19
Sep
8qaTRl

Let's be honest: the Parrot AR.Drone is awesome. It's an awesome idea, it's an awesome design, and we had super high hopes for it. Unfortunately, one huge, massive, undeniable flaw means this bird will spend most of its life on the ground: battery life. It's that bad.

But before I, admittedly sadly, twist that dagger into the heart of this toy, let's go over what it does well - and why we're optimistic about Parrot's future smartphone-controlled vehicles. (Hint: mostly because this thing is so. Much. Fun.)

The Idea

Parrot's AR.Drone is a product we've covered in the past, even before its app was available for Android. We liked it that much. The idea is this: a remote-controlled, camera-equipped quadricopter - and your Android phone is the remote (via the AR.Drone's built-in WiFi transmitter). Just look at this thing.

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I will call him Iago.

I know you're already excited. So was I. In fact, actually using the Parrot is (mostly) an absolute blast. I would play with this thing for hours... if I could.

The AR.Drone is smart. It auto-stabilizes, locks its position if you lose WiFi connectivity, and the propellers automatically cut out when you (inevitably) crash. Its foam frame and plastic rotors are nice, soft, and flexible - meaning you'll have to take a pretty mean (and intentional) spill to cause the Parrot serious damage. And when you do break something, Parrot's got you covered with a gamut of repair parts and tools available online. These are all very good things.

The app (AR.FreeFlight) which controls the AR.Drone is an impressive feat in and of itself. The number of customizable settings (some of which I don't even fully understand) really shows how much more you can do with a software interface compared to knobs and switches on a plastic box. The app conveys video at a reliable speed, and has yet to cause me any real problems. But it isn't perfect, so I'll talk about that in a little more detail in a bit.

Getting Up And Running

So, just how easy is it to get your Parrot AR.Drone up and running? Surprisingly simple, actually. Charge the battery with the included charger, pop it into the Drone's uncovered chassis, and then put on either the indoor (I suggest starting with this) or outdoor body frames.

Then, download the AR.FreeFlight app on your Android phone (it's free in the Market). Next, connect your phone to the AR.Drone WiFi network, which should be open (you can pair the Drone with your phone specifically to keep curious WiFi scavengers out). Finally, launch the AR.FreeFlight app.

At this point, the app will connect to your Drone, and once the camera starts transmitting, you're set for takeoff. Almost.

The Software: AR.FreeFlight App And Using The Drone

OK, so if you're a Drone owner, you probably already know this, but there's more than one alternate AR.Drone controller app out there for Android. And some of them review better than the stock app (see AR.Pro) So, really, the only thing that's new about the Drone is the fact that Parrot has finally released its official controller app for Android. While using the AR.FreeFlight app, there are two rather important things I learned.

First, immediately check the "Disable Accelero" option in settings. Controlling the Drone via your accelerometer (holding down on a circular area on your screen activates the accelerometer) is probably a lot like being a smooth-talking airline pilot in the 1960's: namely, drunk. Using the accelerometer controls in your home with the Drone is asking for a Qantas-grade catastrophe - by that I mean you're probably going to end up breaking something expensive.

Second, keep this thing outside. Basically, using the Drone indoors is a lot like releasing a live eagle in your living room, minus the bird poop and razor-sharp talons. Things will get knocked over, and small animals will flee in terror. In fact, even with the accelerometer controls disabled in favor of a traditional joystick, I never felt comfortable enough to use the Drone indoors after my first attempt to do so. If you have any breakables anywhere near where you're planning to fly the Drone, move them. Because you will, inevitably, hit something. Hanging light fixtures? Avoid at all costs. Standing lamps? Those will have to go. Small children? Let's just say those propellers are spinning pretty fast.

I always felt that the controls of the AR.FreeFlight app were just imprecise enough to make me feel like I was never in total control of the Drone, a feeling RF control transmitters are decidedly better at eliminating. WiFi connectivity has gotten great at reducing latency between devices, but honestly, it still feels a little, mushy, to me. If that makes sense.

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The left joystick controls direction of flight, the right controls altitude and rotation

That's not to say it's bad. Once you're in the great outdoors (keep the number of trees, thorny bushes, and unavoidable bodies of water to a minimum), flying the AR.Drone is so much fun that you'll forget all about that $70 vase you knocked over and the cat's newfound hatred towards you. If you have someone else to fly with (I didn't, which made me sad), I imagine it's twice the fun. Just avoid really windy days - you'll spend the whole time fighting the gusts, and you'll probably crash a lot. Relatedly, it's best to learn how to fly the Drone in a public park with lots of nice, soft grass.

