The DJI Phantom 4 Takes Drone Tech to New Heights

Courtesy DJI

China’s DJI Technology has roughly 70% of the $2 billion consumer drone market, having sold around 700,000 of its ubiquitous white quad-rotor drones last year. And if a demo Tuesday in New York City is any indication, the company is about to sell quite a few more.

The unveiling of DJI’s latest consumer drone, the Phantom 4, shows a company comfortable with its hold on the drone market and unconcerned with increasing industry talk of commoditization within the market. Building on the big sales of previous DJI drones, the Phantom 4 includes a range of new onboard sensors and computing capabilities that make it easy to pilot and very difficult to crash. At $1,399, it’s a high-priced product in a category where sub-$500 consumer drones are now commonplace.

DJI is betting that the Phantom 4 will elevate it above those low-cost newcomers piling into the consumer drone market while making it more difficult for legacy competitors like Berkeley-based 3D Robotics to differentiate themselves.

In doing so, DJI designed the Phantom 4 to compensate for human errors and basically fly itself, all the while delivering smooth aerial video and photography. It’s less a remote-controlled aircraft and more like an expensive but effective photography accessory for the iPad. For most consumers, that’s exactly what it should be.

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The Phantom 4 boasts plenty of little design tweaks that set it apart from its predecessors. It is made from new materials to decrease weight and increase rigidity, and it has a repositioned camera gimbal to improve balance, a new battery that provides longer flight times (up to 28 minutes) per charge, and some internal hardware and software adjustments that should improve flight control and stability.

But the primary innovation is embodied by two small optical sensors embedded in the front of the aircraft that let the Phantom “see” what’s in front of it. These, along with the drone’s primary camera, motion sensors, and a downward-facing optical sensor on the belly of the aircraft, allow the drone’s computer vision software to create a volumetric map of its environment.

That’s a technical way of saying the drone can see what’s around it and, more importantly, avoid colliding with objects while in flight. This is no small feat, as so-called “sense-and-avoid” technologies have long been something of a holy grail within the consumer drone industry and something engineers can technically do, but have had trouble making reliable and affordable.

What computer vision means for the Phantom 4 and for consumers is that the drone can essentially pilot itself. Rather than controlling the drone’s every action, operators can use tablets or smartphones to provide the digital equivalent of instructions like “go over there and film that.” When working as advertised, the Phantom 4 will do so on its own using computer vision algorithms to stay focused on its subject while also avoiding trees, rooftops, power lines, and other obstacles along the way.

That marks a significant shift in the way consumers operate their drones as well as in the way consumer drones operate within their environments. It also marks a shift for DJI, whose products have long been positioned as drones for drone pilots—fast moving remotely controlled aircraft built with the piloting experience in mind.

Competitors like 3D Robotics have positioned themselves as makers of aerial photography platforms that offer a more automated, hands-off flying experience for drone users more interested in capturing perfect images than in experiencing the thrill of remote-controlled flight.

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The Phantom 4’s emphasis on autonomous flight features will make it harder for competitors to differentiate themselves on that front (a “sports mode” will still let pilots fly the new Phantom manually—at up to 45 miles per hour, should they feel the need for speed). It will also make drones and the unique photographic perspective accessible to anyone with $1,400 to spend.

In setting such a high price in a market in which prices are generally declining, DJI is taking a page straight from Apple’s playbook. As Apple has done time and again, DJI is banking on the idea that consumers will pay a premium for a product that truly works better.

That’s not the only way DJI has sought to live up to its informal industry reputation as “the Apple of drones.” Aside from more or less engineering its most recent products around the iOS ecosystem, DJI has doubled down on its retail alliance with Apple (it began selling its Phantom 3 through Apple’s retail outlets last fall). Outside of DJI’s own stores and website, Apple is the only retailer from which customers can buy the Phantom 4 until April 1, when other retailers can begin selling it.

Consumers can already pre-order the Phantom 4 via DJI and Apple (AAPL). Units will begin shipping March 15.

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