By Mike Steidley
This article was originally published in August/September 2016 issue.
The world is abuzz with the announcement of the DJI Phantom 4 as it includes some groundbreaking new features for a unit of its size. By now everyone has heard about the modern advancements, upgrades and intriguing elements this little bird has to offer. Is the
new Phantom 4 worthy of all this hype? The only way to figure this out was to do our own comprehensive test. How to go about this and properly run this drone through its paces? Simple, commit to flying it every day for 30 days on a cross country road trip from the East Coast to California and back.
The crew at Vision Aerial Media was graciously given the opportunity to attend the VIP Phantom 4 launch party in New York City. What we saw was certainly exciting.DJI Director of Strategic Partnerships, Michael Perry, gave a keynote speech as part of his presentation saying, “The Phantom 4 takes the place of three people- A pilot, a camera operator and a spotter” Could all this really work in synergy? Collision avoidance, tap to fly and active track all sounded
like great components. Can these features be used in a professional capacity or are they for new pilots only? The new dual IMU, sport mode and compass setup are all appealing as well, but is it worth the upgrade price? Sounds like the 30 day test is in order to answer these questions.
OFF TO THE APPLE STORE
What’s interesting about the Phantom 4 is the exclusive deal with Apple to release the copter before anyone else. With a substantial filmmaking trip on the horizon I was interested in the idea of the Phantom 4 simply for something that I could fly stress-free. When not operating a heavy li er or if I just wanted to grab a quick behind the scenes shot of the trip and get some flight time in, this seemed ideal. I decided it was worth a shot and headed downtown to the Apple Store. Parking is tight in New Haven, Connecticut so when I saw a 15-minute metered spot directly out front I wondered if it was possible to get in and out with the product before getting a ticket. I headed inside to grab a Phantom 4 and instantly was greeted by an Apple sales associate. I engaged him with a few questions to establish his knowledge on drones. Six out of ten correctly answered, but an A+ for being friendly and assisting me. I grabbed a few spare batteries and an iPad Mini 4, swiped my card and was back in the car before the 15 minutes of parking expired. Done and done!
WEEK ONE-COLLECTING OUR BEARINGS
The first week was all about working out the kinks and getting comfortable with the Phantom 4, which is very easy to do. Let’s not spend too much time covering the technical aspects of what’s new in a typical line item review; alternatively let’s dive into real world tests of what actually matters. Out of the new packaging that doubles as a basic travel crate, you will immediately notice this bird has a bit more weight than earlier Phantoms. The battery is a slightly heavier which yields some longer flight times. Our personal tests averaged around 20-25% more flight time depending on how aggressive the flying. There is no ignoring the new front facing obstacle avoidance sensors. Firmware was instantly updated, batteries charged up and inspection of the new prop system meant it was ready to head to the field. The new quick release props are an improvement and all concerns of the lock-in not being sturdy enough quickly were put to bed when our crew reached the test field. After getting the copter up, the obstacle avoidance was the first feature to experiment with. At the DJI launch we witnessed the Phantom 4 perform flawlessly in a basement without solid GPS, where it was dark and the strobe lights were in full effect. Our local flying field has a large shipping container in it that served as an ideal obstacle. After a few spins we had to fly right at the container and see firsthand how the system works. Complete full stop was our experience after flying directly at it. The system displays a green, yellow and red set of bars reminiscent of a luxury sedan parking system. A few more passes while playing with the obstacle avoidance settings yielded some interesting results. You can customize how it will react in certain situations and for experienced flyers, you have the ability to program the system only to react when within 4 feet of impact. This will allow for advanced tracking and flight paths without the system moving the copter and adding unplanned movement to your video. Most notable is when in return to home the copter uses these sensors to avoid anything in its path.
A few tests down by the beach gave us the opportunity to test range. For general uses the Lightbridge display and distance traveled was as expected with clear image and decent distance. We located several trees approximately 15 feet off the ground with a sandy floor and open branches just to see how precise the obstacle avoidance could be. Here the limits were pushed to be sure of the sensors accuracy. Figuring on a so crash in the sand if things went wrong, we played around and to much surprise the sensors are pre y darn intelligent. A thin wire could potentially take out this copter, but other than that, this machine is comprehensive and aware of its surroundings.
