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Hands On: Parrot AR.Drone 2 Elite Edition

Drones get a bum rap. After Amazon announced earlier this month that it plans to launch a drone-based delivery system, most people reacted with every negative emotion under the winter sun, from fear to anger to dismissive skepticism. All of which sums up the general mood about drones in the US. Understandable as that may be – big, scary versions of drones are used by the US military to remotely kill people – this sentiment completely ignores one glaring fact about personal drones: Flying them is ridiculously fun.

While many small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are available, none is more user-friendly and mainstream than Parrot’s line of AR.Drones. The AR.Drone 3.0 may make an appearance at the upcoming CES 2014 in early January. But for now, the hottest quadcopter from Parrot is the AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition, which we were lucky enough to get our hands on for some serious airtime. Here’s what to expect with the best toy on the market.

Out of the box

The first thing you’ll notice about Parrot AR.Drone 2 Elite Edition, which retails for about $300, is its size. Measuring nearly two feet wide, the AR.Drone 2.0 Elite Edition is basically the same as the standard AR.Drone 2.0, but with a new body package that gives you the choice of three camouflage styles: sand, snow, and jungle. (We got the sand version.)

In the box, you’ll find the drone, which packs two cameras, a 1GHz 32-bit ARM Cortex A8 processor, 1GB of RAM, GPS, Wi-Fi connectivity, a gyroscope and accelerometer, pressure sensors, ultrasound sensors, and other technical wizardry that help you keep the drone in the air. There’s also a 1,000mAh battery, a charger, and two body shells – one for indoor use that has foam rings around the blades so you don’t kill your curious cat or rip the curtains, and an outdoor shell that is more wind-resistant but leaves the blades exposed.

You’ll need to charge up the battery before you can start flying, which only takes about 30 minutes. We highly recommend staring off with the “indoor” shell, even if you’re flying outdoors only, to minimize damage to the drone and anything it happens to fly into.

App attack

The one thing you will not find in the box is a controller. That’s because the AR.Drone 2.0 is controlled entirely with a mobile app, available for iOS devices (iPhone and iPad), and Android devices, including tablets, smartphones, and the NVIDIA Shield controller. We conducted our tests using only the iPhone version.

Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is the best deal you’re going to find for a drone that comes with its own camera.

For some reason, Parrot has a variety of apps available for the AR.Drone 2.0 – but the one you want to download is called FreeFlight. Do not download the one called “AR.Drone” – it’s outdated, and you’ll be told to download the FreeFlight app as soon as you launch the AR.Drone version. This is unnecessarily confusing, and Parrot would do its customers a favor by clearing out the old app from the various app stores.

To make matters even more confusing, Parrot has designed the FreeFlight app to give you a notice every time you launch the app saying that the “AR Drone, FreeFlightUS and FreeFlightWORLD” apps are “deprecated applications,” so you should “move to FreeFlight” to control your AR.Drone. It also gives you an option to install the app from this launch screen – even though you are already using the right app. As far as we can tell, there’s no way to turn this screen off. So it’s not only confusing, it’s annoying. Anyway, now you know: Only use the FreeFlight app (at least until that one, too, becomes outdated).

First flight 

Once you’ve downloaded the app, you still need to adjust a few settings before takeoff. First, you’ll be asked to enter your YouTube and/or Facebook login credentials. Be warned: Doing this during setup, in our experience, meant that the AR.Drone automatically uploaded video caught with its cameras to the Web. (This can be turned off in the “Preferences” menu, which is found on the start screen of the app.) So skip this step if you don’t want your AR.Drone spying on you.

The other settings you’ll want to adjust are altitude, rotation speed, and other flight settings – a whole bevy of adjustments you can make to fine-tune your experience. We recommend going with the lowest and slowest limitations to start out.

Parrpot AR.Drone 2

Next, you’ll need to connect your device/controller to the AR.Drone’s Wi-Fi signal. It should automatically appear in your list of Wi-Fi connections in your setting menu. Select it, and move back to the app.

From here, the only thing to do is start flying. Whether you’re indoors or out, pick a flight area with plenty of room and nothing expensive to run into and destroy. Despite the confusing selection of outdated apps, the FreeFlight app is extremely easy to use. 

