Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Is Close, but No Cigar

Dr. Mac's Rants & Raves
Episode #92


The Parrot AR Drone is a high-tech, ultra lightweight, remote-controlled quadricopter (helicopter with four rotors). Now an RC quadricopter is pretty cool, but one that streams HD video from its camera to your iPad, iPhone, or Android device in real time, could be very, very cool. I’ve dreamed about owning for one for years, but only found the courage last month to plunk down $299 for the latest and greatest model, the Parrot AR Drone 2.0 Elite Edition.

The button says “I Want It” and boy did I ever…

Why did I want one and what did I hope to use it for?  I’m glad you asked. I am about to start work on a video of our house, which we’re putting on the market, and I wanted a killer opening shot. I was thinking either a crane shot from the street that gradually revealed the house, then the roof, the back yard, the neighbor’s yard, and finally, the greenbelt beyond. Or, possibly, a tracking (hovering?) shot starting at the street, flying up the path and through the front door into the house, ending up looking out the open front door from the great room.

I won’t spoil the suspense this time; you’ll have to read on to find out if got what I wanted.

Anyway, after unpacking it, installing the (free) FreeFlight app on my iPad, and then waiting two hours for its 1000mAh lithium polymer battery to charge, I headed for a nearby soccer field to practice flying my new toy:

Me flying the AR Drone (frame grab from video shot by the drone)

The FreeFlight app makes it easy enough for anyone to fly the drone and my first flight was fun and uneventful. I hovered up and down, flew forward and back, and landed safely. It was kind of fun, but then I discovered the first of many disappointments with the drone: Its battery lasts just 10-12 minutes.

I figured I’d need two or three spare batteries, so I was pleased to learn that Parrot offers a higher-capacity (1500mAh) spare battery rated for 18 minutes of flight. I was much less pleased when I discovered that they cost $60 each plus shipping and decided I could wait. (And, since my $300 toy takes two hours to recharge, I did quite a bit of waiting).

After recharging, I returned to the soccer field and almost immediately found a much worse problem than the ten minutes per battery charge: The wind. Apparently all the sample videos I watched on the Parrot web site were shot on totally windless days. The day I started flying we had gusts up to 5 or 6 mph, but that was more than enough. With the drone hovering at about 30 feet, a strong gust of wind sent it soaring upward and out of control, across a street and out of sight, where it ultimately crashed into a tree.

Spoiler alert: It doesn’t end well for the drone

Fortunately, the drone escaped unscathed and lodged in a low-hanging branch. Still, the thought of losing such an expensive toy to a taller tree or a busier street haunted me so much that I went home and checked on the cost of replacement parts. I was shocked to see that a Styrofoam-like replacement hull was over $50, and four cheap plastic propellers were $12 plus shipping (of course). My $300 toy was starting to look like a flying money pit.

My biggest disappointment, however, wasn’t the seriously short battery life or the ridiculously expensive replacement parts. That honor (or dishonor) goes to the AR Drone’s camera and its video quality. After watching the sample videos on Parrot’s web site, I expected to get smooth, silky video. But nothing I shot – and I shot nearly two hours of footage – was even close to the quality of the demos. In fact, just about everything I shot was shaky, jerky, and virtually unusable.

And this was one of my better flights!

Which brings up one final disappointment: The FreeFlight app, which is required to fly the drone, is indeed free. But its “Director Mode,” which is a must for stabilized and smooth trajectories in your crane and panning shots (among other things), is a $3.99 in-app purchase, which I consider pretty darn cheesy after shelling out $300 for the toy. Sigh. While Director Mode helped a bit, my videos were still too jerky and unstable to use. After a little over a week (and nearly two hours in the air), I returned it for a refund and started saving for a drone that’s not a toy (like this one from DJI):

With a better camera, 25-minutes air time, and separate flight and camera controls, this baby is no toy

Prices start at $900, so I can’t afford or justify one just yet, but it sure would be cool…

Oh, and my editor just reminded me we have a deal on the DJI Phantom FC40, the model underneath the Phantom 2 Vision. It retails for $649, but through TMO's deal it's $499.

There is one more thing (in case you were wondering): The videos above are unedited and unretouched, showing exactly what the drone camera captured. The only processing I did was speeding up the footage 2x (so you wouldn't have to watch for as long to get the picture, pun intended). I also added opening titles and closing credits , but you knew that. 

Product Info

AR Drone 2.0 Elite Edition by Parrot ($299)
DJI Phantom 2 Vision by DJI: ($899)

And that’s all he wrote…