There isn’t a whole lot of wiggle room between toy helicopters/quadricopters and enthusiast remote controlled helicopters. The former are inexpensive toys that often cost less than $100 and are often really difficult to fly. The latter are extremely expensive devices for hobbyists that require a lot of room and safety precautions. The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 sits in the middle; it’s a $299.99 ($369.99 for the Power Edition with two extended batteries) quadricopter you control with your smartphone or tablet. The AR.Drone features two built-in cameras, is easy to fly, and can be controlled without too much danger of it flipping over or smashing into things. If you want a satisfying flying toy that can take photos and (silent) videos and makes you feel like a gadget genius for controlling it with your mobile device, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is a dream toy.
The drone itself is a plastic quadricopter with four plastic rotors. Two styrofoam bodies are included: an indoor body with foam rings surrounding the rotors, and an outdoor body that keeps the rotors exposed. The bodies slip right over the drone frame and stay securely in place with a little pressure. The drone doesn’t have a power switch; it’s activated by plugging in a battery, setting it in the battery slot, and setting the body over it.
The AR.Drone 2.0 doesn’t come with any sort of controller, because it relies on an Android or iOS device connected to a Wi-Fi hotspot the drone generates. Yes, you need a tablet or smartphone to pilot it. On the other hand, it means whatever you use to control it can double as a point-of-view display for the drone’s onboard cameras, and that you can customize how the drone behaves based on the controls. The app uses a two-“stick” control system by default, using the left stick (an area on the touch screen you can move in four directions) to control elevation and the drone’s direction, or yaw, and the right stick (another four-directional area) to move the drone forward, backward, left, or right relative to either where it is currently facing or relative to a universal direction set when you turn the drone on. If you have an Nvidia Shield portable gaming device, you can control the AR.Drone 2.0 with its physical analog sticks, which makes piloting the drone feel more responsive.
You can record whatever the AR.Drone 2.0 sees through its forward- or down-facing camera in 720p quality. The mobile app handles all recording and storage, so any video or photos you take are automatically added to your smartphone or tablet; the drone doesn’t have any onboard storage. It doesn’t record sound, because the drone’s rotors would drown out any audio it could capture. Video quality is decent indoors, but don’t expect anything better than what you’d shoot with an inexpensive smartphone.
The AR.FreeFlight software is your main method of both piloting and recording video from the AR.Drone 2.0, and it’s the simplest way to update the drone’s firmware. It can also map out and geotag your flights, upload your photos and videos to Parrot’s AR.Drone Academy service, and browse other users’ photos and videos.
Both flying and shooting movies and photos with the AR.Drone 2.0 is surprisingly intuitive. The drone does a very good job of staying stable in the air, hovering consistently in a small area when you’re not directly controlling it. Despite this, be prepared for a few crashes as you get the hang of flying it, and you should probably keep the indoor shell on until you know you can control the drone. Fortunately, it automatically shuts down when it crashes, letting you know something went wrong in the app and preventing damage that could come from rotors spinning uncontrollably against a surface. If you have a backyard or a big enough room, you can figure out how to fly the AR.Drone 2.0 in just a few hours of entertaining experimentation. While the Nvidia Shield’s physical controls were the most responsive, I didn’t have any problem flying the AR.Drone 2.0 with my Google Nexus 7($199.12 at Walmart).
It takes a lot of energy to keep a drone aloft, and that means you’ll be swapping or charging batteries about every 10 minutes. A full charge on the battery gives the AR.Drone 2.0 about 12 minutes of flight, which isn’t very impressive but on par with other remote controlled drones. The battery charges with the included AC adapter, and it takes approximately an hour and a half to fully charge. The AR.Drone 2.0 Power Edition comes with two higher-capacity batteries that give you combined 36 minutes of flying time, but unless you’re willing to invest in either the Power Edition or additional batteries your flights will have to be short and sweet.
A stunt command lets you make the AR.Drone 2.0 do barrel rolls or flips by double-tapping the screen. It’s a fun trick, but it also kills the battery quick; in my tests, after a few barrel rolls, the drone was down to less than 30 percent of battery life after only five minutes of flying. Once the battery power gets below a certain level, the stunt function stops working so it doesn’t run out of power mid-flip. You can still keep flying it until the battery becomes critically low, at which point the drone will power down and attempt to land safely.
The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is a nice middle ground between toy and enthusiast device. It’s not a remote controlled helicopter for hobbyists and it’s not a quadricopter camera mount for professionals, but it’s much more than just a toy helicopter. It’s especially appealing if you have an Nvidia Shield, which gives you one of the few ways to fly it with conventional controls instead of a touch screen. If you have the cash, and you’re looking for a fun tech toy that isn’t a new game console, this is a quadricopter to consider.
- Fairly easy to fly and perform stunts with.
- Camera function is fun.
- Mobile apps are useful and functional.
- Short battery life like most remote-controlled flying toys.
- Requires a smartphone or tablet.
- Physical controls are only available with an Nvidia Shield.