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Macworld 2010: Hands-on with the Parrot AR.Drone

We first heard about the Parrot AR.Drone, an iPhone-controlled RC quadrocopter, back when it made such a big splash at CES, but unfortunately, since we weren't there, we didn't get to see it in person. Fortunately Parrot did come by Macworld, and the day before the show, we finally got to see their iPhone-controlled, dual camera-equipped, high tech toy in action.

So what's the verdict? It's not super easy to fly (we crashed it into the walls, the ground, and even their marketing guy), but it's the real thing -- the extremely light (3/4 of a pound, as our own Steve Sande estimated with remarkable accuracy) quadricopter is packed with all kinds of fun gadgets, including variable speed rotors, the ability to lift off, hover, and land on its own, and super-sensitive touch controls along with two 640x480 VGA camera feeds running back to the iPhone via 802.11G Wi-Fi. We're not sure how ready it actually is for market (or what it'll cost yet), but the AR.Drone does what it says on the not-yet-designed box: Allows you to control a real quadricopter with and through your iPhone.

Read our impressions of the hands-on below, and don't forget to stay tuned -- we'll have video of our demonstration later on.


The copter itself is actually very durable for what it is. There are two circuit boards inside of a foamlike superstructire that easily handled the bumps and bruises we gave it during our hotel hallway tests. The center section reaches four light arms out to four propellers, each with their own variable speed engines and tiny LEDs that glow red and green depending on whatever speed they're spinning to control the copter's roll and pitch. When it's actually up in the air, the copter hums about as loud as your old PC -- noticeable, but not enough to interrupt a conversation, and easily talked over. There is a breeze coming from the rotors, as you might expect, but once you get about two or three feet below the rotors, it dissipates.

Controlling the thing, however, is easier said than done. The current interface (we were told that the drone and the app prototypes we saw were about 80% complete) is plain, with just a few green indicators over surprisingly clear video send directly from the two onboard cameras, one facing forward and one facing straight down. The iPhone can switch views between the cameras, or even set up a picture-in-picture view.

The copter is controlled with both the touchscreen and the iPhone's accelerometer -- you can make the drone propel forwards or backwards by manipulating a virtual joystick with your left thumb, send it lower or higher by pushing your right thumb up and down a green meter, and then turn or tilt it left or right by shifting the iPhone's accelerometer. If that sounds complicated, you've probably got it right -- basically, you've got to keep the iPhone tilted in the right direction, while simultaneously moving your left thumb forward or back to control speed, and moving your right thumb up or down to change the copter's height.

Flying it around an empty room is a piece of cake (until you turn the copter around and have to control it backwards), but manipulating it carefully requires practice and dexterity. Probably not as much as a full RC plane, but even by the end of our short time with it (about 30 minutes or so -- battery life on the copter is currently around 15 minutes), we were only starting to get it going in the right direction.

Fortunately, the copter can take care of itself, too. There's also a button on the screen marked "Take Off," and if you hit that, the copter will lift itself off the ground, and hover calmly a few feet above the air all on its own. When in the air, the button changes, and it'll land automatically as well. If you ever let the accelerometer go (return it to level), the copter's bottom camera will search the ground for a familiar pattern, and as soon as it finds something (the carpet we were flying it over had some clear patterns and shapes that it easily spotted), it will level itself off and hover in the air, waiting for you. One of the company's reps even waved his hand underneath the camera, and the copter momentarily fluttered until it was able to ID the ground below and level itself back out.

Parrot made a big deal of how open they wanted the functionality to be, but unfortunately most of the specifics are still stuck behind a veil of plans. They say they want the app to be free, and that they have opened it up to developers to create their own applications and uses. The copter can currently carry 100 grams without too much trouble, and the Parrot reps told us that a cargo hook is a no-brainer, but that they'd probably wait for someone else to develop it. They weren't able to demo the camera's AR abilities for us at the show, but they say that they have two companies currently working on AR games for the Drone. Which ones? "We're waiting until testing is done to say names."
Price hasn't yet been decided yet either -- while a few prices have leaked out online, the Parrot folks confirmed that no official price has been said or set. Nevertheless, they're adamant that it'll be for sale before the end of 2010, so if you're already sold no matter the price, keep your credit card at the ready.

Who the drone will sell to is probably the most interesting question still to be answered -- the company told us plainly that they consider it to be a toy, and that they plan to sell it to the same type of people who would be interested in video game consoles and high tech gadgets like that (and who would presumably already own an iPhone). But it's not really a pick-up-and-play device at all -- while you can definitely fly the thing around within a few minutes, actually guiding it to the degree that you'd need to operate a game will take quite a while.

Still, it's a cool device, and even if the company just posts this prototype for sale on its website, there are people out there who will buy them. We also asked about the iPad, and if they'd tested it with Apple's yet-to-be-released touchscreen, but they said that they hadn't even cracked open the SDK. Presumably, the app will work, since all iPhone apps will work with Apple's tablet, but they haven't tested it at all.

So as with many of the questions around the AR.Drone, we'll see. Still, it's a wonder. There are lots and lots of people who would like to fly a real-life camera-equipped quadricopter using software on their iPhone, and that's exactly with the AR.Drone does.

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