In many ways we are living in the future that science fiction has teased for years: An era of self-driving cars, planned space tourism, touch-based pocket computers (which we call smartphones) and flying cameras -- better known as drones. And like smartphones, it has taken only a few years for drones to drop from "extremely pricey niche device" to "expensive but possible purchase."
DJI's Phantom 4 quadcopter, which shipped this year, illustrates the pattern perfectly. At a retail cost of $1,317 (Amazon price - What's this?), it delivers great new features while lowering the learning curve, making this new Phantom more accessible, even to beginners.
Unlike radio-controlled (RC) planes and copters, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are easier to fly because the onboard sensors -- accelerometers, gyroscopes, barometers and GPS -- work in concert to maintain a consistent height and placement in the air, even in gusty conditions. Drones keep themselves level and stable during flight, allowing the pilot to focus more on capturing video than on actually flying the drone. (More reliable drones also feature fail-safes such as a "return to home" feature in case there is a disconnect from the remote control; the Phantom 4 has that feature, but with the added benefit of obstacle-avoidance hardware.)
The Phantom 4 builds on the experience that DJI has accumulated over the last few years. In fact, some of the new features take their cues from the firm's more advanced and expensive Inspire line.
The body of the Phantom 4 has been redesigned to look smoother and more streamlined than its predecessor. The gimbal is now integrated into the new chassis; the propeller motors are raised an inch or so higher to help avoid filming the propellers during flight; and the remote control has been updated with a Pause button (to instantly stop autonomous flights) and an S switch for the new Sports (high-speed) mode. Nice bonus: The case the Phantom 4 comes in is made of hardened foam, and is small and durable enough to travel with.
The two features that most excite me about this drone are its obstacle-avoidance system and an upgraded Vision Positioning System (VPS). The Phantom 4 is the first consumer drone to actively avoid obstacles using four dedicated cameras. If the drone can't fly around or above an object, it'll sit and hover, waiting for your command. The VPS (which was introduced in the Phantom 3) can now track the ground for smoother flights when it's 30 feet in the air -- three times higher than what the Phantom 3 allowed. This lets you fly it indoors with an accuracy normally associated with a solid outdoors GPS lock.
In addition to the autonomous flight modes introduced in the Phantom 3 -- such as Follow Me (which tethers the drone to your GPS-enabled smartphone using the DJI Go app) and Point-of-Interest (which smoothly orbits the drone around an object) -- the Phantom 4 introduces the ActiveTrack and TapFly modes.
ActiveTrack lets you select an object on your phone's screen for the drone to automatically follow. TapFly lets you tap a point on the horizon on your smartphone, and the Phantom 4 will smoothly fly in that direction. Even better: ActiveTrack, TapFly and Return-to-Home modes use the drone's built-in sensors and avoidance system to direct it to fly around obstacles in its path.
Hit the Sport button on the remote control, and you put the Phantom into high-speed flying mode. This feature is for getting the drone where you want it quickly; I use it to get the Phantom 4 to a specific spot and switch back to normal flight speed when I'm ready to shoot video. (Note: The obstacle avoidance system is turned off when in this mode because the drone leans forward instead of traveling level, which makes those cameras angle toward the ground instead of straight ahead.)
Other refinements to the Phantom 4 include sturdier housing materials, a better navigation system architecture that uses a dual inertial measurement unit and dual compass (for more accurate flight data), push-and-release propeller design, an integrated 3-axis gimbal with a sharper 4K camera (that supports 120fps 1080p slow-motion video!) and up to 28 minutes of flight time.
Like previous generations, the Phantom 4 uses your smartphone to display live 720p video and flight data from the drone while it's in the air, as well as offering the ability to adjust camera/drone/flight settings on the fly. It takes smartphone integration to a more user-friendly level by allowing updates to the Phantom and controller directly from the phone app; that eliminates the previous requirement of connecting the drone and controller to a PC to upgrade its software.
Based on all of the upgrades introduced in the Phantom 4, along with the hours of flight time I've already racked up testing it in all kinds of conditions, I can highly recommend it for all sorts of skill levels, from beginner to expert. If you're in the market for a drone, the DJI Phantom 4 is an excellent choice.
Obligatory note: While the Phantom drones contain software with built-in Do Not Fly zones (such as near airports), UAVs may be in a legal gray area -- or outright banned -- in some areas. Do your homework before purchasing to avoid breaking the law.