The advent of smart phones and tablets along with inexpensive and powerful microprocessors makes the high flying Parrot AR Drone 2.0 remarkably easy to control and enjoyable for geeks of all ages.
The AR Drone 2.0 is a small, semi-autonomous remote control quadrocopter. And unlike the remote control toys of, well, 5 years ago, the remote control isn’t a cheap plastic joystick with a whip antenna but rather a touch screen app that runs on an Apple iOS device or an Android smartphone or tablet. A powerful onboard computer keeps the drone stable in flight, automatically adjusting for small wind variations and piloting errors. It also keeps the drone relatively stationary in a hover mode when the controls are not being touched or the drone flies out of wifi range.
The drone is remarkably easy to control and the tablet/smartphone integration feels very natural. Press the ‘takeoff’ button on the screen and the drone will vault itself into the air, quickly stabilizing and settling into a hover mode while it awaits additional commands from the app. The drone autonomously lands after pushing the same button while it is in flight.
Watch a high altitude flight
Sliding a thumb up on the onscreen altitude slider will increase its altitude, up to a maximum of 100 meters (330 feet). The altitude is largely limited by the strength of the wifi signal between the drone and handheld device. Placing another thumb on a control that displays on the left hand side of the screen activates the tilt controls for flying it forward, back and side-to-side. It all feels very natural and is very quick to learn, although it’s easy to get a little too confident when flying at low altitudes where winds may not be as aggressive.
Live, full motion video from a 720p HD camera on the nose continuously transmits down from the drone, providing a unique perspective when in the air. There is a second camera installed on the bottom of the drone but its poor quality makes it useful only for positioning it for a precision landing. Installing a USB thumb drive in the drone prior to takeoff adds the ability to record the flight for editing later. Recording can be started and stopped from the ground.
Watch how the flight app works:
Battery life is so-so. The drone will generally stay aloft for 15 to 30 minutes before needing to recharge its included lithium polymer battery. Battery life is beamed down to the app while in flight, and the drone will attempt to land itself prior to it running out of power. Charging takes approximately 90 minutes, so an investment in an extra battery or two might be worthwhile for serious flyers or impatient kids.
The drone is constructed from high impact foam, similar to what might be found on a bicycle helmet. It is fairly sturdy and has survived two significant crashes from high altitude, although the more severe of the two loosened a connector internally that required some minor surgery. Thankfully Parrot has a number of instructional videos on their website to guide errant flyers with repairs. Replacement parts are also available directly from Parrot or from resellers.
The control app has a number of software settings that prevent early mistakes. I do suggest limiting the altitude as well as the tilt angle control initially. High altitude flights (especially at heights greater than the treeline) introduce strong winds that take some experience to counter. It’s not hard for the drone to simply be blown away if you’re not prepared to counter them. The tilt angle setting is especially important as the Drone’s computer will simply cut its engines and crash if the drone’s angle dips below a certain point. As I was flying a little too aggressively with a reduced tilt control setting a gust of wind hit the drone and it simply shut off and dropped from the sky. Apparently this is a safety feature to prevent the drone from accelerating into the ground.
Watch the crash
The drone does come with an indoor shell that will prevent severe damage to your home, but I do suggest not flying it over items that might blow away as it flies over. The four rotors move a serious amount of air while in flight and it wreaked havoc with a number of items on tables and countertops around my house. The propellers will not chop off fingers but they do hurt when touched. I had to grab it out of the air a few times to prevent damage to my home, and it was not pleasant. I can imagine it being more painful for a child.
The AR Drone is not just a toy. Its ability to very easily and safely capture aerial images of homes, treetops, and powerlines led the Vernon department of emergency services to purchase one.
An active software developer community is hacking away at the drone with Parrot’s blessing. The company provides extensive instructions for interfacing with the drone’s onboard computer, but note that making the drone a little too autonomous might require some permission from the FAA.
The AR Drone 2.0 retails for $299.