I’ve become a crazyhead about flying drones this year.
For a long time, I could have told you that it’s exciting and challenging and fun, but I’m not sure I could have verbalized exactly what’s so deep-down, awe-inspiringly compelling about flying these things. I mean, aren’t they just more sophisticated versions of the little remote-control helicopters we’ve given kids for decades?
No, they’re not. The cameras on today’s drones change the game. It’s not flying a toy; it’s discovering the third dimension.
All your life you’ve spent on the flat earth. Your point of view is like an ant’s. You may know your town very well — but only from a two-dimensional ground level.
You’re aware that there’s a third dimension; you just don’t have much access to it. There’s Google Earth and aerial photography, but those are records of what your world looked like at one moment in the past. You can’t move through it. You’re not experiencing it.
A drone lets you do that, for the first time in history. It lets you look around, freely exploring vertical space, getting to know a whole new dimension of spaces and places you thought you knew well. It’s truly exhilarating.
(I really hope the FAA’s upcoming drone restrictions don’t squash this blossoming experience like a bug.)
Parrot is back
Mere mortals got a taste of this magic when Parrot introduced its AR.Drone in 2010 for $300. It used your phone or tablet as a remote control, which made a lot of sense (and saved a lot of money); the image on your device’s screen showed what the drone’s camera was seeing, virtual joysticks on the touchscreen controlled altitude and rotation, and tipping the phone or tablet controlled the drone’s forward/back movement.
Now, Parrot is back with a more sophisticated, $500 drone called the Bebop. Its computer, Parrot says, has eight times the power of its predecessor, and its sensors now include “a 3-axes accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, one ultrasound sensor with an 8 meters reach, one pressure sensor and a vertical camera.”
All of this winds up giving you amazingly stable, smooth, controlled flight. Even when the wind is blowing, and even if you’re a beginner.
The Bebop’s most dramatic failing is that it comes with no manual. And this is a device that needs one more than any other product on earth. You get only a Quick Start leaflet that’s almost criminally sparse. Here’s a taste:
“Insert the battery into the appropriate compartment.”
Yeah? Well, guess what: It won’t go. You can try inserting the battery into the compartment, but it simply won’t click into place; it refuses to dock that way. Online, some people give the Bebop 1-star reviews for this very reason. They get really frustrated trying to insert the battery.
I had to call a Parrot PR person to discover the secret: You have to pull a cable out of the battery compartment, connect it to a clip on the battery manually, and then push the battery into the compartment.
(David Pogue/Yahoo Tech)
Parrot is really hurting itself by depriving its potential army of pilots of these essential operating directions.
Like many other drones, the Bebop drone makes its own private Wi-Fi network; you’re supposed to hop onto it with your phone. It’s weird and nonintuitive, and it sometimes takes several minutes for the Bebop’s hotspot name to appear on your phone.
It does, however, let you fly the Bebop about 800 feet away from you. If the drone loses contact, it will use its GPS to fly back to you.
For another $400, though, you can buy something called the Sky Controller:
It gives you real joysticks to operate the drone, not the virtual ones on the phone’s screen. This gives you greater piloting precision. It clamps in your phone or tablet. It also features a huge Wi-Fi antenna that can boost the drone’s controllable distance to an impressive 1.25 miles.
The piloting app, Free Flight 3.0, is beautifully designed. You don’t have to mess with the hard parts: takeoffs and landings. Onscreen buttons command the drone to do those automatically.
The controls are simple: The left “joystick” makes the drone go up/down, and rotate left or right, stuck in one spot over the ground. To make the drone move, you press your thumb on the right “joystick” and tip the phone the direction you want to fly.
And if you double-tap the screen, the drone performs an absolutely stunning end-over-end flip. It’s all automatic, but onlookers think you’re some kind of godlike flying ace.
As with many of Parrot’s other drones, the Bebop comes with removable “bumpers” that help protect the drone (and your house) when you’re flying indoors. (Yes, you can fly indoors; yes, control is that precise.) That’s why you may see the Bebop looking very different from photo to photo.