But in good conditions, the Drone is so much fun to fly that it's intoxicating - you'll feel 12 again. Remember that awesome R/C chopper you wanted as a kid but that your parents wouldn't let you get so you got one of these pieces of crap instead? Well, guess who's got the credit card now. You can bank hard corners, fly it to crazy heights, and nosedive in ace pilot fashion just before pulling up and saving yourself from sure destruction. It's not quite as precise and easy to control as this promo video might have you think, but with practice, I imagine you can get pretty good with the Drone.

Now, let's move onto the Drone itself (as opposed to using it).

The Hardware: Reliability, Design

Like I said, the design of the AR.Drone is pretty awesome. Four propellers are powered by an electric motor, each electronically controlled to auto-correct the Parrot's angle of attack and pitch, yaw, etc. - basically, the Parrot's firmware does all the stuff that makes flying a real RC helicopter extraordinarily difficult without any assistance from you and independent of any reliance on the app. And that's good, otherwise you'd be crashing it all the time.

The Drone is extraordinarily light. That's because its external structure, and both of its body frames, are made of styrofoam. It's then fitting to think of the AR.Drone's indoor frame like a bicycle helmet - it's great for learning, but you look so much cooler without it. Now, if you do use the Drone indoors, please, for the sake of your worldly possessions and the safety of others, put on the indoor frame. Once you've got the hang of the Drone outside, slap on the bumper-less outdoor frame and the Drone becomes faster and more agile due to the reduced wind resistance and weight.

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The frames absorb most damage pretty well (I crashed it enough to know this, sadly), though my outdoor frame was slightly cracked on the shell and had torn completely through at the narrowest point (it's soft, flexible styrofoam) after five or six flights - so, 10 or 15 crashes. Most of those were before I turned off the accelerometer controls.

The Drone itself seems sturdily built, as I can personally attest to. On the final flight of the Drone, I accidentally crashed into a pool when one of the rotors lost power and the chopper plummeted towards what I thought would be a watery grave. After letting the Drone dry out, it's almost completely functional, though the rotor which lost power no longer spins. This could be totally unrelated to the dip in the pool, and seems to me the likeliest explanation for the crash.

Before that crash, that rotor had been somewhat wobbly - it seems likely it was damaged in one of my earlier, harder crashes. If you go to Parrot's shopping website, you can buy all the parts to fix a problem like this yourself. It's not incredibly cheap, but at least you can fix it. They even have mending tape to fix the torn body shell issue I described.

Battery Life (Spoiler: It Sucks) And Conclusion

OK, this is where the AR.Drone loses all of its points. Battery life, without a further ado, is: 12 minutes. Yep. That is the manufacturer stated battery life, which means in optimal conditions. 12 minutes. And that's not even what you'll get - the first couple times I flew the Drone, I thought there must have been something wrong with my battery. I got maybe 7-10 minutes. I thought that it was defective, or overused, or broken. Nope. That's normal.

In fact, the problem is so bad you'll find the web is full of juice-extending modifications for the Parrot that will void any glimmer of a warranty you have. Some have resorted to higher voltage, heavier batteries, cutting out space for bigger cells and running on overvoltage - causing the Drone to increase altitude constantly, as well as making it extremely difficult to control.

Parrot's recommended solution? Buy more of our batteries.

The AR.Drone can already fly independently for 12 minutes, powered by the battery supplied when you bought it. You can increase this time using the additional batteries available here.

Parrot Webstore

The batteries are $30 apiece, which isn't a terribly large investment considering the Drone's entry fee of $300. With 2 additional batteries, you'd be able to get a good 30 minutes of flight time in. But consider this - you'd then have to charge those batteries, switching them out religiously every hour and a half (that's how long it takes to charge each one) to ensure you'd have all three for your next flight. Parrot should, at least, supply this thing with 2 batteries standard, and preferably with a charger which can juice up two batteries at once.

If the Drone was a $100 toy, I could understand, but it's clearly a sophisticated piece of equipment with a fair share of electronics on board designed to do all sorts of awesome stuff. The battery life, for me, is a total deal breaker. I could understand 30 minutes, maybe even 20 - but when 10 is at the top end of the observed norm, I can't help but feel like this chopper would spend most of its time 6 feet off the ground. On a shelf.

