The Phantom 4 is DJI’s most advanced “prosumer” drone ever, and it looks pretty sharp, too.

One of the most popular drone manufacturers in the world, DJI had a big hit with last year’s Phantom 3. This time, it’s taken that design and improved upon it in meaningful ways while maintaining the familiar Phantom look and feel. The result is a potentially faster, more stable flier with a level of intelligence that outstrips virtually all other consumer drones on the market.

There’s no mistaking the Phantom 4 for anything other than a DJI drone, but closer inspection reveals a far more polished look with lots of technology embedded in the body (as opposed to hanging off it). The biggest advancements are the Phantom 4’s follow and avoid capabilities. They’re enabled by a companion iOS/Android app but are powered by two monochrome cameras embedded in the drone’s struts.

This is in contrast to the Firefly, Intel’s obstacle-avoiding drone, which uses RealSense infrared cameras to paint a complex 3D map of its surroundings.

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The DJI Phantom 4’s small cameras build a basic 3D image and allow the drone to identify oncoming obstacles and avoid them. In autonomous mode, the Phantom 4 will try to rise up and over the obstacle. In controlled mode, it will come to a halt in front of a wall or person.

DJI reps told me that all five of the drone’s onboard cameras work together so it’s not just looking at images — it’s processing things algorithmically and making decisions based on it. They liken it to machine learning, though it’s not clear that the drone gets any smarter over time.

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The two-section gimbal of previous generations has been replaced with a new, cleanly-mounted, 3-axis gimbal that pokes out of a composite wrap. The new gimbal anchors the camera on both sides, using two motors to control pitch.

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The Phantom 4’s camera uses the same sensor as does the camera in the Phantom 3 Professional, but features a new glass lens that is supposed to yield sharper images and better colors.

The front of the Phantom 4 features a set of stealthy stereo vision cameras that have been integrated on the body above the landing struts.

camera uses the same sensor

The understated visual design belies the tremendous power that drones get when they are given dedicated vision and onboard computational power for identifying and tracking objects in 3-dimensional space. Using its new stereo vision system, the Phantom 4 can detect and avoid obstacles, as well as track and follow operator-selected subjects.

This new front-facing vision system is what DJI was referring to in its “Return To Your Senses” teaser video published on Feb 24—bizarre, because it’s unclear what we’re “returning” to; it’s never been better in the drone industry than it is now.

The Phantom 4’s New Features
There will be plenty of articles out today that feature the full specifications of the Phantom 4, but I’ll list what I’ve been told are the main differences between the Phantom 4 and Phantom 3 Professional:

Vision system augmented to include two front-facing cameras and two downward-facing cameras used for both subject tracking and object detection / avoidance
Field of view: 60º vertical, 30º horizontal
Object detection at up to 15 meters (49.2 feet) away
DJI GO now shows an object detection visual indicator
100 grams (0.22 lbs) heavier
New battery: 5350 Mah, 15.2V battery (rated at 28 min flight time). Some flights from prototypes have been 30 mins or more.
Composite bottom for structural integrity
Micro-SD card and micro-USB port moved to body from gimbal plate
Camera uses same sensor, but has better glass lens and can do 1080/120fps
Motors have same propulsion specs but have been pushed out of the mount, which allows for better cooling
Grills for cooling vents on bottom of arms
Redundancy: dual IMUs and dual magnetometers (compasses)
New propellors (quick release)
Latches at end of each arm are for snap-on prop guards (which can obstruct vision sensors)
Flight modes revamped
Normal mode: manual flight per older Phantoms
Sport option (switch activated), which:
increases max pitch to 45º
increases max speed from 16 to 20 m/s (35.8 to 44.7 MPH)
increases max ascent and descent speed
Disables vision system
TapFly mode: tap on the live FPV screen, and the Phantom flies in that direction
ActiveTrack mode: follows an object you select in DJI GO
Smart modes (previously called “Intelligent Flight Modes”): POI, Follow Me, Waypoints, Home Lock, Course Lock
Computer Vision, Obstacle Avoidance, and Drones
Object detection and avoidance will quickly become commoditized because they are included in drone-infrastructure plays by Intel and Qualcomm. At CES 2016, Yuneec was favored by the press with its demonstration of Intel RealSense integration in its Typhoon H hexacopter, which is supposed to ship this summer. The demo video is impressive and shows what real-world usage of follow-me with object avoidance might look like, assuming you were willing to bet your $2-3K (or whatever) drone on how well its new eyes and brain work!

The inclusion of stereo vision sensors in the Phantom 4 shows that DJI has also been hard at work integrating its version of sense-and-avoid, and the fact that DJI will ship way before Yuneec’s Typhoon is a testament to DJI’s product prowess.

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Once you’ve selected a subject, you can tap “GO,” and the Phantom 4 will follow that person (or thing) around. As mentioned above, the Phantom 4 specifically recognizes people, and also recognizes some typical movements like walking, running and cycling. I saw some footage of Romeo trying to hide from the Phantom 4, and the only way he could do it was to hide behind something for an extended period of time. When hiding for short periods of time, the Phantom 4 would reacquire subject lock when he reappeared on screen.

During tracking, an operator can pilot from side to side (rotating around in an orbit), and can also ascend and descend. The Phantom 4 will also actively avoid objects by navigating around them, although it will stop if a large obstacle is detected. Note also that if an operator orbits during tracking, the Phantom 4 can crash into obstacles because its vision sensors only face forward, and the Phantom always faces its subject in this mode. Yuneec’s Typhoon H w/Intel RealSense might be more effective at avoiding obstacles during orbits because it can swivel to face the direction of movement while keeping its camera stays trained on a subject. No one knows yet how effective either of these systems will be in the real world, but it’s also an unfair comparison because the Typhoon H is also likely to be 2-3x the price of the Phantom 4.

These new vision systems are the first that are being offered to consumers, at least, as systems that are integrated into drones, so we shouldn’t expect too much. As a general rule, if a particular scene might fool you, it will likely also fool the drone. Things that might not be detected with high accuracy include strongly backlit subjects (e.g., when you are facing the sun), glass, mirrors, thin wires and tree branches. But given the rough state of DJI’s object avoidance last year during the release of the M100 developer platform, I’m impressed with how far the technology has come. There has been a huge increase in performance and usability, and if this rate of progress continues, vision systems in drones will surpass human vision capabilities in the very near future.

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