(David Pogue/Yahoo Tech)
What I didn’t realize — because the Quick Guide doesn’t mention it — is that if you put the bumpers on, you also have to change a setting on the phone app to let the drone know. Otherwise, it flies crazily.
That’s why my first few flights were disastrous. The usual control gestures didn’t work; the thing would drift crazily through the air until it smashed into a wall with a sickening crack. The rotors would stop, the drone would drop to the floor, and an upsetting “danger!” beep came from the drone until I unplugged the battery.
By the time I discovered the “Hull” setting on the app, I’d crashed the Bebop three times. Badly.
But, incredibly, it still flew absolutely fine. The amount of abuse this thing can take is mind-boggling. And you get a spare set of propellers.
(David Pogue/Yahoo Tech)
There is, by the way, an actual manual — but it’s online, and the Quick Start guide doesn’t mention it. It’s here. You need it.
There’s also this four-minute video, which gives you an excellent tour of the controls.
Even these resources, however, say nothing about one of the Bebop’s coolest features: Supposedly, you can draw on a map on your phone or tablet to create an automated flight plan for it. I never did figure out how to do that.
Once I got the settings right, flight was delicious. You get two batteries and a wall charger for them. Each charge lasts 11 minutes. That sounds shockingly short, I know, but short flights are pretty standard for drones, even expensive ones.
The whole point of these advanced consumer drones is to see and record the world around you, of course. The Bebop’s 14-megapixel camera is integrated into the drone; in fact, the entire machine is essentially an 11-ounce platform intended to lift its own battery and the camera into the air.
Parrot saved weight, complexity, and money by locking this camera in place. The camera doesn’t rotate, tilt, or pan, as it does on, for example, DJI’s more expensive, professional drones.
And yet what’s crazy is that you can rotate, tilt, or pan the “camera” without any moving parts — virtually, in software. The camera is constantly capturing a full fisheye, 180-degree bubble of the world; using the controls on your phone screen, you can change the “angle.” That is, you can move around the window of visibility within that fisheye image. You control which slice of that view you’re getting.
All those megapixels are also used for the drone’s image stabilization, which is absolutely incredible. Even when the drone itself is bobbing in a strong wind, the video looks like it was shot on a tripod.
The footage quality is OK. It’s not as good as what you’d get from a GoPro; it looks more like something from a 2009 smartphone. If you care, the video is 1080p high definition, and you do get to view it in real time, although sometimes with stutters, on your phone’s screen.
I came to adore the fact that the drone begins recording video automatically when you take off. It’s a classic pitfall of drone flying: Because the first moments of flight are exciting, you always forget to hit Record.
You can stop or start the video, or take still photos, while in the air; you can also tell the drone to snap photos automatically every five seconds. It’s all stored in the drone’s built-in 8 gigabytes of memory and on your phone, so that you can easily share, play, or export your videos and pictures.
The joy of flight
Parrot makes much of the fact that you can plug in a virtual-reality headset like the Oculus Rift to immerse yourself even more fully into the drone’s airborne world. You can no longer see your hands or the controls, but supposedly you do feel more like you’re flying. (I didn’t try it.)
You don’t need to go that deep into drone piloting to have a great time with this drone. The Bebop is unique. It’s not one of those cheap toy drones that are fun to fly for a while but wind up stashed in the closet. It’s not a semi-pro drone that costs $1,000, or one of those professional drones for Hollywood and TV production that are $3,000 or more.
The Bebop hovers in a sweet spot that will soon be crowded with competitors. It’s a $500 drone with exceptional stability, rock-solid video stabilization, joyous little built-in acrobatics, and a dead-simple phone app. It is something special.
You wish there were decent instructions, and you wish the footage were a little sharper. Otherwise, though, this is a great first drone, or next drone, for anyone who’s serious about the pursuit of this exploding new realm — or anyone who’s eager to explore the third dimension most of us have forgotten.
Previously: The Phantom 2 Vision+ Drone: Your Eye in the Sky