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The unmistakable four pointed white shell of the DJI Phantom has become an iconic image. You can bet that almost any news story which involves a drone, no matter the size or context, will be accompanied by the same image of a Phantom with sticky evil eyes. You know the one. And what other consumer gadget can boast its own South Park episode?
Three short years ago the original Phantom was born and it wasn't a major leap. Catch and dissect one and you'd find a familiar Naza flight controller, four ESCs, four motors and a standard 2200mAh LiPo battery with an XT60 connector. A supplied mount allowed you to strap an original GoPro to the bottom and enjoy wobbly and wavy video (or 'jello' caused by vibration from the motors). Back then, battery life was around eight minutes and there was no live video downlink.
So what exactly was the key to the Phantom's success? The answer is simple: Everything was provided in one box. Suddenly a quadcopter wasn't an engineering project that required piecing together - it became a gadget. Anyone could enjoy one and, just like that, a new market was born. And now, with the Phantom 4 ready to go global and available from all retailers as of 01 April - DJI is hoping to strengthen its grip on this ever-growing industry.
Unsurprisingly the Phantom 4 stays true to its roots and sports a white plastic shell, but for the first time it's a smooth, polished finish. Unlike the Phantom 2 and 3 before it, the Phantom 4 is a total redesign. The chunkier centre section is home to a totally new 5350mAh battery, up from 4480mAh on the Phantom 3 (which sadly means those Phantom 3 batteries won't be compatible with the new model). DJI claims that this gives the Phantom 4 up to 28 minutes of flying time - an increase of 25% over the Phantom 3 Professional.
The new camera, now supported at both sides, can capture 4K at 30 frames per second and 1080p at 120 frames per second, and it does 12MP stills (with the SD card slot now built into the body of the drone). Field of View is 94 degrees so, other than the 120 frame slow-motion mode, the camera specs are identical to the Phantom 3 Professional. Although DJI docs say that the new lens massively reduces distortion and chromatic aberration compared with the old model - and if you think that sounds familiar, you're right. DJI said the same thing about the Phantom 3 at launch!
There's more to the unit than a polished body and new battery though. The Phantom 4 uses machine learning to bring three major new features to the lable: ActiveTrack, Obstacle Avoidance and TapFly. With ActiveTrack you simply select your chosen target on the screen (such as yourself on your mountain bike) and then, in theory, the Phantom will follow you by tracking your shape on its camera - with the added bonus of reading colour, so if a second mountain biker appeared alongside you, the Phantom 4 shouldn't be distracted as long as they're not wearing the same outfit. There is no requirement for your smarlphone or the Phantom's transmitter to be with you, although, unless you're planning on leaving them at the top of the mountain, you'll probably have them with you anyhow.
That's a cool feature by anyone's measure - but it's not entirely new. The Xiro Xplorer does a similar thing with its XIRO Follow Snap. However, there is a problem with drones loyally following their owners around the place: trees. If you go down to the woods today with a Xiro Xplorer in tow, it will happily kamikaze itself into the first low tree branch it comes across. Not so with the Phantom 4. At least that's the plan.
Intel and Yuneec demonstrated a solution to the tree issue at CES in January this year with the new Typhoon H; sensors on the front of the Yuneec detect obstacles and the aircraft avoids them. DJI has implemented a similar system n the Phantom 4 - with two small 'eyes' at the front of the aircraft keeping a lookout. If you attempt to interface your Phantom with the flora - be it manually or automated when using the ActiveTrack or Return to Home functions - it will change course.
If the Phantom 4 can't dodge an obstacle by rising above it. or moving left or right, at the very least it will grind to a halt and prevent a collision occurring. It's still largely antested in the wider world, but DJI does point out that the :ech can't detect glass windows and some types of fencing - and trees will be easier to spot in the summer than in their leaf-less winter state.
TapFly is the Phantom 4's other magic trick. If you tap on the live view screen on your tablet or phone, the Phantom 4 will calculate the coordinates of where you've tapped, how best to get there and then set off, avoiding obstacles as it goes. If you tap somewhere else on screen whilst it's on its way to destination one it will smoothly transition onto its new course, and all while producing cinematic footage that makes you look like you know what you're doing. Plus, the Phantom 4 will learn from each flight, so if you repeat a route or destination, the drone will remember and initiate the most efficient path previously taken.
