AR.Drone 2.0

By Jorge Figueiredo - May 1st, 2014

Click this pic to watch our test footage.

It’s hard to classify which category Parrot’s AR.Drone 2.0 sits in. On one hand, this quadricopter that you control with your iOS or android hand-held device can’t really be called a toy, due to it’s level of functionality and its price tag. On the other hand, it can’t be lumped in with the “professional” hobby set, either, because of its level of functionality and its price tag. After spending some time with the unit that Parrot sent our way to try out, I can safely say that the AR.Drone is nestled smack in the middle of the aforementioned categories, giving a much more rewarding experience than the usual inexpensive toy remote choppers, without the hit to the wallet that the “big guns” (which require a lot more work and preparation) would incur. Of course, I can sum up my feelings about the AR.Drone 2.0 with two words: heli fun.

The AR.Drone packs a lot of value into its lightweight, plastic frame. The unit is easily flown thanks to four relatively powerful propellers and two built-in cameras. There is a camera located on the front of the aircraft (so that you can see where you are going), and one on the bottom (to measure distance to the ground and to keep the unit relatively level). The Drone is activated by plugging in an active (proprietary) rechargeable battery, which fits nicely into a shallow slot on top of the core unit, and is held in place with a Velcro strap. The AR.Drone comes with two different bodies: a minimalist outdoor body that fits over (and protects) the core, and an interior body that protects both the core and the propellers (each propeller is surrounded by a ring of styrofoam). The styrofoam bodies have a good mix of rigidity and flexibility, providing a good amount of protection without weighing down the unit.

Flying high.

After plugging in the battery and figuring out where to fly it, the next step is to power up a smartphone or tablet (iOS or Android) and pair with the unit via Wi-Fi, as the AR.Drone is a Wi-Fi hotspot. Once you have found the AR.Drone in your list of available wireless networks, you must start the free app (AR.Freeflight) to fly this neat little aircraft. There are a number of different menu options to choose from, but the one that you will be most concerned with is the Piloting selection. This menu option (obviously) is probably going to be the one you will be spending the majority of your time in.

By default, this selection immediately shows the input of the camera mounted at the front of the drone – right on the screen of your compatible device. This allows you to fly the drone from the Drone’s point of view. Piloting the craft is done by way of two on-screen “sticks”. The stick at the bottom right controls vertical ascent and descent (up/down) and yaw (or clockwise and counter-clockwise rotation – right/left). The stick located on the bottom left controls forward/backward and left and right roll (or lean) – however, it does it in an interesting way: it allows direct control using the motion sensing capabilities of your hand-held device. Want to fly forward? Press your thumb to the left stick and tilt your device forward and the Drone will tilt and move forward. Want to bank to the right while ascending? Use the right stick to increase your vertical and press your left thumb down on the left stick while tilting your hand-held to the right – the drone will fly up and veer to the right as it does so. It’s a really intuitive way to fly, especially since you can see where you’re going on your display. The coolest part? Double-tapping your display will make the Drone perform a stunt.

The interface is pretty slick.

The display also shows you your remaining battery life, whether you’re recording or not, an Emergency button, a Landing button, a screen grabber, and it has a button that grants the pilot the ability to swap camera views. Last, but not least, is the options menu. It is here where you can tweak the different features of the AR.Drone. For instance, I can do away with the “gesture-based” flying and introduce a left stick (which functions the same way as the right stick – but with pitch and roll). You can adjust limits (airspeed, flip speed, height limit), stunt direction (left/right for barrel rolls, forwards/backwards for a flip) and many other factors. You can even specify which exterior you are using, whether you are flying inside or outside, and you can even configure the Drone to fly in an absolute mode (where it moves in a coordinate system) or you can leave it in a relative mode (which is more like flying an actual aircraft).

Footage recorded by the HD camera is pretty good; but it’s not perfectly smooth when the footage is being transmitted to your hand-held for storage. I’m not absolutely sure if this is because of the nature of Wi-Fi, or because of my hand-held device. However, when I utilized the on-board USB port to record footage using a small USB key, I found that the recorded video was a bit smoother than the footage sent to both my iPod Touch 5 or my LG G2. It must also be noted that the footage is strictly video, so if you’re expecting to hear the wind whipping through the rotors, you’re out of luck1.

The main menu of the AR.Freeflight app.

Overall, the AR.Drone 2.0 is easy to learn how to use and a lot of fun to play with. There is a small amount of latency in regards to the connection between your controlling device and the Drone – but nothing that a typical consumer would detect. The concept of flying the drone by just looking at the smartphone screen sounds like a great idea, until you realize that you have to fly very slowly to properly use this feature. Once your airspeed picks up, the updates don’t come fast enough to do you any good. Flying “off the screen” is far more reliable, and probably safer. The range of the craft is great (the bounds of Wi-Fi), and I didn’t lose connection until the Drone was almost 80m away. I was really tempted to set the height to maximum (which is 100m), but the Drone is very light, and while it does have a decent amount of stabilization and the ability to land itself just before the batteries run out, I didn’t feel like having to climb on top of someone else’s house because the wind caused it to drift. And drift it does. The unit is surprisingly light, and is easily manhandled by light breezes2.

Flying inside the house is also a risky prospect if you have a ton of wireless devices all contending for signal. I tried flying this inside my house a number of times, but I lost signal three times (and it was only about 10 feet from me) and then the fourth (and final) time it initiated an emergency stop and dropped from the air (thankfully onto a soft chair). Even though I stopped flying it inside, I was pretty impressed with its high level of stability (even outside). It is easy to see just how stable by analyzing the footage. Whenever the Drone is hovering, the images are very clear – and even when moving, it regulates itself quite well. There is still the occasional drop when trying to compensate for lateral momentum, but this is mitigated by a watchful eye and experience.

Thanks to the safety protocols, you will have many safe landings.

If there is anything bad to say about the AR.Drone 2.0, it is that the battery doesn’t last long enough (but honestly, I think it would always be this way – even if the battery lasted an hour). I managed to get between 12 to 15 minutes of flight time out of each charge (full charge in just over 90 minutes) – but that was without doing too many stunts. Doing flips or full rolls sucks away quite a bit of the battery life, and if you do these too many times, you’ll cut your play time pretty short. As a safeguard, the AR.Drone will not do stunts when the battery level is too low – most likely to prevent the quadricopter from crashing to the ground.

The AR.Drone 2.0 is a great remote-controlled quadricopter that practically anyone can enjoy. It is responsive, light, surprisingly durable, and innovative in the way that it utilizes your iOS or Android smartphone or tablet. The free app that accompanies the AR.Drone has a few other things going for it besides the Piloting mode (like AR Games and Director Mode), but I didn’t really get into those as I was having so much fun just flying this thing around. You can grab one of these from a number of places (I saw one of these at Future Shop for around $300) – but you would be better off spending the extra money to get a bundle that includes extra batteries (as the batteries are relatively expensive).

1 – While the unit is quiet, it’s not *that* quiet.
2 – Be warned: make sure you fly this in an open area in conditions with little to no wind

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