The Parrot AR Drone 2.0 is the most expensive remote control toy money can buy; it’s a smartphone controlled quadrocopter with a 720p HD camera, and it’s ridiculously fun, but quite temperamental. It’s an enthusiast level device with an affordable $300 price tag. There simply is no competition at a comparable price. It’s far from perfect, but it’s certainly fun! The device is remote controlled, but you will need a smartphone or tablet running either iOS or Android – there is no standalone remote supplied.
What follows is a review of the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 untainted. We purchased the review unit ourselves and will be giving it away to the MakeUseOf community. Read on to find out more about this $300 toy and how to be in the running to win it!
The box arrived unpackaged and as-is leaving no doubt as to what was inside – the mailman was quite intrigued. Inside is sparse, but here’s what’s included:
- Outdoor hull
- Indoor hull
- Main unit
- Battery charger and 4 different plugs
- Quick start guide
Initial impressions taking it out of the box: it’s a delicate product, and featherlight. I was quite shocked by the size of it actually – it was certainly larger than I imagined. Tiny motors drive the four blades; there’s exposed circuitry under each one, with a small LED to indicate status.
Snapping in the UK plug, I set it to charge while reading the quick start guide. The first thing you’ll need to do is download the controller application – FreeFlight 2.0 – to your iOS or Android device.
The Parrot AR Drone’s Design
The drone is incredibly lightweight, with the inevitable consequence of being nigh-impossible difficult to fly in the wind. Construction of the main unit is polystyrene and tough plastic - solid enough to protect the onboard computer – but the fact that replacement circuit boards, and motors are readily available imply it can break easily. I didn’t break this one yet though, you’ll be glad to hear.
Two hulls are supplied – the indoor one offers complete protection for the blades, and is made entirely of polystyrene to absorb the shock of crashing. The outdoor hull offers zero protection for the blades, and just serves to cover the battery pack. Both are hooked over the front of drone and secured via magnet in the back. Removing and replacing it is easy, as you need to do it everytime in order to charge the battery. In all the photo’s here you’ll see the indoor hull being used.
Underneath the device you can see ultrasonic sensors and an additional camera – these aid with detecting the ground level, but you can record or view that video feed too if you wish (it’s not HD). On the front of the drone, pointing forwards is the main 720p HD camera – which is surprisingly great quality.
This is not a pickup-and-play toy by any accounts; it takes a good amount of practice to really get a hang of flying. There are going to many bumps and scrapes along the way before you’re soaring over canyons and producing the next “BBC Natural World” masterpiece. My inaugural flight was very unadventurous, in the only bit of unused space in my tiny backyard:
The manual recommends not flying in wind speeds of 15km/h or more, but I found even a light breeze could play havoc with controlling the lightweight drone. Im my part of the UK, a day without any wind at all is virtually non-existant, so my other test flight in the park was marred somewhat. You can see how the wind badly affected control in this video:
When the wind completely dropped, the drone was a joy to fly, and after a little practice, I soon got the hang of cornering properly.
It’s just a shame that every minute or so, despite the best efforts of onboard stabilization algorithms, a slight gust would either send it crashing to the ground or just refuse to go the direction I told it; sometimes it was possible to land safely when this happened, sometimes not.
The indoor hull – which I kept on all at all times in order to protect the blades and motors – does get damaged easily. I apologise in advance for some slight chips that occurred during testing. Replacement hulls are available, but at $40 (or even £40, if you’re in the UK) they seem a little expensive. Either way, I wouldn’t dare flying with the outdoor hull.
Another test flight:
I’m just one guy though; if you want a good idea of how successful others have flown their AR Drones, check out the best of selection from real user videos.
When inserting the battery, the device creates it’s own ad-hoc WiFi network to which you must connect. You’re then free to launch the FreeFlight software.
The main screen of the software is a little deceptive; the Academy hasn’t even been implemented yet, and instead takes you to a sign up form to be notifed when the feature is available. Other buttons offer web integration to user videos or the (also non-existant) games apps, and quick access to your own media. The main part of the app you’ll be concerned with is Piloting, which is where you fly the thing!
Open up Piloting, and you’ll immediately see a video feed of the device:
Takeoff and landing is done by simply tapping the green button in the bottom centre. I suggest you adjust the options before taking off for the first time though. There are two control sticks on the left and right of the screen. The left one controls pitch and roll and is used in conjunction with tilting your smartphone or tablet – so you need to push the stick forward, and tilt your device forward – in order to move in that direction. I found this to be counter-intuitive, but its stick movement only can be enabled with Joypad mode from the options screen. The right stick controls altitude, and yaw (lateral rotation). If you’ve ever tried to control a helicopter in Battlefield, it’s a similar concept, but a lot more forgiving; without your input, the device hovers, so you’re free to take things slowly and explore the controls.
