Hands-On With the DJI Phantom 4 Drone

This drone can follow you, avoid obstacles, and shoot amazing video.

By Dave Johnson

TL; DW (TOO LONG, DIDN'T WATCH)

One thing the Jetsons never predicted was drones—and it’s pretty amazing how quickly they’ve evolved in just a few years. Case in point: the DJI Phantom 4, a phenomenal flying machine. You can use it to shoot stunning video that a couple of years ago would have required renting a helicopter with a steadicam.

The Phantom 4 is a cinematic drone, specifically designed for shooting video. It’s a waste of money to use it just to fly like a model helicopter. Everything you need comes right in the box for the $1400 price tag, including a 4K camera mounted on a stable, remote-controlled gimbal. That means you can swivel the camera independently of the drone when it’s flying, a feature that costs extra in a drone like the 3DR Solo.

Flying this drone is a joy. It has automatic takeoff and landing at the touch of a button, and a slew of intelligent flight modes. You won’t have to fly this thing by the seat of your pants, furiously mashing joysticks. Instead, with TaptoFly, you just tap the screen where you want the drone to go, and it flies there.

You can also set up waypoints and have the Phantom 4 follow a specific path. First fly a route under manual controls, marking each point along the way, and then the drone will repeat that path exactly, smoothing out the turns along the way.

My favorite new feature is ActiveTrack. Select something you see on screen—like someone riding a bike—and the drone will follow it until you tell it to stop. You can even use the joysticks to orbit the subject. This feature isn’t perfect: The drone often fails to lock onto what you’re looking for if it's too close or too far away, so sometimes it takes a few tries. But that's probably a good thing, because it’s already scary how many pieces of Skynet are already in place.

And of course, I have to mention a feature that changes everything: collision avoidance. Since I’ve personally lost two drones to trees, this feature is especially exciting to me. Sensors prevent the drone from flying into obstacles in front of its flight path, so the odds of accidentally colliding with a tree or wall drop by an order of magnitude. You can accidentally hit something from the side, or flying backward, though, so you still need to be careful. Turning off the collision protection allows you to increase the drone’s top speed from about 25 miles per hour to 45 mph. But I wouldn’t recommend that.

If you’re new to drones—or you’ve flown simpler ones in the past—you'll find that there’s a bit of a learning curve here. The remote has a few switches that you have to put in the right position before flight, and you need to calibrate the compass occasionally by doing a little dance with the drone.

Also, the software, though simple enough once you understand it, is initially pretty daunting. Both Techwalla contributor Rick Broida and I were initially baffled by the DJI Go software, and the on-board tutorial only made things worse. It shouldn’t be that confusing. DJI could learn something from the 3DR Solo, which has a super-elegant user interface that is instantly understandable.

Once you’re past the learning curve, however, the DJI Phantom 4 is absolutely the drone to beat.