A common theme throughout every video I’ve captured with Parrot’s new AR.Drone would have to be the faces far below, gazing back at it.
With an unprecedented, or at least significant, mind share, drone’s are the hot new thing right now. So whether I was flying the AR.Drone 2.0 on the NSW South-Coast, or in a remote country town, deep in the state, the attention wasn’t exactly surprising, but it was exciting. Over the past few months it’s been genuinely cool to see such an engaged, eager public, all too happy to share what they’d read about drones in the local newspaper, or the TV news bulletin, all while they stared into the sky above, their faces sometimes covered by the drones shadow.
To be perfectly honest at first I wasn’t particularly crazy about the AR.Drone. With every crash I somewhat lost a bit of faith in the product that is targeted at everyday people to fly. But then I started getting better at flying. And while I could never match the flight-patterns of my friend’s much more expensive drone, the DJI Phantom 2, for the price Parrot are asking, and considering the footage I captured, the AR.Drone 2.0 is ultimately a stunning unit.
To be perfectly fair though, out of the box, the AR.Drone certainely won’t be everybodys cup of tea, and it still fails to match the drone fantasy a mainstream audience can hold. Despite this, the first time you press the ‘Take Off’ button, and the first time you watch it flying high above, or crash landing far below, there’s this indescribable sense of pride in the fact that you’re controlling it. The fact that you’re able to watch a live video from a drone drifting into the horizon, or staring into the branches of a tree if as you lose control. And as you stare at that ultra-compressed live camera-feed, beaming straight into your smart-device, it’s hard to ignore how surreal this window into the world is.
Even though I’m easily distracted by the child-like voice in my head, grabbing my arm and pulling me into an EB Games shop to buy the thing, I must stress that the AR.Drone, while presented as an entry-level drone, still often fails to meet basic, and perhaps unrealistic, expectations of control, though this should be expected at a comparatively budget price.
What’s In The Box
One of the most obvious omissions when first opening the laptop-sized box of the AR.Drone 2.0 is the lack of any dedicated controller. As with the original AR.Drone, Parrot instead assumes that you’ll own an iPhone, iPad, an Android tablet or phone, or a Windows 8 tablet. With this in mind, before your first flight you’ll be directed to download a controller app, which pairs with the AR.Drone over Wi-Fi. It’s a cool idea to use a device many people will already own as the eyes and, in many cases, the brain of the AR.Drone, though at the same time there are questionable sacrifices which come from using a weak Wi-Fi signal to control something that can fly up to many metres into the air. It’s also a little strange that, without one of the supported devices, such as if you were to own a Windows Phone like our own Windows-fanboy Stewart, the AR.Drone would be little-more than a brick. Even as an optional accessory an official controller would be nice, especially one that won’t disconnect as easily as your phone or tablet will.
Another funny part of the AR.Drone’s packaging are the two hulls included within the box, both built from an apparently strong foam material. As someone who knows nothing about how a drone works they really do feel cheap, flimsy, though importantly they are light enough to not weigh down the drone with un-needed heft. By my 10th flight though, as expected, the indoor hull had already snapped in 3 places, again turning the AR.Drone into little more than a brick until I could order a $50 replacement, or, alternatively, sticky-tape it back together as a temporary solution. At the time, I wasn’t even being reckless in flight, but instead just had an uneven crash landing after a sudden movement of the drone. Not exactly the most inspiring event, even if it was my fault for not yet mastering the control of the unit. With a rather steep learning curb, and even as a consumer-level drone, I can’t help but feel that the blame should be shared. While the construction of the hull meant a replacement wasn’t going to cost an arm and a leg, it was still another $50 on top of an already, to the average consumer, expensive purchase, and did make me wonder how many similar transactions would be required to keep the unit in the air. I’m sure the materials are the best available at this price, but it’s still a sign that this is an early adopter product, not a drone you can give you your kids for a danger-free flight. It was just a tad bit disheartening.
Moving on though, also included in the box, as you’d expect, is a 1000 mAh battery pack, and a charger. With this battery you’ll get 10 minutes of flight, which is a standard seen in similar, and even more expensive drones. Though, for me, it just feels like a disappointment that they couldn’t make their $100-more expensive ‘Power Edition’ the standard, a package that will lend 36-minutes of flight through 2 1300mAh batteries. Considering the learning curb for a first-time drone purchaser, at 10 minute increments it was difficult to learn the ins-and-outs of flight, with every minute in the air requiring 6 minutes of charging later on. When I’d finally started to master flight, I’d gone through 10 hours of recharge time, for around 100 minutes of flight. It felt like a drip-fed restriction on my control, and I hope eventually the price of the batteries needed can come down a bit so they can just include a great one in the box.
The AR.Drone is a tight-ship, though at $350 plenty of average consumers will assume that this is a premium transaction, despite its entry-level reality. While there is little Parrot can do to prevent customers from mistakenly seeing this as the top-of-the-line drone experience, especially when it’s usually the only drone available in a shop, I worry some people will be disappointed, and some may even feel mislead, by the promise of a powerful drone. In reality it’s a bit fragile, can fly for just 10 minutes at a time, and uses an easily disrupted Wi-Fi connection as its only means of control. Not exactly the drone future many expect.
