Sometimes technology scares even us. And that's like an arachnologist being afraid of a particularly big spider. But even so, there are some things about technology that are creepy. Take for example that walking military cow thing the Americans have developed. Walks in such a "realistic" way, that it scares the actual hell out of us.
And then there are quadrocopter drones. On the face of it, they're just flying things, but when you use the Parrot AR Drone, you get the distinct impression that its motives are a bit sinister, and that given a chance it might well take over the world. Well, for 35 minutes at least, until its battery runs flat.
But our irrational fears aside, what's the new Parrot AR Drone like to use? Is it worth its £300 asking price, and would we buy one?
In the box
One of the great things about the AR Drone is that you get a decent amount in the pack. First, there are two batteries, which give you over an hour of flying time, although obviously you have to swap them at 35 minutes, and they take a couple of hours to charge. There's also a neat little charger included that plugs into your wall socket; it's a nice solution.
You also get two different "hulls" included. One is designed for indoor use, and protects your space from damage by the rotors. It's a nice idea, and it means that flying the drone into a wall just causes it to bounce off, and it will right itself and go back to its hover position.
The second hull is used for flying outdoors. It doesn't offer the rotors any protection from external forces, and likewise, it doesn't offer humans any protection from the rotors either. But this isn't much of a problem.
You also get rotors in three different colours, and some stickers. These are really just decorative items, but they're a nice way to personalise your drone and make it stand out a bit.
Parrot is well-known as a Bluetooth company, but that technology wouldn't work for a drone that can get as high or far away as the AR Drone can. Instead, the drone creates a wireless network, to which you connect your choice of control device. There are apps for both Android and iOS devices to control flight, and you can use either a phone or tablet, whichever you're most comfortable with.
On the app, you get a live video feed from the front-mounted camera. This is pretty good quality, but not exceptional. It's broadly enough to show you your surroundings, but the combination of height, CMOS tearing and reasonably low-quality optics mean you can't pick out much detail.
To fly, you get a number of choices. The default set-up is for the drone to be controlled by tilt. You press an icon on the left of the screen and hold it, and then simply use your phone or tablet like a joystick. We found this to be slightly more difficult than the standard joypad, but it somehow feels more involved.
The other option is to have another joypad, so that your left thumb controls the direction - forward, backwards, left right - while the right thumb is used to control height, and the direction in which the nose points. We ended up liking this mode, and soon got used to using both controls at the same time to fly in the direction we wanted.
There is also a mode that means the drone will always fly forward when you move the joypad up, and backwards when you move it down. This is better suited to beginners, as the standard mode can be a little confusing, because when the drone is facing you, the controls are the opposite of when it's moving away from you. It's a little confusing to fly like this, and we'd like to say it's why we crashed into our neighbour's house - it isn't though.
We've mentioned the front-mounted camera, and it's decent enough to review footage of your flights. The big problems with it are its slightly soft picture, and the fact that the camera is in no way stabilised. This is not much of a problem though and the footage you get back is a lot of fun to watch.
There is a second camera on the base of the drone, which gives a very low-quality image downwards. It's not much use for flying, but if you're trying to land on a target, then it's really very helpful indeed.
As well as being able to record video from the drone, you can also shoot photos. There's a little camera icon, and a single press will snap a shot straight to your phone memory. Quality is fine, although the shots are reasonably small at 1280x720.
When it comes to recording, you have two options. You can either stream video back to the phone, and record there, or you can use the built-in USB socket to attach a small memory stick, and record directly to that. We like this mode, and a 2GB card is enough to record for an hour - more than a single battery will last.
The app is actually very good too. Configuration is really simple, and the video relay back to your screen is flawless. Thanks to the AR Drone's clever auto-stabilisation, control is really fluid and easy. If you start to panic, let go of the controls and the drone will stop and hover, waiting for your further direction.
You can also hit the "land" button, and the drone will gracefully come back to earth.
More dire emergencies can be halted by pressing the "emergency button" which will cut power to the rotors instantly. You'd be well advised to avoid this if you're moving at speed, or high in the air, as it has the potential to damage your drone, depending on how far and how fast it falls.
The app also allows you to restrict the maximum height of the drone, and the speed at which it can move, along with it's tilt angle. This is useful for keeping control when you're learning.
If you want to look awesome, then you can enable "flips" which, when you double tap the screen, causes the drone to flip over. You can tell it which way to flip: left, right, forward or backwards. We really loved the forward flip, it just looks amazing, and if you can do it while flying it will make you look like a pro.
You need 30 per cent battery remaining to do a flip.
For some reason the AR Drone attracts bees. We have no idea why.
We've said this before, and we'll say it again, we're not your mother, and we're not here to tell you what you can and can't do. We see technology as something very powerful, and something that can always be abused. So the fact that the AR Drone can be used to see what other people are doing is an interesting issue.
There is currently a demand from some to see legislation on these drones. Arguably, the Parrot doesn't have the same sophistication as some quadrocopters that are built for flying cameras. Some of those have gyroscopic stabilisers that allow you to record virtually anything. There are loads of videos on YouTube that show this sort of thing in action.
With the AR Drone, it's entirely possible to fly it to a window and have a peak in. This sort of thing isn't new, in the span of human misbehaviour, but the drones do offer a new high-tech option for the peeping Tom. Still, we have no doubt most won't be interested in using it for this nefarious purpose, and besides, it's much more fun to fly the thing around and video your local area without infringing on anyone's privacy.
Anecdotally though, we took the drone to the park and flew it for a while, lots of people were interested in it, and lots asked us what it was. When we explained, one couple raised the issue of privacy, but didn't seem overly worried about it in real life. Though, they did end our chat with, "Don't spy on us." It was very good humoured.
There is, of course, a world of difference between flying the drone in a public place and outside someone's bedroom window though, and most people understand that.
In the "Power Edition" we're testing, you get two battery packs. Parrot says each can last up to 35 minutes. This number depends greatly on the conditions and the sort of flying you're doing with the drone.
We found you'd get at least 15 minutes messing about time though, and a bit longer if you were less enthusiastic about how you fly - and how quickly
Flying the AR Drone is just cool. It's not especially difficult once you learn the basics, and it is capable of going very high, and travelling very quickly. This can get you in trouble, but it's also a lot of fun to make the drone whizz along.
We took ours to the park to test it fully, and this is an ideal place to test, where there are no trees to get stuck in, and no neighbours' houses to crash into.
What we noticed is that, even outdoors, the Wi-Fi range is a bit limited. The drone loses contact with the phone even when you can still see it quite clearly. This isn't a problem when you're flying, and it's probably no bad thing that it can't go too far from where you are. Interestingly, Bell Labs has modified an AR Drone to use 3G for control, which basically gives you unlimited range, although this isn't an option for normal users.
When we started we asked if this was the sort of thing we'd buy. The answer is "hell yes", but with a couple of important caveats. First, it's not cheap at £300, and while it's very well built, there's always the chance that you'll send it off into the distance and it will vanish into a tree/neighbour's garden/ocean and never be seen again.
But if you're careful, and fly it in big indoor spaces or outdoors where there is loads of room, then you should have no problem. It's probably worth avoiding strong winds too, or flying too high!
What's certain is, that you'll have fun with the AR Drone 2.0. The video is a lot of fun, because you'll record some amazing stuff and we loved snapping stills too. Flying it is reasonably easy, depending on how your brain is wired, and it can shoot along at one hell of a pace too.
So all things considered, if you've got the money, this little drone is well worth your investment.
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