Have you ever had to keep a relationship a secret? Let me tell you…it’s not easy. You’re dying to share this new important part of your life with your friends and family, but are forced to keep quiet about it because of the trouble talking about it could potentially cause. Well I’m tired of living a lie; tired of pretending that I’ve been spending my nights alone, just to make “other people” more comfortable. It’s time that I finally come clean and let the chips fall where they may: For the past 2 weeks, I have been living with an AR.Drone…AND I DON”T CARE WHO KNOWS ABOUT IT!!
Wow…that felt better than I thought it would. In case you’re not familiar with the Drone, (you can start by reading our initial impressions at E3) it’s the world’s first RC quadricopter that you control with your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch. Created by Parrot, an industry leader in Bluetooth technology, the AR.Drone is much more than just another RC Copter; it’s a ground-breaking device that redefines the consumer electronics segment. Read on and find out what makes the Drone an early contender for Gadget of the Year.
As I’ve mentioned in other articles, I’ve always had a soft spot for radio control vehicles; RC cars (electric, not gas) have always been my gadget of choice. Because I’ve been building and racing RC cars for so long, there’s always been a certain level of comfort I have with them and it’s this same level of comfort that has stopped me from moving on to more sophisticated vehicles such as helicopters. But what kid (or grownup, for that matter) doesn’t want to fly an RC helicopter?? There’s just something about watching them fly that’s both mesmerizing and inspiring at the same time. The one downside to flying an RC copter has always been that they’re difficult to control. Unlike a car which has very basic functions that most people are quite familiar with, helicopters involve physics that most of us will never understand; this is always what has kept them out of the mainstream. Thanks to Parrot, that’s all about to change…
The first key to making the Drone a success was to make it accessible; I don’t mean in terms of number of units manufactured, I mean in getting the concept of flying a helicopter to be more mainstream–making it familiar. People see a radio device (the typical way one would control an RC helicopter) and are immediately intimidated; people see an iPhone and they’re immediately intrigued–using an iOS device to control the Drone was a stroke of genius and a true way to differentiate this copter from anything else out there. But it’s not just the fact that you can control the AR.Drone with your iPhone that makes it so special…it’s how you can control it.
Let me start by using the proper terminology: As mentioned, the AR.Drone is technically a Quadricopter, not a helicopter. As you can see in the pictures, the Drone has 4 rotors as opposed to the single rotor we’re used to seeing on a regular heli; and these four rotors are not just for show–they allow the Drone to maintain flight stability like nothing else I’ve ever flown. Also, instead of using a typical AM or FM radio frequency as so many RC vehicles do, the Drone actually uses a wifi signal (that it generates itself) to connect to your iOS device. At a quick glance, the Drone may not blow you away in terms of being a super-hi-tech device; but a closer look reveals hardware that’s closer to military grade than a consumer device. Removing the protective foam hull used for indoor flight (which I actually keep on during outdoor flights as well…just to be safe) reveals some very sexy tech. Along with the 2 onboard video cameras that broadcast live video to your iPhone during flight, the Drone also sports an imbedded computer system, 4 brushless motors, an accelerometer, 2 gyrometers, its own wifi signal, and the list goes on. The cameras also have the ability to see objects in 3D space and are used to position the Drone while in flight…did you think I was kidding when I said military grade tech? All things considered, the $299 price tag seems like a bargain when you realize what you’re getting.
However, the best part of all of this technology is how it translates into the flying experience–which is, in a word…magical. Before I get into the actual flying of the AR.Drone, I thought I’d give a brief rundown of how to get your brand new Drone from box to flight. Here it goes:
1. Remove Drone, charger and battery from box.
2. Stop giggling with joy long enough to charge the battery.
3 While the battery charges, go to the iTunes App Store and download the AR FreeFlight App…
4. When battery is fully charged, connect battery to Drone.
5. After battery is connected, place INDOOR hull (the larger one) on the Drone, even for outdoor flying; as easy as it is to fly, there’s still a learning curve…as I stated earlier, better to be safe.
6. Put your iPhone in “Airplane” mode.
7. Turn on wifi in iPhone settings and connect to your Drone’s network.
8. Open the FreeFlight App…the Drone should sync automatically and tell you that you’re ready to fly.
Now here comes the fun: Simply touch the middle bottom icon on your control screen and the Drone comes to life, hovering about 3-4 feet off the ground. If you do nothing, the Drone will actually hover in place waiting for your command; it’s so stable that it has a bit of a surreal look to it. Looking at your iPhone will now show you what the Drone sees through its front mounted camera; touching the camera icon lets you cycle between the front and bottom mounted cameras, as well as switch between 2 different picture-in-picture modes; my favorite being main camera in the big window, bottom mounted camera in the side window. The standard flight controls are laid out well, with the left stick controlling forward and backward flight as well as strafing left and right; the right virtual stick controls elevation, as well as right and left turns. Though I have no issue with flying this way, I much prefer using the iPhone’s built-in accelerometer in place of the left stick. To do this, simply touch the left stick with your thumb and hold it there; you can now tilt the iphone in the direction you want to fly–forward and backward, as well as the left and right strafing. I found this to be far more intuitive and a much easier way to control your flight.
Because the Drone uses a Lipo (Lithium Polymer) battery, I’ve been getting lots of questions in regards to battery life–lipo batteries have the reputation of running very hard, but for a shorter period of time. The running time of a fully charged Drone is documented at “around 12 minutes” and I found that to be pretty accurate…but it feels longer than that. I rarely flew for 12 minutes straight; I was usually trying certain maneuvers and then landing, trying a new trick and then stopping again. Because I seemed to fly in short spurts and took breaks in between, I always seemed to get in at least 30 minutes of fun. I do, however, recommend getting a second battery so you can stay in the air longer between charges–and at $29.99, the cost it pretty reasonable. The Drone also keeps things fresh by offering “Augmented Reality” as part of the flying experience. Using the video it shoots with its 2 cameras in conjunction with computer generated imagery, you can use your Drone to have virtual dogfights against computer opponents or other Drone users. As the software evolves, the interactive possibilities seem limitless.
As cool as it is to have the options of augmented reality and multiplayer games, I’m kind of a purist when it comes to the Drone; I just like to stand there and watch it fly. Not only is it relaxing, but every time I take it in the air I feel like I’m holding the future in my hands. Mating the power of the iPhone with the majesty of the AR.Drone is a potent combination; and as I pack up my Drone for its flight back to Michigan, I can’t help but think about what adventures await me when I pick up my very own AR.Drone at Brookstone this weekend…