The Gadgets Page

October 18, 2010

Parrot AR.Drone iPhone Controlled RC Quadcopter

Filed under: Toys and Games — Matthew Strebe @ 12:05 pm

AR.DroneThe AR.Drone is a completely new type of flying toy enabled by the capabilities of smartphones. Using the iPhone (or iPad or iPod Touch) as a controller, the AR.Drone receives tilt control and commands from the iPhone’s sensors and sends video back from its two onboard cameras.

The result is a totally new type of experience: Augmented Reality First-Person Flying. When you get good at it, it’s just like playing a flying game, except that you’re really controlling an actual flying machine and the video you see on screen is what you’d experience if you were onboard the machine piloting it.

AR.Drone iPhone AppBefore you can use your AR.Drone, you have to download the AR.Freeflight app from the Apple App store. Once you’ve got it, you power up the AR.Drone, go to settings on the iPhone, and set your WiFi base station to the drone’s SSID. This creates a high-bandwidth wireless connection directly between your phone and the AR.Drone. Launching the AR.Freeflight app provides a videogame-like view through the Drone’s front camera with virtual thumb-pad style controls on the screen, which you will use to control the AR.Drone.

Here is video of our first flight:

Using the iPhone to control the AR.Drone is simple. When you first launch the AR.Drone, you will naturally control it from this third person frame of reference, by watching the quadcopter and matching movements using the iPhone’s tilt feature. The AR.Drone tilts as you tilt your phone, providing instant controllability that’s easy to understand so long as the iPhone’s orientation matches that of the AR.Drone. Because the tilt mechanism is so simple, literally anyone can fly the copter out of the box with about a minute’s worth of practice. It’s immediately accessible and great fun right out of the box.

In addition to tilt control for move forward, move backward, move left, and move right movement, there’s a soft thumb pad for controlling altitude (up and down) and orientation (turn left, turn right). Up and down is simple, but rotating the quad-copter is where things get tricky: When rotated, the iPhone’s tilt orientation no longer matches the quadcopter: If you rotate 180 degrees, controls are opposite. tilting left moves right, and tiling forward moves back. It’s difficult to map this in your mind while watching the quadcopter in third person.

Now, if you just want to fly around without watching through the camera, you never have to rotate the quadcopter—you can tilt in all directions and move anywhere you want precisely without ever rotating the quadcopter. Rotation is used when you want to change the point of view of the camera because you’re piloting by looking through the camera in first person perspective, rather than looking at the quadcopter in third person perspective. It’s a paradigm shift in control that takes a while to get used but gives you something to skill up at, which is what makes the quadcopter so much more fun than a typical RC device.

Watch yourself with the AR.Drone camerasFirst Person flying occurs when you look at video from the camera on the iPhone, ignore the actual helicopter, and fly first person from the camera’s point of view. As soon as you do that, the tilt controls make sense again in your mind, as if you’re onboard the machine. First Person flying takes more skill, and leaves a lot of room for learning. At first you’ll find yourself jumping right back out to look at the quadcopter and confuse yourself about the orientation, but once you learn to trust what you’re looking at on screen and you’ve found the control setting options you like, you’ll be flying around as if you’re a miniature pilot onboard the AR.Drone. It is quite amazing.

Onboard sensors and a powerful ARM9 microprocessor (in the same family as the iPhone processor) stabilize the quadcopter and perform the automatic flying functions so you don’t have to think about hovering and the machine never goes “haywire” if you lose control of it. If for any reason you can’t figure out why it’s doing what it’s doing (usually due to mismatched rotation), you just stop touching your phone and the quadcopter will halt and stabilize in mid air. If it hits anything causing any rotor to slow, it will shutdown immediately and drop to the ground. You can also hit an emergency soft-button to drop it at any time. Otherwise, there’s a soft-landing button that will set down gently on its own.

One of the sensors is an ultrasonic altimeter that the quadcopter uses to control its height over the floor. Flying over objects like boxes or couches will cause the quadcopter to hop up because it’s tracking a specific height over the ground for stability.

With the indoor hull on, the copter is quite safe. All the rotors are enclosed, and they’re not really capable of seriously injuring a person even when exposed unless they perhaps somehow hit an eyeball directly. They will sting if they hit you while rotating however, so fly with the indoor hull on until you’re an excellent pilot. I deliberately stuck my finger in the rotating fans, and while it smarted for a few minutes, it didn’t break the skin (or the rotor).

Downside #1: $300. It’s pretty expensive for a toy. Totally worth it, but still pretty expensive. Considering the fact that you will get addicted, you will buy extra batteries, and you will buy repair parts, and you’re looking at easily spending $500 on it in the first few months. Again, totally worth it, but expensive.

Downside #2: Battery life vs. charge time. My charge time is 70 minutes, and my run time is 17 minutes. That’s 3x+ more time to charge than to play. This means you’ll need at least three batteries and at least two chargers if you want to fly without waiting.

Downside #3: Repairs. You will damage and eventually break the AR.Drone. The upside is that Parrot sells literally every piece of the device as a repair part and the parts are not particularly expensive. The repairs appear to be rather simple. During my initial flying, I ran the quadcopter into a chair and one of the rotors took a raisin-sized chunk of Styrofoam out of the hull. A dab of glue and it was as good as new. But you should expect to spend money keeping it repaired, pretty much as you would with any vehicle.

Here is a video of a crash and fall:

I totally love the AR.Drone. It’s both a toy and a videogame, with the best features of both. It’s the most fun I’ve had with a pure toy ever, bar none, and I put it amongst the top ten gadgets ever, alongside the iPhone, iPad, Legos, Atari computers, and other gadget greats in my life.

The GadgetsPage purchased this AR.Drone retail for this review. Two more videos after the break:

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