AR. Drone 2.0 Review: HD flights, crashes and accessibility

I never got much of a chance to play with the original AR. Drone, but even with limited experience, the improvements are obvious. Improved flight, more accessibility and new functionality based on user feedback. There’s little more we could have asked of Parrot as they use what they learnt the first time around to develop the ultimate beginners RC flying experience.

While it could take months to truly master, the AR. Drone 2 is a quadricopter that can be picked up and controlled competently by anyone. Well, with a little bit of crashing, but that’s why it comes with the protective casing that you can see in action in the video below. The Drone also comes with a more aerodynamic shell that is recommended for outdoor use, but only once you’ve grasped a solid understanding of the controls.

Basically, use the indoor shell (even outdoors) until you’re confident that inevitable crashes will be kept to a minimum.

The AR. Drone 2.0 is controlled using an iPhone, iPad or compatible Android device with its accompanying app. The controls can be tweeted for flight veterans or rookies with limited experience. The most fruitful customisation is the ability to fly using joysticks on the touchscreen or to turn on “absolute” mode and control the drone using the iPhone’s (in our test flight) gryo motion sensor.

Ritchie and I quarreled over which was better, but as somewhat of a newbie, I found the absolute motion control setting to be far superior. Despite displaying what the camera sees on your screen, the Drone is designed to be flown whilst in your field of vision. With the more protective shell on, it looks the same from all angles, which becomes problematic when trying to use the joystick, as there’s no easy way to identify which side is the front from 30 meters way.

The motion controls alleviated this issue. No matter which way the Drone is facing, it will always return to you by pulling back and fly away when pushing forwards. While it doesn’t quite offer the same precision, it’s more intuitive and easy to pick up and use, particularly in the windy courtyard in which we decided to have some fun.

Flight itself is fairly stable, and while it appears to be affected by wind in our demonstration video, it was an unfashionably windy day and we weren’t using the outdoor shells for fear of totally ruining a $349 piece of kit that didn’t belong to us (not that it’s stopped us before). Despite a little shakiness, the Drones were responsive and we were always in complete control.

I did crash into a light post one time (and again in an elevator), but in fairness, I told it to go there.

Crashing instigates an emergency cut out, which can also be activated by the user, and shuts down the drone mid-flight. In layman’s terms, you’re directing your drone to crash, but without an RC International Rescue to save the day, it is occasionally the only option. Preferably, you’ll use the rather impressive landing option. With the touch of a button, it gently brings itself back to the ground. Being the daredevil I am, I sent it up over 30 meters to see what would happen, and despite a shaky approach, it landed itself very smoothly.

It didn’t even set itself on fire a little bit.

Like its predecessor, the AR. Drone 2 is open source and will fully support third party applications. That’s impressive, and will develop a massive community, but most extraordinary is that Parrot developed their improved version around what the community asked for. The original model didn’t include video recording functionality out of the box, but third party apps led to over 12,000 videos being uploaded to YouTube.

As a result, 2.0 is all about video recording, in glorious HD. Videos are streamed back to your Wi-Fi device, and can also be recorded directly to USB memory inside the Drone, as to not overload the limited capacity of your probably already full iPhone. From here, it can be uploaded directly to various social media sites or used in anyway you please.

The video connection isn’t as fluid as it could be on the iPhone screen, but this is no indication of what you’re recording. While it has a tendency to drop out, the recorded video will be complete without the blemishes present on your control device when you download the footage.

That’s not really an issue, however, as it’s near impossible to watch the screen as you’re flying. Unless you get into some real trouble and lose visual contact with the Drone itself. If that happens, expect a crash, as it’s impossible to pilot successfully using nothing but the on-board camera.

The only blighting fault is its awful battery life. The Parrot reps were quite proud that is uses the same battery as the original model and maintains the same 12-15 minutes of life per 90 minute charge, but to them, I ask, why didn’t you update it? 15 minutes of life is horrendous, and it seems to drain even faster when recording.

I realise it may have been expensive, but it at least should have come with two batteries in the box. Parrot must have realised that this is its massive Achilles Heal, and a second battery was the easy fix. Near-as-makes-no-difference 30 minutes between two batteries would have been a significant improvement.

You can do that yourself, by throwing down an extra $50, but you really shouldn’t have needed to. In essence, the AR. Drone 2.0 costs $400, not $350, and comes with a second battery, unless you only want to play for 15 minutes at a time.

The AR. Drone 2.0 is great fun for both novice and experienced RC pilots. There are plenty of options to customise the controls for either audience, with a real emphasis on accessibly that high end models don’t have. Parrot has listened to its consumers and included video recording software in addition to its new HD camera. The Drone itself handles well and is considerably more stable than the original version. The only massive flaw that might deter some is its horrible 12-15 minute battery life. I’m astounded that it doesn’t come with a second battery; most users will want to spend the extra $50 on a second one, on top of its $349 price tag. If you can overlook that, it will be a great bit of kit made accessible to nearly anyone when it launches in Australia this June.