Review: Parrot's AR.Drone 2.0 makes iPhone aerial reconnaissance easy

Posted:
in iPhone edited November 2014
As one of the most popular iOS-friendly aerial camera platforms available, Parrot's AR.Drone has become a great example of what's possible within Apple's mobile ecosystem. AppleInsider was recently able to spend time with the second-generation version to see if it's worth the $300 price of entry.



Due to its association with modern military operations, the word "drone" has become part of the vernacular and for some carries negative connotations. In spite of -- or because of -- the buzz surrounding the term, Parrot has continued with the AR.Drone moniker for version 2.0 of its remote control quadricopter.

Whether you call it an unmanned aerial vehicle, remote-controlled aircraft, or simply a drone, Parrot's iOS-compatible accessory does the neat job of hovering, performing tricks and flying about all while recording video.

Clearly the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition isn't cheap at a starting price of $300, but it costs less than the $1,199 DJI Phantom 2 Vision we reviewed in March.

It should be noted, however, that the Parrot is better classified as a recreational toy, while the better-equipped DJI Phantom 2 series of products are aimed at enthusiasts and professionals.

Tech specs

Unlike other remote control machines, the AR.Drone 2.0 doesn't come with a traditional two-stick transmitter. Instead, it uses an ad-hoc Wi-Fi network to connect to an iOS device running the FreeFlight app, which can be used to configure and control the device.

Streaming video is also offloaded from the AR.Drone's integrated front-facing HD camera for first-person maneuvering. A second, lower-resolution camera captures a downward-looking birds-eye-view, but the quality is sub-par and easily distinguishable even in-app.

The front facing camera captures video to either the iOS device or an attached USB flash drive secured to the AR.Drone's battery. Video is recorded in 720p at 30 frames per second using the H.264 encoding base profile. This means the video is ready for playback through an Apple TV or any iOS device.



Flight information like battery life and video recording status are overlaid on top of the live video feed alongside virtual joystick controls.

Using the included 1000mAh batteries provided by Parrot, normal flight time is advertised as 12 minutes. When testing with an iPhone, the app displayed a low battery warning at about that time, but we consistently got around 15 minutes before complete shutdown during testing. In fact, we suspect battery life may have been reduced due to cold winter weather.

Setup

The AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition comes with two body hulls, a closed rotor configuration for indoor use and an open aerodynamic version for outside. The unit comes with the indoor hull preinstalled, while the outdoor shell sits cradled under in packaging under the drone body. There are no extra blades to install and no complicated preparation steps required to start flying out of the box.

To acclimate ourselves to the drone's flight characteristics we flew a few short circuits indoors, cruising a few inches off the ground before graduating to a few feet. What we discovered from this experience is that the drone tilts dramatically when coming to a stop. We also discovered that it's risky to fly around houseplants (the quadrotors butchered a perfectly lovely peace lily). Green leafy bits showered in a 10-foot radius and profuse apologies were rendered to the rest of the family, but the AR.Drone was left unscathed.

Control and flight

iOS integration is a much more important part of the Parrot drone than the DJI model we tested. That's because unlike the DJI Phantom, which has its own dedicated controller and used the iPhone for viewing purposes only, the Parrot relies on an iOS device both.

Unfortunately, the instruction manuals detail everything about the hardware, the shells, battery charging, but almost nothing about actual flight. In-app help was similarly inadequate. Learning how to fly was largely trial and error.

The AR.Drone 2.0 can be controlled either with virtual joysticks displayed on the touchscreen, or via an iPhone's accelerometer. We found the accelerometer to be twitchy and a little beyond our abilities in the freezing cold, so we stuck with the virtual joysticks.



We were able to get the hang of flying outdoors relatively quickly. Once we set the app to "outdoors" mode, we were able to climb to higher altitudes, flying above rooftops for better vantage points. To be honest, we were surprised at how easy it was to master flight.

We did, however, have difficulty with the Flight Recorder, which comes with a GPS module for mapping out flight paths and on-board storage for video recording.

Specifically, we but didn't feel comfortable using the provided mapping functions to add waypoints due to close proximity to power lines. The map does didn't allowus to zoom in enough, making accurate flight paths nearly impossible. The 4GB of flash storage did come in handy to record movies, however, especially when we ran low on space in our iPhone.

One feature that proved useful was the app's "EMERGENCY" button. When tapped, the button causes the aircraft to cut power and drop from the sky. The only problem is that it's possible to hit EMERGENCY when attempting to hit RECORD.

