Sensors in the New DJI Phantom 4 Aim to Keep the $1,400 Drone from Crashing

This drone boasts a “Obstacle Sensing System" and can basically fly itself.


The biggest upgrade for the DJI Phantom 4 drone that debuted today is the integration of an “Obstacle Sensing Function,” a system of sensors and processors which will prevent the $1,400 device from performing technological suicide by oak tree.

The drone giant announced at a conference in New York the long-awaited Phantom 4 quadcopter, sometimes called the so-called iPhone of drones — which is just as much a testament to its slick engineering and white aesthetic as it is to its immense popularity. The Phantom 4 boasts the upgrades you’d expect for a fourth iteration: A better camera, prolonged battery life, and faster aerial velocity. And those sensors, of course.

“With the Phantom 4, we are entering an era where even beginners can fly with confidence,” said DJI CEO Frank Wang in a statement. “People have dreamed about one day having a drone collaborate creatively with them. That day has arrived.”

The obstacle-sensing function, which DJI hinted at in June, is part of an ongoing push toward eliminating drone crashes by eliminating computer error and taking humans almost entirely out of the equation. The Massachusetts Institute of Technology showed off a drone with a similar anti-crash mentality swerving around trees in November.

For the Phantom 4, that means two pairs of sensors: one pair of forward-facing cameras to sense trees and other objects in the way, and a pair of sonar sensors and belly cameras pointing downward. It “takes the fear out of flying,” as a Sir David Attenborough-like narrator puts it in the promotional video.

If you order the drone to fly on a collision course, it will freeze — as though it were a small child, paralyzed by fear — not budging until you give it a less-destructive command. This obstacle avoidance works while pilots are flying the drone, as well as when it autonomously returns home. The end result is, essentially, a drone that flies itself.

Of course, obstacle-avoidance systems aren’t perfect and they can’t handle rapidly-changing environments like falling branches or dive-bombing eagles. On Twitter, DJI claimed that the Phantom 4 has a 28-minute flight time (five more minutes than the Phantom 3) as well as autonomous wild animal-harassment features.

Pre-orders for the Phantom 4 will start March 1 on and, and customers will begin receiving their units on March 15. The Phantom 4 will also be available in-store at DJI’s flagship stores and Apple stores around the world starting March 15.

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