This article first appeared in HWM Aug 2011.
Remote-controlled helicopters and planes may be cool, but those things can cost an arm (and maybe a leg), not to mention if you fly one into a tree, all you’ll likely have left to bring home is a mangled pile of scrap. Lucky for those who would prefer something that can take a bit more punishment, the Parrot AR.Drone is your best bet.
The AR.Drone is by design a quadrocopter, that is, a flying machine with four sets of rotors. What makes it a little more resilient than most other remote-controlled toys is the fact that the hull is made of foam, or expanded polypropylene (EPP) to be more precise. You actually get two sets of hulls for both indoor and outdoor use. The outdoor hull merely covers the circuitry in the main body, while the indoor hull has an outer shell that encompasses the four propellers as well. We flew it into trees and crash landed it onto the asphalt of the parking lot quite a few times, but it just kept on flying. Nevertheless, if you go at it hard enough, you’ll definitely break something.
What makes the Drone interesting is that there’s no dedicated remote control that comes in the box. Parrot designed the Drone to use the iPhone, iPod touch, or even an iPad as the remote control. To get started, you need to download the Free Flight app for your iOS device. Once you start it up, the Drone will start broadcasting its own Wi-Fi network, which is how the Drone communicates with your Apple device. From then on it’s as easy as identifying and connecting to the network on your mobile device.
Piloting the Drone is done through your iOS device, as the Drone sends out a continuous video stream from its two onboard cameras (in front and on the bottom) to your screen, so you literally see what it ‘sees’. And since you’re connected to the Drone via private Wi-Fi, the Drone doesn’t need to be in your line of sight to work. You can use the augmented reality feature in the app to play on your own by shooting virtual missiles against an enemy, or against another Drone piloted by a friend.
The controls took a while to get used to but it was really intuitive; holding the left virtual button allowed us to fly the Drone forward or backward by tilting the iPhone. The right virtual button allowed us to turn side to side or adjust the altitude. If left alone, the Drone will automatically hover in place.
The one negative that was immediately obvious was that the Drone’s battery only lasted a mere 12 minutes between charges.
What do we like about the Drone? It was really accessible; even if you aren't a geek, it's likely that you wouldn’t need a manual to learn how to fly it around. Setting it up is easy too; you don’t have to deal with cables or complicated mechanical parts. However, you’re out of luck if you do not have an Apple device, though Parrot has announced that the Free Flight app will be available on Android* soon. That, and the asking price of S$449 (which can be a little bit hard to swallow) as well as the limited battery life are our major gripes.
(*Parrot has since released the AR.Free Flight app on the Android Market.)