Hit the “takeoff” button, and the drone will do exactly that – takeoff, then hover a few feet in the air. Unlike RC helicopters, the AR.Drone 2.0 is “smart” – meaning, it automatically handles all the tiny stabilizing adjustments needed to keep it aloft. Without these electronic brains, new pilots would likely send their expensive new toys crashing into a pile of ruined Christmas sadness before you can say “Ho, ho, doh!”

Without its electronic brains, new pilots would likely send their expensive new toys crashing into a pile of ruined Christmas sadness.

To control the drone, you use the joysticks on the app screen (which also shows a live stream from one of the drone’s two cameras in the background). The right stick controls altitude, and turns the drone left or right. The left stick steers the drone in the air, leaning it any direction you want it to travel horizontally through space. You can choose to use either the left joystick itself, or turn on an option that lets you control the drone simply by angling your device in the direction you want it to fly.

Getting the hang of these controls is not difficult, but it does require some skill. You’d do yourself a favor by watching these instruction videos (1, 2) before going all out … otherwise, you might be in the market for some spare parts.

While it took us about five sessions, inside and outside, with the AR.Drone 2.0 before we really felt like we had a handle on the contraption’s behavior in the air, Parrot has created a mode to make flight easier. Dubbed “Absolute Control,” this optional mode (found under the settings menu) makes it so, no matter the direction the drone is actually facing, it always orients itself to you. This means, if you push the controls to the left, it always goes left. Without Absolute Control on, the direction you push on the controls may result in the drone going an unintended direction. So, if you’re just getting started, we recommend taking advantage of this unique piloting feature.

Say cheese!

One of the coolest aspects of the AR.Drone 2.0 is its built-in cameras. Most small UAVs have the ability to carry a third-party camera, like a GoPro. But Parrot makes this unnecessary by outfitting the AR.Drone 2.0 with a front-facing 720p HD camera, as well as a low-res down-facing camera for ‘bird’s eye view’ shots.

To record a video on the AR.Drone 2.0, simply hit the “Rec” button at the top of the app’s display in pilot mode. Videos can be started at stopped at anytime during a flight. You can also switch from one camera to the other mid-flight, as shown in this video we shot:

You also have the ability to snap photos simply by hitting the camera icon button on the control screen. All videos and photos are stored directly on your tablet or smartphone, unless you’ve added an optional USB thumb drive, which attaches next to the battery, underneath the shell.

Here’s another video to give you a sense of the video recording capabilities. This one was started mid-flight, and shot outside, in windy conditions:

As you can see, the video quality is fine, but not the level you would get with a more expensive camera. Still, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is the best deal you’re going to find for a drone that comes with its own camera. And the ability to automatically upload clips to YouTube or Facebook – while slightly creepy when you don’t know it’s happening – is a fun feature. 

Flips

One of the most popular things to do with the AR.Drone 2.0 is flips. To enable this, you’ll need to toggle the flipping ability to “on” in the settings menu. You can also choose the direction you want it to flip (left, right, front, back). And to perform a flip, all you do is double tap the screen while piloting the drone. It’s really easy, and surprisingly fun and impressive.

… And flops

The AR.Drone 2.0 is a seriously fun toy. But it does have a few areas that we hope are improved in the 3.0 version.

Whether you’re indoors or out, pick a flight area with plenty of room and nothing expensive to run into and destroy.

First, the AR.Drone 2.0 has the ability to fly up to 50 meters into the sky – which, in practice, is absurdly high. Problem is, the drone can lose its connection with your controller while its in the air. When we sent ours up 40 meters, it lost connection with our iPhone, leaving it hovering in the sky above a barn without us being able to do a dang thing about it. That is a problem.

Second, the battery life sucks. There’s no way around it. Parrot claims the 1,000mAh battery included in the Elite Edition kit can give you “up to” 12 minutes of flight time. In reality, expect around five to 10 minutes, depending on the conditions. If that doesn’t sound like much time to have fun, it’s not. You can purchase a 1,500mAh battery, which extends the flight time to a maximum of 18 minutes. (Though we have our doubts about that claim.) But if you really want to get in some good flight time, we recommend picking up a second battery, which will cost you about $50. 

Last landing

Despite the scary “drone” name, the AR.Drone 2.0 is, simply, a toy – a really, really fun toy. We can complain about the app confusing app selections, connectivity issues, and abysmal battery life – but the fact is, this thing is awesome, user-friendly, and relatively easy to fly. If you didn’t get an AR.Drone this Christmas, we can only hope you have a birthday coming up soon. 

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