Back in 2011, I did the one and only hardware review for this blog. It was for Parrot SA’s high-flying AR.Drone. I crashed it a couple of times, once into a light fitting at work. Mercifully no one was injured, except for my pride. Another time, an extremely high fence stopped what would have been a suicidal plunge into a ravine. It was the wind’s fault, honest.
Operator error aside, I lamented the AR.Drone’s terrible battery and even worse camera. And I said the price was too damn high. That’s just a quick summary though. You’re more than welcome to read my review of the original AR.Drone here.
Now, Parrot SA’s new AR.Drone 2.0 is not exactly new. It was announced at the Consumer Electronics Show of last year but was only available for purchase in South Africa several months later, in October. The new AR.Drone has been bumped up to version 2.0 and that would indicate some major improvements over its predecessor. What are they you ask? To find out, I decided to take it for a spin. See my flight log after the jump.
Same same, but different. The overall looks of the AR.Drone 2.0 haven’t changed all that much. The quadricopter still contains a central control unit that connects out to the four whirring propellers. The sensitive equipment in the hull is still protected on the sides and bottom by foam and plastic. And it comes with two protective hulls—one indoor, the other outdoor—that cover the top. I noticed that the design of the outdoor hull has changed a little, moving away from curved plastic cover to an angular one. Is that a good thing? If only I were an aerodynamicist.
It seems a lot of the R&D money has gone into the innards of the toy, focusing on how the AR.Drone 2.0 views its surroundings and not what it looks like. And that’s good to see. The AR.Drone 2.0’s wide-angle camera has received a much-needed upgrade and now it can capture your terrible attempts at flight in glorious 720p, at 30 frames per second. It’s not exactly ground-breaking stuff but given the poor 640×480 resolution of the previous model, I’d consider that a significant change. The previous AR.Drone didn’t allow you to record the video, but in 2.0 you have two options to save your videos and photos. You can connect a USB flash stick to the central hull and have the video transferred onto that, or it can be stored on the fly to the smartphone that you’re using to control the AR.Drone 2.0. It works as advertised and the files are stored in MP4 format. See below for a video of the crash course that I went on earlier.
Parrot SA recommends that you avoid flying the AR.Drone 2.0 in wind conditions over 15 km/h. This is inconvenient if you live in Cape Town where summers winds are known to roar up into the 60s! Speaking of outrageous speeds, the motors on the AR.Drone 2.0 whips the blades around at over 28,000 RPM while the device is hovering! It creates quite a downwash, and that can be well awesome, especially if you want to clean a particularly dusty floor. It’s not whisper-quiet so spying on your neighbours will be difficult unless they are extremely hard of hearing. Without any speakers, there is absolutely no chance of you blaring Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries as you fly about the place. Pity.
The Cape Doctor was being kinder than usual this year but it did make for inhospitable flying conditions during our tests. Just like its predecessor, even the slightest of breezes would seem upset the AR.Drone 2.0 and send it careering off in a direction that you did not intend. If you happen to be in an area where there is interference to the WiFi signal, the video feed on your smartphone stutters a little. If you’ve played games online, you’ll know that lag can be a killer. In these circumstances, it can become problematic and frustrating to control the AR.Done 2.0 away from obstacles.
Speaking of controls, the AR.Drone 2.0 introduces a new flight mode: absolute control. This mode uses the pilot as the reference point, meaning the AR.Drone will always fly in the direction that you tilt your smartphone, no matter which direction the quadricopter is facing. Absolute flight mode is meant to make it more a little easier to fly the AR.Drone 2.0 as opposed to the relative reference control scheme that might cause some confusion. If you don’t feel like tilting your smartphone, you can use your thumb on the software joypad to direct the AR.Drone 2.0 forward, back, and sideways. In my tests, I preferred joypad mode because it proved to be more responsive to commands.
Along with the hardware, the AR.Drone 2.0 app has also been given a refresh. My comments here are relevant only to the Android app. I wasn’t able to test the iOS version. The AR.FreeFlight 2.0 app is a vast improvement over the one its predecessor used. In fact with the previous version, I found other third-party apps to be better. It’s not the case with FreeFlight 2.0, the app is a usable one. You edit the various flight settings and upgrade the firmware. You view the recorded videos and photos, and in this age of interconnectedness, the app makes it easy to share your content with the popular social networks, Picasa, and YouTube. There is also an AR.Drone Academy that lets you share your flights and statistical data about them with the drone-flying community around the globe. At the time of writing this feature is available for iOS but is “coming soon” for Android.
A quick check on Google Play reveals that the Android app (v2.0.13) hasn’t been updated since November 2012. While it performs its functions well, the UI design could have done with some more work. The app mashes together Window 8 style tiles and iOS toggle buttons in the settings screens, and oddly orange bevelled buttons in the piloting screen. It’s a bit of a mess, and given the build quality of the AR.Drone 2.0, it’s a pity that the app didn’t have a more consistent look and feel.
Let’s talk quickly about the battery. Sadly it’s still a drain on the fun and it lasts just the same flying time as its predecessor, if not a little more. I got about 12 minutes of flight time out of a full charge. There is an audible warning when the battery level falls below 15% and the quadricopter won’t want to fly any more after that. If you’re desperate, you can unplug the battery and plug it in again to coax an extra two to three minutes. It takes well over an hour to recharge the battery, so an extra battery is a must if you want to prolong the experience. A search on a local online retailer shows that a battery unit costs over R400. The price of the protective indoor hull is in the same price bracket. The AR.Drone 2.0 itself retails for the recommended and depressing price of R3,499.
The more time I spend with the AR.Drone 2.0, the more I like it. I want it. I need it. But, like the people I’ve showed it off too, that desire is quickly quelled when I mention the price tag. I go to great heights to inform them that the camera is much improved and captures good 720p quality videos, and that the flight controls have been made more accessible. The app is far more attractive and responsive than the last and, while the battery may only last about 12 minutes, the flying experience is thoroughly enjoyable. But R3,499 leaves more of an impression than anything else. This high-flying auto-stabilising quadricopter is still very much a niche toy that is little out of reach for some people.
Manufacturer: Parrot SA
South African Distributor: SMAC
Recommend Retail Price: R3499