The vast majority of consumer-level drones on the market right now are either quadcopters or hexacopters: multi-rotor UAVs designed for vertical takeoff and landing. Parrot has been making them since its first AR.Drone in 2010, but opted to go in a different direction with the Disco: a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that flies very differently from the others.
Parrot’s pedigree in this area is not without precedent, as the company has made fixed-wing drones for commercial and agricultural purposes in the past few years. But this one isn’t for farmers or land surveyors – it’s designed specifically for drone enthusiasts, amateur filmmakers, and everyone in between, so we took it to the skies to see how it stacks up against the average quadcopter.
We got hands-on time with the Disco in Palm Springs back in August, flying it in a more controlled environment with Parrot reps close by. We covered the basics of the drone at that time, but here’s a quick refresher. Sporting a wingspan of 45-inches and a depth of 22-inches, the 1.6-pound body is made of expanded Polypropylene (EPP) foam and carbon tubes for reinforcement. There’s a sole propeller in the rear to give it lift, with winglet tips on the wings protruding up for better steering.
It uses the same 14-megapixel camera Parrot built for the Bebop 2, albeit with some software improvements to improve image quality. That is attached to the electronic box called C.H.U.C.K. (Control Hub and Universal Computer Kit), which includes a connector for the 2,700mAh battery. There is 32GB of internal storage onboard, without any memory expansion options. There’s also a micro-USB port for direct connections to PCs and Macs – but it’s only for content transfer, not for charging. The battery has its own charger requiring a wall outlet.The sensory technology onboard includes ultrasound, altimeter, camera, and speed sensors. A three-axis gyroscope, accelerometer, magnetometer, and GPS make up the internal navigation system.
The Disco comes bundled with the new SkyController 2 and CockpitGlasses headset. The controller is vastly reduced in size from its predecessor, simplifying storage and transport, and seems to last longer per charge too (it has its own rechargeable battery inside). The headset is in the same vein as others that utilize smartphones to display the content in 360-degrees. Parrot’s list of compatible handsets includes the most popular models, but unofficially, almost anything iOS or Android will work between 4.7- and 5.5-inch screen sizes. Renamed and redesigned, the FreeFlight Pro app manages and confirms the setup process.
Unlike DJI and Yuneec, Parrot doesn’t use its own proprietary wireless signal, continuing to go with Wi-Fi in the 2.4GHz and 5.0GHz bands. The new controller seems to offer a sturdier connection, but the range is obviously limited, which we noted while flying.
Setup and FreeFlight app
As we noted in our previous hands-on, assembling the Disco took no more than a few minutes. Setting it up to fly required turning it on via the power button sticking out up front, pairing it with the FreeFlight Pro app (iOS | Android) through Wi-Fi (the app finds the drone itself), and SkyController 2 to get it ready for flight. Initially, we encountered strange issues in getting the controller to connect. Killing the app and restarting it seemed to work, but this was something that happened more than once.
The controller has a slot and holder for mobile devices to keep the screen and app accessible for adjustments or recording and shooting footage. The app shows a live view of the Disco’s camera, much like other drones already do.
Prior to flying, the app does offer the chance to customize the controller’s configuration. By default, the flight mode is on “Flat Trim,” the best choice for starting out.
Takeoff was the easiest part. Upon pressing the takeoff/landing button, the motor started up, and once it was up to speed, all we had to do was throw it forward like a Frisbee for it to climb on its own. The sensors inside are impressive that way. We even tried throwing it upside down to see if it could reorient itself properly, and it totally did, flipping around automatically and taking off like normal.
Its fixed-wing design means it flies like a plane — always moving forward.
The Disco is programmed to climb to 164 feet (50 meters), and then stick to a “Loiter mode” holding pattern, flying in 196-foot diameter circles continuously until overridden manually on the controller with a simple flick in any direction on either joystick. The thruster on the left joystick can accelerate the drone to a max speed of 50mph, which can put it out of range quickly, so we tended to only use it for short bursts, especially when climbing or descending. We should note that Loiter radius and altitude is adjustable through sliders in the FreeFlight Pro app.
Technically, the Disco can go as far as 1.2 miles away, and slightly under 500 feet high to stick to FAA regulations. We were able to take it as far as 1,500 feet away, but without being in an elevated position, it was easy to lose sight of it, forcing us to press the Return Home button on the controller to bring it back closer to where it first took off. For that reason, we take the maximum distance with some caution because it didn’t seem practical when there wasn’t a vast, wide open area without any obstructions. The geofence to box it in is already on by default too, and toggling it off removes the restrictions on distance.
As we also noted when we first saw the Disco, its fixed-wing design means it flies like a plane — always moving forward. Quadcopters can pan 360-degrees, fly laterally, and go backwards. This one does none of that, so the Loiter mode was the only real recourse to putting the Disco on auto-pilot to adjust settings or take a moment to decide on where to go next.
The inherent need for line-of-sight with it made the Disco more interesting to fly because of the concentration involved. Were we too low for those trees way up ahead? Can we trust looking at the camera view to bring the drone back within view manually? What were the chances a bird might take a shot at the drone?
The learning curve in controlling the Disco’s basic movements was fairly gentle, but knowing how and when to use the controls to fly it with some panache takes time. We liken it to learning how to average a new car in tight traffic and parking spaces. The more you know the car, the more you know its physical limitations and how to avoid collisions. We crashed the Disco a few times, mistiming or misjudging its turn radius and upward trajectory.