Just like the Phantom 3 Advanced and Professional before it, the Phantom 4 includes DJI's Lightbridge video downlink technology. Lightbridge really does lead the market, giving excellent 720p wireless video that 'just works'. Wi Fi based systems from other manufacturers don't get close to the excellent experience of using Lightbridge. DJI claims a range of 5km (3.1 miles) with the Phantom 4's Lightbridge implementation, which will far exceed the local regulations unless you have super-human eyesight.
DJI has also included a dual redundant IMU system and dual compasses in the Phantom 4. Hopefully cross-checking the results from two separate IMUs and two compasses will allow the Phantom's brain to see through any weird glitches and avoid those strange unexpected landings that we hear about on the forums. There's no mention of a dual GPS, however, which is a shame because some theories blame erroneous GPS fixes for the dreaded "fly away".
One of the few areas of the market that DJI doesn't dominate is drone racing, but for how long? The Phantom 4 includes a new 'Sport Mode'. Activate it and the craft can hit 45 miles per hour, and climbing and descending gets quicker, too (in the other modes the Phantom 4 is actually slower going up or down than its predecessor). Will we see Phantom 4 racing in the future? Perhaps. But be warned, in Sport mode the clcver GPS and obstacle avoidance sensors are turned off (presumably they simply can't respond quickly enough at that speed) and DJI won't allow warranty claims for crashes where the GPS was deactivated.
If you've owned an Apple product in the last decade you'll be familiar with Apple Care. DJI Care is the same thing for your drone, with service packages in place for its core range of models including the Phantom 3 and Inspire. Phantom 4 owners can pay an extra hefty fee for the year (or less for 6 months) and your Phantom will be covered if you have a mishap. If you do, then DJI will collect your Phantom and take it to the repair centre in the Netherlands, fix it up and get it back to you. Reports are that turnaround times are around eight weeks, though, and if you were flying in an 'unsuitable flight environment' or your Phantom has water damage, you won't be covered. Batteries, propellers, radio controller and other accessories are also excluded.
With the ActiveTrack mode and collision detection systems in place, just how much control over the Phantom 4 is still required? The Air Navigation Order says that the operator: "must maintain direct, unaided visual contact with the aircraft sufficient to monitor its flight path in relation to other aircraft, persons, vehicles, vessels and structures for the purpose of avoiding collisions." So that's something you should always bear in mind.
What we don't know is whether an aircraft with collision avoidance technology on board, which is automatically following its operator, would be considered to fulfil this requirement (not according to the CAA as you can see in our review over the page). One thing is for sure; the Phantom 4's sensors couldn't detect a low flying helicopter approaching from any direction other than the front, and even then probably not until it was far too late to get out of the way.
If you're a photographer the Phantom 4 isn't a massive leap up from the Phantom 3. The camera specifications are virtually the same, it's still a quadcopter, it's still white, it still has fixed landing gear and it still has only one radio controller - but yes, it is still a great choice for aerial photography. The battery life increase is definitely worth having and the obstacle avoidance might save your bacon a few times - so long as you're flying forwards when you accidentally try to take out the bride at her wedding (adding more cameras for 360-degree avoidance would prove too costly right now). With the Phantom 4 slotting in at virtually the same price as the Phantom 3 Professional used to be it's a no-brainer really.
If, like many drone enthusiasts, you just like cool tech then the new features are going to provide a lot of fun. In the coming weeks and months local parks will be full of new owners running around like lunatics whilst shiny Phantoms (hopefully) follow them, and (hopefully) avoid crashing into one another! Will these features be used on every flight, even after the honeymoon period is over? Probably not.
Sport mode is an interesting addition to the Phantom 4. Is DJI CEO Frank Wang looking to dominate the drone racing sector as well? In truth, unless the Phantom 4's version has dramatically reduced it, the latency on the Lightbridge system isn't low enough to keep the pilot in the loop at 45mph. If you'd like to get into drone racing, or flying fast in first person view, you'd be far better off with a separate, specialist aircraft for that. Drone racers are cheap and as hard as nails.
