Friday, October 7, 2011

Parrot’s AR.Drone gets the MashButtons treatment

Well this is a first; MashButtons is to review Parrot’s AR.Drone, a remote quadricopter controlled by a mobile device. So why the decision to review, aside from being a cool tech toy? One, because it is controlled by devices that a primarily used for games when not texting or making phone calls. Two, I like to consider myself a hobbyist when I comes to nitro RC cars as well as micro and ultra-micro helis. Now with my background aside, let’s get on with the details so we can move onto my experience with the AR.Drone. The biggest features on this unit consist of a laundry list of parts you typically would not find on consumer items. Features such as a number of sensors to identify obstructions, angle, altitude, etc., along with front and ground facing cameras to display your flight in a first person view on the remote device, and an on board computer which makes piloting a breeze.
I have invested numerous hours and replacement parts into a couple of Blade’s micro and ultra-micro RC copters, so needless to say when I saw the AR.Drone at E3 over the past two years, I HAD to get my hands on it and see how it compares. Well, last Saturday FedEx delivered my AR.Drone, and of course I ripped into it like a kid on Christmas morning, putting the battery on the charger and reading through the instruction manual constantly glancing at the charger for the green light to take lift off. Take off it did, after properly syncing to the iPhone 4, taking a matter of seconds to locate the access point and boot the Free Flight program. The AR.Drone was more stable than I could have imagined, from takeoff, to flight, and landing, almost like this uber smart quadricopter is anticipating your every move. I immediately turned off the motion controls as it did not pick up movement inputs as fast as when you use the on screen controls. It was hard for me to break the habit of keeping my eye on the device while trying to control, but after some discipline I was flying the AR.Drone out of my line of site, sneaking up on and chasing my pets around the pool from the comfort of my couch and watching the action being sent from the front facing camera to the screen of my phone. The ultrasound altimeter also kept me from potential damage to not only my car but a number of neighbors’ cars during speed and distance runs as it would increase height to avoid contact. I cannot emphasize how easy it is to pick up and fly, as I brought this into the office and told, nay demanded, they try despite their lack of experience, sure there was the occasional collision with walls, but the indoor hull prevents damages in these situations and back to what I was getting at, every person that gave it a shot was surprised how forgiving it was, immediately asking for more information on the device.
Here is the part where I do have to bring up the issues that I came across while reviewing. The first and by far the biggest issue I had with Parrot’s tech toy is the battery, both on the charge time and battery life, it seemed like for all the technology put into building this, that when it came to the battery, Parrot took a few steps backwards. The first thing you do before flight is start charging the battery, and for the next four hours I stood where I could see the charger, and after the 90 minutes the manual says it takes to charge the light still wasn’t turning green. As I said, four hours later we are ready for flight, so as stated takeoff, landing, speed test, and animal wrangling was all a blast but after thirteen, yes that is 13 minutes, the AR.Drone landed itself and the onscreen indicator let me know it was time to put back on the charger.  Now thirteen minutes isn’t all that short for battery powered RC products, but the four hour charge was a little rough, and after about ten charges, it was consistently between three and a half to four hours to completely charge. The other issue that concerned me was the height as I was only able to keep it stable to about fifteen to twenty feet before it wasn’t climbing anymore, however if I kept it around ten feet high, I was able to fly maybe a hundred feet before it wasn’t accurately reading the inputs. It is very convenient to use your mobile device to control rather than a bulky radio, but my only suggestion would be to program force feedback into the phone when inputting controls.

If you own an iPod touch/phone, iPad, or Android device running Froyo or higher, you can enjoy this extremely stable and technologically advanced RC quadricopter. I had a blast with this device and can see a lot of potential use, especially if you have one or more friends with the AR.Drone to race and dogfight. No matter the skill level, it is more forgiving and durable than you would expect. Though the price tag of 300 dollars may seem a bit high in comparison to other flying RC devices out there, but the technology that is jammed into this is astounding and is going to the top of my Christmas list, bumping the Lego VW Bus out of the number one spot. Great job Parrot on pushing the line on what to expect from the genre and look forward to what else the AR.Drone can do with more development time and programming.

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