If you grew up watching Star Wars — and let’s face it, if you’re 50-years-old or younger, you did — at one time or another you probably fantasized about how cool it would be to fly an X-Wing, or a TIE Fighter, or perhaps the Millennium Falcon. These fictional vehicles are so ingrained in our collective western culture, it’s no wonder they’ve been brought to life again (and again) as models, action figures, video games, and LEGO. Oh the LEGO!
But none of these incarnations have managed to combine an authentic appearance with the ability to actually fly. Spin Master came closest, but Propel’s new Star Wars Battle Drones have set the bar so high, it may be years before someone else even tries. The question is, did they do enough to please both Star Wars fans and drone enthusiasts, or are these just another set of mediocre Star Wars products? Read our Propel Star Wars Battle Drones review to find out if these are the drones you’re looking for.
Down is up
Propel’s high-flying lineup consists of three Star Wars Battle Drones, which sell for $179 each. Buyers can choose from the Star Wars 74-Z Speeder Bike, the Star Wars TIE Advanced X1, and the Star Wars T-65 X-Wing Starfighter. Originally there was supposed to be a Millennium Falcon too, but currently it’s on hold (apparently it’s a temperamental ship in real life as well as the movies).
The drones themselves are tiny, featherweight models that are controlled via an included 2.4Ghz remote control. This remote also pairs with your smartphone over Bluetooth, giving you control via the free Propel Star Wars Battle Drones app (iOS/Android), which runs both training simulations and live battle tracking. You can fly them indoors or outdoors — at speeds up to 35 MPH, according to Propel — up to several hundred feet away, and they pack both infrared and visible light emitters and receivers, for use when battling.
But what’s really unusual about these drones is that they’re inverted. Their props face down, not up, which means they’re pushed into the air rather than pulled. We don’t know if there’s any control or flight advantages to this layout, but we can say this: It’s the perfect system for preserving the look of these iconic Star Wars vehicles.
With no propellers visible above, and only a tiny set of transparent props below, it’s a lot easier to maintain the fantasy that you’re controlling a real Star Wars ship, instead of a Star Wars model that someone has wrapped around the frame of a quadcopter. Plus, bumping one of these drones into the ceiling isn’t a problem — they will happily keep pushing on that barrier until you bring them back down or the battery dies.
Be warned though: those transparent props look great until you’re trying to find one that came off after a crash… Good thing Propel not only includes six replacements of each prop type, but also offers free replacement parts for the first year.
Sweating the small stuff
The other standout aspect to these drones is the incredible attention to detail that Propel has achieved. Our two review units, a TIE Advanced X1, and a T-65 X-Wing Starfighter, look like perfect miniature versions of the movie machines. The scale of their features, the matte finish of the paint, the tiny patterns and details worked into the plastic… it’s hard to believe these things can also fly, and can interact with each other.
The inverted design is perfect for preserving the look of these iconic Star Wars vehicles
Most RC vehicles, regardless of size or budget, use a standard rechargeable battery, but Propel has customized the batteries for these vehicles by wrapping them in cases that become part of the vehicle’s body when inserted. This approach eliminates separate battery compartments and covers, and helps to maintain each vehicle’s proportions. The downside is that the batteries and chargers are unique to each model — you won’t be able to use the X-Wing’s battery on the TIE Fighter or vice versa.
Our one criticism is that the X-Wing’s forward motors and struts are painted to match the fuselage, which changes the iconic lines of the famously dart-shaped ship. We think these parts should have been painted a different color — perhaps a dark grey — to maintain the look of the X-Wing. Fans who agree could probably take matters into their own hands with the judicious application of model paint, while being careful not to touch the motors.
Propel’s commitment to detail goes way beyond the actual drones. For Star Wars fans, the entire experience of unboxing and using these drones is a feast for the senses. Each drone is boxed in what can only be described as collector’s grade material.
