6 things to know about DJI’s new Phantom 4 drone helping with mountain rescue in Donegal
One of the drones likely to be used in Donegal’s search and rescue trials is DJI’s new Phantom 4, which has just been launched to the public at a price of €1,599. I have been trying it out for some weeks and here are a few conclusions I’ve come to about it.
1. QUITE EASY TO USE: Flying a drone isn’t idiot-proof, but anyone who has played a first-person shooter game on an Xbox or a Playstation won’t find one difficult to operate. Within an hour of taking DJI’s new Phantom 4 out of the box, I was flying it high above the rugged Mayo coastline of Erris. The 4K video footage I was getting back was stunning (you can see some of it on Independent.ie: just google ‘Phantom 4 Erris Mayo’) and quite stable, even in gusty conditions.
2. USING YOUR OWN PHONE: The Phantom 4 uses your own phone or tablet as a guidance screen, showing you a live stream of what its 12-megapixel, 4K camera is seeing. I used an iPad mini which was perfect. (I’d strongly advise a cover to shade the screen as sunlight makes details tricky to work out.) The flight screen, accessed through DJI’s Go app, gives you a variety of controls and shows you altitude, speed and other basic metrics. The physical controller itself has two joysticks and a number of buttons for and dials for things like camera control. This drone is about the width of a 13-inch laptop and around nine inches tall. It comes in a very handy styrofoam case with a handle so you can use it as a carry case.
3. VIDEO QUALITY IS AMAZING: For video, the Phantom 4 records in 4K resolution by default, although you can switch down to ‘full’ HD (1080p) if you want. It’s also capable of filming at 120 frames per second, which lets you capture slow motion. Aside from the remarkable clarity, all of this means that the video files are huge (a whopping 1GB for every two minutes of recording), when you transfer them to your PC or tablet. The drone comes with a 16GB microSD memory card, which will start you off nicely.
4. RANGE AND FLYING CONDITIONS: I didn’t test the drone’s range beyond 700 metres but it seems capable of flying beyond that (up to 2km according to other test flights). If it loses its radio connection with your controller, it automatically starts to fly back toward the spot it took off from. This also happens if its battery reserve reaches a low point. Like other Phantoms (and drones generally), you’re advised not to fly this in the rain and it’s not recommended to fly it in wind. Having said that, I sent it up when it was quite breezy in north Mayo and I was very pleased with the way the drone handled the turbulence while still producing smooth, steady video footage. This is partly down to the new gimbal on the drone, which compensates for movement and juddering.
5. WHAT’S DIFFERENT TO CHEAPER MODELS: The main difference between this and DJI’s Phantom 3 models of last year is a slightly longer battery life (though still just 28 minutes’ flying time) and new smart chips made by Dublin company Movidius. In a nutshell, these chips give the drone abilities it didn’t have before, particularly the power to know when it might hit something. When this function is switched on, the drone stops with a few metres of the object it’s about to collide with, so long as that object is in front of the drone (and not to the side or rear). If it’s on its way back to you, it then negotiates its own way around the obstacle. There’s also an object-tracking mode, which lets you identify a person or a thing which the drone will focus on and follow. The Phantom 4 also flies faster than previous Phantom models -- up to 72kph when its ‘sport’ mode is switched on.
6. DRAWBACKS AND NEED TO KNOW: The only drawback I found is that the propellers can sometimes be seen in video footage and its object-tracking mode is a bit hit-and-miss. You’ll also really need to buy a second battery (€170) if you harbour ambitions to fly it for more than 20 minutes per charge.
Also, bear in mind that a drone like this needs to be registered with the Irish Aviation Authority. Right now, it’s free to do so on the IAA’s slightly glitchy sign-up service. You’re also restricted from flying a drone over built-up or urban areas or anywhere near an airport.