Hands up. I admit it. The first time I ever flew a drone solo, I crashed it into a tree. It was the DJI Phantom 2 Vision+, and when the aircraft eventually hit the ground (with a sickening crunch) the camera was wrecked.
Had that drone been a DJI Phantom 4, which I’ve just been putting through its paces at my local park, it might not have happened at all.
Why? Because one of the Phantom 4’s big new features is collision detection and object avoidance. Using a pair of small, front-facing cameras, embedded in the joint between the drone’s legs and body, this drone can automatically detect obstacles in its flight path up to 50ft away, and will come to a dead stop when it sees them or adjust its trajectory and fly by.
It sounds like witchcraft, but after flying it directly at my head (I figured I could duck at the last minute if it didn’t work, saving me a visit to the drone doctor) I can confirm the tech works, and it works very well.
Instead of having to dive out of the way and muddy my trousers in the process, the Phantom 4 came to a dead stop right in front of me. I have to admit I flinched, but I needn’t have worried – no matter how hard I pushed the left joystick forwards, the Phantom remained stock still.
My confidence bolstered, I grew more bold. Next, I attempted to fly it directly at the unmoving (and very narrow) upright of a set of rugby goalposts. Once again, the Phantom 4 remained in the air successfully, but instead of stopping, this time the drone ghosted past the post as if it wasn’t there.
This is seriously impressive stuff, and it points the way to a future where anyone can fly a drone, capturing stunning footage via the drone’s 4K camera along the way. With drones frequently in the news right now, and mostly for the wrong reasons, the ability to take to the skies without having to worry about landing yourself with a £400 bill is something worth celebrating.
DJI Phantom 4 review: Follow me home
Collision detection and avoidance isn’t, however, the end of the story for the Phantom 4. DJI has also added a couple of other exciting new features. First on the list is Active Track, which enables the drone to follow you around you while you walk, run, ski or cycle.
It’s so simple to use, and so effective, it’s ridiculous. Just switch to Active Track mode using the DJI Go app on your phone or tablet, hover the Phantom three metres above the ground and five metres away from you, draw a box around yourself and press Go. That’s it: you can then proceed to make a fool of yourself running around a muddy rugby field trying to shake it off.
It works remarkably well, and while it is possible to lose the Phantom 4 – even for this not-particularly-fit tech journalist, plodding slowly around in a pair of jeans and a winter jacket – as long as you don’t make any sudden and violent sideways movements, the camera-based tracking should keep the Phantom 4 on track.
Tap Fly is the next addition to the Phantom 4’s armoury. Switch to this mode while you’re flying and the drone will travel directly to the location you tap on the screen, avoiding obstacles as it goes. A genuine step forward for usability, although it’s probably a feature you’ll grow out of as your skills as a drone pilot progress.
DJI Phantom 4 review: Faster, stronger, better
Everything else about the Phantom 4 will be familiar to anyone who has used one before. The remote control unit is nigh-on identical to the one issued with the Phantom 3 Professional.
It’s solid and well made, light enough to hold for long periods, and the control sticks are sensitive and precise. The bracket on top is flexible enough to hold a large smartphone or a 9.7in tablet, just as before. DJI has, however, added a couple of extra useful features.
There’s now a pause button on the right shoulder, which will bring the Phantom to a sudden stop if you’ve lost your bearings, and the mode switch on the top-left shoulder of the unit gains a new position. The new Sport mode is aimed at more experienced pilots, and it unlocks the Phantom 4’s improved speed.
It will now hit 45mph in ideal conditions, up from 36mph, which is very impressive, but too much for me. I chickened out and stuck it in Beginner mode for the duration of the test. In this mode, the Phantom’s clever flight software restricts you from flying the drone further than 30m away from you and 30m up, and it won’t let you take off unless the drone has a solid GPS lock.
Other improvements include a redesigned chassis, now manufactured from magnesium alloy, which is lighter and more robust than before.There’s a higher-capacity, 5,350mAh battery, which will keep you flying for 28 minutes compared with the 23-minute flight time of the Phantom 3.
The three-axis camera gimbal (that thing that keeps the camera stable) is now stiffer and stronger, also built from magnesium alloy, and is more smoothly integrated into the body of the Phantom. And the camera itself has also been improved. The lens now has eight elements, for sharper pictures and better control over chromatic aberrations, and it’s able to record 120fps slow-motion footage at 1080p. Otherwise, though, it’s similar to the camera on the Phantom 3 Professional. It can shoot up to 4K resolution at 30fps and a bit rate of up to 60Mbits/sec, and it will snap 12.4-megapixel stills, too.
The quality of the images is simply superb; perhaps not as good as shooting with a GoPro, but still perfectly serviceable for all but the most demanding of aerial photography applications.
The final big improvement is to the downward-facing movement-sensing cameras, which allow the Phantom 4 to be flown inside, where you cannot get a GPS signal. These now have a greater range than before, allowing the drone to be flown at heights of up to 10m without. Previously, it was only possible to fly the Phantom 3 Professional at up to 3m.
This all goes to make the Phantom 4 a fantastic thing to use while it’s in the air. However, setting up the Phantom 4 is as time-consuming and fiddly as ever. After installing the app on your phone and plugging it in via the USB port on the rear of the remote-control unit, you’ll have to painstakingly proceed through a series of firmware updates before you can even leave the house.
And although the Phantom is easier to fly than ever, the sheer complexity of the DJI Go app will be daunting for first-time flyers. There’s a steep learning curve for anyone who hasn’t flown a drone before.
DJI Phantom 4 review: Verdict
The DJI Phantom 4 is not quite a drone for the non-enthusiast, then, but it’s closer than ever before to that ideal, and it’s the safety features – the collision-detection and tracking features, not to mention the safety net of the automatic fly-me-home feature – that take it there.
This is quite clearly a major step forward for drone technology, especially for consumers, and makes flying drones easier than ever, but it can’t address the two fundamental problems that prevent most people in the UK from flying drones in the first place. First, finding a legal place to fly is difficult. Second, you can’t fly in bad weather, and we’re having quite a lot of that lately.
Nevertheless, if you have somewhere to go that’s remote and uncrowded – or you’re looking for a tool to take your photography or videography to the next level – the DJI Phantom 4 is the drone you want. Although it may not be the cheapest drone around, the price of £1,229 is still more than reasonable.
See also: The best camera drones on the market