Before you ask yourself how this review qualifies to be in the Android forum, placing it here was recommended to me by Howard Chui. After all, I needed my Android phone to fly this drone, so in a sense this is actually an Android app review that happens to work with a piece of external hardware.
I should start by admitting that I've never tested (or even flown) a quadrocopter before, and so unlike my smartphone reviews I won't have a wealth of past experience to draw upon. When I started this test I didn't even know what the norm was for quadrocopter features, and so I did a little background research. I looked at other reviews of the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 to make sure that what I'd observed was also observed by others. I found reviews of other quadrocopters that were considered the competition. However, as best I can possibly do, I'll try to keep any other opinions of the aircraft out of this assessment, other than to compare facts, such as battery life or range.
Perhaps a good place to begin is with the geeky stuff. Were this just a four motors with fan blades on them that somehow the operator managed to fly successfully using just a remote control, then there wouldn't be much to say here. However, to make this device flyable by complete novices such as myself it needed some very sophisticated software. In the end, the only thing the operator needs to worry about is that he wants the aircraft to move forward, backward, side to side, rotate, or go up and down. It's almost as easy as driving an RC car, but not quite.
With a model car however, if you come to a complete stop the thing just sits there on the ground and doesn't do anything. If you want to move forward it's a simple matter of applying some forward power and off you go. A hovering aircraft is a completely different story. To remain motionless hanging in the air takes an enormous amount of trim (small corrections). Even a slight breeze will push the aircraft out of place and it can also tilt or otherwise destabilize it. Even a tiny error such as that can rapidly escalate to a full-on crash.
The best way to think of what the AR.Drone 2.0 does is to call it AUTO PILOT. Without any input from the user at all, the machine is capable of holding an astoundingly accurate position in space for a device that DOES NOT have GPS. If all you did was to select the altitude, you'd actually be able to fly this machine to fairly dizzying heights and bring is safely back to the ground in almost the same place it took off from (so long as there was very little wind).
So, the AR.Drone 2.0 has some very powerful processors and sensors onboard that determine exactly what has happened to it and work out exactly what to do to counter the destabilizing influences. According to the box the drone does this with the aid of a Cortex A8 ARM processor clocked at 1 GHz. This is a little out-of-date compared to what we get in modern high-end smartphones, but it's still not that many years behind the curve.
In terms of sensors, it uses an accelerometer, a gyroscope, sonar, and a 60 FPS QVGA camera to watch its position and speed (like a giant optical mouse). This last sensor means that the quadrocopter CANNOT be flown after dusk. There isn't enough light for it to "see" the details on the ground and as a result it cannot holds its position immediately after takeoff and it inevitably flies off in a random direction and often crashes. So long as there is enough light to read by, the drone can see well enough to maintain a stable position.
Howard: Steve tested the AR.Drone 2.0 with his Galaxy S4, I used an iPhone and then photographed it and the Drone with a LG G2
Unlike many RC cars however, the AR.Drone 2.0 does not come with a remote control. Instead it acts as a WiFi hotspot and you connect to it using your Android/iOS smartphone or tablet. The 720p camera at the front of the drone broadcasts a clear image to the screen of your smartphone, so you always get a drone's eye view. Using your right thumb you control the altitude of the drone and rotate it to face whichever direction you desire. By touching the screen with your left thumb, you can then fly the drone by tilting the phone forward, backward, or side-to-side.
The flight controls can operate in one of 2 modes. The first is relative to the direction the drone is pointed. This mode is best for flying via the screen, as though you were a pilot onboard the aircraft. Here the drone moves forward RELATIVE TO ITS ORIENTATION when you tilt the phone forward, but this can be insanely anti-intuitive if you are looking up at the drone and can't tell which direction it is pointed in. The second mode, known as ABSOLUTE, is best for flying the drone when looking up at it. In this mode tilting the phone forward causes the drone to move in THAT DIRECTION, regardless of which way that drone (or your phone) is pointed.
My experience with the absolute mode is a little mixed. I found that it was best to keep your phone pointed in the same direction as it was when you pressed the CALIBRATION button. The compass in your smartphone may not be accurate enough to know which direction you are pointed (especially if there are any stray magnetic fields in your area). I also noticed that the drone wasn't quite as stable in this mode and would often overshoot positions that it had no trouble with in standard flight mode.
The flight control software allows you to set limits on various things to prevent you from doing stuff you can't handle. You can set the maximum altitude (to as low as 1 meter, which is great for indoor use), the maximum tilt angle (which controls how fast you can fly), and maximum rotational speed. There are plenty of other limits you can adjust as well.
