Yesterday Pat brought you news that the ARDrone had been officially announced at E3. If you didn't catch that article and want the full rundown on what the ARDrone is you can check out that article at http://www.pnosker.com/news/tech/222-parrot-ardrone-revealed-at-e3. Otherwise, the Drone is, in brief, a quadricopter that can connect to ad-hoc wifi networks created from the iPhone, iPad, or iPod Touch. Luckily we were able to get our hands on one at this year's E3 and got a little bit hands on with this exciting new product.
The first thing that I noticed when I picked up the iPhone in order to control the ARDrone was just how stable it was. Without pressing any buttons whatsoever the drone stayed in a perfect hovering position, even as multiple other drones swirled around it. Taking the controls and moving it out of this perfect hover was as simple as putting my thumb onto the little circle which was displayed on the iPhone screen. Once I had controlled I was introduced to another feature of the ARDrone: its durability. I almost immediately ran into another one of the drones as I tilted the iPod touch wildly in an attempt to steer the drone. I was horrified that I had somehow broken this new piece of technology, however, the Parrot employee simply walked over, brushed it off, and lay it down to fly again. It probably didn't hurt that I was flying the model which had all of its propellers protected (see above image)
Taking off again was as easy as the touch of a button and I was back zipping around the tent Parrot had set up. After picking up the controls a second time I was able to become decently proficient with them (read: I did not crash into anything else) within a couple of minutes, although there was a nerve wracking experience where I almost hit the CEO of Parrot in the head, not my finest moment of the show. The tilting movement isn't overly sensitive, so as long as you don't turn your steering device an absurd amount it is pretty easy to keep the drone under control.
After having (arguably) mastered the tilting steering mechanism I moved on to controlling altitude. This jump was equally simple and intuitive, as all manipulating your altitude requires is touching your thumb to the bottom right corner of the controlling device and moving up or down. By moving this mechanism left and right you can also turn the drone while it remains in a hover, although this can do some funky things to how you perceive the tilt steering mechanism as I found out. After putting all of this together for about 5 or so minutes I was skilled enough to maneuver around the few pillars which were present in the demo area without hitting anything else.
The two points of contact which were used to steer were unobtrusive enough that a decent area could be used for the video feed. The feed was kind mesh in that it took a while to respond to movements in the drone even though the resolution was decent. There are two cameras on the drone, one ahead and one right below it, with switching between them taken care of by pressing a button on your controller of choice. The bottom camera is especially useful for landing, I quickly learned was just as simple as getting this quadric up and flying. All that was required to do was press the button down at the bottom of the screen. It would have been a piece of cake had one of the members of Parrot not decided to challenge me to land on top of one of the podiums. After trying in vain for a couple of times I gave up and concluded my demo.
Overall, my demo of the Airdrome left me with a torn feeling inside. On one hand, it is a fun, easy to pick up and use device. It allows you to connect with your friends and have electronic dogfights with them (a feature which sadly I didn't get to try out) and showcases some really awesome technology in terms of stability and flying mechanics. That being said though, I wouldn't feel comfortable recommending it to everyone at this point. My main problem was the price to value ratio, sure, it was fun, but not 300 dollars fun. If I'm shelling out significantly more cash than it costs me for a new Wii, I want some serious usage out of whatever I'm buying. However, after using the drone for about 10 minutes I felt like I'd experienced everything there was to see out of it, after all, you can only fly around and avoid obstacles for so long until it becomes boring. Hopefully the iPod apps will fix that problem, but until then, the ARdrone just sort of feels like a novelty item with some super sweet technology inside of it. If you are interested in reading more about the ARDrone you can check out Parrot.com. The ARDrone releases September 2010.