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DJI Phantom 4 drone avoids obstacles, flies faster and follows your every move

DJI's latest quadcopter can track subjects with little more than a touchscreen tap and stop itself from collisions while doing it.

Joshua Goldman Managing Editor / Advice
Managing Editor Josh Goldman is a laptop expert and has been writing about and reviewing them since built-in Wi-Fi was an optional feature. He also covers almost anything connected to a PC, including keyboards, mice, USB-C docks and PC gaming accessories. In addition, he writes about cameras, including action cams and drones. And while he doesn't consider himself a gamer, he spends entirely too much time playing them.
Expertise Laptops, desktops and computer and PC gaming accessories including keyboards, mice and controllers, cameras, action cameras and drones Credentials
  • More than two decades experience writing about PCs and accessories, and 15 years writing about cameras of all kinds.
Joshua Goldman
4 min read

After years of testing all manner of electronics, I've had my share of accidents and mishaps. None have caused me the same level of gut-wrenching panic as a drone flying into a tree or my neighbor's house.

This is one reason why obstacle avoidance is the "it" feature this year for consumer drones, and it's what the new DJI Phantom 4 has over its predecessors and much of the competition. The stout quadcopter features a set of optical sensors up front -- eyes that will help it navigate around obstacles within 0.7 to 15 meters (2.3 to 49 feet) of it or it will simply stop and hover until you pilot it away.

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The drone can also use the sensors to avoid running into things on its way back to you if you trigger its Return-to-Home safety feature. This should mean you don't have to worry if a building or some trees comes between you and the Phantom 4.

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Before you get too excited, though, this system is going to cost you: The Phantom 4 will sell for $1,399. (That converts to £1,005 for the UK and AU$1,960 in Australia, with availability in those countries yet to be announced.) It's available for preorder through DJI.com as well as Apple.com, and DJI says customers will start receiving these orders on March 15. On that same day you'll be able to buy them in DJI and Apple retail stores. It won't be until March 23 that it will be available from other retailers for April 1 delivery.

Better video through autonomy

So yes, the Phantom 4 can use its optical sensors to avoid crashing into things when you're piloting. But it can also use them to fly autonomously. ActiveTrack, a new mode available through DJI's Go app, uses its new sensors to follow a subject. Follow Me features aren't new to DJI or other drones, though they typically rely on GPS for tracking subjects, which requires the subject to carry the remote control or a beacon. It's also not very accurate and can be slow to change course.

DJI Phantom 4 drone has extra eyes to avoid obstacles (pictures)

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Using ActiveTrack with the Phantom 4, you just tap your subject on screen and the drone starts following, keeping the camera centered on whoever or whatever you tapped. DJI says even if the subject changes shape or turns, or other people or objects enter the frame, the camera should stay on the selected subject. And you'll still have full control of camera movements to get the shot you want, not just what the drone is giving you.

Another mode called TapFly pretty much does what the name implies: Double tap on a point on screen and the Phantom 4 will fly there, avoiding obstacles along the way. Tap another point and it will transition and pilot its way there. Basically, it allows you to set up a flight path on the fly. If at any point you want to stop and think about your next move, a new Pause button on the controller will set the drone to stop and hover in place.

Ready to race?

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While previous Phantoms have been quick, they were made for photos and video, not racing. To add a bit more versatility to the Phantom 4, DJI streamlined the body and gimbal design and added a Sport mode. Flip a switch on the controller and the quadcopter will angle forward and fly at speeds of nearly 45 mph (72 kph). It can also ascend and descend faster, so you can set up your shot that much faster or just have fun racing around.

DJI is promising flight times up to 28 minutes (not at 45 mph, though) due to a new more powerful battery, improved motors, power management and the redesigned chassis. That's only 5 minutes more than the Phantom 3 Professional, but it could mean the difference between getting your shot or not.

Speaking of getting your shot, the camera is for the most part unchanged from the Phantom 3 Professional's excellent shooter. DJI says it added a slow-motion option capturing 1080p at 120fps and it has improved the lens so there's less chromatic aberration and better corner sharpness.

That's good, because the camera is permanently attached, which means it can't even be removed for easier travel, let alone an upgrade down the road. Similarly, while the landing gear is shorter and wider for stable landings, it too is fixed to the body, so it can't be packed flat. Quibbles, maybe, but at $1,400, an upgrade path and collapsable or removable legs would be nice.