I've used the two large quadricopters Parrot has released to date - the AR.Drone and AR.Drone 2.0 - but ever since I saw the Bebop at CES earlier this year, I knew I had to give it a try. The Bebop attacks two of the biggest issues of its predecessors head on; namely, size and video quality.
Parrot has stepped up to a full 1080p-ready video sensor (it also takes 14MP stills) with an f2.2 wide-angle fisheye lens on the Bebop, and also reduced the size of the drone itself dramatically. The Bebop in outdoor trim (no hull guards) has about one fourth of the footprint of the old AR.Drones in their full bumpers. It's about a third of the size if we're talking no bumpers, but still, this thing is comparatively tiny. This means it has a lower profile in the air, making it less prone to buffeting and swaying with the breeze. And because it's actually no lighter than the AR.Drone (it is in fact 10g heavier), the Bebop takes full advantage of this reduced wind resistance.
It's immediately clear the Bebop is more stable, smooth, and predictable in the air. These were major issues with the AR.Drones in anything stronger than a moderate breeze. While they weren't likely to crash, necessarily, capturing relatively shake-free and in-place video could be very difficult depending on the conditions. The Bebop makes this a lot easier. Oh, and you can control it completely via your Android smartphone or tablet (unless it runs Android 5.1, which currently appears to break the app).
Video quality is also leaps and bounds better (especially with that excellent optical image stabilization), and the wide angle lens lets you get some really gorgeous views up at the Bebop's 150 meter (492') altitude ceiling. I wouldn't say the quality of the video is great by any means, but it's much more passable than the old AR.Drone's, and much, much smoother. The problem is that the image buffer seems to be underpowered, and you get all kinds of weird digital interlacing artifacts when there's a lot of motion going on. Still, for something that's an all-in-one kind of package, the quality is passable. The Bebop has 8GB of non-expandable flash storage, and videos must be transferred off via USB. That 8GB is enough for, roughly, 45 minutes to an hour of 1080p footage.
Oddly, the 500' altitude ceiling actually runs afoul of current FAA guidelines here in the US, which limit hobbyist RC aircraft to 400' above ground level. 500' is more commonly cited in the drone community, though, because of the FAA's guidance than manned aircraft should stay above that altitude at all times other than during takeoff and landing. There aren't generally state penalties for violating these rules, though, so as much as the FAA would like you to think otherwise, for personal use this is kind of a gray area.
Operating a drone in a populated city makes the FAA and DHS nervous, though, and with the de facto federal "ban" of commercial drone aviation without a permit here in the US, Parrot's product is smack in the middle of a hot debate around remote controlled aircraft. Personal use of a drone within the FAA's guidelines is permitted (under 400', not a heavily populated area, 3 miles from nearest airport), but drones are more often being used in areas and in ways the FAA doesn't support.
For example, I live in West Los Angeles. There is no such thing as a "not heavily populated" area of West Los Angeles. I also live well under three miles from a large regional airfield - Santa Monica Municipal Airport. And my drone can go above 400'. This is what the FAA calls "a problem."
This doesn't even get into what qualifies as commercial. Is putting an ad revenue-generating video on YouTube from my drone commercial? What about photos taken by my drone on my ad-supported personal blog? What if I take a photo of my business using a drone in a personal capacity, but then use that photo to promote my business online? It is easy to see how lines blur very quickly here, and it makes hobbyist drone flying a bit unsettling as an activity in America.
Even here in film-crazed LA, I can recall but once instance of seeing a small drone operating in a publicly accessible space (that I've noticed). I recognized it as a DJI copter immediately, and was transfixed trying to figure out what it was doing (taking video of a rooftop party at a hotel, I believe). But I noticed it, and once I noticed it, I couldn't stop looking and wondering.
Taking the Bebop to a local park, I observed the same reaction in others. This is a large community park that is frequented not just by children, but amateur sports teams, dog walkers, skateboarders, families, teens, and adults alike. It's not as though I was the weirdo at the playground flying an RC helicopter through the swing set.
Everyone looked. Everyone. A dog started chasing the Bebop, even though it was a solid 100' off the ground. I felt bad, because I was distracting the dog from a rousing game of go catch the Frisbee. "This makes me kind of a jerk," I thought to myself.
Flying a drone also makes you want to fly the drone in places you know you shouldn't. Wouldn't it be cool to breeze over rush hour traffic like a bird? Or fly down an avenue watching the cars go by? Or explore rooftops you can't otherwise see? All of these things are terrible ideas and you shouldn't attempt to do them. Not only because they put people in danger (I don't mean directly - but imagine the car accidents you could cause), but because the chance of getting into trouble with the law looms large in these days of personal privacy and terror concerns.
And these are perfectly legitimate issues, mind you - as much as I think getting a shot of my neighborhood 500' up would be kind of awesome, the remote chance that a crash or malfunction would cause the drone to end up in someone's yard or the middle of a busy street (or someone's windshield) is enough to make me shy away from the possibility instinctually. We also have a lot of suspended power and phone lines here in LA, so that doesn't help.