Crashes are a fairly normal occurrence when you’re flying any drone for the first time, but quadcopters can at least change direction if the pilot moves fast enough. With the Disco, you have to act sooner because it can’t suddenly move at a 90-degree angle or stop in mid-flight.
What’s interesting about this is the different methods of flying. Pilots can fly only with the SkyController 2, with the controller and a mobile device, or with the controller and CockpitGlasses (using a smartphone inside). The FPV headset beams the drone’s view directly to your eyes, leaving the controls to be blind yet tactile. We also had someone else wear the headset, while we controlled the drone’s movements with the controller using a long cable to keep the phone plugged in to the controller.
Landing the drone was easily the most difficult thing to get right.
We tend to agree with Parrot’s recommendation that flying the Disco with someone else is advisable, though we did just fine in a smaller flight area without a spotter. Denser areas with a lot of people were too risky, so we chose parkland with wide open areas.
This had just as much to do with landing the drone, easily the most difficult thing to get right. The Disco needs about 150 feet ahead, and to drop down to 30 feet or lower, in order to land properly. If it doesn’t drop low enough, the auto-takeoff kicks in and climbs back up again to the default altitude. Grass is the best surface to land it on, so we did that exclusively, not wanting to take any chances with concrete, asphalt, or other rough surfaces. Snow, sand, and water are basically non-starters, so this is anything but an all-season or all-terrain drone. Experienced pilots who know what they’re doing might be able to get it to work in a variety of conditions, so we wouldn’t say never.
Alternatively, the Disco can do a corkscrew landing, an option provided through the app, except it needs an area at least 260 feet in diameter to pull it off.
On top of that, Parrot allows for other remote controllers to work with the Disco, only that it is full manual control, so there is no Loiter mode or anything automatic beyond takeoff. Flight Plan is a $20 in-app purchase for mapping out flights in advance. We didn’t get to try this out, so can’t attest to how good it is, but combining those two features adds a level of full control that enthusiasts and hobbyists might try to tackle.
FPV, images and battery life
Flying in FPV with the headset was really cool. Being able to see what the drone sees live reinforced the feeling of sitting in a cockpit. Resolution is not the sharpest, since this is running through a phone, but we didn’t mind that so much. Switching to “see-through” mode used the phone’s rear camera to get out of FPV mode and show us the real world. It was neat, but weird, because the 250ms latency made things look like they were kind of in slow motion.
The Disco immediately begins recording video when it takes off, so manually pressing that isn’t required. Footage is pretty good at 1080p HD, and still images aren’t bad. The image sensor and lens are the same as the Bebop 2, so nothing has changed physically, but some software tweaking seems to have helped the auto white balance adjust faster. Quality isn’t great in low-light, but that doesn’t matter as much because this isn’t a drone to fly in lower visibility anyway.
The 32GB of internal storage is good, and there is always the option to transfer content over to the phone or tablet via Wi-Fi on-site. Or you could transfer them to a PC or Mac through the micro-USB port (with the option to delete them from the internal storage right after).
Battery life was far better than just about any quadcopter currently offers. We flew the Disco for a total of 47 minutes on one charge, made up of five takeoffs and landings, with video recording at various stages. Wind conditions do factor in, so we recognize it’s a fluid number, but most quadcopters can barely do half that time in ideal conditions.
Parrot offers a one-year warranty on “support and assistance” and a 15-day return policy when purchased directly from the company. Sales from retailers defer to their return policies, which may or may not mirror those of Parrot’s.Our Take
The Disco is very well built and flies great, but it’s also hindered by its limitations. As a fixed-wing drone without landing gear, it doesn’t fly at the same acute angles nor land on various surfaces like a quadcopter can. On the other hand, it flies really well, and footage naturally looks more cinematic because of its constant forward motion.
The challenge within all that is where to fly it. Parks and wide open grasslands are the best choices, given this is clearly not designed to fly close to structures or people. Quadcopters have an advantage in that they can traverse denser areas by simply hovering, or flying really slowly, making it easier to set up a photo or video ahead of time. With the Disco, you can’t necessarily fly anywhere you want to, or fly with any autonomous filming modes like Cable Cam or Orbit — which limits in the type of footage you can shoot.
What are the alternatives?
Fixed-wing drones aren’t available in abundance yet, so the Disco’s unique design stands out for that reason alone. If we were to include quadcopters and hexacopters into the mix, the alternatives are more varied. For a little less, the DJI Phantom 4 is a quadcopter that shoots in 4K, and the DJI Mavic Pro does the same in a smaller, compact frame.
The DT Accessory Pack
GoPro has its new Karma quadcopter drone, and for $1,100, it comes bundled with a HERO5 Black camera, sweetening that pot a little further. Similarly priced, Yuneec’s Typhoon H is a hexacopter with folding landing gear to give its camera an unobstructed view for 4K shooting.
Even Parrot’s Bebop 2 is an alternative because it uses the same camera, controller and headset the Disco does. That drone can be had with the FPV bundle for under $1,000 now.
How long will it last?
Parrot built the Disco to last. The foam body comes off as being highly fragile, but we crashed it more than once and it can still fly. An extra propeller comes in the box, and it’s $70 for replacement wings, $100 for the motor inserts that attach to the wings directly from Parrot. Just about every aspect of the drone is available to buy as a spare part.
Should you buy it?
The Disco, which includes the SkyController 2 and CockpitGlasses, sells for $1,300. That’s a lot for any drone, and with the limitations in mind, it’s more ideally suited to enthusiasts and early adopters who would enjoy it. If you don’t consider yourself either of those, this isn’t for you.