The DJI Phantom 3 Is the Successor to the World's Most Popular Drone

With a 4K camera and livestreaming capabilities, DJI is positioning itself as a photography company.

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Apr 8 2015, 3:35pm

In the year and a half since it's been released, the white Phantom 2 quadcopter has taken DJI from a little-known Hong Kong drone manufacturer to an international powerhouse on pace to rake in more than $1 billion in sales this year. Now it's time for the next iteration of the world's most popular drone: DJI just announced the long-rumored Phantom 3. Can it live up to the hype?

DJI is selling the drone much like Apple sells new iPhones. There is a three-city launch event today, held simultaneously in New York, London, and Munich. There's the discussion of a camera made using aluminum "pulled from the crust of the Earth itself." And then there's the stories.

Pulling a page from Apple's book, DJI used a series of narratives to sell you on why you'd fly one of these things instead of a previous version. There's the Phantom flying over a volcano, the Phantom flying over some beautiful Pacific islands, the Phantom looming near the wedding altar (really). There's the Phantom filming a parkour runner and the Phantom filming an ice climber and the Phantom on a cruise.

Image: DJI

"Now think, who could have possibly acquired such footage: NASA? A multi-million dollar Hollywood production? A veteran nature photographer?" Sheldon Schwartz, DJI's creative director said. "What if the creator of this footage was you?"

The implication is clear: DJI wants these things everywhere, and it's tried to make a product that can go anywhere.

DJI is positioning the Phantom 3 as the be-all-end-all for amateur and entry-level professional photographers. It's not a "drone," it's a "flying camera." And that's where you're seeing the upgrades. When the Phantom and Phantom 2 launched, there was no camera to speak of—you had to buy a separate mount for a GoPro or other third party camera. Then came the Phantom 2 Vision and Vision+, which both came with a DJI-branded camera.

There are two versions of the Phantom 3, and both come with a camera. It's increasingly clear that DJI sees itself as a photography company, because the most notable upgrades are camera-related. The camera-as-stock may also be a preemptive attempt to keep GoPro out of the drone business.

The Phantom 3 Professional edition ($1,259) comes with a 4K camera that shoots 30 frames per second; the "Advanced" edition ($999) comes with a 1080p camera that shoots 60 frames per second. Both look almost exactly like the Phantom 2, and both will be available later this month. Both will fly for 23 minutes, which is about how long the current version lasts, and both fly barely a tick faster than the Phantom 2—you probably won't notice the difference.

Screengrab: ​DJI

The other major upgrades come in stability and reliability, the company says. It'll take weeks or months of the masses flying these things to see if the new features really make a difference, but DJI says that the drone has a new visual positioning system, made up of three onboard sensors, that allows the drone to fly safely indoors.

The new flight remote has an automatic "return to home" feature that will allow new pilots to get out of trouble with the press of a button. There's also an in-app flight simulator, which will, in theory, let new pilots crash a bunch before they actually take the drone out.

Screengrab: ​DJI

The flying app has also been upgraded to allow for instant live streaming to YouTube; the drone can also stream footage back to a tablet in HD from up to a mile away. DJI is also pitching automatic in-app photo and video editing, though I suspect diehards will still edit their own footage.

"We want to remove any and all challenges someone might face when flying for the very first time," Paul Pan, lead engineer of the project, said.

That quote is important: The Phantom 2 is popular because it's really easy to fly. It's also reviled among the hobby's diehards, who say that many new pilots fly Phantoms recklessly and without knowing what they're doing. That's how you end up with Phantoms getting knocked out of the sky at concerts, at riots, crashing into skyscrapers, and flying around bridges in New York City.

If DJI has another hit, the Phantom 3 will be all over the place. It's coming out at an interesting time: The Federal Aviation Administration is finally putting out commercial drone rules, and pretty soon it should be easy for anyone with a small drone and a reasonable sense of how to fly it to start their own drone business. DJI is banking on this being the drone of choice for lots of those people.

I'll have more from the New York event later, where DJI is going to let me try one of these out.