David Ruddock
David's phone is whatever is currently sitting on his desk. He is an avid writer, and enjoys playing devil's advocate in editorials, and reviewing the latest phones and gadgets. He also doesn't usually write such boring sentences.

  • http://tantrajnaan.com Robert Dunn

    This has average battery compared to other RC flying things. Yes, it is bad when compared to something like a smartphone, but this isn't a smartphone. I have one myself, and I find battery life to be long enough.

    • David Ruddock

      Like I said, I'd be willing to accept, maybe, 20 *real* minutes of flight. But 7-10 is just not acceptable. Compared to a high performance electric R/C chopper, sure, this is average.

      But this isn't a high-performance or stunt chopper, it's a casual toy meant for novices, and most people are going to give up quickly on it because of the constant need to charge up batteries. If you buy a lot of spares and charge them religiously, sure, you're good to go. But I don't think that's most people.

      • http://tantrajnaan.com Robert Dunn

        You have a point. It's too bad there isn't some sort of extended battery for it. You could counteract the added weight by removing the hull.

        • David Ruddock

          Yeah, the smaller hull is ultra light, and I don't think removing it will decrease drain too much, because the Parrot's software is set up to adjust idle power based on the weight of the shell you have on (there's an "outdoor frame" mode). But I didn't have a chance to try it, unfortunately.

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      The key here is how much it costs compared to an average RC flying thing. It's cool as hell, but for this price, I was absolutely shocked that it only flies for a few minutes.

      • Robert Nix

        You're not paying for the flight time; you're paying for the stability and the wifi connection to your phone. I have a $150 heli that is very difficult to fly because it constantly drifts everywhere and a $200 heli that is not as stable as the ar.drone. Both have a flight time of under 15 minutes. You're paying for the ultrasonics and gyros and the wifi camera feeds back to your phone, which none of the other helis have. Don't cry about the battery.

  • Christopher

    10 minutes!?!?! And they want three hundred dollars? That's pure madness....the proof of concept is cool, but CLEARLY, battery technology needs to catch up.

  • JeffreyB

    You guys have no clue... MOST and I don't mean a "high performance electric R/C chopper" most electric RC craft that use LiPo batteries have an average flight time of 5-10 minutes. And yes these are craft in the $300 range. I have over 20 aircraft and the average flight time is 7 minutes...

    • http://www.AndroidPolice.com Artem Russakovskii

      That's the part that sucks. No way am I and most people going to pay that much money for 5-10 min of flight time, and it seems most consumers aren't actually aware of such severe limitations.

    • David Ruddock

      This product is not comparable to such high-performance enthusiast devices is kind of our point.

      The AR.Drone is targeted towards casual consumers with smartphones. Sure, it's a fun toy for an R/C enthusiast, too, but it's clearly not the market Parrot is playing to. We're the Android Police, not the R/C Helicopter Police.

      If the AR.Drone could zoom along at 20-30MPH or do loops or go 400-500 feet in the air and was meant for hobbyists to modify and build, I'd get it. But it's not.

      I did R/C cars for a number of years, and I know that anyone running electric R/C vehicles of any kind doesn't go far without a charger or a whole f'ing bucket of fully charged batteries which are typically relatively cheap, charge quickly, and fit like 100 different kinds of planes or helicopters.

      The AR.Drone battery fits in the AR.Drone only. It costs $30 for a spare. It takes an hour and a half to charge. It's clear to me that, even if someone were to buy 4 spares, the very act of charging them individually, one at a time, would be enough to put them off. Who's going to buy a $300 R/C helicopter that's supposed to be fun and casual and expect to fork out another $100 for spare batteries and a second charger so they can actually enjoy it? Not me.

  • Lachlan

    The Bugatti Veyron, the most incredible car in the world will, at top speed, empty its tank in TWELVE MINUTES.

    It costs over one million dollars.

    Skydivers spend HOURS preparing, for one jump that lasts a few minutes.

    Skiers spend ages on lifts, just to go downhill for a few minutes.

    And who on this forum hasn't queued for a long time to use a waterslide (for maybe 30 seconds) on a hot summer's day?

    12 minutes is plenty of time to play at a time, or buy another battery.

    If you don't think 12 minutes is very long, try holding your breath for 12 minutes!

    • David Ruddock

      This isn't a Bugatti Veyron. This isn't skydiving. This isn't mountain skiing.

      It's a toy - not a g-force packed thrill ride.

      • Stelio Bakeas

        I'm with u David!!I completely agree!!

