With its new collision-avoidance system and upgrades all round, this is the top-end, all-in-one drone to buy
You might never have flown a drone, or maybe you’ve just flown a cheap model – bought for £30 off Ebay or down the market – around your local park. Either way you’re going to pretty nervous when first put at the controls of your own £1,229 DJI Phantom 4. One small accident and this compact yet eye-wateringly expensive flying device could come crashing down to the ground. Ouch.
Thankfully, Phantom has taken this into consideration and the big new feature on its latest drone is collision detection and avoidance. In our testing, the Phantom 4 was pretty much impossible to crash, at least when going forwards or down. There are two cameras in the front of the drone that detect objects up to 15m away. The drone that takes control away from you, changing its flight path to avoid the object, or coming to a dead stop if that’s impossible.
We tried flying the drone into ourselves, into a wall, into a fence and finally into a lamp post, but it fell foul of none of these and neatly avoided the problem in every case. Be careful, though: the cameras face forward so you can hit objects when going sideways or backwards, and the collision prevention system doesn’t work at night. It doesn’t work when the drone is in its high-speed Sport mode, either, as one other journalist discovered during testing with spectacular results.
Drones haven’t had great press recently, with close misses with aircraft making the headlines. Such a system is unlikely to prevent prize idiocy on that scale, as it’ll be the plane that flies into the drone not vice versa, but these safety features will help on a smaller scale and hopefully make drones a more respectable pastime in future.
The other big new feature of the Phantom 4 is its ability to follow you around, letting it record footage of you from the air without any intervention on your part. The technology is called ActiveTrack and it works by following you based on the input from its 4K camera, keeping you squarely in the frame at all times. Other systems have used dongles or GPS information for the drone to follow, but this is more accurate and more convenient than either.
To activate the mode you simply choose ActiveTrack on the DJI app on your smartphone or tablet and draw a box around yourself onscreen. The drone will then follow your every move, it claims to be able to keep up whether you’re running, skiing or cycling. We can’t attest to all those, admittedly, but it certainly kept up with us jogging around the local park.
If you simply want the drone to head towards a certain point you can tap that point on the screen of your phone and the drone will fly there. It’s called TapFly, imaginatively, but it works very well and is handy if you want to fly the drone around without giving it your full attention at all times – having of course checked first that it’s safe to do so.
The Phantom 4 will be instantly familiar to anyone who has used previous versions – such as last year’s Phantom 3. We gave its predecessor a five-star rating and the new model is a definite upgrade to last year’s effort, so we had little concerns to start out.
The controller is pretty much identical to its predecessor’s, well built and easy to get to grips with. The bracket at the top will hold a smartphone or tablet right up to a 9.7in iPad, so everyone should have something that will fit. The control sticks provide an instant response to your inputs and we quickly got used to flying it about. There are few other buttons as more complex functions are integrated into the app.
New additions include a Pause button that brings the drone to a dead halt at whatever altitude it’s currently at. There’s also the new Sport mode mentioned above, activate this and the Phantom 4 can reach speeds of 45mph, up from 36mph on the previous model, it’s seriously quick, and scary as you watch your expensive investment shoot off across the park away from you.
On the flip side of the coin is beginner mode. With this you can only fly the drone near to yourselves, up to 30m away and 30m up, and it won’t even take off until it has a GPS lock in order to keep an eye on its position. Battery life is now 28 minutes, up from 23 on the last model. It should be enough for most short shoots, but if you’ve planned a trip to shoot something, or you’re doing weddings or other big-day events, then a spare will cost you £129.
As noted above, it’s pretty hard to crash the Phantom 4 into anything. Should the worst happen, though, its new magnesium-alloy chassis should provide some protection, at least to those parts inside of it.
The camera has been upgraded from previous editions of course, with a better lens to reduce chromatic aberrations and a slow-motion mode – shooting 120fps footage at 1080p. Usually it shows 4K video at 30fps with a bit rate of 60Mbits/sec and can you shoot 12.4-megapixels stills as well. The quality of both video and stills is superb, with crisp detail to rival the best that the like of GoPro can offer.
While it’s easy to use once in the air, there is some faffing to get it there, with apps to install and firmware updates aplenty before you can get flying. Despite that, it’s really the price that keeps this firmly in enthusiast and semi-professional territory. The rules for flying drones legally in the UK are pretty stringent too, check out this guide on our sibling site Alphr for more details.
If you’re serious about drones and aerial photography, though, either for leisure or as a small business such as event or wedding photography, then the DJI Phantom 4 gets our thumb up. It’s brilliantly designed, safer than ever, shoots better footage and should last you for many years. It wins a Recommended award.