimbal, camera and remote. The company also added the aforementioned obstacle avoidance system, a tap fly function, and ActiveTrack mode that gives the drone the ability to optically track and follow a moving object, provided the drone's at least 9 feet (~3 metres) in the air.
The obstacle sensing system constantly scans what's in front of the drone, and makes decisions on whether to pull up and stop, fly around or rise up over any obstacles it finds, provided they're at least 500 pixels in size on the camera sensors. It works in conjunction with the tap fly function, which allows you to fly in any direction by tapping the destination on the view screen instead of relying solely on the remote controller. When combined with the Smart Return Home function, the Phantom 4 will return home safely, avoiding obstacles along the way, as long as they're in front of it and not above.
It's a bit sad that the obstacle avoidance cameras only feature on the front of the P4 - because that's where you can see them as a pilot anyway. It seems fairly clear that a future version of the Phantom will have these cameras on all sides, giving you the ability to fly sideways and backwards for a shot without worrying about crashing - and that'll be great.
The Phantom 4 remote now includes three different modes: Position, Sport and Attitude. Sport is an interesting one - it appears to be a high rate GPS mode that retains the GPS hover stability of P mode but lets the aircraft tilt much further over and gives it extra thrust and responsiveness for a top speed of 45mph. Battery capacity is increased from 4480 to 5350 mAh, boosting its flight time to 28 minutes instead of the Phantom 3's 25.
Setup and teardown will be quicker than ever due to a new click-on, push button release propeller design, presumably similar to what's available on the Inspire One. DJI says this more secure prop system is part of what makes the Phantom 4 able to accelerate so much harder than the P3.
The biggest improvements in the 4K camera include a 56% reduction in chromatic aberration and a 36% reduction in lens distortion compared to the Phantom 3 Professional. Those upgrades, when combined with changes to the camera firmware, now allow for much clearer images, although there's no mention of a technology fix for the shutter shadow problems you can get flying in bright sunlight - so you'll still need to get yourself an ND filter or two.
A new slow motion mode gives you 120fps in 1080p, but the frame will be effectively zoomed right in when you do it. That's no bad thing, as the frame is super wide in 4K at 20mm and you've got to be almost dangerously close to a subject to get great detail. The improved camera and its gimbal are now integrated into the body of the Phantom 4 and positioned closer to the drone's center of gravity for even greater image stabilization. The props are slightly elevated to help keep them out of shots when you're moving fast, and that's a nice touch.
DJI is taking pre-orders on the Phantom 4 at a cost of US $1399, although that price may increase after launch.
Take a look at the video to see the Phantom 4 in action.