Many of our testing sessions were during the polar vortex that hit the U.S. east coast earlier this year. Once, during a power outage, we flew the AR.Drone through our neighborhood and over to a heavily-trafficked street corner that had been blocked by a police officer. Power company employees were working to restore electricity and, while we chose not to push our luck by flying near the workers, the officer acknowledged us and made no effort to stop our flying.



Besides the obvious risks of annoying workers and the police, or flying too close to power lines, flying was relatively straight-forward. But be advised, there's nothing subtle about it. There are four brushless motors spinning rotors at a high rate of speed; it buzzes like a swarm of hornets.

As for weather, the AR.Drone handled moderate cold just fine, but we cannot say how performance is affected by extreme conditions. While we tested the DJI Phantom down to -25 degrees, we just didn't have that sort of cold winter weather when we used the Parrot.

iOS integration

As mentioned above, iOS integration is essential for controls, but thankfully Parrot's efforts go beyond that. The AR.Drone has been an iOS-native accessory since the first generation launched in 2010 and setting up the ad-hoc Wi-Fi connection was relatively easy. There was a slight amount of video lag due to limited data bandwidth, but controls were responsive and immediate.



Because we had the Flight Recorder GPS attached, we were able to plan a flight path on a map and have it run the course autonomously. We didn't really get the hang of this and are not convinced it is a good idea given power lines and road conditions.



The Fight Recorder has a USB port on its end -- essentially an internal USB hub -- which allows USB flash drives or other accessories to be connected.

Conclusion

At $300, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition isn't cheap -- especially when you add in extra batteries and the Flight Recorder GPS attachment. Even so, this drone is mostly easy to fly and operates as advertised. Video quality is reasonably good, although not as good as a GoPro Hero. We are a little concerned about the fragility of the airframe, but it didn't break even after a couple of bad landings.



We can easily recommend the AR.Drone 2.0 to anyone looking to casually fly a drone for fun, but if you're serious about getting into iOS-compatible remote control quadricopters, consider the DJI Phantom 2 lineup instead. Professional photographers and videographers would be best served by a standalone rig with a gimbal.

Pros
  • Easy to fly
  • On-screen joysticks work well
  • Flying over rooftops and higher altitudes is cool
Cons
  • Easy to crash, easy to harm defenseless houseplants
  • Uncertainty in settings, uncertainty on how to use the GPS to plot course best in suburban or urban settings
  • Easy to fat-finger the Emergency button and crash land

Score: 4 out of 5

image

Where to buy

The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition Quadricopter is available at Amazon for $299.99, where it is tax-free in all states but AZ, CA, IN, KS, KY, MA, NC, NJ, NY, ND, NV, PA, TN, TX, WA and WI. Amazon also sells the Flight Recorder kit for $110 and a high-density 1500mAh battery pack for $60.
«1

Comments

  • Reply 1 of 28
    irelandireland Posts: 17,547member
    Pro: easy to fly
    Con: easy to crash

    One of them has to be wrong.
  • Reply 2 of 28
    MacProMacPro Posts: 18,141member
    Even if you go for the Phantom, don't get the standard supplied camera if you are serious about better video and photography.
  • Reply 3 of 28
    normmnormm Posts: 548member
    How is the WiFi range? What happens if you fly it out of range?
  • Reply 4 of 28
    What are its measurements, how much weight can it carry, speed?
  • Reply 5 of 28
    As a professional photographer, the Phantom 2 Vision camera is fine for stills but too jerky for quality aerial video. Get the Phantom 2 with 3D gimbal, add an FPV and shoot with your GoPro.
  • Reply 6 of 28
    Some observations:

    I thought that the video was less jerky than the Phantom reviewed recently. Still annoying, though.

    The video quality seemed worse than the Phantom.

    Whenever there was video from the other camera, it was a relief, due to the higher quality picture and relative smoothness.

    I know I'm being a negative Nelly, but I don't find much appeal to the whole video aspect. If I were given one, I'm sure I'd find it fun to play with for a few minutes, then put it away to gather dust. What would be amazing would be to have one with miles of range, pristine video quality that was ultra-smooth and that could go thousands of feet high. Effectively a portable helicopter. But it's never going to happen for the consumer, for obvious reasons. Even when I watch extreme sports video using GoPro or something similar, I always find the video quickly gets tiring to watch. The best shots are done with still or fixed cameras or professional aerial cameras.
  • Reply 7 of 28
    tylerk36tylerk36 Posts: 1,037member

    OMG that is my wife and she is with another woman.  Later on.  Hey honey come and watch this cool video I got.  Your gonna love it.

