Drone flying is great fun. The downside is that it’s all too easy to slam your expensive hardware into a wall. That’s why DJI’s new Phantom 4 is self-autonomous, with a 3D-sensing camera that can avoid obstacles and other smart features, is a godsend. This also makes it much easier for beginners to fly, but it’s a hefty investment for first-timers costing £1,230/$1,400.
While you can still pilot it manually using the two sticks on the remote control unit, hooking up a mobile phone or tablet – running the DJI Go app – makes it a lot simpler with the addition of some smart features. The intuitive TapFly mode lets you fly with the tap of a finger. Just press anywhere on the live camera view within the app and the drone will make a beeline for that point, only deviating to navigate around any obstacles in its path.
The ActiveTrack feature is particularly impressive: just tap a subject – such as a person or vehicle – on the camera view and the Phantom 4 will follow it around and automate tracking shots for some awesome video footage. Mounted on an integrated gimbal, the 4K ultra HD camera offers enhanced image quality, thanks to lens improvements, plus the ability to capture 1080p video at 120fps for smooth slow motion.
The Phantom 4 can hit speeds of up to 44mph (72km/h) in the new Sport mode, letting you fly faster than ever – albeit without obstacle avoidance! To help you stay out of trouble, the remote control features a handy pause button to make the drone hover in place.
Sense and Avoid
Our eyes are very much the primary way how we interact with the world; they help us avoid accidents and maybe even death. The Phantom 4’s Obstacle Sensing System gives the drone it’s own pair of eyes, adding the necessary tools to create a 3D vision of the world and avoid threats. It essentially scans in front of the drone, making decisions on what direction and trajectory to fly at, but leaving room to safely navigate around the object.
There are different modes to use the system with. In Smart Go Home, the drone will calculate the easiest route home, using the sensors to calculate how long it’ll take to get around obstacles. If using the TapFly function, which enables users to set the drone on a designated path, the drone will circumvent anything it comes across.
The biggest caveat with the Phantom 4’s sensing system is that it only works in the direction that the drone is facing. The lack of rear facing cameras leaves the drone susceptible to potential hazards from its rear, so you’ll need to manually control it if you need to move in this direction. But expect a future Phantom to have this problem sorted.
Can It Be Crashed?
The Phantom 4’s Obstacle Sensing System is a welcome feature. It’s especially beneficial for novice drone pilots, making it easier to avoid damaging the Phantom 4. It does have a few limitations, however. Since its sensors are located at the front of the quadcopter, the system only works when flying forwards. So, as emphasised in DJI’s own tutorials, you’ll need to take extra care when moving the drone sideways or backwards. Nor does the system work in the high-speed Sport Mode. In addition to this, it may not always sense thin structures, like tree branches.
So no, the Phantom 4 is not uncrashable, but it’s certainly easier to pilot thanks to obstacle sensing and other smart features. Since it can take a while to master manual flight controls, TapFly is a real boon, enabling the user to simply tap on the live camera view to send the drone to that point. Finally, Active Track is much more user-friendly than the Follow Me mode on earlier Phantom models since it identifies the subject visually, without requiring a GPS reference, and automatically adjusts the camera gimbal to keep them in the middle of the frame.