If you can't appreciate a smartphone-controlled helicopter, then your character must be questioned
When we were kids, we played videogames with plastic Atari controllers—ours had teeth marks on the joysticks for some reason. But time marches on, and now we play games with all kinds of futuristic paraphernalia: a plastic Fender Stratocaster, motion-sensing nunchakus, and even a dual-camera, Wi-Fi-equipped, iPhone-controlled quadricopter.
Yes, really. Not only is the AR.Drone a mind-blowingly cool toy and an efficient way of making nerdy new friends at the park, its support for augmented reality gaming could really help it take off (ooh! pun!) if developers jump on the open platform. At press time, no games were ready except the built-in “Drone Wars,” which requires two copters, one more than we had. Still, the potential for awesome is clear.
The Drone is about the size of a large pizza and weighs less than a pound. It’s a small package, but its tech is fierce: two cameras, a three-axis accelerometer, two gyrometers, an ultrasound sensor, and four rotors spinning at 35,000 rpm. It’s also packed with an ARM9 processor and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi (the Drone actually creates its own Wi-Fi network, which your iDevice connects to, enabling outdoor missions). All this rad-ness is piloted using the AR.FreeFlight application on your iPhone, iPod touch, or iPad. Android support is coming, but can’t come soon enough.
Your screen displays what the Drone’s front camera sees, at 640x480. That camera can recognize neon tags stuck to other Drones or real-world objects, and if you’re playing a game, those tags become obstacles or enemies on the iPhone’s screen. That’s augmented reality. With a tap you can switch to the bottom-facing 176x144 camera, which is connected to the Inertial Measurement Unit to help the Drone stay stable, even during light-wind turbulence. You raise, lower, and rotate the copter with an onscreen D-pad under your right thumb. To move forward, back, or to either side, you press a Motion Activation button with your left thumb, then tilt the iPhone. Another button takes off and lands with autopilot. And you’re flying!
Even if you’re somewhat of a controller spaz, you’ll probably get the hang of piloting the Drone after a few flights. Sadly, the battery only lasts 15 minutes or so, and then you’ll need to break for an hour to charge up. Spare batteries cost 29.99 British pounds, which meant $46.58 at press time. Still, even with its aviational limits—peak altitude of around 12 feet, slight lag in controller response, and instability in strong winds—the Drone is still incredibly fun to fly.
Aimed at pilots over 14, the Drone does require considerable practice if you want to achieve Ace piloting status. Luckily, however, this little chopper is tough. Even cringe-inducing crashes did nothing more than nick up the hull a bit. And you get two hulls, one for indoors (it has soft, ring-shaped shields around the rotors), and also a sleeker one for outdoors (pictured above). Best of all, the Drone automatically stabilizes itself when you release the control buttons (or get a phone call!). It’s a great feeling to avoid a wipeout by simply letting go. We wish the Drone had Android support, longer battery life, and the ability to record video from its cameras, but even in its present form, it’s the coolest tech toy we’ve seen all year.