  • Reply 8 of 28
    chandra69chandra69 Posts: 638member


    • Quote:


      Easy to crash, easy to harm defenseless houseplants


       


    Houseplants?  Seriously? Come on!!! At least generalize a little

  • Reply 9 of 28
    davendaven Posts: 505member

    I think it is funny that the first part of the video shows a cop car blocking the road. The paranoid would think that you are risking your life videoing cops.

  • Reply 10 of 28
    stefangstefang Posts: 3member
    Well this could be a fun toy for some people.

    But if you are serious in getting sharp pictures go for the DJI Phantom Vision that takes excellent pictures and have a great integration with IOS/ iPhone (and android).

    If you are into video go for DJI Phantom II with the Gimbal for the GoPro. This one will give you much better Video (although no integration with iPhone) than the unstabilized DJI Phantom Vision (which however takes better pics than the GoPro).

    What I have heard the DJI copters are much more easy to fly then the Parrot.
  • Reply 11 of 28
    paxmanpaxman Posts: 4,594member
    I hope that is not a marketing video! Long time since I have seen less compelling reason to buy anything! (Does the music play like that whenever it flies?) That drone is a real groan.

    The only way I can see these drones being any fun would be if you had two of them, trying down the other. No need for cameras, but perhaps some fun weaponry?
  • Reply 12 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,449member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Benjamin Frost View Post



    Some observations:



    I thought that the video was less jerky than the Phantom reviewed recently. Still annoying, though.



    The video quality seemed worse than the Phantom.

    You need to check out 1080p video obtained with the Phantom 2 fitted with either a 2D or the new 3D gimbal mount and a GoPro Hero 3+. The whole shebang can be purchased for about $1700 with FPV controller and produces results that are simply fascinating to watch. Range is about 1 km and includes go-home GPS capability.

  • Reply 13 of 28
    lorin schultzlorin schultz Posts: 2,632member

    Does anyone here have experience with waypoint autonomous flight? I'd like to specify a straight line 250 yards long and have the drone fly the same path repeatedly, staying on a straight line, at the same speed each time, at the same height each time.

     

    Is that realistic with something like the Phantom or just expecting too much?

  • Reply 14 of 28
    solipsismxsolipsismx Posts: 19,566member
    ireland wrote: »
    Pro: easy to fly
    Con: easy to crash

    One of them has to be wrong.

    If the con had been hard to land I could understand the inclusion of both but as you note their wording seems to odd.

    chandra69 wrote: »
    • Houseplants?  Seriously? Come on!!! At least generalize a little

    You want them to just say houseplants and not defenseless houseplants? Personally I think the well-protected houseplants probably had it coming.
  • Reply 15 of 28
    cpsrocpsro Posts: 2,449member
    Quote:

    Originally Posted by Lorin Schultz View Post

     

    Does anyone here have experience with waypoint autonomous flight? I'd like to specify a straight line 250 yards long and have the drone fly the same path repeatedly, staying on a straight line, at the same speed each time, at the same height each time.

     

    Is that realistic with something like the Phantom or just expecting too much?


    I wouldn't know but it looks like the Phantom 2 can do that with optional waypoint hardware, but only for the life of its battery (about 25 minutes max.)

  • Reply 16 of 28
    gtrgtr Posts: 3,231member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Ireland View Post



    Pro: easy to fly

    Con: easy to crash



    One of them has to be wrong.



    Well, it's got to be in the air before it isn't in the air, doesn't it?



    ;)



    Kudos to author Douglas Adams for the eternally amusing quote "The ship hung in the sky exactly the same way that bricks don't".

  • Reply 18 of 28
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member

    Nice choice of music Stringfellow! :)

  • Reply 19 of 28
    ascii wrote: »
    Nice choice of music Stringfellow! :)

    I enjoyed the Air Wolf theme too. ????

    It's funny how coincidences happen. The day before I watched that video, I was rehearsing the music for The Pirates of the Caribbean. In an idle moment, part of it vaguely reminded me of the Air Wolf theme, so I doodled on it on the piano, which raised a smile or two from the choir. I can't remember when I last thought of that theme, having watched the cool tv series as a boy in the 80s.
  • Reply 20 of 28
    asciiascii Posts: 5,941member
    Quote:
    Originally Posted by Benjamin Frost View Post





    I enjoyed the Air Wolf theme too. ????



    It's funny how coincidences happen. The day before I watched that video, I was rehearsing the music for The Pirates of the Caribbean. In an idle moment, part of it vaguely reminded me of the Air Wolf theme, so I doodled on it on the piano, which raised a smile or two from the choir. I can't remember when I last thought of that theme, having watched the cool tv series as a boy in the 80s.

    I watched it as a kid too. For those too young to remember, Airwolf was an 80s TV show about an experimental jet helicopter.

Sign In or Register to comment.