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We Review: Parrot AR.Drone

The French company Parrot SA is perhaps more known in South Africa for its hands-free car kit. With car telephony not very high on my list of fun things to invest in, I have not paid much interest to Parrot SA, even when it ventured to new grounds with its remote-controlled quadricopter. Dubbed the AR.Drone, the toy debuted in 2010 with a novel control scheme. Instead of the finicky, often complex transmitters used with normal remote controlled helicopters, the AR.Drone can be controlled using a device that was already in the hands of tens of millions of people: smartphones.

While owners of iOS devices have been able to fly AR.Drones for some time now, there hasn’t been much love for Android. Until now. Parrot SA has finally paid cognisance to the fastest-growing smartphone operating system in the world. Not all Android devices are supported, but since September 1st this year, users of Samsung Galaxy S (and S II), HTC Desire, LG Optimus, and smartphones running at least Android v2.2 having been experiencing the flying fun previously unavailable to them. As a Samsung Galaxy S user, I had a chance to take the AR.Drone for a spin. Has the experience been worth the wait or it is just a fleeting one? Find out after the jump.

In the world of toy ‘copters, the AR.Drone certainly stands out. The R3,000 quadricopter comprises a main centre unit that is connected by stalks to four propellers. The centre unit is the brain of the system, containing altimeters, gyroscopes, and sensors that keep the self-righting AR.Drone up in the air. An indoor hull protects the centre unit with a hard plastic covering over the top, and Styrofoam rings around the propellers. Despite being light, the hull is surprisingly sturdy given the number of accidents that were had during the making of this review. Depending on the severity of the crash, the Styrofoam may snap, but can be easily repaired with a bit of craft glue. In the event that the propellers make contact with the foam housing (or any foreign object, for that matter), they’ll immediately cut off. If the device is in the air at the time, it drops out the air like a dead stone. For the sake of this test, I stuck my finger into a spinning propeller (the things I do for the sake of thoroughness!), and while it was a little painful, the blade stopped when it hit the obstruction. It’s quite safe, but I wouldn’t try stopping the device with other appendages. Included with the drone is a sleeker outdoor hull that simply covers the centre unit and offers greater manoeuvrability, but for the majority of the test, I kept the “training wheels” hull on.

The AR.Drone comes equipped with two cameras and, along with the battery life (spoiler: it’s terrible), these are the weakest components of this system. The front-facing camera has a paltry 640×480 resolution and streams realtime video to your smartphone at 15 FPS. The bottom camera is housed in the centre unit and stares at the ground at a resolution of 176×144, but can display up to 60 FPS. And before you ask: no, it is not possible to record the video (at least not with the official Android app). At first I was outraged by this oversight, but when I spoke to a few other people about potential uses for the AR.Drone, I realised just how many wanted/liked to spy on their neighbours.

Getting the AR.Drone off the ground couldn’t be simpler. After you lift the hull on the centre unit and insert the battery, the copter boots up. A few moments later, the AR.Drone creates its own WiFi hotspot, and you connect to it with your smartphone, pairing the two devices. Start the AR.FreeFlight app, and once the camera feed displays on your smartphone, you’re ready to fly. Almost. While the box claims “intuitive controls”, it’s not necessarily true unless you have the aptitude for it. TyrannicalDuck and I have been playing video games for some time now, but video games certainly didn’t prepare us for real-world flight. Friend and flying enthusiast, @mysticopias, however took to it almost immediately, saying that the AR.Drone caused him to pitch a tent in his pants (I did not look).

Tap the “take off” button on the AR.FreeFlight app, and the autonomous quadricopter takes off and hovers in place, awaiting your directions. The right joystick on the app controls the altitude and the rotation of the copter, while the left stick controls the direction of the flight. The controls are relative to the way the forward-facing camera is pointing, so if the camera is pointing away from you, holding left joystick and tilting the phone forward results in the drone lurching forward. Tilt the device back and it moves back, and from side to side, depending on your input. It’s quite an exhilarating experience controlling the AR.Drone but the default settings on the app made for a wildly unstable experience for me. The different variables of tilt, vertical speed, and yaw speed can be adjusted to suit beginners. It’s a matter of trial and error until you find the sweet spot, and by sweet spot I mean not crashing. Every. Single. Time. Thankfully, you’re not restricted to using the official app, and there are both free and paid third-party apps available on the Android Marketplace. ARDrone Flight by MeavyDev, for example, proved to be a great alternative to the official app.

After you have become more familiar with the controls, the AR.Drone is such fun to fly. I wanted to fly it for hours. But I couldn’t. Not even for half an hour. Not even half of that. The battery lasts a depressing 10 minutes at most. And it takes 90 minutes to recharge. The only solution to extended battery life, as Parrot says, is simply buy more batteries.

Another thing that can upset your time with the AR.Drone is weather inclemency. In my test, I couldn’t determine how it functioned in the rain (electronics and water don’t mix, I reckon), but I did get to see how it fared against wind. It lost. Badly. In Cape Town, where 33 km/h south-easterly winds (around 18 knots for those of you who reckon by such measures) are a common, “mild” occurrence, I found it nigh on impossible to control the AR.Drone outdoors. Once the wind takes it, the ‘copter becomes unresponsive and goes whither the wind takes it, until it either hits an immovable object or you’ve pressed the “emergency” cut-off button. Either way, it’s in for a crash and—quite likely—a rapid application of craft glue. Parrot recommend against flying the AR.Drone in winds greater than 11 km/h (around 6 knots), and I’ve found that you really need absolutely still weather for the best flight conditions.

Overall, I had a good time with the AR.Drone. After I got used to the controls and fiddled with the various app settings, flying it was thoroughly enjoyable. But the experience was just too short. The 10-minute battery life is a bit of a drain though. It wasn’t helped by the 90-minute recharge time either. The camera quality is pretty mediocre and I expected a little more considering my smartphone which was released at the same time is capable of processing 720p video.

You may have noticed it earlier but the “AR” in the ‘copter’s name stands for “augmented reality”, and this allows owners of AR.Drones to engage in a number of gimmicky games. One such game is AR.Pursuit, an aerial dogfight game where one player chases another and brings them down using virtual guns and missiles. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this review, the AR.Pursuit game is only available for iOS devices.

Pricewise, you are looking to pay R3,000 for the self-stabilizing, camera-equipped quadricopter that can be controlled from the comfort of your smartphone. There are, of course, toy ‘copters that are much cheaper than the AR.Drone but I wonder if they offer the kind of entertainment value that it delivers. In fact, @mysticopias informs me that he has an RC helicopter that is twice the price of the AR.Drone but less than half the [Ed: voyeuristic] fun.

So there you have it: if you are an RC flying enthusiast, it seems that R3,000 isn’t too expensive a price to pay for a geeky, highly appealing toy ‘copter. For those who haven’t tried to joys of RC devices, this is a lot of fun in short bursts. If you’re looking for something with a bit more longevity, then I suspect that the AR.Drone is not for you.