AR.Drone 2.0 hands-on: Flying made iPad-easy

Update: The AR.Drone 2.0 is now available for pre-order — see here for details.

Parrot is a company that focuses primarily on in-car electronics, but you wouldn't know it from the more eye-catching technology in its portfolio. A quadrocopter hobby drone? Some seriously smart headphones? (We can't wait for more on those Ziks, by the way.)

With AR.Drone 2.0, which we got a taste of at CES 2012, Parrot has taken a hard look at the strengths and weaknesses of its first generation flier, and has come back with something that feels like a vast improvement over its predecessor. Read on to find out why I'd feel comfortable handing the controls of this drone over to my own grandmother.

What's New With 2.0

The first generation AR.Drone solidified the basics: four rotors that kept it stable, different hulls for indoor and outdoor flying, a VGA camera that was serviceable but ugly. As spritely as it was in the air, its control scheme (more on that below) often had you wrestling with it, and the less-than-stellar camera inspired several community hacks, such as modifying the hull to carry an HD GoPro cam.

Thankfully, AR.Drone 2.0 improves pretty much everything. That weak VGA camera's been ditched for an HD cam that pushes out in 720p. Using Parrot's app, recording flights is as simple as tapping a button, and you can push out to video sharing sites such as YouTube all from the app. You can share photos, too, and the app works with your Android or iOS device of choice.

There's still four rotors, but now there's a cocktail of sensors* built into AR.Drone 2.0 that makes flying higher a cinch. With the first gen drone, it was recommended that pilots stay under about 15 feet lest the breeze flip the thing over. AR.Drone 2.0 can fly as high as your Wi-Fi signal will allow, which is how it talks to your device, and can stabilize itself in winds up to 12 miles an hour. So, no flying in a monsoon, but you don't have to keep it close to the ground while flying at the park.

(*For the curious the AR.Drone 2.0 keeps itself stable midair thanks to an accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer and pressure sensor all talking to one another, as well as two ultrasound sensors and a ground-facing second camera to measure altitude and speed to keep the wind from turning the unit belly-up.)

The biggest and most impactful change here, however, is in how the AR.Drone 2.0 controls. In our video below, Parrot Vice President Peter George walks us through AR.Drone 2.0's new features. Parrot's Michaël Pastor was good enough to do some fancy flying for us — he'd be at home in an X-Wing, as you'll see.

How It Handles

The second generation AR.Drone adds a whole new way to fly it, and the change is hugely welcome. Parrot calls it the Absolute Control mode, and it makes piloting as easy as tilting your tablet or smartphone.

Before, spatial orientation was paramount. You constantly needed to have a handle on which way the drone was facing as commands were all relative. This meant you were looking down a lot at the drone's cockpit view on your smartphone or tablet, all the while nervously checking the drone to make sure you weren't bashing into things or giving out free haircuts to passersby. With practice, of course, flying gets smoother, but is it ever a rocky start.

You can forget all that with AR.Drone 2.0. Now, the flier keeps tabs on where you are using a 3D magnetometer. The conventional "Relative Flight" mode is still in there, which Parrot recommends for experienced pilots.

So, let's say you're using an iPad to fly with Absolute Control: holding your iPad flat in front of you like a food tray, whichever way you tilt it is the way the drone will go. It's simple, and lets you keep your eyes on the aircraft rather than on your device. What's more, it doesn't dumb the flying down. With just your thumbs you can nimbly rotate and adjust AR.Drone 2.0's altitude with ease. It's a very fluid experience, and one that has you thinking less about how awkward you feel controlling the drone in the air, and more about how fun it is to fly.

Parrot's also built a stunt into the drone's repertoire, and it's something we'd love to see the AR.Drone do more of: with a quick double-tap of the control, the drone will execute a tightly controlled flip. We're told it spices things up a bit when playing the drone's suite of augmented reality games. (The "AR" in the "AR.Drone.")

This Is The Drone To Buy

If you're even a little curious about Parrot's AR.Drone and have the cash to plunk down, the second generation drone won't leave you wanting. Between the elegant, simple app and the vastly improved flight controls, the AR.Drone has never been friendlier, and it keeps the same price point as the first generation while building on all the aspects that made it fun to fly.

Returning are the different flight hulls — a bumper hull for safe flying indoors, along with a speedier outdoor hull — as well as augmented games, which are all offered for free and easy to find through the app. Parrot especially wants to push more of these out, and the company will offer up a software development kit so hobbyist can come up with their own games and applications.

Parrot's first generation, which will be discontinued, had a steep initial learning curve that made its $300 price tag tough to swallow. AR.Drone 2.0 is a mature platform, one that Parrot's put a lot of thought and engineering behind, and it won't cost you a dollar more.

Look for the AR.Drone 2.0 this May for the aforementioned $300.

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