The drone takes off, hovering a few feet off the ground. I guide it up to about 12 feet with the throttle on the remote control. Then my three year old son takes over. He taps the screen on an iPad running our piloting app. The drone, a DJI Phantom 4, begins to ascend, heading towards an abandoned grainery. My son happily taps away at the screen, shifting the drone here and there. You wouldn’t notice how frantically he’s tapping from the footage he captured, which is buttery smooth.
Eventually he taps on tree. The Phantom 4 cruises towards it, adjusting slightly to avoid the obstacle. The end result is a dramatic shot, with the drone splitting the difference between two trees, sunset shining on their outstretched branches, passing far closer than I would have felt comfortable with if I was the one in control.
Before the Phantom 4, the best a camera drone could offer was the ability to follow your GPS signal. It works well enough, but has serious limitations. In practice it’s a bit like playing Marco Polo. The drone has a general sense of where you are, but can’t actually see you or the world around it. With just GPS to rely on, drones struggled to adjust for sudden changes in direction or speed, to keep subjects in frame when in close range — and of course, to avoid obstacles like trees, lampposts, and ski lifts.
TRYING TO CRASH MADE ME PHYSICALLY ILL
I spent the last few days putting the Phantom 4 through its paces, spending most of my time on the brand new fully autonomous features. It took me a while to get up the courage to fly it full throttle at a wall, and I felt physically sick with fear when I did, but the unit never failed to sense a crash and come to a halt. It picked out brick walls, trees, even chain link fences. Along with obstacle avoidance, the Phantom 4 can be flown simply by tapping on your screen, as my son did. And it can use its computer vision to identify a specific person and follow them, keeping the subject of your film perfectly in frame.
DJI’s Phantom has been our favorite model of drone for the last few years, but this latest version doesn’t merely hold onto the mantle as the best unit you can buy. By adding computer vision and fully autonomous capabilities, the Phantom 4 has dramatically raised the bar on what is possible with a consumer caliber camera drone, both for complete amateurs who want to start flying and for professionals who are crafting complex and dangerous shots.
The Phantom 4 now essentially operates at three speeds. When you have object avoidance turned on, it tops out at a little above 22 miles per hour. In normal flight mode it can reach 35 miles an hour, and in the new sport mode it can fly at an astonishing 45 miles per hour. For experienced pilots, sport mode is a real treat, adding a lot of horsepower and agility to the craft. For professional camera operators sport mode will enable a lot more dynamic chase shots while filming high speed stunts or races.
LIKE A TRIPOD IN THE SKY
DJI claims the Phantom 4 is five times more stable than its predecessor, and in our testing it delivered incredibly smooth footage. While hovering it never had an issue holding its exact position to within an inch or two, even in moderate winds. The extra stability come courtesy of an additional IMU, and double the number of downward facing cameras and sonar sensors, which the Phantom uses for its visual positioning system. When executing an automatic return to its home position the craft always landed within a few inches of its takeoff position.
MUCH NICER FOOTAGE
The Phantom 4 uses the same remote controller and Light-bridge video down-link technology as the Phantom 3. In our testing it never lost connection and the video stream was extremely clear and free of lag. I don’t have an expert eye for film, but according to our video team the footage from the Phantom 4 was a big improvement. It looked more “raw” — a higher dynamic range, less digital sharpening, and less saturation — all perks that give you more flexibility when editing and coloring the footage later on.
All the intelligent flight modes found on the Phantom 3 — way-point navigation, orbit, follow, and track — are available here as well. They still rely on GPS and haven’t changed much, although I found them a little bit more accurate at close range. Given the new autonomous features available, however, you probably won’t rely on this mode for anything but way-point navigation.