Pros: Excellent exterior build. Easy to fly. Innovative iPhone control.
Cons: Electronic circuitry/components need more protection during crashes.
Parrot AR Drone is a four rotor electric helicopter that uses several sensors to level itself during flight. It is controlled by iPod Touch, iPhone, or iPad using free software from iTunes store. I think Android phones will also be able to control this helicopter soon if not already. This review focuses on the helicopter using Apple’s interface.
I purchased AR Drone because of a love for things that fly. Helicopters are extremely cool because you don't need much space to fly them. AR Drone's intelligent brain does most of the flying for you. The drone uses ultra sonic sensors, which are located underneath the aircraft, to judge height above ground. You can set a maximum height limit on the iPhone software to prevent it from flying too high. You can also set the height limit to “unlimited” for free flying fun. Tilt angle, yaw speed and climb rate can all be set. I know it sounds complicated, but it’s not. You determine how responsive the controls are for the aircraft. It has a top speed of 11mph. The Ultra sonic sensors will maintain height as you travel over various terrain and adjust it’s height automatically. The ultra sonic sensors work in conjunction with accelerometers, gyros and one of two video cameras which is also located on the aircraft’s belly. The ground camera can pick up patterns and contours of the ground and it uses what it sees as a reference to keep itself in one place. It’s kind of a low tech GPS which works when the aircraft is about 15 feet or lower. The sensors will even level the aircraft and fight to keep it in one place during windy conditions. That’s only when all of the sensors have good readings.
The aircraft is only limited by the wifi transmitter range of your iPhone. I flew mine at it’s limit and had it about 150 feet. At that height it’s hard to tell the orientation of the aircraft. There are two video cameras that you can reference using your iPhone to see what direction the craft is facing. You’ll spend more time looking in the sky than down at your controller. Video at that range is also good on the iPhone 4. If the craft leaves wifi range of your phone it will start auto decent and land. It will also land when the battery is too low for flight. If you run into an emergency situation, just hit the “Emergency button” and the craft will immediately stop it’s engines and fall from the sky. That button is only for emergencies and could result in damage to your drone. Telemetry is also broadcast to your phone so that you are able to monitor the crafts battery level or adjust flight parameters (which is best to do before a flight...). All of this gadgetry is transparent. The technology on this aircraft cost thousands of dollars on RC helicopters that are used for aerial photography. It’s amazing how this has trickled down to a consumer level.
Speaking of batteries... The drone comes with one lithium polymer battery. It takes an hour and a half for a full charge. You'll want to buy several batteries and another charger to reduce ground time. Flight time is listed at approximately 12-15 minutes. I average 8-10 minutes while flying outside.
Take offs and landings are a breeze with the AR Drone. Simply hit the launch button on the iPhone and the craft will take off and stabilize itself after a few seconds. Landing is just as easy. The craft will descend like you are a seasoned R/C pilot. You may need to adjust some of the flight characteristics initially until you get a feel for flying the aircraft by using your phone’s touch screen. You control the aircraft’s movement by tilting the iPhone to bank and move a virtual joystick to climb, descend or rotate the aircraft. You can choose two virtual joysticks if tilting the iphone doesn’t suit your taste for flying the drone.
The AR Drone is designed around an electronic brain. The arms of the aircraft are made with carbon fiber and the rotors consists of flexible plastic. I crashed mine (more later) from approximately 100 feet and there wasn’t any visible damage to the body, motors or rotors. I was amazed! The drone’s electronics are surrounded by foam. The Drone comes with two shells or “hulls”. One is designed for indoor use and protects the rotors from striking objects in the house. Another shell is used for outside flight and reduces the weight on the aircraft. Software settings for outdoor and indoor flight exists. There’s also settings for which hull you decide on using. The indoor shell is pretty fragile so care must be taken when flying.
The “AR.Freeflight” software from AR Drone can be downloaded for free from iTunes. This installs easily and links via wifi to your drone. You can still receive calls. Although you may want to put your phone into airplane mode while flying. You’ll still be able to use the wifi feature once you activate it on your phone. Several games exists that allow you and another drone flyer to dog fight using the drones cameras. The cameras are able to pick up on certain patterns and allow you and another flyer to maneuver their aircraft to disable their opponent. You’ll have to use special sticker that come with the aircraft for this feature to work and download the available games. Another flight control software exists called “DroneControl”. It functions like AR.Freeflight, but has additional features that displays graphs for flight performance and allows you to take aerial photos with a simple push of a button. The software allows you to customize the display patterns of the aircraft rotor’s LEDs, display altitude, yaw, roll angle etc. You’ll have to pay for the software, but it’s worth the $4.99 price.
I really enjoy flying this drone. An interesting fact is that the F.A.A. considers such a device to be a drone by definition. It differs from R/C aircraft because it uses sensors to correct flight and is semi-autonomous in that is levels itself and height can be limited by a software setting. As mentioned before, the technology that’s in this aircraft typically costs thousands of dollars on some aircraft used for aerial photography.
Now.. what’s not so great. The build design of the drone is great. The foam body (which looks like coated styrofoam), carbon fiber arms, motors and plastic rotors can take some pretty hard hits without damage. The aircraft’s weakness is in the build of it’s electronic components. The body is able to take hard landings and crashes, but the build of the circuitry needs more protection to absorb hard landings/crashes. Some of the microchip components are not soldered on the control boards and will come unglued during crashes or hard landings. I think it’s a design technique to save weight. I inspected my aircraft after a 100 foot crash and didn’t see any exterior physical damage. The aircraft would not link with my iPhone and later I discovered a microprocessor/chip that fell out of the drone. It was labeled “Parrot” and on close inspection I saw that it appeared to have been held in place by glue. I later read similar comments on blogs about “chips” coming unglued from the motherboard. Now granted, what lead to the demise of my aircraft was that I velcroed a small “spy camera” to the bottom of the drone. Although I thought I was careful, I believe that I obstructed the ultra sonic sensors on the bottom of the aircraft. The ultra sonic senors measure the distance from the ground and cannot be obstructed. After launching the craft it kept rising uncontrollably at a rapid rate before shutting off. It may have been a fail safe feature. I watched as the craft fell from approximately 100 feet and thought that the drone was a goner. I picked it up and was surprised that the drone did not sustain any exterior damage. The rotors and body was not scratched and interestingly it fell on concrete. I was able to power the craft, but unable to connect to the iPhone because of the chip the came unglued. I knew that I caused this aircraft to crash but thought that repeated crashes by other flyers may result in the same effect of having components come unglued.
I would still recommend the AR Drone for those interested in the aircraft. It flies great indoors and outdoors. Controlling the aircraft with the iPhone, iPod Touch, or iPad is pretty amazing. What’s really fun is receiving live video feed from the two cameras on the aircraft.
I would like to see a future model that also uses radio control for increased range (50 meters is a lot for wifi, but it can fly farther with radio). It’s recommended for ages 14 and up. You’ll probably see more adults with this “toy” than children though. :) You may want to consider how responsible and careful your child is before purchasing the AR Drone. The only weakness would probably be the build of the electronic components. I believe in my Epinion that the electronics should be protected more for those repeated hard landings and crashes. In fairness there are few R/C that can survive a fall from 100 feet without exterior damage.