With its combination of stereo cameras, proximity sensors, and image processing capabilities, the DJI Phantom 4 is the first mainstream quadcopter that incorporates obstacle avoidance and object tracking in a sleek package.

The rig, announced this morning, is an evolutionary step forward not just from the company’s Phantom 3 quadcopters, but for the consumer drone industry in general.

Phantom 4 Action 5

Multiple sensors

The missing element for truly autonomous flight modes is obstacle avoidance. Even with the multitudes of “follow-me” drones that have appeared on crowdfunding sites over the past year, none have demonstrated the crucial ability to keep themselves from smashing into tree branches, ski lifts, or anything else in their way.

Phantom 4 Still 17

DJI attempts to solve this on the Phantom 4, incorporating a sensor array on its front and bottom designed to see obstacles in its path. Two forward-facing cameras mounted above the landing legs, plus two downward-facing cameras and downward-facing ultrasonic sensors provide distance information to all objects in front and below the quad. When a possible collision with an oncoming obstruction is detected, DJI explains that the quadcopter automatically adjusts its height to pass above it, or pauses flight if no clear pathway is detected.

The sensors have a 60º horizontal field of view, and over 50º vertically. The company notes that the downward-facing array also helps achieve incredible stability when GPS signals are not available. “It’s shocking how it doesn’t drift,” DJI’s Global Director of Communication Adam Najberg tells us.

Phantom 4 Still 4

DJI originally proof-of-concepted the system on the Matrice 100, and in a demonstration they provided for Make: last year it performed well in an indoor, slow-moving environment. They note that the fly-around system is currently an up-and-over approach, but that they’re shipping the Phantom 4 with the SDK available for partners to expand these capabilities in new ways.

Autonomous following

Coupled with its sensors, the Phantom 4 has a separate onboard computer for flight processing, which DJI explains allows it to achieve those advanced autonomous “follow-me” functions using computer-vision people detection and object tracking. Using their app on a phone or tablet connected to the controller, you can select a subject to follow, and the machine will track it as it moves and changes direction, while continuing to detect and avoid obstacles, making decision based on its speed and object distance. “Before you just had a crash,” Najberg says.

Phantom 4 Action 3

DJI explains that the position of the Phantom can be adjusted as it flies, allowing you to pan the moving drone around the moving subject with the camera keeping it centered.

A second autonomous mode simply lets the user tap a location on the screen of the app, and the Phantom 4 will determine the best way to navigate to that spot while avoiding collisions. Watch the video below to see the drone’s flight and obstacle avoidance in action:

[youtube https://youtu.be/LdUyCZ_cOL8]

High speed

Citing drone racing, DJI says that the Phantom 4 also includes a “Sport Mode” setting, which lets it achieve air speeds of up to 45mph.

New camera

The Phantom 3 was notable for introducing a proprietary camera and gimbal system, instead of using GoPros as had been common. The Phantom 4 advances their camera and gimbal into a smaller form, moving the center of gravity to help eliminate views of the spinning propellor blades. It shoots at 4k resolution, with an improved lens for better optical output.

Phantom 4 Still 2

Redesigned body

The Phantom 4 takes what’s become an iconic style from the first three generations of Phantoms, and has made it sleeker and more aerodynamic. Gone are the colored stickers that add stripes to the arms. It’s just white, all white, with blinking lights below the arms on a now glossy shell. Its motors are exposed, which DJI explains allows for better cooling. And the propellors use a new clip-on/off mounting function for fast deployment.

The battery life has increased as well, with DJI claiming 28 minutes of flight time.

Questions

Two thoughts we look forward to diving deeper into:

The sensor resolution is not immediately clear — what size object will trigger the system? Will it detect small tree branches and thin cables?

Why the directional choice of just forward and bottom-facing sensors? The usefulness of drones is their omnidirectional capabilities. While a majority of flying involves moving forward, many maneuvers for aerial cinematography (which all drones are quickly becoming geared towards) involve tracking sideways or in reverse. Having obstacle detection for all directions, including upward-facing, will help pilots be able to focus on camera duties without fear of collisions. This is undoubtedly a feature that will be expanded moving forward — possibly needing onboard processing capabilities to increase in order to make it viable.

Price, availability

The Phantom 4 costs $1,399. DJI will be holding pre-orders on its site and through a partnership with Apple on their online store until the end of March; other retailers will carry it after that.