The Phantom That Started It All
The press release was only two paragraphs. “You can fly your Phantom the moment you receive it,” DJI wrote on Jan. 7, 2013. With those words, it announced the release of the product that revolutionized the drone industry.
That year, DJI revenue soared to $130 million from about $4 million just two years prior. The market spoke, and the Phantom 1 propelled the company into its place as industry leader. Three three years and several iterations later, the Phantom series remains the most sought-after consumer drone.
But what is it about the Phantom that lures all sorts of pilots, from amateur hobbyists to Hollywood film studios? Several analysts, pilots and retailers describe DJI as a forward-looking company that’s constantly pushing the envelope. Not only is the Phantom series affordable, they say, but every version adds significant new features well ahead of the competition.
Put it this way: Brett Velicovich worked with drones in the U.S. military before he moved to retail as managing partner at Expert Drones in Washington, D.C. “The stuff I used in the military for millions of dollars?” he says. “DJI made that look like crap.”
The Phantom from the press release was bare-bones compared with the latest models. But the genius of the first Phantom was to remove the guesswork for pilots. In other words, this drone already knew how to fly.
“Before Phantom people were more DIY,” says Daniel Huang, who joined DJI technical support in 2013. “They built their own flight platforms. They had to buy different components and assemble them themselves. That’s why so many aircraft fell out of the sky.”
Still, the first version didn’t have a camera, and the second version, the FC40, had a camera without a gimbal, meaning the video was shaky. By the end of that same year, however, DJI released the Phantom 2, which included a debut gimbal and a place to attach a GoPro, the best camera around at the time. Two subsequent Phantom 2 versions, Vision and Vision+, added DJI cameras and integrated a video transmission module into the drone’s innards to allow a live feed without any loss of stability.
“From Phantom 2 to Phantom 3, the biggest improvement was the Lightbridge technology,” says Huang. The Phantom 2 used WiFi. Phantom 3 used a new technology akin to a radio broadcast. “We basically increased the range to three kilometers away.”
They also vastly improved the camera with the Phantom 3, introducing 4K video on the Professional model. The Phantom 3 Pro also included navigational upgrades, including stable indoor hovering made possible by sensors on the bottom of the drone.
All the while, DJI was adding flight time with increased battery life. The original Phantom could stay in the air only 10 minutes. With the release of Phantom 4 in March, DJI had extended the flying time to 28 minutes per charge.
But that’s just the beginning of what Phantom 4 does. “It improves every aspect, if you ask me,” says Huang.
Overall, the Phantom 4 offers a glimpse at the future of drone technology: A new wave of “thinking” drones. To illustrate the point, Velicovich says he often demonstrates the Phantom 4 by flying it at 20 meters per second toward a wall or a tree. The drone slows to a stop before crashing, even with the throttle full speed ahead. “The future of drones is avoiding obstacles,” Velicovich predicts.
For Huang’s part, he’s bound to secrecy. Asked what the future holds for Phantom, he would only say what DJI CEO Frank Wang has promised: “A new era of intelligent drones.”