We already know that obstacle avoidance could be making its way into the new DJI Phantom 4 next month, and with companies like Yuneec releasing the Typhoon H this summer, it’s easy to see why. Recently however, DJI has been trademarking names and filing patents that lead me to believe that they have something more interesting than obstacle avoidance up their sleeve.

Today, one of the biggest challenges with aerial photography (especially on single-pilot drones like the Phantom) is keeping moving subjects in the frame. The main reason for this is because it’s extremely hard to manage the Phantom’s pitch, roll, yaw, throttle and camera tilt all at the same time while also trying not to crash into anything. In other words, aerial photography is hard when the subject you’re trying to track is moving, but all of this could soon change in a big way.

On February 4th, a DJI patent was published with the name “Systems and methods for target tracking”. Before you ask, this isn’t a recipe for a drone with heat seeking missiles of mass destruction! It’s a detailed method for tracking moving subjects based on imaging data, which could eliminate the need for you (or your co-pilot) to manually keeps subjects in the frame.

How It Works

Based on the info in the patent, the user experience appears to be quite simple. All you have to do is look at your phone or tablet, tap on the subject you want to track and it will handle the rest! You could choose to fly while the camera automatically tracks the subject, or you could let your DJI drone fly and track all by itself. If that isn’t cool enough, I even found some additional features while looking through the patent in more detail. For example, In one section it talks about how the distance from the subject you’re tracking could determine the focus and zoom of the lens.

Although the idea of subject tracking seems pretty strait forward, the mechanics behind it are actually just as complicated as other tasks like obstacle avoidance. For now I won’t get into the details of pattern and color recognition algorithms. Just be aware that this is really advanced technology.

Honestly, I have no idea if any of this will make it into the Phantom 4 on day one, but if it has the right sensors and enough processing power, I don’t see why it couldn’t be added in a later software update.

But Wait There’s More

The DJI patent was only the first part of the story. On February 8th, DJI trade marked the names TapFlight and TapFly. Both names seem to have the same description, so we will just assume that they’re both the same product. On the JUSTIA Trademarks website, if you look in the “Goods and Services” section under “Statements” you’ll see a super long description of what the names TapFly and TapFlight could be used for.

What Is TapFlight

The description mentions a lot, but the first thing it talks about is “automatic flight control and pilot systems comprising computer hardware and software for controlling the flight of aerial drones”. What I found interesting though, is the amount of times it mentions “computer software applications for mobile phones and devices”. I could be wrong, but it sounds like a new kind of DJI app for controlling your Phantom 4, Inspire 2, or any other future DJI device. There was even a section that said “software for the navigation, guidance, tracking, and targeting of aerial drones” which I found really interesting.

What All This Means

Imagine an application for the Phantom 4, Inspire 2 or any other future DJI product where flying is no longer the main focus. In this app, a lot of the flight info you worry about today would be gone (unless you want it there). You would be spending less time doing things like flying and more time imagining what you want your shots to look like. You could be tapping on subjects to track, adjusting framing parameters, or launching predetermined sequences like changes in focus and zoom. In some cases, you might even be using your mobile device or a hand-held accessory as a physical representation of your drone, enabling you to easily control its orbital position around the subject you want to track. These are not just tacky features like Follow Me. They are real cinematography tools that I think could revolutionize the industry, especially in conjunction with obstacle avoidance.

It’s unclear whether or not DJI will decide to integrate any of this into the Phantom 4 in the year 2016, but they definitely have big plans for the future, and I’m excited to see what else they come up with.

Want to know more? For leaked photos, release date and other Phantom 4 news, check out the Phantom 4 Rumors article.