First impressions of the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 Posted on 02 May 2012 at 23:48

I got my brand new AR.Drone 2.0 today. First bummer: the Android app is not yet available. As I have a HTC Desire Z, and no iPhone or iPad, I cannot use the full potential of the new drone. However, the old app is still usable: you don't get to see the video of the new 720p camera, and the absolute positioning feature doesn't yet work. The missing video isn't a real problem, because as a beginner, you really have to fly with the drone in range. The absolute positioning feature would certainly be useful, but again, beginners should start slowly.

Battery

At first, the battery didn't accept the charging. The charger kept blinking red, without the battery being loaded. I'm not sure what the problem is, but it's probably the cells being unbalanced. But one thing is for sure: the battery has much less capacity than what have could been fit into the size of it (1000 mAh instead of 2200 mAh at only 50 grams more). The loader is also awfully slow; the manual states 1.5 hours of loading, which presumably gives you 12 minute of flight time, which I estimate to about 9 minutes hovering, and much less when moving around. This basically isn't enough to even train. As soon as you get a grip on the controls, the battery levels drop to critical levels and the drone shuts down.

Flying

Flying is fun, but even as the drone is a quadro-copter, it takes some practice. For a beginner like me, as soon as the orientation changes from facing away from you, my control goes havoc. Fortunately the indoor hull provides protection. I strongly advise against flying without it indoors. When it hits a wall or some other object, the hull flexes, blocking a rotor and thus initiating an emergency shutdown. As the rotors are made of flexible plastic, no real damage happens. But keep your glue ready (I use Pattex Repair Extreme) to repair damages to the hull itself, which is made of foam plastic. I already broke a part, which was easy to fix with the glue.

I disabled the acceleration sensor based controlling, because it introduced another variable into the whole flying. It certainly is cool to control the drone by tilting your phone (for anyone not familiar with the AR.Drone: it connects via Wi-Fi to your Android or iPhone smartphone, which makes it really versatile), but in my experience, the tilting sensors in recent phones are a bit erratic and non-predictable. Instead you get two areas, the left one, where you control tilting and thus flight direction, and the right one, where you control height and rotation.

The main issue is the short operating time and the long wait for the battery to load again. I ordered some aftermarket batteries with more than double the capacity and a professional charger, which is able to charge the battery in about the same time which it takes you to discharge them. Even with all the built-in stabilization, controlling the drone is not easy and requires some training. Hopefully the additional batteries will allow that, so that I can someday use it outside and at heights more than 2 meters. I also ordered some bearings because I noticed that the rotors have much more clearance than they should have. I don't know if that makes much difference, but having the rotors sturdy seams like a reasonable precondition for controlled flight.

General thoughts

The drone being controlled with Wi-Fi is certainly an ingenious way, because it doesn't require a dedicated remote control. It also provides a return channel for the video feed. On the other side, the lack of a new Android app is really a let down, because by now they could have at least adapted the old one to accommodate the new video format. Wi-Fi also limits the useful range, but then again, a high-bandwidth connection which is required to transmit the video will always have some serious range limitations, or require dedicated directional antennas. I'm not yet sure if the AR.Drone is a real model airplane, or just a silly toy for people with too much money. I have yet to test the camera, and I don't expect cinema quality, but 720p30 at least sounds promising. Recording is done to a USB stick which you can directly put into your drone, or - at lower quality - directly to your phone.