  • http://www.nick-hurst.com Nick Hurst

    I have been looking at buying one of these since the app became available on Android and after reading this I think I will just for a laugh... Even with the sucky battery life... I'll just buy a couple batteries as you suggest - thanks for the advice. It will be cheaper than the endless stream of broken remote control helicopters I have bought over the years lol

  • garikapati

    did any of u fly rc helis ? do u know what the battery life for any rc toy is? i have rc heli and ar drone with 3 spare batteries and the battery life is reasonable and this machine is one awesome piece. you should fly it to feel what it is and to know why the battery life is like that. dont just use somebodies review to say this is disappointing....

  • Alexander Landry

    Not bad at all, honestly. Battery life on my Parkzone UM T-28 Trojan (Same size class, but a plane) is in the same time range. 7-12 minutes (depending on capacity and C-rating) is what we expect out of ultra micro class aircraft. Just buy another battery or two for $10-30, easy peasy.

  • Mark Villanueva

    I'd definitely get one if they had someway to charge the spare batteries.

  • Richard Kortum

    Do you have to fly this in an area where there is wi-fi?

    • garikapati

      no, ar drone has inbuilt wifi module which creates its own wifi network

  • Darren Maunu

    I would say 7-10 minutes of flying time from a rotary wing vehicle in this class is pretty good. I've been flying RC electric helicopters for several years now and most of my helis get 4-5 minutes flying time. If this was a fixed wing plane then yes I would expect more. In a fixed wing aircraft the lift is being generated by the wing which is very efficient, with a rotary wing vehicle lift comes from spinning blades which aren't efficient. It's basically pure power holding it up.

    I would say the cost of the AR Drone is very reasonable. It contains 4 brushless motors, 4 brushless speed controllers, gyros, sensors and microprocessors with a lot of logic programmed into it which allows it to stabilize itself. It allows anyone to fly it and for 7-10 minutes per charge. I fly RC helis in a similar size class and they cost $700-900, fly for 4-5 minutes and if you let go of the controls will be a $250 repair bill in 3 seconds.

    Sure you can give the AR Drone some better performance and flying time but with the with the parts and materials required to do that would easily drive the cost up to $1200-2000. Just one gyro for one of my small helis can cost more than half the cost of a whole AR Drone. You are getting a lot for your money with very reasonable performance for that money. If anyone disagrees, they should get into the hobby of RC helicopters. They would be very shocked at what it takes to make something hover well and the costs associated with it.

  • http://www.metaksan.com Cable Trays

    This is so good. But the problem is when the wind is strong...

  • dont want to say

    Ok try this for the battery thing go on ebay and you should be able to gind batteries that last longer for like 40 bucks that fit

  • Periquin

    What is the WiFi coverage ? how far away can this go ? what happens when "out of range" ?

    • http://www.poeticcinema.com Dan S

      From what I've read, the range is supposed to be 150 feet or so, but most are saying to not push that limit.

      When out of range, it's supposed to go into a hover until you come into range or the battery dies.

  • MrTumnus

    Can you record the video footage using the Android App ? ( I know you can't with the iphone).

    I would like to use it with my Asus Transformer tablet.

    • mangaiah garikapati

      Yes, you can record video on android using "ardrone flight" app from market

  • Tony

    the drone will not stabelize what am i doing wrong

  • http://www.poeticcinema.com Dan S

    I agree with the others saying that 7-10 minutes is not that bad. And if you do some googling, you can find aftermarket batteries for it that are a higher milliamp rating for longer runtime.

    My questions is if the spare batteries can be charged with my dc charger I use for my r/c car batteries? I don't see why not, as long as I can adapt to the connector. Is the connector proprietary?

  • Tim

    This was poorly manufactured. One of the motors does not work right out of the box. Inspection of the circuit board for the motor revealed really bad assembly, missing parts versus other motors.
    This was a Christmas gift for the kids and great dissappointment for us on Christmas day. The next day Brookstone refused to replace or refund stating their policy requires the manufacturer handle this. I had asked about the return policy and it was not explained in the manner they are now saying.

    So, Parrot wants me to return the entire unit rather than send a motor for replacement.

    This further delays the gift for the kids. I am dissappointed in both Parrot and Brookstone, they are not taking care of the customer very well actually not at all.

  • http://iphonemarket.com.ua tsybart
  • Toddennis

    Battery life a total deal breaker? Really? Sheesh. This is an awesome machine with a lot of fun potential.