The outer box is a smooth black surface with color prints for each vehicle and the obligatory Star Wars branding, but it only exists to protect the inner box: a silver-finished enclosure with a plastic relief rendering of the ship contained inside, and sealed on two sides with either Imperial or Rebellion plastic insignia. This kind of box is normally reserved for thousand-dollar wristwatches, not toys. Sadly, If you want to ever use the products within, you’ll have to damage this gorgeous packaging — the plastic insignias are glued to both the top and bottom box shells.
We normally wouldn’t comment on a product’s packaging, but in this case, it’s just too outstanding to gloss over.
Sound and light
Once you’ve made the heart-wrenching decision to open the box, you may want to darken the room a little and make sure there’s no music or TV on in the background. That’s because removing the top shell of the box will reveal the Star Wars model, sitting astride an angled display platform that automatically lights up and begins to play Star Wars-themed music and sound effects from its tiny built-in speaker.
We feel a little bad including this information as it’s a total spoiler, but we were just blown away by the experience, and it caught us totally off guard. Of course, you can always shut the box, and wait a minute — doing so will reset the sensor and trigger a new sound and light show when you lift it again. It’s an effect that never gets old (that little speaker does an impressive job!) so it’s a good thing that you can recharge the display’s battery using the same charger that’s provided for the drone’s batteries.
THX for the audio
Propel hasn’t just used Star Wars audio tracks for its display cases, it’s also embedded them into the drone’s remote control. Flip the controller upside down and you’ll see a small speaker grille, and a standard headphone jack. Whether flying these drones solo, or in a dogfight, you can surround yourself with Star Wars music, sound effects, and voices, either aloud or just for you to hear. It’s another surprisingly delightful detail that pushes the experience into that of an immersive video game, not just flying a drone.
You can surround yourself with Star Wars music, sound effects, and voices, either aloud or just for you to hear
Speaking of the controllers, they’re each themed to match their vehicle, complete with Imperial or Rebel insignias that also serve as power buttons. They’ve got rumble packs, which activate on start-up and shut down — as well as when your ship gets “hit” during battle — while the four shoulder buttons further blur the line between flying a drone and playing a video game.
Admittedly, we were a little concerned that Propel might have cut corners on the components for the remotes to keep costs down, but were pleasantly surprised to discover that the sticks feel solid, with just the right amount of spring tension, providing good feel and smooth transitions between directions. They’ve got some serious heft too, so the decision to include a lanyard loop is a thoughtful touch, as is the hidden screwdriver which does double duty — letting you access the battery compartment of the controller, and swap out components on the vehicles. Our only concern — and it’s a small one — is that the extendable phone holder feels a bit fragile, so just make sure you don’t get it caught on anything.
As of the publication of this review, Propel hasn’t released a single YouTube tutorial video on how to fly or battle these drones, which we think is a huge missed opportunity. But perhaps the company assumed new pilots wouldn’t need them because the app contains a training section. We could certainly be persuaded. It’s a phenomenal bit of programming, which lets you use the remote to control a matching virtual drone on-screen and work your way up the ranks as you gain experience and mastery over the control scheme.
The virtual drone responds to your commands instantly, thanks to the Bluetooth connection, making us wish we could use Propel controller for other apps too. The app even maintains a forced perspective, with the virtual drone flying away from you, becoming smaller as the distance increases, just as it would in real-life. It can be a little tough to judge these virtual distances (hey Propel, how about Daydream compatible version?) but this just means that if you can handle the sim, you’ll be much better in real life.
The one thing the simulation doesn’t get right is the drone’s tendency to drift and alter its altitude on its own. When it comes down to actually flying these drones, you’re finally reminded that these are still toys after all. Without any GPS, or visual positioning, or even ultrasonic sensors like Parrot uses on its bottom-of-the-line AR.Drone, these Star Wars drones behave unpredictably once airborne, requiring almost constant input on the sticks to keep them in a stable hover.
The remote has both calibration and trim functions, but we found these only corrected for massive problems with flight stability, instead of offering a good, clean hover. It will likely take novices dozens of flights to feel a true sense of control, so expect to crash often. The included prop guard will help, but we still managed to break it. Thankfully, the drones themselves are way tougher than their hand-painted shells look.