So, where do you take a drone? Empty parking lots. Exciting! The local park. OK, I guess. Or, somewhere naturey. That really is the only interesting option anymore - you have to go where people are sparse and privacy concerns essentially moot. Of course, there are plenty of other ways to use a drone (local events, sanctioned use at sports, in your house or backyard/property I guess), but the larger apprehension of these little flying machines has pretty quickly relegated them to places off the beaten path. In California, for example, it is now illegal to use a drone to capture images or video of a person or business in a setting where they would otherwise have a reasonable expectation of privacy. This means that, technically, even publishing a shot that happens to include people's private fenced backyards or rooftop terraces could land you in trouble (and I mean $5,000+ of trouble) if someone can claim a material violation of their privacy. These laws are meant for the rampant paparazzi, but it's not hard to see NIMBY abuse being a potential issue.
As such, flying the Bebop anywhere but a relatively rural or state park-like environment is kind of nerve-wracking. You're constantly afraid you'll go out of Wi-Fi range, wind will blow it into a tree or power line, or someone will come up and yell at you about their rights. None of this, for the record, happened to me. But I think they're legitimate anxieties to have.
What I did next, obviously, was take the Bebop somewhere where I wouldn't be so closely watched, the beach. Of course, I quickly realized this was also anxiety-provoking, but for an entirely different reason: the wind. Losing a $400 drone that isn't mine in the Pacific Ocean wasn't on the top of my list of things to do this week, so my adventures on the coast with the Bebop were a considerable distance from the actual water. Still, while the wind did occasionally give me some grief, the Bebop was very stable and extremely easy to fly overall in such a wide, open space.
I found that big open space almost as problematic as the city for a different reason, though, because range was a much greater concern. Controlling the Bebop with a touchscreen device like an iPad or an Android phone via Wi-Fi Direct gives you a maximum range of about 200 meters, which is just over a hundred feet greater than the drone's maximum altitude. I rarely trusted it to get too far away, either - what if it disconnected and just hovered at the mercy of the wind at 300' in the air? While a low battery would eventually force it to land, the Bebop does not use GPS to keep itself at an absolute position when under manual control. It would be entirely possible for it to be blown dozens, if not hundreds, of feet away (or up / down) in sufficient wind. I have to imagine that the extended-range (2km) physical controller would be a great help here, but it costs nearly as much as the drone itself (the controller bundle is $400 more than the $500 standalone version).
When I was filming that little looping video you see up at the top of the post there, I was controlling the drone with my iPad, only for the iPad to overheat (this does happen when you're out in the bright sun on a hot day with the screen at max brightness and the tablet in a full case). The drone did not land. It simply kept hovering, though the wind immediately began pushing it around. I was helpless to control it, so I grabbed the drone out of the air (luckily it was within reach at just 6-8' off the ground) and flipped it over to kill the motors. That could have just as easily ended with it being struck by a car or getting stuck on a balcony. Not to say I chose the best environment to do a one-man video shoot in.
Still, it is great fun to fly even with these limitations - there's nothing that isn't magical about controlling a quadricopter 300' up in the air with your smartphone and a live video feed (even if said video feed gets pretty janky at those distances). It's pretty damn cool.
Flying the Bebop indoors, by the way, is not something I'd advise. While the indoor bumpers protect the extremely thin and flexible propellers from damaging themselves or your stuff / children / animals / senior citizens, the Bebop is twitchy and unpredictable in a closed space, somewhat ironically because of the amount of propeller wash it puts off, which can make it suddenly gain or lose altitude depending on what objects are beneath or around it. This is definitely a toy for the great outdoors.
I crashed the Bebop (at low altitude) three times in my testing, and it doesn't seem any worse for wear aside from a few scratches and scuffs. Battery life has actually been pretty respectable - Parrot rates it at 11 minutes, but really this seems conservative, it's more like 10-15 with the mitigating factor of wind and how much you're moving it around. This is still hugely better than the old AR.Drones, which managed a paltry 5-10 minutes at a go. Batteries charge in 1-2 hours, and two are included (three if you buy the controller version), meaning you can get 20-30 minutes of flight time right out of the box.
For more serious pilots, a flight plan mapping system utilizing the onboard GPS will eventually allow you to overlay a point-to-point course on a map and then send the Bebop on its way completely automated. This feature will be an in-app purchase (ugh) in Parrot's FleeFlight 3 app at a later date.
As far as repairability, Parrot sells a full line of replacement Bebop parts, but they don't seem available in the US yet (?). The prices are predictably ludicrous. Taking apart the Bebop doesn't look complex, either - the drone has been designed with a few relatively simple large modules that can be swapped in and out. The motors are small brushless types and the propellers pop on and off with a few small screws.
At $500, the Parrot Bebop is probably the most all-in-one consumer / hobbyist-grade drone on the market. It has tons of features, a serious physical controller with a big range extension if you want to shell out the money for it, and a built-in camera that isn't embarrassing. It's also a boatload of fun, when you can use it without much worry of obstacles or wind.