I have been intrigued by the AR.Drone ever since it was announced at the CES 2010. After hearing about it, I had always wondered– why? What can this thing do? What reason does anyone have to buy one? Is it a toy? Is it a game?
Well, the AR.Drone isn't really any one thing. The best description I could think of is that the AR.Drone is a highly sophisticated UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) for the common man. Yes, it features game modes, and it's true that it's more fun than most RC vehicles, but what it comes down to is that the technology stuffed within the AR.Drone has made the most powerful video game console around, the most easy to use RC helicopter made today, and the most bad-ass spy gadget you could think about buying in a Brookstone.
You might be wondering what I mean by the three last statements I made. The idea that one thing can be both the most powerful video game console around and one of the most bad-ass spy gadgets available seems crazy, but it isn't.
Keep reading on the next page.
The Most Powerful Video Game Console Around
The AR.Drone doesn't pack the most powerful processor or even have the ability to display on a TV. Still, the pure technical genius behind it makes it the most powerful console around. You might think that its comparably puny ARM9 processor running at 468 mhz and its 128MB of DDR don't even compare to the PS3's cell processor– and you would be right. No, it's 3-axis accelerometer and 2-axis gyrometer are not unusual but are commonplace enough to be found in many phones. But, does the PS3 or the Xbox 360 pack four motors that spin to 35,000 RPM, a carbon fiber backbone, or an ultrasound altimeter? I didn't think so.
What Parrot did was pack something faster than the PS2 into a tiny unit that flies. That's pretty insane. And it has no wires. It streams its video wirelessly to a phone. Not only that, but it's got integrated wi-fi. That's something that didn't even come with the original Xbox 360.
Now let's talk about the games. You won't find Halo or Gran Turismo on the AR.Drone. It doesn't play those types of games. What it does play isn't even all invented yet. What does currently exist are games that create an augmented reality on the screen of your iPhone or iPad. Instead of seeing what the AR.Drone's cameras see, you see what the game tells you to see. Imagine a World War II game where on the screen, the garden in your yard has super imposed on top of it a German Air Force Base. Your goal is to bomb it so you take the AR.Drone, bring it down and fly across while dropping bombs. That's what this thing can do. One current game out now allows two AR.Drones to dogfight. You virtually shoot missiles at your opponent AR.Drone and are able to score points upon hitting them.
So yes, it doesn't feature the best CPU, largest hard drive, or the highest resolution games. But it's still got the most impressive combination of high-powered gadgetry on one of the most unique chassis around.
Most Easy to Use R/C Helicopter, Ever
This is a tough one. Ever since tiny IR controlled indoor microcopters came out, it's been easy and cheap to become a helicopter pilot. Still, I haven't seen a helicopter before that can both take off and land itself. I also haven't seen one that can self-level when you stop using the controls.
The AR.Drone comes with two hulls: one for use indoors, one for use outdoors. The main difference is that the indoor hull has foam surrounds that go around the blades in case you bump into something. It's controlled via the iPhone. You can change from the bottom camera to the front camera, or show both at once.
To control it, there are two "sticks." The left stick is really just a button that you press. It then takes the iPhone/iPad accelerometer data and the AR.Drone follows a similar orientation. When you press the stick and tilt the phone forward, the AR.Drone flies forward. When you tilt backward, it flies backwards. It can also strafe side to side this way, and take diagonal angles.
The right stick controls height and rotation. You press left or right on it to make it spin around its vertical axis. To make it fly higher, simply raise the stick.
There is an emergency button that simply stops the blades. Of course, the AR.Drone just falls. There is also a take-off/land button that allows for a simple launch and land.
You can customize settings that change the responsiveness, remove altimeter limitations, prevent the ultrasound system from working, and other various controls from acting differently. Normally, when you're flying over level ground and some object gets underneath, the AR.Drone will compensate and fly higher to avoid hitting whatever is in front. This can get annoying, so you can turn it off.
In any case, the AR.Drone is one of the easiest things I have ever flown. It's powerful too, if you want to risk breaking it. It isn't the least fragile thing in the world, but it sure suffered a beating. In my testing, I bent a motor axle, the carbon fiber cross, and a few other small parts. Thankfully, Parrot sells replacement parts at a reasonable rate. With a little bit of model glue and a new motor and axle, it was back and running in not very much time.
James Bond's New Gadget?
Ok, so the AR.Drone isn't going to join 007's arsenal, but it can take some awesome photos. Think your neighbor is dumping their trash in the back of their yard? Does the girl next door walk around the house naked? (OK, so you probably shouldn't be looking around for that)
Just for fun, I sat inside my house and flew the AR.Drone to take pictures of it from the air. Interestingly, it wasn't too hard. The only consequence was that the wind was blowing slightly and eventually it blew out of range of the wi-fi. I then had to run out of the house and recover it. I did get some great pictures though.
That's my house… from 20 feet up
That's me, underneath the left stick
My house, from very, very high up (taken from AR.Drone)
My house from very, very high up (taken from Windows Live Maps Skyview)
That's pretty crazy, huh? You can get similar imagery online– but imagine zooming in closer, so close that you could see inside. Pretty creepy!
The AR.Drone has tons of potential. It serves no direct purpose but can perform many different tasks. With only 15 minutes of flying time per charge, it's unlikely to replace the Army's UAVs. Still, for a measly $300, you can have a device that is simply amazing.
Word is that Parrot is creating a second generation aircraft. One with 45 minutes of battery life. Nobody knows when it will be out however. If you want something that you will enjoy for years or if you have been eager to start flying a super awesome radio controlled plane, get this thing now.
I have thought of a few interesting potential uses for the AR.Drone:
If you're sitting in traffic, open your sunroof and put it on the roof of your car. Fly it out and try to find the source of the congestion. (Jeremy Clarkson actually came up with that)
Want to annoy kite fliers? Bring your AR.Drone up to the same altitude as their kite and just let go of the controls. It will hover effortlessly next to them.
Have any pesky birds sitting on the roof of your house? Scare them off!
Obviously, you want one now. Go get one!