As I said before, to actually take control of the AR.Drone 2.0 you’ll need to download the ‘AR.Freeflight’ app. From there, when the battery is connected, your AR.Drone will create a Wi-Fi hotspot for you to connect to. The undeniable upside to this is that, unlike traditional remote-controlled devices, your tablet will become the eyes of the drone, with a live-feed of whatever is being captured by the drones camera, which is incredible, especially on a big-screen tablet. Also on the in-app HUD is a battery-monitor, a settings button for initial set-up and more fine-tuning options (e.g. telling the drone the lift-off surface gradient, or the altitude limit). Further to the right of the app’s HUD is a record button, which will either record the camera feed via Wi-Fi, or will send a 720p feed straight to a USB drive (not included) inside the drone. While I’m sure that the live video-feed makes a great demo for a trade-show, in reality the USB option is essential for great recordings, and shows the clear downsides of using Wi-Fi to connect. The range of this connection is, frankly, terrible. Video will quickly become a bandwidth-y mess, while the control of your drone will be, while usually reliably, easily broken. One vivid memory of flying the AR.Drone via my iPad is a moment when the unit lost its connection with my tablet. Now, rather than, say, landing, the AR.Drone decided to hover, waiting for me to run back into range. Thanks to Murphy’s Law the wind took control of its full-speed hovering-state, drifting it 1km away to a local housing estate. Living so close to the beach, it was a genuine miracle that I could still return the AR.Drone to Parrot in a working state, with the wind-direction luckily sending it to dry land, rather than the ocean which was the same distance away. I quickly learnt to keep the AR.Drone at a close distance, or to use it in genuinely large spaces, like the countryside.
It does worry me that this can happen, and I wish Parrot would just have an optional dedicated controller. Sure, there won’t be a screen on a cheaper plastic controller, but it also won’t be able to fly out of range as easily. If Wi-Fi is to remain as the only means of connectivity, I really hope they re-think the way the AR.Drone will react when losing connection. Rather than hovering, I’d like to see it just land, even if it is into a tree. It’s much easier to rescue it from that than it is to find it 1km away in a large body of water, or in someones backyard. Even if it automatically landed after 20 seconds of no-connection this wouldn’t have happened. Though at least I got to have a nice chat to some locals about why the flying thing was in their backyard. Thankfully they were very understanding.
To actually control the drone via the app you’re given two virtual analog sticks, just like a mobile game. One of these can even be manipulated by physically moving the mobile device, giving you a Wiimote-like ability to control the drone, while another touch-controlled stick controls the altitude. Both are as responsive as they can be, especially when there’s no wind.
Also included in the app, via a $5 in-app purchase, is the invaluable Director Mode, which really is the shining-star of the app. As you might guess by the name, Director Mode offers more precise, and also automated options for controlling the AR.Drone in a way which could easily recreate a simple flying-camera shot, offering features like a crane-like camera ascend into the skies, at a speed which you set, and there’s also an auto-rotation setting too. Beyond that there are stabilising options for post-production of video, giving you the ability to capture stunning panoramic views of your location. While you could argue that this should be included with the standard app, for $5 it’s a steal, and is a must-have accessory for the AR.Drone, even if it is just a piece of software.
Using the screen most people already own is a clever concept overall, but is impractical in reality. I’d love to see Parrot offer an alternative, even if it does take a page out of the classic plastic controller of older remote-control units. Though options like Director Mode, as well as the ability to see what the drone’s capturing in real-time, still do sometimes justify the use of your more powerful device.
From The Sky
Compared to the AR.Drone 1.0, this new model has few differences when it comes to flight, though there are some bells-and-whistles, and tweaks, to incentivise the upgrade.
The actual act of flying, as I said before, is certainly empowering. When you do eventually get used to keeping the drone in the air, it is a delight to use, and it is incredible to watch the camera-feed on your mobile. The drone can be fairly stable in the air, although compared to more expensive drones, is still fairly fragile when at a height of around 20m in the air. In terms of control, I found that, even with the slightest hint of wind, the only real authority I had over the drone was taking-off and landing. Plenty of the crashes I experienced came from moving the Drones location in the air, with the drone often suffering from a sea-saw effect where it eventually just crashes to the ground after becoming uneven. It’s also pretty easy to get carried away, and to fly it too high, especially in big open spaces like the country side, which is also where this instability was most apparent. Though, most surprisingly, a new ability to do flips is the most stable part of flying the AR.Drone 2.0, and I’ve never actually experienced a crash while doing the trick (which is automatically completed by double-tapping a button in the app). Though it is pretty funny to see the instant decrease in battery-life after doing this trick, a trick which is also not allowed after the 30% battery-level is reached.
Using Director Mode in the app is just awesome, and created some stunning scenic shots. If the inbuilt camera wasn’t so compressed it’d likely create truly cinematic shots, and even with the 720p camera, some of the footage I captured did redeem the AR.Drone 2.0 in my eyes.
Other than a somewhat lacking ability to control the device, which was undeniable after seeing the $700 DJI Phantom 2, it works as you’d expect. If you run into trouble you can emergency land, but otherwise the AR.Drone will smoothly descend to the earth when it runs out of battery, or when you tell it to.
- Nice entry-level model
- Can capture beautiful footage, if the beauty is there to capture
- Compared to other drones, fairly plug-and-play
- Materials can feel a bit flimsy, worrying
- Flight is easily disrupted by small amounts of wind
- Camera, and compression of video captures, could be a lot better
It’s a toy, but still a very cool one
Even with the negatives, I couldn’t help but fall in love with the sound of a crisp take-off, and, from a different perspective, the knowledge that for just $350 I was in control of this beast. Though you should be aware the price is comparatively low for a reason. This isn’t the Nexus 5 equivalent of the drone-world, and does sit in a weird place price-wise. It isn’t for a hobbyist, nor is it for professional users. Instead it’s more of a toy, but with a grown-up price-tag. If you want to have a fun time with a drone, then the AR.Drone is perfect. But if you need a drone for serious work, or if you are interested in a more structured use of a drone, such as recreating a helicopter camera shot, or even a crane-camera shot, or just as a hobby, then the AR.Drone is perhaps something to avoid. Overall though, I look forward to seeing their next iteration, or at least my next flight.