Phantom 4 can track humans and animals, fly home to base – USA TODAY

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SAN FRANCISCO – The world’s largest drone maker is releasing a new consumer drone with camera that can lock onto a person or animal and follow them, avoid objects in its path and fly back to its base on its own.

“It is a pretty big deal,” said Colin Snow, an analyst with Skylogic Research, a Redwood, City, Calif.-based drone analysis company.

The Phantom 4 is available for pre-order beginning March 1. It can run for 28 minutes on a single battery charge and fly up to 45 miles per hour in sports mode. Most of the upgrades to the three pound quadcopter are incremental, but together they make a compelling buy for hobbyists and semi-professionals, said Snow.

While “you wouldn’t use it to inspect a bridge,” the drone hits a sweet spot among photographers and filmmakers, he said.

“The people who are buying this are camera people. They’re always upgrading — after a year or two of use they’re looking for the next thing,” Snow said.

The drone features two forward-facing optical sensors that scan for obstacles and automatically direct the aircraft around them.

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

While a price tag of $1,399 might seem high for what many consider a toy, it’s actually around what many people pay for cameras at the professional/consumer border, said Snow.

The consumer drone market is projected to reach $4.6 billion by 2025, according to ABI Research, a technology market intelligence company. They predict more than 90 million consumer drones will ship during 2025, up from 4.9 million in 2014.

Hovers, won’t crash

During a demonstration on San Francisco’s Treasure Island, a DJI employee showed how the Phantom 4 wouldn’t throw itself at a group of banners flapping in the wind. Instead, it gently lifted up and flew over them.

When the drone’s pilot tried to get it to crash into the flags, the drone instead hovered in place, waiting to be redirected.

The Phantom 4 also features a “return to home” button that tells the unmanned aerial vehicle to come back to a set landing place, avoiding obstacles along the way.

Useful to filmmakers is a feature that allows users to set it to follow and keep the camera centered on a subject even as it moves.

The software also allows the Phantom 4 to “learn” a person or object that’s pointed out to it. It will then follow the subject, keeping them in the shot even if they change shape or turn.

This was demonstrated by having a DJI employee run across a field as the drone buzzed along above him. No matter how many times he zigged and zagged, or crouched down to change his shape, the drone did not waver in its pursuit.

Beginning March 1 the drone is available for pre-order from DJI online or At the end of the month it will be available from other authorized dealers.

DJI’s main competition in this portion of the drone market is Shanghai-based Yuneec, which Intel invested $60 million in last year.

GoPro is also moving into the market and there are rumors that Samsung is looking at the drone market, said Brian Blau, a drone analyst with the Gartner Group.

Growing, if somewhat amorphous, market

Personal drones are a growing consumer market, with significant advancements in usability expected in 2016, said Blau.

He expects to see “a whole bunch of new entrants into the market, some of them big name brands. That will likely change the landscape.”

GoPro has already announced it’s moving into the drone market. There are also rumors that Samsung may be working on a drone as well, Blau said.

For now, consumer drones are mostly used for photography and videography. While a niche market, it’s one with a large and passionate following.

“That’s a great thing for drones because it can leverage people’s never ending fascinating with taking pictures and sharing what’s going on around them in the world with images,” Blau said.

Consumer drones are also popular with hobbyists who do drone racing and obstacle course running. Other uses will come over time “as people figure out all that can be done with them,” Blau said.

Phantom 4 can track humans and animals, fly home to base – USA TODAY

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