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What It's Like to Fly a (Nearly) Crash-Proof Drone

Mar 15, 2016

Piloting a drone for the first time is exciting, confusing, and stressful. Like any new vehicle, it takes some time before you learn how to maneuver it smoothly and intuitively. And, of course, there's the looming fear that you'll destroy the expensive new gadget.

Those apprehensions took a back seat as I fired up DJI's Phantom 4. The Chinese firm bills its latest gadget as the first consumer drone that can see and avoid obstacles, thanks to sensors and advanced computer software. The $1,399 Phantom 4 has been available for preorder since the beginning of March; those who ordered early should begin receiving their new toy on March 15.

The Phantom 4's obstacle avoidance feature makes it nearly crash-proof — but not entirely. The gadget detects drone-killing objects like trees and walls using two front-facing sensors, meaning it can only sense obstructions ahead of it. Pilots must remain alert for any obstructions behind or alongside the aircraft, which I quickly learned.

As a first time drone flyer, I was eager to test whether or not I could weave around concrete posts without suffering a collision. I missed my mark, and the Phantom 4 zipped towards the right, careening directly into one of the columns lining the large indoor space we were using as a test site. My ego was bruised, but the Phantom 4, to its credit, suffered only minor damage.

That incident resulted in the only damage the Phantom 4 endured during my experience flying it. When I tried to zoom straight ahead into a wall, the drone froze until I navigated it away from the obstruction. This obstacle avoidance also worked with a feature called TapFly, which allows Phantom 4 owners to steer their drone by simply tapping a direction on DJI's smartphone app. I tried to use TapFly to get the drone to fly towards me, but it halted and hovered when it realized I was standing in its way. (Don't try this at home.)

The Phantom 4's sensors also let it lock onto a target, following it as it moves. That's potentially handy for people like snowboarders or kayakers, who could use the feature to capture video of their runs. Because I was using the Phantom 4 indoors, I couldn't get an accurate feel for how well this feature really works. DJI says the drone is intended for use outdoors, where the tracking features typically don't have to worry about shadows and poor lightning. Still, even indoors, the Phantom 4 was able to lock on to a target and follow it briefly.

Even for a first timer like myself, piloting the Phantom 4 felt fluid and stable. The drone itself is dead simple to operate once you become familiar with its controls. Using the Phantom 4's manual controls, I was able to gently lift the drone off the ground using the left stick and glide it toward the back of the warehouse-like space in which we tested it with the right. Both sticks have a textured grip that prevents the pilot's thumbs from slipping, making it easier to execute more precise maneuvers. Footage recorded with the Phantom 4's camera also looked crisp and steady.

Discover How Drones Are Made in Israel

An Israeli soldier from the Sky Rider Unit launches a Skylark mini-Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) during a demonstration close to the border with Gaza. 

Sky Rider units are part of the artillery brigade and operate on the ground either independently or with other infantry soldiers to provide real-time video from the battlefield. The Israeli military began using the Skylark system in 2008 but it was not deployed extensively until Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. 

The Sky Rider unit lives with the infantry soldiers they serve with and support during their missions, unlike pilots in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) who fly larger drones and are stationed on bases far away from where the drones fly.

The drone is built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It weighs around 7 kilograms and can stay in the air for up to 3 hours. It’s used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
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An Israeli soldier from the Sky Rider Unit launches a Skylark mini-Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) during a demonstration close to the border with Gaza. Sky Rider units provide real-time video from the battlefield.Vittoria Mentasti and Daniel Tepper
An Israeli soldier from the Sky Rider Unit launches a Skylark mini-Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) during a demonstration close to the border with Gaza. 

Sky Rider units are part of the artillery brigade and operate on the ground either independently or with other infantry soldiers to provide real-time video from the battlefield. The Israeli military began using the Skylark system in 2008 but it was not deployed extensively until Operation Protective Edge in the summer of 2014. 

The Sky Rider unit lives with the infantry soldiers they serve with and support during their missions, unlike pilots in the Israeli Air Force (IAF) who fly larger drones and are stationed on bases far away from where the drones fly.

The drone is built by the Israeli company Elbit Systems. It weighs around 7 kilograms and can stay in the air for up to 3 hours. It’s used for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions.
A small trailer used as a clubhouse by soldiers in the Sky Rider unit, on an Israeli military base next to the Erez Crossing on, the border with Gaza. 

An employee working at the Aeronautics factory in Yavne, Israel.
The Orbiter mini UAV inside the Aeronautics Defense Systems factory in Yavne, Israel. This highly autonomous UAV can locate and track moving targets while piloting itself along a patrol route. The Orbiter is flown by military forces in over 30 countries including Mexico, Ireland, and Poland.

The company displayed a new version of the Orbiter at the Paris Air show this past June   that includes 2.2kg warhead - turning the system into a loitering munition - essentially a kamikaze drone. These types of drones can remain above a target longer than any cruise missile and are also recoverable if the strike is aborted. The drone’s warhead is designed to detonate above a target showering an area 50 meters in diameter with shrapnel.
Employees working on airframe components inside the Aeronautics factory in Yavne, Israel. 

The bodies of modern UAV’s are mostly made up of composite materials. At the Aeronautics factory, workers employ a series of labor-intensive processes in which thin sheets of composite materials are combined to create solid pieces of the drone’s airframe.
A group of Micro-STAMP imaging payloads, made by Controp, on a worktable at the company’s factory outside of Petah-Tikva, Israel. Each unit has a color video camera as well as an infrared thermal imaging camera that can see at night or through thick cloud cover and fog. The imaging paylaod is one of th emost important parts of a UAV.
A storage area inside the Aeronautics factory in Yavne, Israel.
Ground control stations, used to pilot larger UAV’s, at IAI’s main facility, near Ben Gurion Airport, Israel. These portable systems, built inside of unassuming shipping containers, are used to remotely command UAV’s.
A joystick control for manually piloting a UAV inside of a ground control station at the Aeronautics factory in Yavne, Israel.
A screen grab of test footage from an infrared camera provided by Controp.
Inside a hangar at Israeli Aerospace Industries’s (IAI) main facility, near Ben Gurion Airport, Israel. Founded in 1953, the state-owned company is the largest aerospace and defense manufacturer in the country. IAI has produced fighter jets, missiles, and satellites for domestic and international clients and is the largest manufacturer of UAV systems in Israel.

This hangar is used as a showroom, exhibiting the many UAVs and related systems produced by the company. The small vehicle on the right is a scale-model of the Naval Rotary Unmanned Air Vehicle – a helicopter drone used for naval ISR missions.
An Israeli soldier from the Sky Rider Unit launches a Skylark mini-Unmanned Arial Vehicle (UAV) during a demonstration c
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Vittoria Mentasti and Daniel Tepper
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DJI's newest drone is hitting the market alongside some tough competitors, and at a time when drone makers are developing more advanced models. Yuneec's Typhoon H quadcopter, which boasts similar avoidance capabilities, just went up for preorder starting March 15. And 3D Robotics' Solo drone comes with preset camera maneuvers that let pilots pick from a list of moves.

Overall, the Phantom 4's easy controls, safety features, and high quality 4K camera make it seem like a solid choice for drone novices willing to spend a decent amount of money. (Total rookies should try a cheaper model first.) I could also imagine it being really helpful for aerial photographers and videographers who want to worry less about piloting the drone and more about setting up great shots. It's clearly designed with safety and ease-of-use in mind. But flyers still need to be careful about what they're doing, because it's not completely crash-proof just yet.

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