There are some real innovations in the Phantom 4 and we can be confident that DJI has done a good job with its implementation. The Phantom 4 will lead the market for another cycle, but the competition is hotting up. Yuneec's Typhoon H definitely givesthe Phantom 4 a run for its money in terms of features and may well beat it in some areas - such as the retractable landing gear, full 360 camera (with slip ring), built in tablet and ability to fly with one motor/propeller/ESC down.
But the good news is that as the competition continues to grow and intensify, so the manufacturers are forced to innovate and upgrade their products to maintain a foothold in the market. So, as great as the Phantom 4 is looking right now, we can't wait to see what the Phantom 5 will be capable of!
|Phantom 4||Phantom3 (Professional & Advanced)|
|Weight (battery included)||1380g||1280g|
|Max. Flight Speed||20m/s (Sport mode)||16m/s (Atti mode)|
|Max. Ascent/Descent Speed||6m/3 - 4m/3 (Sport mode)||5m/s - 3m/s|
|Flight Time||Up to 28mins approx.||Up to 23mins.|
|Obstacle Sensing||Yes. Effective range is 0.7-15m||N/A|
|Vision Positioning System||Yes. Effective range is 0-10m||Yes. Effective range is 0.3-3m|
|Slow Motion Video||Yes. Resolution 1920x1080@120fps||N/A|
|Battery Capacity||5350 mAh||4480 mAh|
The Phantom range has an enviable record in the drone world. Its iconic sleek white mouldings have become the silhouette image that the public conjure up in their minds when they think of a drone. And with great success comes the copycat products and naturally many copies out there have adopted this distinctive look.
But copies these are and greatly inferior to the original in many ways as those in the know will testify. Unfortunately for the copycats, DJI always appear to be many steps ahead as they continue to develop their products, improving on them greatly with each evolution.
Their Mavic Pro highlighted this as DJI announced a brand new model and immediately stole the adoration of the press and public alike. They certainly didn't stumble upon this success, although it is clear they are still trying to cope with the incredible demand for the product.
DJI has an unbelievable team behind them and they can take all the credit for their top-billing statue. And with the latest version of the Phantom 4 and the Inspire 2, DJI has once again raised the bar for others to follow.
Two elements really stood out to us as major upgrades from the Phantom 4 Standard (which will continue to be sold) and they start with an upgrade to five dimensional obstacle avoidance, using the system we first saw on the Phantom 4 repeated on the rear of the craft and two sideways IR sensor arrays to cover the sides.
Whilst the Inspire 2 targets the professional film maker or photographer, the Phantom 4 Pro is more consumer focussed and will have greater appeal to our readership.
Upgraded camera specification now uses a 1-inch Sony sensor and offerers 20MP still and 4K 60fps
The downward facing sonar and camer a sensor we first saw on the Phantom 3 continue of course, and this will mean the Phantom 4 Pro will be almost impossible to fly into anything, which will help massively when filming in enclosed spaces.
The 4S rechargeable Intelligent Flight Battery is claimed to give nearly 30-minutes flying time.
The other big thing is a serious upgrade to the camera system - the sensor is now 1-inch Sony part, offering 20MP still and 4K 60fps - well ahead of the competition in this price range that are essentially still using a 2015 spec sensor as fitted to the Phantom 3 4K! We managed to see some footage from the Phantom 4 Pro on DJI's product demonstration day and it was a serious upgrade from the stock Phantom 4, which is already very good.
The grey coloured controller for the Inspire 2 model with an iPad Mini screen.
The Intelligent Flight Battery battery included with the Pro is a 4S LiPo rated at 5350mAh that should give the best part of half an hour of flying time. Other change s include a new remote control, which is now available with a built in screen as an option (and it is very bright indeed), and an HDMI output on the controller too.
The actual rating of the Phantom 4 Lithium Ion Polymer battery is 5350mAh and 15.2V.
This new controller will be bundled as the Phantom 4 Pro +, the existing controller that supports iOS and Android smart devices continues as before. The 2.4GHz controller has the capability to transmit up to 5km unobstructed, free of interference and of course if you can keep it in sight.