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Network takes flight with AR Drone

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After a few close calls, SEAN BACHER finds himself flying the remote controlled AR Drone like a pro.

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s just another AR Drone buzzing around.

This is what you may soon be hearing people say when you take a walk in the park.

Parrot’s AR Drone, locally imported by SMAC, has recently gone on sale around South Africa and is bound to become a popular toy, specifically among Apple users.

The AR Drone is in effect a radio-controlled helicopter, but that is like calling the Batmobile a mere car.

The Drone comprises four rotors that lift it off the ground. It is paired to an iPhone or iPad via is own wireless network. Onboard, it has two cameras ‚ a cockpit-mounted type and one underneath. The cockpit camera offers a resolution of 640X480 pixels while the one underneath sports 176×144.

It includes a motherboard with all the circuitry that controls the Drone, and a housing to plug and house the battery, all protected by a polystyrene shell.

The first time I started my AR Drone, my thoughts were that it would be a one-day wonder. I would use it a few times and then leave it in a corner somewhere to collect dust. But I was wrong. The more I flew it, the better I got and the more addicted I became.

We fly the AR Drone through the Gadget Five Question User test to see whether, like many other gadgets, it is just nice to have, or whether is worth its weight in polystyrene.

1. Is it ready to use?

Out of the box, as with almost any other device, the battery has to be charged. This takes a good hour and a half, which gives you enough time to read the instructions and view all the videos on YouTube showing you how not to fly the Drone. You also need to download and install the AR Drone software, which can be found on the Apple App Store as a free download, on your iPhone or iPad.

Once the battery is charged, plug it into the Drone, put on the hull (or exoskeleton, as I prefer to call it), and pair it with your iPhone. If everything is working correctly, the app will display a few green lights and you will see what the Drone is seeing ‚ i.e. your screen will change to show you the view from the camera at the front of the Drone. From that moment, I was hooked.

2. Is it easy to use?

The AR Drone is easy to use, but you first have to get the hang of it, meaning you need to practice a bit.

When I first started playing with the Drone, my routine went something like this:

Launch application, press launch button on application, perform basic maneuvers, retrieve Drone from flowerbed. Press launch button again, wait for Drone to hover, maneuver Drone, retrieve from under car. This went on for at least the first few days, to the point where the Drone spent more time in my hands, under cars, in trees and in flower beds than where it should be ‚ in the air.

However, after a lot of perseverance I slowly started getting the hang of things. My secret was to take baby steps. After all, you have to be able to walk before you can fly. I began by letting the Drone hover, then slowly tilting my iPhone forwards and backwards ‚ all the time with my finger on the right-hand virtual button. The Drone takes instructions from the accelerometers in your phone. The steeper the angle at which you tilt your phone, the faster the Drone will move in that direction.

After mastering back and forth motions, I started with the left and right movements. I then combined the two ‚ making the unit move forwards and to the left at the same time.

Stage two of my training came in when I started using the right-hand virtual button on the phone. This lets you rotate your Drone, lift it higher and bring it lower. Very simple to use by itself, but I battled to combine the two buttons at the same time. I was completely confused when the Drone was facing me as back becomes forward and left becomes right ‚ causing many high-speed, high-altitude crashes.

3. Does it operate as advertised?

Compared to remote control helicopters that you get at hobby shops, the Drone is much easier to use. You don’t have to build the thing, nor does it cost as much as a helicopter. Although it does look very fragile, I found the Drone very resilient. I lost count of the number of times I crashed it and all I ever broke was the polystyrene hull, which was quickly mended with glue.

The Drone automatically hovers when it receives no instructions, which means that, whenever you feel you are getting into a tricky situation, you just have to let go of the controls. The Drone stops what you were instructing it to do and hovers on the spot ‚ at the same time compensating for any wind that might be blowing it around. There is also an emergency cut-out button. However, this should only be used in dire emergencies, as it cuts power to all the motors ‚ meaning the Drone will fall from the sky like a lump of lead.

Although the AR Drone includes two cameras, there is no recording software. I manage to take screen grabs on my iPhone, which allowed me to see what my neighbour’s property looks like ‚ albeit at very low resolution. There is also no official software to record your flights. These are a few gaps Parrot should consider filling when they upgrade the firmware.

4. Is it innovative?

Even though the Drone has been available overseas for quite some time, it is a first for South Africa and a first for me. Its ease of use, general resilience and clever use of a wireless network makes it innovative in just about every respect.

5. Is it value for money?

Parrot markets the quadricopter as taking gaming to the next level. Yes, it does take things to the next level, but for R3000? That’s a little steep. Furthermore, the Drone will only fly for around 10-15 minutes on a single battery charge, so you will have to buy a second, if not a third battery, at around R400 each.

Also bear in mind that, even though the Drone survives some crashes, there will be the one that it didn’t escape. And it’s not like a PlayStation game where you can press the reset button and start with a brand new Drone ‚ you will have to buy new bits and pieces. SMAC does stock a full range of spares, but that then becomes yet another cost.

Besides the accessories and batteries, you still need to have an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad.

In conclusion

The AR Drone is really a great toy. But that’s all it is ‚ a toy and an expensive one at that. I would buy it if I had nothing better to do with my money.

However, should Parrot improve on the battery life and the camera resolution, I could think of endless business and security applications for the AR Drone.

Follow Sean on Twitter on @seanbacher

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Unfortunately Mine had a crash lol – central cross snapped and motherboard diode has fallen of :(((

Repairs has cost me an additional R1800 🙁

But it’s still an awesome expensive toy lol

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