Absolute Control is a beginner friendly mode that adjusts the steering to be from your perspective rather than the drone itself. In the default mode, if the drone is facing you, pushing left on the control will move the drone it’s left – your right – so you either need to navigate using the camera feed on-screen, or imagine yourself from the device’s perspective. In Absolute Control mode, pushing back will always bring the drone back to where you are; pushing left will always move it left; regardless of what direction it’s pointing currently.
Flip is a new feature for the Ar Drone 2.0 as well; a double tap on the right control stick will make the drone instantly do a mid-air somersault. It’s a crowd pleaser, basically – though I did find that even flipping from a height of about 3m, the drone would drop down to the floor and bump the ground at the end, which you can see in the videos.
The flight options are incredibly customizable – there are default settings for indoor and outdoor flights, but you can adjust everything from altitude to tilt angle and rotation speed.
With the device is placed flat in front of you, Flat Trim from the options screen resets the on-board sensors, so you should always run this before a flight, especially if you’ve just had a knock.
Though the box indicates that additional “games” are available to download, these are not configured to work with the AR Drone 2.0 yet. Expect compatible games to be released over the coming months. Interestingly, the device has a full SDK available, which means enhanced flight controllers are also available; though I haven’t tried this, check out the demo video of Drone Ace 2.0, which adds tons of features.
Battery and specs
The stated battery time is 12 minutes, which I found was accurate. This is undoubtedly a limiting factor, and could really be a downer if you’ve driven a long way to a special location just to film. It takes 1.5 hours to fully charge, but you can purchase additional battery packs for $40 each to get the most enjoyment, as I suspect most owners do.
When the battery falls really low, the emergency cut off will kick in, which is supposed to land itself to avoid damage. In practice I found that with about 10% battery left, the drone would refuse to take off again; running longer flights is the only way to use up the last ebbs of battery power.
The WiFi has a 50m range, but interference will occur in built up areas can occur; if you fly out of range, the link will be cut and the auto-pilot will stabilize the drone in place, waiting until you come back into range.
This is going to happen a lot at first, but an emergency cut out will occur at the first signs of a motor jam or full on crash; this avoids the motors trying to continue spinning and burning out or damaging themselves. Recovery is usually as simple as placing it flat and taking-off again, but one on occasion it refused to take off again due to “angle error” and a full reset was required – here’s a guide from the AR Drone flyers forum on how to do that.
As well as relaying the video feed to your controller, there are two options for recording.
First, you can stream video and record directly to your mobile device; this is by far the easiest option – just hit record and you’re sorted. However, the video quality as you can see from the sample flights can be sketchy at times when WiFi signal isn’t ideal.
For best recording quality, you can attach a USB stick directly to the drone, just above the battery. This is difficult to get working though, and there’s no way to check if it worked correctly until the recording is completed. The USB stick needs to be formatted as FAT32, shielded with a metal case, and furthermore the case needs to be grounded to the correct pin on; one forum user tried 5 different metal-cased USB sticks, and only one of them worked correctly. You also need to allow time for the on-board embedded computer to save the video file – this takes roughly as long as the video itself. During this time you can continue flying, but just not be recording any longer. Ideally therefore, you want to take your video for the first 5 or 6 minutes, then turn off recording, and continue flying until the battery dies. None of the sticks I tried worked correctly, if you’re going to take professional quality films with the drone, you’ll need to seek a memory stick that’s proven to work.
Should you buy the Parrot AR Drone 2.0?
Despite having an indoor hull, you’d be hard pressed to find a house big enough to fly this in. A hall or hangar perhaps, but the average family home won’t suffice. I also can’t suggest flying with the outdoor hull at all – with all the blade protection removed, you may quickly find the motor gears are broken.
The ideal environment for flying this is a windless desert, but honestly you’re going to have a great time with it and be turning heads anywhere you fly. As long as you avoid windy days, and give yourself plenty of space, you should be fine. Take things slowly and don’t assume the onboard flight assistance is going to mean you never crash. You’re going to have a lot of fun with the AR Drone 2.0; if you can stop worrying about breaking the most expensive toy you’ve ever owned, that is.
MakeUseOf recommends: Buy it, but be careful!
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