The Phantom 3 is DJI's aerial vision more fully realised: A tiny quadcopter drone with a professional-grade camera, endless configurability, user-friendly polish, and a price tag that won't require a new credit card.
A few years ago only nerdy hobbyists took to the skies with UAVs. But with its entry-level Phantom drones, DJI has been gradually chipping away at the technical and financial barriers that keep normal folks away. The original Phantom was basically a flying platform you could mount a GoPro on. Cool, but niche. It wasn't until the Phantom 2 Vision that DJI started to get serious about outfitting its UAVs with its own cameras. With these cameras, DJI also started developing a sophisticated app for monitoring the footage you were shooting and tweaking settings. With the Phantom 3 the app and camera get totally supercharged.
The Phantom 3 comes in two flavours: Phantom 3 Professional and Phantom 3 Advanced. The main difference here is the camera. The Professional version shoots 4K footage at 30 fps, while the Advanced shoots at 1920 x 1080 resolution at up to 60 fps. The Professional costs $US1250, or $US1350 packaged with an extra battery. The Advanced costs just $US1000 or $US1100 with an extra battery. (Battery life is rated at about 23 minutes of flight time.)
Sure, the Phantom 3 models aren't insanely cheap, especially compared to competitors like the Iris+ from 3DR, which costs just $US750. But DJI does a whole hell of a lot to make their Phantom line chock-full of features that can make the extra cost worthwhile, especially for beginners. And the Phantom 3 has more of them than ever at a lower price.
DJI has dramatically improved its camera technology over the last few years. We started to see the fruits this a few months ago with the 4K camera on the company's new professional grade Inspire 1 drone. The Phantom 3 Professional has essentially the same camera, except that unlike the Inspire 1, you can't remove it.
Bringing camera development in house allows DJI to correct for some of the GoPro's weaknesses when it comes to shooting aerial video. Most importantly, the new Phantoms shoot with a 94-degree field of view. The 170-degree fisheye lens on the GoPro is great if you're mounting it on a surfboard, and it admittedly captures dramatic footage from the sky. But if you want to shoot realistic, distortion-free video from a distance, you're better served by a narrower field-of-view.
As before, the Phantom's flight and camera are controlled by an included remote and a phone or tablet that you supply yourself. You control a bulk of the flight and camera movements with the controller while monitoring the footage and tweaking deeper settings in the DJI app, which is available for iOS and Android. But not all Android devices. At the Phantom 3 launch, the app will work with the Samsung Galaxy S5 and Galaxy Note III, the Sony Xperia Z3, as well as the Nexus 7 and Nexus 9. Wider compatibility is on the horizon so don't worry if your device isn't on the list yet.
Despite the similar controller/mobile device setup used before, DJI's made some important improvements to how the system works on the inside. On the Phantom 2 Vision models, the video from drone-to-phone/tablet was handled by the phone or tablet. The remote only communicated to the drone's mechanical components. Now, the remote both controls the flight and receives the video downlink from the the camera. That leaves the radios of your mobile device free so that you can livetream video as you're shooting it. Also, it's more reliable than Wi-Fi. You know Wi-Fi. It sucks.
Both the controller's functionality and the app are basically infinitely configurable to your personal preferences. For example, you can change the speed at which the camera turns when you move it with the little jog wheel on the remote. Additionally, the camera functions can be controlled entirely manually, and you can even tinker with finer points of image quality like bitrate in real time.
The final really important improvements are in the Phantom 3's expanded satellite tracking and improved stabilisation. Outside, DJI's UAVs use very precise satellite location to track and stabilise their flight paths. In addition to GPS, the Phantom 3 also talks to the GLOSNASS network of satellites for even more reliability and accuracy.
The Phantom 3 incorporates the visual positioning system that gives the bigger Inspire 1 its uncanny stability. The visual positioning also means that the Phantom 3 is probably the first professional-quality drone you can safely fly indoors. It doesn't need GPS to stay put. While we haven't had the chance to try out the Phantom 3 much at all, the indoor flight is one feature I did see just yesterday in a tiny New York City hotel room. The drone floats perfectly still, and it almost feels safe even buzzing a metre away in close quarters. It's astounding.
Maybe the best part of all of these advanced features is that you can turn them all off. For all the sophistication crammed into the Phantom 3, DJI's biggest achievement is demystifying UAV to a huge audience of people. Beginner mode is always just a tap away.
Obviously, we've yet to really try out the Phantom 3 in the wild, but from afar it looks loaded. You've no doubt noticed that hobby drones have been gaining popular momentum over the last few years. With the Phantom 3, the market might just take off.