"Holy shit. I've got my own flying drone. I'm basically the CIA and a spaceman all in one civilian package. I'm going to fly a drone, I'm going to get arrested, and I'm going to be a hero."
After pulling one of Parrot's AR Drones out of the box and experiencing this understandable reaction, you start to think about what you're really dealing with—a flying robot, controlled by your phone, with a camera that records the world below as if you're sitting in a tiny cockpit.
An affordable four-prop remote-controlled drone with an HD camera and a wide-angle lens.
Aviation dabblers who want to look over their neighbors' fences.
An insectoid pod, about one square foot, with an orange color scheme near the toy end of the aesthetic spectrum.
The first minute is magical—with a single button press, your own little drone hops a meter into the air. And just sits there. Waiting. Next, you fly that fucker right into a wall.
It's a flying drone with a built-in camera. It's your drone. You own a drone.
Neither of the cameras—the front facing 720p one or the lower-resolution cam that points straight down—are any sort of magic. (Think cell phone camera from 5 years ago.)
The tilt-to-control flight interface is so instinctive that it is borderline overwhelming. That's it? It tilts just like I tilt my phone?
- Flying an AR Drone makes you feel like a robotic Peeping Tom crossed with a cybernetic monk with a splash of soon-to-be-killed Call of Duty side-story operative.
- I broke the hell out of the Styrofoam indoor hull pretty much as soon as I started screwing around with it.
- You can buy replacement hulls for about $45—a lot of scratch for something that's almost certainly going to be trashed multiple times, especially by a novice. (Good news: glue is still available.)
- I lost it off the roof of a midtown NYC building. I let it fly too far away from me and it stopped responding to my commands. It drifted slowly in the breeze until it ran into a building and fell about 20 feet onto a skylight. From there, I was able to get it to respond, and I guided it onto the ground. The claimed outside range of the Wi-Fi connection—200 feet—isn't as far as you might think.
- Parrot didn't seem very on the ball when it came to actually supporting its product after its launch, as a quick scan of the AR Drone forum will uncover. Not all the features promised in the 2.0 version have been released yet; updated firmware has actually caused drones to "drop altitude abruptly"; developers trying to use the AR Drone API complain of a lack of feedback from Parrot engineers. It didn't engender a lot of confidence in your $300 purchase. (Parrot seems to have improved in the last couple of weeks, having released new firmware.)
- There are some really interesting hacks—especially ones that turn the AR Drone into a hunter-seeker. Others can track objects, or even follow you like a pet. Why hasn't Parrot hasn't included those out of the box?
- If you really want to buy a drone to capture high-quality footage, you'd be better off buying a rig purpose-built for it. Some $1,000+ models now have six-axis DSLR mounts as options (and the horsepower to haul them).
- The app can save video files to your phone (and even upload them to YouTube), but another option is saving directly to a USB stick that can be nestled inside the flight body. This saves at a higher bitrate, with no potential dropped frames due to Wi-Fi issues. One caveat: finding a USB stick that the AR Drone will recognize. It took me a few before I found one that would record—and I happened to have a hot crash right after plugging it in. Unfortunately, I don't have video of that crash. The hard shut-down disrupted the writing of the file. A real bummer. Sometimes having a record of your big failure can ease the embarrassment.
- The indoor hull's four Styrofoam hoops, meant protect the rotors, break with very little force. How about thin loops of wire? Flexible but sturdy plastic ribs?
As far as drones go, you're not going to get much more accessible or inexpensive as the AR Drone. But it's still three bills—and Parrot's shortcomings on service aren't instilling consumer confidence. Updated software is meant to fix the loss-of-altitude problems that have plagued the first runs. But since my test drone is waiting on replacement gears (due to an unfortunate decision to let an intern attempt to fly it on the High Line in Manhattan), I can't verify if Parrot has worked out all the kinks. Reports sound promising.
Flying a drone is a lot of fun, and you can get some decent video out of the Parrot's camera. Provided you have the disposable income and free time to justify it, the AR.Drone 2.0 is a satisfying purchase. Whatever you do, just be prepared for the inevitable crash—and the possibility of lost footage or additional costs to repair the damage.
Camera: 720p 30fps HD
Lens: 92-degree diagonal wide angle
Processor: 1 GHz 32-bit ARM Cortex A8
Weight: 380 grams with outdoor hull; 420 grams with Styrofoam indoor hull
Motors: 4 brushless 14.5-watt, 28,500 RPM inrunner motors
Battery: 3 elements 1,000 mA/hour LiPo rechargeable