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AR.Drone: Encounters of the second kind

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The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 includes a high-definition camera, a more intuitive piloting app and the ability to perform stunts. SEAN BACHER launches the quadricopter into the sky to find out if this means an improved experience.

In 2010 Parrot introduced the AR.Drone quadricopter, which worked like a remote controlled helicopter, but with two major differences. Firstly, it could be controlled via any iOS or Android tablet or smartphone and, secondly, it paired with that device via WiFi.

Although the Parrot AR.Drone was successful, it did come with a few drawbacks. The camera wasn’t very good, enabling you to see video only at a resolution of 640X480 pixels: it had a short battery life: and there was no way to record flight video or take pictures while the Drone was in the air.

This month SMAC, the distributors of the AR.Drone, announced the arrival in South Africa of the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. The new Drone features a high-definition camera, a more intuitive piloting experience, the ability to perform stunts and a range of other features that they say makes flying the quadricopter more fun.

We put the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 through the Gadget Five Question User Test.

1. Ease of use (including set-up)

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 really is a plug-and-play device. No software needs to be installed on the quadricopter. If you’ve used one before, you also needn’t read the manual, but first-time users will need to spend five minutes brushing up on the controls. That, too, can be learned intuitively, though. Ultimately, all the user needs to do is download the AR.FreeFlight app from Google Play or from the Apple App Store. Once downloaded, the Drone needs to be paired with the controller via WiFi, and you are up and away.

When the AR.FreeFlight app is first installed, its default settings are set to the minimum. For example, the Drone will only lift to a maximum of three metres. This I found great, as an accident at this height and yes, there will be accidents will cause minimal damage to the quadricopter. As you gain experience, though, you can adjust settings like altitude limits, maximum rotation speed and the WiFi range.

Included with the AR.Drone 2.0 are two hulls, one for indoor use and one outdoor. The indoor hull is also something of a training hull, as it prevents the four plastic rotors from spinning into a wall and snapping off. The hull also provides great self-protection, as a few times I ended up flying the Drone into myself. And it looks great: like something from an alien invasion.

The outdoor hull is simply a case that covers the battery compartment, leaving all four rotors exposed and is best used when you are sure you know what you are doing.

A few safety features are built into the app and Drone itself. For example, if your phone starts ringing while in mid-flight, the quadricopter will automatically drop to a hovering height until you are finished on the phone. If you ever lose control of it, an emergency button can be pressed on the app that cuts all power to the Drone – landing (or dropping) it safely and quickly. Visual and audio warnings are also activated when the Drone starts to get out of WiFi range and a battery meter automatically lands the Drone before it runs completely dry.

The AR.Drone 2.0 is very easy to set up. The easy-to-use app also counts in its favour and the audio and visual warnings are all great features that will prevent the quadricopter from becoming a broken-copter. However, first time users will probably need to follow a few instructions to get going.

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2. General performance

A high-definition camera on the AR.Drone is able to record and stream video straight to the controlling iOS or Android device. The videos, recorded at a maximum resolution of 1 280X720, can then be shared via Facebook or Twitter straight from the app. The AR.Drone 2.0 also includes a USB stick adaptor that will record videos and images directly to the memory stick while in flight. These images and videos can then be downloaded and saved to your computer.

Although the addition of video recording is a cool feature, it does come with a drawback. Activating the recording function uses battery power which isn’t that good at the best of times. A fully charged battery will only give around ten minutes of flight time depending on how many manoeuvres you perform. The battery will then have to be charged for just over two hours before it’s ready to power the quadricopter again.

While on the subject of batteries and chargers, Parrot has made an improvement to its charger. The one included with the first AR.Drone was a mess: there was a maze of wires and connecting and disconnecting the battery was finicky. But the new charger works similar to a penlight battery charger, where you plug the charger into a wall socket and ‚”dock‚” the battery until the red light changes to green, indicating a fully charged battery. This will become especially handy if you have two or more batteries: while one is powering the Drone, the second can be on charge thereby minimising the time that the AR.Drone has to stand idle.

Parrot has also improved on flying ease. The Original AR.Drone was easy to fly, just as long as you were standing behind it. When behind it, left meant left, right meant right and the same with backwards and forwards. But things got really hectic the minute the Drone was facing you, as now all the controls were reversed and this often caused accidents.

The AR.Drone 2.0 includes Absolute Flight Mode, which uses the Drone’s built-in 3D compass to find and use the pilot as a point-of-reference. This means that, no matter which way the Drone faces, it will always move in the direction you choose.

It includes a stunt feature, but that doesn’t mean you have to be an expert to perform these stunts. Under the personal settings of the app, there is an option to enable flip mode. Once activated, the user needs to ensure there is enough space around the Drone, bring it up to a hover and hit the flip mode. The barrel roll the Drone performs is spectacular. Watching the world turn upside down on the recorded video will bring goose bumps to you every time it is played.

The addition of a better camera and the more intuitive piloting experience offered by the AR.Drone 2.0 are all benefits, but the short battery life counts against the quadricopter.

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3. Does it add value to your life?

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 does not add value to your life, but it does add a lot of fun.

The first few times the Drone is flown, the routine will be take off, hover, crash, retrieve and reset. It’s rather frustrating, but once your confidence builds up and you are able to navigate the quadricopter with ease, the fun factor definitely kicks in.

Apart from the AR.FreeFlight app, there are others that can be downloaded that let you enter combat modes, make the Drone dance and even allow you to play various games with friends who own an AR.Drone.

Even though you won’t get much obvious value from the AR.Drone, the fun factor is what counts.

17/20

4. Innovation

Parrot’s approach of taking WiFi out of the office and using it to control a flying toy is innovative. The AR.Drone 2.0’s ability to perform stunts, video recording and sharing features and the improved AR.FreeFlight app are also innovative. All in all, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is innovative in every respect.

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5. Value for money

A quick Internet search revealed that a remote controlled model helicopter or airplane would start at around R8 000. This excludes batteries, controls and servos. Besides this, each model needs to be assembled, checked by a professional and you need to practice under the watchful eye of an instructor. You also need to find an open field, clear of power lines and trees, in order to fly the model. And if it crashes well, then you are in for a few thousand to get it fixed.

Not so with the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0. It costs R3 500 with battery and charger. Parts are readily available from SMAC and are relatviely inexpensive. Should the Drone crash under normal operating instructions, the hull could break, but it can be fixed with some insulation tape. At worst, a rotor could snap, in which case a new can be bought for under R100.

Although the initial outlay is pricey, maintaining the Drone is fairly inexpensive.

17/20

Conclusion

Total score: 86%

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is a demonstration of how technology can be adapted and used for something that it wasn’t originally intended. The new AR.FreeFlight app, combined with an easier piloting mode and high-definition camera, are all great features to have. Although the quadricopter may just be a novelty, it is a great novelty to keep near for when time-out is needed.

* Read Arthur Goldstuck’sncolumn on the implications of the AR.Drone here.

* Follow Sean Bacher on Twitter on @SeanBacher

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