The Parrot AR Drone pretty much stole the show at this year’s CES expo in Las Vegas, simply by taking off. Just look at the thing. It’s got four blades! The iPod touch controlled quadricopter is finally going on sale in the UK next month though, and we got to put it through a thorough test flight well ahead of schedule. Just how thorough? We pushed its skills and industrial design to the limit, and er, actually broke it. Don’t worry though – read our full Parrot AR Drone review right here and you’ll see that it’s far from delicate.
What you may be surprised to find if you’ve only seen the Parrot AR Drone flown indoors, is that it’s almost two different vehicles in one, by way of the two different hulls it uses (and which come in the box). It comes with a light, flexible polystyrene bumper to protect the blades, and it doesn’t feel like it can be torn in anyway. A simple tap of the launch button on the app, it floats up to a metre, stabilises and then you’re off. That’s enough to have you pestering everyone around the office, hovering above their heads while they try to file that report, and that’s a blast in itself.
Indoors however, you’ll never build up any speed before a wall, filing cabinet or litigious employee gets in the way. Outdoors, with the bumper off, the Parrot AR Drone is a speedier, scarier, beast altogether. It looks like something else entirely (The Starbug from Red Dwarf, actually), zipping around in every direction at a frightening pace. You don’t need to be in a Wi-Fi hotspot either – the Parrot AR Drone creates its own. And yes, outdoors, it’s even more fun.
Controlling the Parrot AR Drone is utterly intuitive on an iPod touch (or iPhone) – though we’re not quite so sure the same is true of the larger iPad, as we weren’t able to try this out. The first few tries will end in crashes as you adjust to the concept, but a few goes in, something will click, especially if you’re a gamer. A Parrot rep told us that the aim is to get so good at flying the Parrot AR Drone that you only need look at the screen. We didn’t get to that stage – he admitted even he hadn’t yet either, but we can certainly see that being possible with practice, on calm days when the wind isn’t likely to abruptly place it over a highway without you noticing.
The app itself is impressive, if very functional looking. Text and menus are ugly, but that’s besides the point when you can see out of the Parrot AR Drone’s two cameras on it at all times – we tested to see how long the delay was in the stream and it was only a few fractions of a second. Controls work by holding down the left side of the screen and tilting to push forward or back, or tilt left and right, while the right side of the screen brings up a thumbpad you can use to rotate the Parrot AR Drone. It takes a bit of getting used to, but is definitely easier than the X and Y axis controls you might have used on other remote control toy choppers.
We found having to reconnect sometimes by having to turn the Wi-Fi on and off on the iPod touch was a bit of a chore when the Parrot AR Drone needed restabilising, but naturally this becomes less of an issue as you get better and fly for longer continuously. The app will available for free on the day of launch, along with an augmented reality game, but it’s not available to test yet.
Of course, that it uses an iPod touch could itself be seen as a drawback. It’s the only way you can control it, so if you don’t have an iOS device, that’s at least another £150 you’ll be spending in order to play with the Parrot AR Drone. It’s a shame as back in January, Parrot was talking up potential Android integration for the quadricopter – that’s not come to pass sadly, and the company has nothing to announce on that front.
The range of the Parrot AR Drone was impressive, and as advertised: around 50 metres or so. We decided to see if that was true going upwards as well, and reached about 20 metres up – which is much, much higher than it sounds. We were testing the Parrot AR Drone in Regent’s Park in central London, and to see the view above the skyline appear on an iPod touch was utterly fantastic.
Then we hit a slight hitch when a gust of wind blew the Parrot AR Drone into a tree. It crashed to earth, and one of the plastic rotors broke in half, ending our flight session.
To be clear though, this is far from a flaw. We flew the Parrot AR Drone into a massive tree, it fell the height of a seven storey building to solid earth, and the only thing that snapped was half a plastic cog. Which you can replace. That’s it, and given the model we tested is the only one in the country right now, it’s already notched up its fair share of Parrot staff crashes. The Wi-Fi was still working and we could still see out of the camera. You can even set a height limit on the app to stop it from soaring up to the heavens.
The point is, you’ll struggle to break the Parrot AR Drone unless you really, really try, especially on a calm day, and with the plastic bumpers, we’re pretty sure it’s nigh on impossible to bust indoors.
The real obstacle is the price. For the power, ease of use and sheer enjoyment, the Parrot AR Drone is reasonably affordable at £299, but even if you have an iPod touch already, you’re going to run up against the battery issue. There’s just one in the box, and it lasts as long as Parrot claims – 12 or 13 minutes of flight time, with 90 minutes or so’s charging needed to go again. Realistically, to get maximum enjoyment from the Parrot AR Drone, you are going to have to buy yourself a couple of batteries (Price TBC but they will be sold separately, as will all the parts, from day one).
But if you can slap down that much cash for what is essentially the ultimate boy’s toy, you’ll be strapping yourself in for the ride of your adult life.