WEEK TWO– A NEW CAMERA, ACTIVE TRACK AND TAP TO FLY Among other items packed, the Phantom 4 made it into the final gear list for the cross- country trip and would serve as a backup to our heavy li er, more of a just for fun copter. The next few days would involve substantial travel with many miles to California. On the first day of the trip we found another captivating shoreline location with a winding road that snaked along the coastline. Having played with the Active Track a bit we wanted to test it out on the production van. We set up a shot on the side of the road, popped the Phantom 4 up into the sky and drew a box around the van. Press go and it is as simple as that. We drove three miles while tracking around the van in orbit, grids, jib shots, the entire lineup. The Phantom 4 Active Track is definitely impressive and actually stays locked-on quite well. We snapped a few pictures while practicing, which brings us to the camera. The new camera is wrapped with two arms instead of one and in high speeds this seems to help with video shake. The ribbon cable has been moved to a less vulnerable place and the memory card now is inside the main body of the copter. This is somewhat of exciting news as maybe a new version of the Inspire could have a regular SD card instead of a mini to get a larger bit rate? One can only dream for now, but the camera is on par with the Inspire camera and P3 in terms of image quality. The chromatic abrasion in the corners has been the talk of the town, but the bottom line is the Phantom 3, Phantom 4 and Inspire X3 are all producing about the same image quality. The bit rate remains the same and until an update is available there will be similar results to those previous models. Tap to fly is a somewhat useful, but with the auto takeoff and land, return to home with obstacle avoidance and ease of operating the Phantom 4, there isn’t a huge need for it after overcoming the learning curve of flying. It is a nice touch for first time users, but the Active Track is what most impressed our crew.
WEEK THREE– SPORT MODE AND IMU UPDATES
With some respectable miles down in a variety of flying environments, we began to notice the dual IMU’s performance. The Phantom 4 provides a double check and compares the information between both IMU’s to be sure it operates at peak performance.
Testing done in multiple locations demonstrates that the Phantom 4 can keep its GPS hold and rock solid flight characteristics. This means that if the copter misreads any flight parameters or information on set, you can be sure it will respond accordingly and utilize data from both IMU’s. What this translates to for the casual drone user is far less IMU and compass calibration, meaning minimal fear of any internal errors. As a rule of thumb, do an IMU calibration after all major firmware updates or once a month as well as the compass calibration every time you move flying locations.
Most notable is the new sport mode which lets the Phantom 4 fly at up to advertised 45mph. Let me explain that this is fast, real fast. The Phantom 4 moves incredibly when this mode is selected. What’s interesting about this mode and unlike attitude mode is that you can maintain a GPS hold allowing you to release and ensure the copter will hover to a stop. It will, however, come with some catches. The time it takes to slow to a hover is a bit slower so you’ll need to plan for an additional period to bring the copter to a stop, adding a counteractive stick movement will help slow it down. The props tend to get in the shot; even the front arms creep into frame and you can see the LED’s in wind. To roll camera without the arms getting in the shot, simply fly backwards and keep your movements to a minimum or just one direction of travel for smooth video. Also lost is the obstacle avoidance. While on the subject of items in frame, it should also be noted that the taller motors do help when in GPS mode for help in keeping the props out of view. A tiny bit of tilt from 90 degrees straight will ensure you never clip anything in frame and unlike the earlier version of the Phantom, it’s much harder to ruin a shot with props in the frame when not in sport mode.
Mid trip we stopped in a snow-covered mountain range in Wyoming for some morning flights in the cold, crisp air. With low winter-like temperatures we experienced the same performance as the warmer climate flights and everything flew as expected. This was music to our ears.
To experiment flying the copter at maximum speed we stopped at the Bonneville Salt Flats in Utah. This famous racing region known for wide open space was the perfect venue for some top speed tests. We let it all loose and had some wide open throttle flights and saw some 55 mph speeds in the flight records with the wind at our back! It really is free spirited and fun using this mode. There was a good sized body of water to practice a few shots on and we chose a Polar Pro ND and CP combined filter to capture a gorgeous sunset over the salt flats with a reflection on the water and mountains in the background. The Phantom 4 really needs a good set of ND filters to get the video settings in the correct spot. With several eventful stops along the way we were ready to wrap up the last leg of the trip and head to the California coastline.
WEEK 4– BRINGING IT ALL TOGETHER
A new week brought new beginnings with the Phantom 4 in California. The warm weather and picturesque coastline made for breathtaking shots. Capturing some HDR pictures and panos started off the week. Switching between GPS mode and sport mode became ideal for getting places quickly. The crew most appreciated being able to speed across a given distance to frame a shot, switch to GPS and take some snaps then get back in sport mode to move locations promptly. For nature and landscape this really lets you blast through some quick shots and onto the next frame, getting maximum work done on a single battery pack.
Up until now the Phantom 4 had only been utilized for photos and short videos for social media. We wanted to test it out in a professional filming environment so we opted to use the Phantom 4 for coverage of a mountain bike dual slalom event. With two filmers on the ground from our production crew we had the Phantom 4 running clips from the sky. The dual IMUs gave us the confidence to run the copter full range and we mixed up shots from active track and normal flying. We would use sport mode at the end of each run to bring the copter back up the hill and catch the next group of riders. All modes continued to impress and the Phantom 4 had its first professional shoot in the books. A selection of pictures and video screen grabs from the trip are included.
When it was all said and done we had cracked the 100 flight mark with the Phantom 4 and definitely put this bird through its paces. There was never a let-down and overall the whole team was really impressed with the results. Want to catch some video clips shot exclusively on the Phantom 4? Have a look at the digital edition of the magazine to see a link.