Is it a deal breaker? Hardly. With no onboard cameras, perfectly stable flight isn’t needed, and when it comes to dogfighting, it’s downright irrelevant — you won’t be stopping to admire the scenery. Propel’s solution to the issue of flight stability is to offer three flight modes, plus a training mode, each of which places different restrictions on vehicle speed, altitude, and stick sensitivity.
In training mode, rookie pilots can get comfortable with the controls and are less likely to careen their ship into a wall accidentally, while the most advanced mode enables a thrilling degree of speed and maneuverability. We found that when pushed to its limits in this mode, the aircraft couldn’t cope with massive and sudden changes in direction, often tumbling out of the air as its gyros failed to compensate for the extreme moves.
Rather than annoying, we think this just adds to the realism of dogfighting, because it requires the pilot to understand what their ship can and can’t do, and forces them to adjust their flying accordingly — just as any real pilot would have to do.
Still, no matter how you shake it, the fact of the matter is that these drones aren’t simple to fly. You can absolutely fly the Star Wars Battle Drones indoors in small rooms if you want — the included safety cage is a must for these flights — but you’ll only get the full experience of flying these ships outdoors (on a very calm day) or in a large indoor space, like a gymnasium. Propel recommends a minimum 100-foot radius for flight, but bigger is definitely better.
Propel’s technology adapts to up to 12 Battle Drones in the same flight space, by finding available frequencies automatically as each drone/controller combo is turned on. We only had the opportunity to test two drones at once, but this was enough to see how larger battles would work. You can choose between two weapon types — infrared or a visible, laser light. Which one you use depends on where you’re battling.
Whichever you weapon you choose, battling is a ton of fun.
In larger, outdoor area, the laser is preferable, since it’s less likely to be affected by ambient light, but it requires greater precision. Indoors, infrared works well, but in smaller spaces it could bounce off walls and reflective surfaces like windows, mirrors, or even TV screens. To get the full Star Wars effect, fire up a fog machine in your space, and you’ll actually see the laser lights.
Whichever you weapon you choose, battling is a ton of fun. The app tracks how many times each pilot scores hits (or takes hits from opponents) and declares a winner at the end of each round. You can choose how long each round will last, but you can only suffer three hits before you’re grounded for the rest of the round. Getting hit results in a rumble from your controller, a loss of control and wobble of your ship, sometimes causing a forced landing if your altitude is too low.
Experienced pilots will have a huge edge, as it can be challenging enough to get these drones to fly in the intended direction, nevermind having them correctly oriented toward an opponent while trying to fire at them. We were worried when we found out that the batteries are only good for about eight minutes of flight time, and that isn’t a lot when you’re learning.
But once you’re engaged in the heat of battle, it can feel like an eternity — you might even be thankful they don’t last longer. You get two batteries with each drone, and charging fully takes about 45 minutes. There is an 80 percent indicator on the charger, for those who simply can’t wait.
We experienced a few frustrating moments when, even after we completed the pre-battle set-up sequence, our ships failed to take off, forcing us to shut everything off and try again. Eventually it worked, but as with everything else when it comes to flying these drones, patience is a requirement.
Propel will issue full refunds on unopened products within 30 days, and also offers a 90-day warranty against defects, but that doesn’t include parts that break from crashing. For the first year after purchase, the company will provide free replacement propeller guards, propellers, landing gears, main rotor shafts, and canopies.
Propel’s Star Wars Battle Drones aren’t just toys; they’re miniature works of art, presented in packaging that would please even the most particular collector. The combination of attention to detail, design, use of sound effects and music provides a unparalleled real-life video game environment that we doubt can be had elsewhere, at any price.
You may find more detailed Star Wars models, and you may find drones that are more versatile and more satisfying to fly, but you won’t find these two attributes in one product anywhere. When you add the ability to battle other drones, Propel’s Star Wars Battle Drones are in a class by themselves. If you’re a Star Wars enthusiast, they’re a must-have.