New DJI drone offers obstacle avoidance, reduces learning curve

DJI had a huge consumer hit with the Phantom 3 series of drones, and it’s looking to keep the momentum going with today’s announcement of the Phantom 4.

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Credit: DJI

DJI and competitors like Yuneec and 3DR have taken aerial photography to new levels over the past two years with prosumer drones. In fact, if you followed CES 2016 coverage, you saw drones in all shapes, configurations and sizes. DJI has been leading the pack of drone manufacturers, releasing the Phantom 3 last year to much fanfare. Looking to take its commanding lead to next heights, DJI today announced the Phantom 4.

DJI pushing into the enterprise startup field

According to Re/code, DJI is pushing into the enterprise by offering a software developer kit that helps programmers create apps like Hivemapper, which Re/code describes as "Waze for drones." Hivemapper is reportedly working with Accel Partners to offer funding for startups that build on the DJI drone platform.

You don't know how to fly a drone or build an RC from the ground up? No problem. What makes these drones so popular is that the systems are integrated and are designed to work out of the box and, most importantly, you don't need to know how to fly a drone. That's not to say there is no learning curve. There are preflight checklists, regular maintenance (e.g., I recently discovered a whining motor on my quadcopter, something that if left unchecked would likely bring it down midflight) and apps to familiarize yourself with. However, all the hard work has been done and you can go off on your merry way and start flying. Something true R/C flying enthusiasts seem to take issue with.

So what makes the Phantom 4 unique? The DJI also offers the following new features.

Obstacle Sensing System

The company is building off of a great platform with the Phantom 3, but the Phantom 4 offers something that has been eluding autonomous vehicles of all types. The newest Phantom has an obstacle-avoidance system built-in. This unit uses five cameras to "see" in real-time. If you are flying into a rock face, for example, it should brake appropriately, according to DJI. This should be good news to drone enthusiasts. If your "return to home" feature is activated, your drone should be able to avoid any obstacles in its return path. According to the press release, the unit uses two cameras on the bottom, two on the top and the gimbaled camera that looks forward. All of these feeds are run through the DJI software to build a 3D model of the drone's surroundings. And like the anti-skid technology in modern cars, you can toggle this feature on and off.

TapFly flight mode

DJI is offering new flight modes, apart from the five intelligent flight modes. One is called TapFly. It eliminates the need to learn the two-axis flight controls associated with radio controllers.

Active Track

Another impressive new feature is ActiveTrack. This allows you to use your tablet or phone to draw circles around points of interest, like say a lighthouse. The DJI software than builds a 3D model of the subject and automatically tracks the subject to keep it centered in the shot. You can make adjustments to the shot or let the drone take care of the heavy lifting for you.

It's faster

Another recent addition to the feature set reported by The Verge is "sport mode." Sacrificing flight time for speed, this setting will boost the Phantom 4's top speed from 33 mph to 45 mph.

Intelligent flight modes

These are all in addition to the other five intelligent flight modes: heading lock, course lock, point of interest, waypoints and follow me. This level of automation allows one person to do the work of many.

Hardware

The newest unit has redundant inertial measurement systems (IMUs) and dual compasses to make it more reliable. A new type of propeller-locking mechanism is also included in the Phantom 4, along with an improved 4K camera and gimbal.

Increased flight time

The new unit boasts a slightly larger battery, pushing the flight time of this unit from 25 minutes up to 28 minutes, which is surprising given the weight of additional cameras and sensors.

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Price

The price on this model is expected to be a little higher than the Phantom 3 at $1,399. However, given that the risk of crashes have been reduced and the learning curve to fly has been removed, that's pretty impressive.

DJI recently began offering drone insurance, something that will further remove the risk of flying for some users. Another interesting move is that DJI is partnering with Apple to make the Phantom 4 the only drone sold in Apple stores.

Final thoughts

Putting this kind of machine in the hands of the masses begs a question: Does this fly in the face of the FAA regulations and guidelines? Do we really want people with no flying experience operating drones that can fly over 45 miles an hour and potentially fly at over 10,000 feet? DJI says it expects each drone owner to responsibly learn and follow the rules. Whether that is a reasonable expectation remains to be seen.

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