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Review: Parrot Ar Drone

01 Jun 2011

Here’s one of the more interesting devices that we’ve ever been sent for review: a remote-controlled quadricopter that you can pilot using your iPhone or iPad. Once you’ve forked out for the Parrot AR Drone, simply download the free AR Free Flight app from the iTunes App Store and synch the two devices via wi-fi (the Drone transmits a local wi-fi hotspot when switched on), and you’re away! The Drone also houses two on-board cameras (one front-facing, one rear-facing) that transmit a video feed directly to your iPhone’s display, so you can see where you’re piloting the drone when it gets a bit further away.

You’ve got two options when it comes to controlling the Drone: virtual-thumbstick control or accelerometer control. For the former, two virtual thumb pads appear on the iPhone’s display (think something along the lines of the dual-analogue thumb sticks on a PlayStation or Xbox controller): The left one controls the Drone’s forward, backwards and sideways movement while the left rotates the Drone and alters its vertical pitch. The second control option utilises your iPhone’s accelerometer: Holding your thumb down on the left thumb pad, you can fairly intuitively navigate the device by tilting your phone in the desired direction. Piloting the thing is a little tricky to get used to, but thankfully the bulk of the Drone’s fuselage consists of soft polystyrene; hopefully this results in minimal damage both to your Drone and to your household furniture. On that note, the thing is very light, so you’ll have to be extra careful in windy conditions. When I tested it outdoors, the Drone appeared to take on a life of its own; while it seemed to respond to my controls, the inertia of its previous flight path appeared to continue. Subsequently, it crashed into a tree a couple of times, the Drone’s propellers shutting off in an instant, sending it plummeting downwards. And on that note, it’s surprisingly tough; you’d have to be pretty unlucky to do any serious damage to the Drone, despite its flimsy appearance.

The “AR” in the device’s name stands for “augmented reality”; it’s this aspect of the package that aims to sustain your interest beyond the initial 15-minute “wow” factor from when you first see the Drone in flight. Unfortunately, much of this relies on a second Drone with which to do battle with (such as the AR FlyingAce game on the iTunes App Store, which requires you to virtually “shoot down” the opposing AR Drone). Some of these apps are free, and others are paid.

As impressive as the device is, one big caveat: Do not expect to get more than about 10 or 15 minutes’ worth of flight time out of a single battery charge (which takes about 1.5 hours). RC helicopter enthusiasts will tell you that this is to be expected, and they’re right. It might pay to pick up a second battery if you plan on getting a lot of use out of it.

PROS: Rather incredible technology that allows you to fly a small quadricopter using your phone. A great show-off party trick.

CONS: Extremely short battery life. Fairly limited appeal beyond initial “wow” factor. Polystyrene encasement makes it look fairly cheap and flimsy. To get the most out of it, you’ll need a buddy that also owns a Drone.

REVIEW: The Parrot AR Drone is a fun device that’s, ultimately, very gimmicky. There’s not a great deal there to make you want to keep using it in the weeks to come. As such, it’s a fairly expensive party trick that’s perhaps justifiable only by the most ardent tech heads.

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