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AR Drone takes gaming to the sky

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The Parrot AR Drone, a quadricopter that can be controlled via an iPod Touch, iPad or iPhone, is finally available in South Africa. Parrot has it here a few months after it became all the rage among gadget lovers in the USA and Europe. SEAN BACHER attended the launch to see what the fuss was about.

Gaming has just reached a new level with the Parrot AR Drone, essentially a remote-controlled toy that can be controlled via an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch by setting up an ad-hoc W-Fi network. A couple of applications for it are available for download from the Apple App Store, one allowing you to simply fly the Drone around your garden or house, and one that allows you to duel with another Drone player.

Driven by four propellers with brushless motors, the Parrot AR Drone offers great manoeuvrability and stability during piloting. When I first clapped eyes on it, my immediate thought was that there were going to be a few accidents that night, as it really didn’t look that easy to fly.

The Parrot AR Drone generates its own Wi-Fi network (there is no need for an Internet connection or router) and you simply need to connect it to an iPod Touch or iPhone, once the ‚AR.FreeFlight‚ application has been downloaded from the App Store.

Two piloting modes are available:

Beginner ‚ which presents you with two tactile piloting buttons to control the accelerometer and the direction of the AR.Drone.

Ace expert mode ‚ which gives you a single tactile button to pilot the AR.Drone.

Jason Carrozzo, technical and logistics manager at SMAC, local importers and distributors of Parrot products, says that, while only Apple applications are officially available to control the Drone, “Unofficially, there are Android-based applications, and I am sure there will be a few applications coming out to support many of the other touch-screen based handsets and tablet devices.””

After a brief demo of the unit, it was my turn to get some hands-on experience. I was instructed by Carrozzo that if ever I felt I was losing control of the Drone, I just needed to take my hands off the iPhone, which would let it stop itself and hover in its current position.

I tapped the take-off button on the screen of the iPhone and the Parrot AR Drone buzzed to life. It started its motors and lifted itself off the ground to hover at waist height. It also activated its onboard cameras so I could see on the iPhone screen where the Drone was pointed. As I slowly rotated the Drone I could see what it could see. All very easy to use.

I had the sense of taking gaming away from the TV and transferring it into a real-life scenario.

The Parrot AR Drone is made of carbon fibre and high resistance PA66 plastic. The heart of the AR Drone contains MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanicals Systems), a 3-axes accelerometer, 2 gyrometers, one ultrasound sensor and two cameras. Almost more systems than copter!

The first camera, located underneath the body, is connected to an inertial measurement unit which enables the AR Drone to measure its horizontal speed and perform incredible flights. The system of images comparison allows for compensation of turbulence due to the wind during outside flights.

Carrozzo says that these technologies are usually used for professional or military applications and have been adapted to the gaming universe for the first time.

The second camera, at the front of the quadricopter, broadcasts and streams what the drone is ‚seeing‚ onto the iPod Touch/iPhone screen, as if the player were in the pilot’s position.

The Parrot AR.Drone, distributed by SMAC, is now available at participating Incredible Connection, Cellucity and iStores nationwide and on-line at www.parrotbluetooth.co.za, for R2999.

We will shortly conduct a detailed review of the AR Drone.

· Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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