Fly like a bird across the city with GPS drone and recorder

The Parrot AR Drone can now be pre-programmed with a GPS flight recorder and a standard Wi-Fi connection on your smartphone. It's pretty cool.

Excited geeks are getting adventurous with their Parrot AR quadcopters. When we last looked at the AR Drone in 2012, the four-rotor hi-tech helicopter Mark 2 had become capable of streaming video to an iPhone in glorious 720p high-definition resolution. It also could perform flips in the sky.

Now it’s a new ballgame. The AR Drone has transformed from a quadcopter you control manually from your phone to what is called an 'autonomous' drone -- one you pre-program with the destination and have it fly there automatically. There’s also a home button that, with one press, will see the drone automatically find its way back to its origin.

The consumer drone’s claim to hi-tech fame is its ability to be controlled via standard Wi-Fi using an app from an iPhone, iPad and ­Android device. It also has an impressive array of sensors -- a three-axis accelerometer and three-axis gyroscope to aid stability, and two ultrasound altimeter sensors that measure distance to the ground. The downward-facing camera helps it hover motionless even in light wind conditions.

We got to try it out with its new GPS flight recorder last week -- the so-called AR Drone 2.0 GPS edition. You attach the red flight recorder dongle directly above the battery and attach the drone’s USB connector. It has to sit on top for the GPS to work. The flight recorder has 4GB of storage for recording flight vision, enough for two hours of vision. But if you need more, you can plug another USB device into the back of it.

It’s not the sturdiest set-up I’ve seen. The velcro strap used to ­attach the dongle doesn’t seem that secure, and if you want to reattach the hull, you’ll find the velcro is out of alignment. To get around this, you can operate the drone without its hull. It worked, but there must be a better way.

It was then off to Sydney Park, a huge open space -- not too far from Mascot airport in Sydney, I should add -- to try out GPS-guided flying.

Overseas users already have achieved remarkable feats with Parrot’s GPS flight recorder. They include the AR Drone’s first transcontinental flight, across the Bosphorus, a 1km strait in Turkey that links Asia and Europe. On that flight, the drone flew with the help of QgroundControl, download­able open-source software you can use to create an AR Drone flight plan. Parrot says the new flight recorder is compatible with the software. You can even create several legs of the one flight.

The disparity is that it’s easy to pick a destination that’s way outside Wi-Fi range, which for me was 40m-50m. When the Parrot detects it’s out of range, it is supposed to hover. On the Bosphorus flight, they cheated by having an operator on a boat beneath the drone to overcome this limitation.

Others are using the new flight recorder to set a far more precarious destination, say 1km across a city, flying high over busy highways and residential districts. They’ve followed their Parrot in a car and, where it hovered, re-est­ablished a Wi-Fi connection to send it on its way again. Their adventures are on YouTube. This presents a nightmare to regulators such as CASA that are having to develop rules for urban drone use.

Being at Sydney Park, a stone’s throw from Australia’s gateway airport, near a busy roadway and not far from the residential precincts of Alexandria, St Peters and Newtown, I decided to be conservative in my testing of GPS-oper­ated flying.

On the Alan Davidson oval (named after a famous Aussie left-arm fast bowler from yesteryear), I programmed the drone to fly across the oval, over a picket fence, and land about 60m away. I also conducted some flights from the top of a hill at Sydney Park to a bunch of trees more than 100m away. Both were well in sight.

I did this using Parrot’s iPhone/iPad app AR FreeFlight 2.4. When pressed, a globe icon at the top right of the display brings up a map: you put your finger on the screen where you want the drone to fly to. (Memo to Parrot: on the iPhone you are forced to zoom down from world view to your current location.)

Your destination appears on the map in red. You can set speed and height in columns down the side. You then press the “take off” button and, once the drone is airborne, the “Go” button. In a few screen jabs, the drone is off to a preprogrammed spot. My drone made it across the oval several times, flying high above the fence but once narrowly missing a light fitting there -- the trick is to set the height above all obstacles. On the longer Sydney Park stretch, the drone hovered about halfway -- as it should.

In both cases, I was outside Wi-Fi range, so I walked towards the drone to reconnect. I found that when using an iPhone 5S as controller, I had to get closer than 20m to effect a reconnection and a couple of times I couldn’t reconnect at all. This took away some lustre.

Another new function, “home”, will send your drone back from wherever it is to the flight’s origin. Again, you have to be within Wi-Fi range for this to work.

The drone did indeed return, but often a few metres from the take-off spot. Don’t expect pinpoint accuracy.

The big bugbear with the Parrot drone is still battery life. You get just a dozen minutes of flight on one 1000 milliampere hour cell which takes about one hour, 15 minutes to charge. You definitely need to buy a couple of the larger 1500 mAh to get decent flying time. The battery drains even when the Parrot is on the ground but connected. Parrot needs to work on this as priority.

In addition to iOS and Android devices, the Drone Mark 2 can be piloted from a Windows 8 PC or tablet, an NVIDIA Shield and soon with gestures using a Myo armband.

There is a new Parrot model in the works, the Bebop drone, where the GPS is embedded. It has big 14 megapixel camera that snaps HD images and wide angle 1080p video with digital panning, and 8GB of on-board video storage. Most significantly, it runs with a Skycontroller, a tablet dock that boosts WiFi range to about 2km. That means serious flying. We’ll see it here hopefully in Q4 this year.

Sadly, there’s little suggestion of improved battery life.

Rating: 8/10
Price: $489.00 for drone and flight recorder;
$119 for flight recorder to upgarde AR Drone Mark 2.

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