In a dusty field on the edge of New York, I stood across from a dangerous, shifty thing that would cut me up if it hit me. Like the toreadors in a Hemingway novel, I met my fate with dignity as the pointy beast charged at me. But thankfully, my reflexes were never put to the test, and I was spared. That’s because I wasn’t facing up against a raging bull, but DJI’s latest drone, the all-seeing Phantom 4.
DJI unveiled the Phantom 4 earlier this month and told Quartz that it was a drone that just about anyone could fly. This, DJI said, was mainly down to its ease of use, and the new sense-and-avoid technology that’s meant to ensure the Phantom 4 won’t hit any objects it encounters. While the drone handled pretty much as DJI said it would, and was pretty easy to fly after a few minutes’ practice, it’s still probably not going to be the drone that anyone could—or would—fly. It’s still just a bit too finicky to use. That being said, it’ll be a great upgrade for any photographers looking to incorporate an intelligent flying camera into their arsenal.
Quartz recently tested out the Phantom 4, which is available starting yesterday (March 15). Here’s what we thought:
It’s easy to fly. Once you’ve got the Phantom all set up, it’s really pretty easy to fly. You press just one button to make it take off and another to land, and the drone knows how to return to where it took off from. The new tracking modes make it ridiculously easy to follow a person around—just drag a square box around them with your finger in the DJI Go app and the Phantom will do its best to keep them in the shot, even if they’re moving. The regular joystick controls for manually flying the Phantom are pretty much the same as ever, and may take some getting used to. But if you ever feel concerned you’re losing control of the drone, you can just press the “return to home” button to bring it back to you.
It won’t kill you. The Phantom 4 has two cameras on its front and two on its undercarriage that help it figure out the world around it. The drone has the ability to sense obstacles in front of it as it’s flying, so if you’ve instructed it to follow you, or fly along a certain route, it will do its best to not fly into anything. When testing this out, I couldn’t make the drone hit a lamppost, a tree, or me. I ran the drone right at myself three times (sorry, mom) and, thankfully, it wouldn’t come within about 2 meters (6.5 feet) of me. The drone also won’t let you crash it into the ground—its cameras on the bottom help it know how far it is from the ground, and it’ll automatically cut its speed if it thinks it’s approaching the floor too quickly.
It’s sturdy. If you somehow do manage to clip something, the Phantom should be able to handle it. The drone also has a new gimbal that’s partially housed in the body of the drone, meaning it has fewer dangling moving parts to get damaged.
It’s fast. The Phantom 4 has a new “sport mode” that pilots can toggle on the remote controller that’s a lot like the sport mode on most luxury cars. It loses some of its object-detection abilities, but in this setting, the Phantom can fly up to 20 meters per second (about 45 mph). It can also fly up to about 6000 m (19,685 feet) up, although DJI’s software limits the drone to flying just 400 feet.
Great footage. The camera on the Phantom 4 shoots smooth 4K video that makes even the most mundane shots of an overweight bearded man running around a dusty park in a floral shirt look pretty amazing. It can shoot up to 30 frames per second in 4K, and 120 frames per second in HD, making for some truly stunning slow-motion shots. Combine that with the Phantom’s tracking features, and you can pretty much recreate something that would’ve looked like an amazing shot from The Matrix a few years ago with a single drone in your backyard.
It can’t see everything. While the Phantom 4 was pretty adept at avoiding large object, it had trouble with tree branches and fences, and clipped some branches while it was still far away from the trunk of the tree itself. And if for some reason you were trying to outfox your Phantom while it’s tracking you, it will probably lose you. In my tiny Giants helmet, I pretended I was a football player, testing out the old fake-left-go-right move on the Phantom. And although I am only slightly more agile than a tree trunk, the Phantom still lost me a few times when tracking me while I was running pretty slowly. I wouldn’t rely on the built-in sensing as the only safety precaution for the Phantom 4—those propellors will chop off pretty much anything they happen to get close to.
Hard to get off the ground. Although the Phantom 4 flies great, it’s a bit of a hassle to get it up and running. Like almost any consumer electronics device, it needs to charge for a while—the battery takes about 1.5 hours to fully charge, and the remote control takes over 3.5 hours. You’re not going to rip open the box and get this thing in the air. DJI has a new propellor design for the Phantom 4 that’s supposed to make them simpler to get onto the drone, but I found it like trying to open a child-proof bottle of medicine in reverse: The fact that you’re supposed to tighten the propellors in the opposite direction of how you usually tighten things really messed with me. The first time I picked up the drone to start flying, all the propellors fell off. I’d say it took me a little less than an hour to go from opening the box to having the Phantom 4 in the air. That won’t make for a great first experience for someone new to flying drones.
Missing steps. Even after I’d connected every part and followed the in-app instructions for starting the Phantom 4, I still couldn’t get it in the air. The paper quick-start guide doesn’t actually explain how to get the drone flying, and in the app, it told me to to press and then hold the remote’s power button to start flying. It didn’t say that I had to do this for the power button on the drone’s battery, too. I ended up calling my colleague Erik Olsen, who I knew had a Phantom 3, to ask him if there was some basic step I was missing. He told me about the battery, and finally the Phantom 4 beeped into life.
The app is a bit confusing. When you first connect your drone to the DJI Go piloting app, it restricts you to flying in “Beginner” mode, only about 100 feet away from the controller. Except that the app spells it “Begineer,” which isn’t the best vote of confidence for its abilities:
In fairness, I was trying out preproduction software. And the biggest knock I had against the app is really just how thorough it is. There are just so many things to click on, and to do with it. It’s like looking at a diner menu when you just want some toast. The app lets you control every aspect of your drone’s flight and camerawork, but for beginners, trying to find the settings and modes you’re after may feel a little like finding the needle in the haystack—especially if you’re using anything other than a tablet-sized screen to control the app.
The fun’s over quickly. Once you’ve got your Phantom 4 up and tracking you, the drone runs out of battery after about 28 minutes, but it’ll start beeping incessantly and keep trying to land well before the battery is dead. While these are great safety precautions, especially given how some people operate their drones, it does mean you’ll probably want to purchase a few more batteries if you plan on taking the Phantom 4 out for a photoshoot. (Extra batteries will run you $169 each.)
The Phantom 4 costs $1,399, so if you own an older Phantom model or another quadcopter drone and are looking to upgrade, this is almost certainly the drone for you. If you’re new to flying drones, but want a well-built product and have the cash to spend, then, again, this is probably the one for you. But DJI told me that this is the drone that I could give to my mother and have her fly, in the same way I can give her an iPhone and it “just works.” I wouldn’t say the Phantom 4 is quite there yet. I fumbled my way through setting it up, and still needed to call someone else with a drone to help me figure out what I’d missed.
It’s going to be a few years before drones really get to a state where anyone can feel instantly comfortable flying them. But the self-flying and obstacle avoidance features of the Phantom 4 do point the way toward a future where we own drones as we would a GoPro or a selfie stick.