DJI has unveiled its smartest drone yet: it’s the first consumer drone to have the ability to sense and avoid obstacles and marks a huge leap in preventing drone crashes.
DJI’s Phantom 4 drone, unveiled Tuesday, has two forward-facing optical sensors that can scan for obstacles and automatically direct the drone to fly above the obstacle to avoid it. If it can’t fly above the obstacle (for example, a roof overhead or the object is simply too tall) the drone will hover in front of the object until it is manually redirected.
The drone will sell for $1,399 on DJI’s website, but otherwise will be available only through the Apple Store from March 15 to March 29.
It will also be the first non-Apple product to get promoted in the “feature bay” in brick-and-mortar Apple Stores — perhaps, an indication of Apple’s confidence in the product’s technology.
The drone will be available at other retailers, including Best Buy and Amazon.com beginning March 29.
The new technology means drone operators “don’t have to worry as much about their flying skills,” said Romeo Durscher, Director of Education at DJI. “Every crash I have had is because I made a bad judgment call. This gives the operator confidence in the machine and its flying capabilities.”
The obstacle avoidance does have limitations. Sensors are located only on the front and bottom of the drone, so it is not able to sense obstacles if it is flying backward or laterally.
But while the sense-and-avoid technology is not perfect, it’s a critical step in making other processes like drone delivery possible. Currently, companies working on drone delivery, like Silicon Valley drone delivery startup Matternet, rely on terrain data to avoid crashing into trees, buildings and mountains. But if the terrain data isn’t up to date — for example, a crane went up overnight — the drone wouldn’t have that in its system of data, and could crash into the crane.
Now, the drone can sense when it is getting too close to the crane, the White House or the Empire State Building, and just hover instead of crashing.
The Phantom 4 also boasts several other technology upgrades.
It has a mode called “TapFly,” which allows users who have connected the drone’s camera to their smartphone screen to tap a destination in view and let the drone calculate the optimal route to get there.
Another feature called “ActiveTrack” allows the drone to follow a subject, selected by tapping that subject on their smartphone screen. Even if the subject moves, the drone will follow it, keeping it in the center of the camera’s frame.
The drone also has a “Sport Mode,” which allows it to fly about 45 miles an hour, much faster than previous models and near equivalent to speeds attained by the souped-up drones that race in competition.
The drone allows for about 28 minutes of flight time.
DJI launched its Phantom line of drones in 2013, building one of the first ready-to-fly drones, along with competitors like French robotics manufacturer Parrot, DJI’s Phantom has rapidly evolved over the past few years, as newer models added camera feeds for users on the ground to see a live feed of what the drone is seeing, gimbals to stabilize video and ‘follow me’ features, allowing the drone to follow the user holding the RC transmitter.
These major technological advances by DJI come as GoPro is set to release a drone in the first half of 2016. There’s still no information on what technology the GoPro drone will (or will not) come outfitted with, but the new Phantom 4 sets a new high — sky high — bar to meet.