The range of the drone is limited to the range of WiFi, and needless to say, this is not very far. Even Parrot states that 165 feet is probably as far away as you'll get. Some hackers have extended this range by using an inexpensive router rigged to run on batteries and act as a WiFi range-extender. The range limit defines how high you can fly the drone.
So what happens if you loose your connection with the drone? Nothing terrible, I'm happy to say. Once the drone looses connection with the operator is halts all lateral motion and begins a slow descent. If you lost contact because you flew too high, then as it comes down you'll regain a connection. If you flew it too far, you can run with your phone until your regain your connection. At that point the drone returns to standard auto-pilot mode and holds its position and altitude. You can once again fly it.
One of the biggest disappointments however is how little time you get before the battery runs down. The Elite Edition (which I tested) comes with a single 1000 mAh battery that provides approximately 10 to 15 minutes of time aloft (and then it takes over an hour to recharge). Despite how short this time is, the runtime (according to all the reviews I read) was pretty much par-for-the-course with virtually all quadrocopters. I would therefore recommend you pay a little more and get the Power Edition, which is the same aircraft, but it comes with two 1500 mAh batteries. This should give you a combined time aloft of 30 to 45 minutes.
The quadrocopter is fun to fly, but this alone isn't likely to hold your interest for long. What really makes the AR.Drone 2.0 a keeper is the 720p camera. The flight software can automatically record the video (at 30 frames per second) directly onto your phone, but this becomes a little problematic as the drone reaches the maximum range of the WiFi connection. Instead you can connect a USB flash drive to the quadrocopter and it will record all of the video to that, without any fear of the video feed becoming corrupted or unstable. It will even continue to record during those times that you loose your connection with the aircraft.
Click the link below to see a video I recorded as I took the drone to an altitude of 17 meters (almost 50 feet) above my backyard in Mississauga. Even at that relatively low altitude the view is breathtaking and it's that sort of thing that will have you looking for new and interesting places to fly your drone.
However, my recommendation is to enjoy this freedom why you still have it. As drones such as these become increasingly popular, they'll cause problems that will eventually force lawmakers to enact restriction. I feel that over the next few years you'll see one or more of the following changes in the law:
1) You will be required to pay a license fee to own and operate a drone.
2) Heavy restrictions will be placed on where you can use the drone and what you can do with it.
3) You will be forced to buy third-party liability insurance.
Of those three the third seems the most sensible, because these drones, as small as they are, are CAPABLE of inflicting injuries on unsuspecting people, their pets, and their automobiles. Possibly you'll be able to add a rider to your household insurance.
There are a few things I found rather bothersome, though most of these apply to the remote control software than to the drone itself. One of the biggest pains is that the user cannot access the options dialog (which lets them set maximums, among other things) unless they have a WiFi connection with the drone. This is no doubt because these settings are made to the drone's onboard firmware, but they could have stored the settings locally and transferred them to the drone once a connection was made.
Parrot knows that drones often crash and you'll inevitably break propellers and gears. To that end you can buy kits that include spare parts to repair your drone when it is damaged. I'd recommend you invest in one of these kits (and learn how to replace the parts) before you get too carried away with your new toy.
You should also avoid flying a drone near an airport. If you aren't sure what you can and cannot do, you should contact a local flying club to find out what restrictions apply to model aircraft in general.
If you'd like to get some flight training before you buy a drone, you can download an AR.Drone flight simulator app. I know it's available for Android, but I'm not sure about iOS. This app is written by a 3rd-party developer and it is not a product of Parrot. The app isn't free, but it sells for a reasonable $2.50 at the time of this writing. It's quite well written, and while it doesn't give you quite the same experience as flying the real thing, it's good enough to help you learn the ins and outs of piloting a drone.
I'd never given much thought to buying a drone before, but after spending time with the AR.Drone 2.0 I found myself wishing I had one of my own. As of the time I returned the drone I still hadn't made up my mind about that, but I was still leaning in that direction. Perhaps the biggest impediment to truly enjoying the drone was the 15-km/h wind limit they recommend. If the wind is stronger than 15 km/h there is a very serious risk that the auto-pilot will be unable to compensate, which will result in crashes or major drifting. Throughout the test period there were precious few days with winds in the Toronto area that were below this threshold, and so my use of the drone was severely limited.
- Lots of fun
- Auto Pilot (for easy flying)
- Fairly durable (can survive mild crashes)
- Not TOO expensive ($300 to $400)
- Requires relatively calm days
- Short flying time on a single charge
- Video could be better (1080p with less compression)