Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter: First Unsupervised Hands-On Testing

Alex Castle

Here it is, folks, the Parrott AR.Drone Quadricopter , the coolest of all high-tech tech toys, and the darling of trade show floor demonstrations for the last eight months. Well, the supervised test flights in foreign fly zones are over. We’re ready to share some notes on our completely independent, longer term testing.

The Drone remains stable in light winds – stable enough to chase down Mac|Life’s Nic Vargus, North by Northwest-style! But make no mistake: Strong winds will in fact down this midget chopper.

You’ve surely seen the AR.Drone flying in videos shot at CES, Mac Expo, GDC and E3. In a nutshell, this is a battery-powered quadricopter that you control with your iPhone, iPod touch or iPad. Android support is planned, but won’t be ready when exclusive retailer Brookstone begins shipping pre-ordered units on Sept 3 this year.

The AR.Drone connects to your iDevice via Wifi, and acts as its own 802.11b/g network, so you can fly it inside or out, anywhere you like. The ‘copter has a camera in its nose, giving you a direct point-of-view of where it’s flying. Just look into your iPhone and fly with abandon! Actually, once you get the hang of using the iPhone as a directional controller, you don’t even need to look at the POV image. Just look straight at the AR.Drone, and steer it as if you were sitting in the cockpit.

During the last couple of weeks, we’ve had one of these amazing flying machines in our own offices. That’s right: We’re pretty sure Maximum PC received a review unit before any other media outlet in the entire world. Sharing the AR.Drone with sister magazine/website Mac|Life, we have been honoring a press embargo since August 12. But now we’re ready to share some key information and first impressions. After the videos read more below.

* Parrot says there is no cap on altitude; that range is simply defined by the limits of 802.11b/g spec. The company quote a distance of 50 meters. That said, we kept running into an altitude ceiling at about 12 feet. This could have been due to wind or air-conditioning push. We’ll find out more during further testing. Anyone have an indoor wind tunnel we can use?

* When the AR.Drone loses its WiFi connection, it just enters a holding pattern (literally), hovering on its own using an internal stabilization system. It works great. We found its horizontal range went as far as about 30 meters, and it probably could have gone farther: Every loss of control was due to strong winds, not a signal drop.

* There’s also a camera at the bottom of the AR.Drone’s hull. Its primary function is to serve the copter’s stability system. But, as Mac|Life senior editor Susie Ochs points out, “You could check out the bottom camera just for kicks if you’re flying over the neighbors pool while they skinny-dip, or whatever.”

* Unfortunately, neither the nose camera nor the bottom-facing camera records video that can be saved to your controller device. This ommission would seem to be a missing function of AR.FreeFlight, the iOS app you use to steer the 'copter. Parrot has an SDK that allows developers to create augmented reality games for the AR.Drone, and we find it hard to believe that recording video of gameplay wouldn't be a function of these games.

* When flying the Drone inside, you attach a hull that’s outfitted with soft, ring-shaped, polystyrene shields that protect the rotors and household items from collision. After a few days of testing, we did break one of the rings, but the crack didn’t deform the ring’s shape. Also, like all AR.Drone parts, new pieces can be ordered individually.

All in all, the AR.Drone is a fan-bloody-tastic  piece of supercool technology. It’s a quadricopter! that you control with your iPhone!

Though Android support would be nice.

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