The AR.Drone: Start your Xmas shopping early

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That's it people. Summer's over. We're now on the headlong rush to the Christmas holidays (only 102 shopping days left at the time of writing) and it is nothing like too early to take a break from the serious stuff this column normally delivers. So, with that excuse we'll take a look at a device that I'm pretty certain most of you would like to find under the tree on the 25th.

This product is the AR.Drone, manufactured by a company called Parrot SA (mais oui, they are indeed French) and sold in the U.S. by Brookstone.

This $300 device is a totally amazing, electrically-powered, four rotor flying machine (i.e. a "quadricopter") that has a lot of really cool technology, including Wi-Fi networking, built in.

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The airframe consists of a hub that houses the electronics and battery from which sprouts four spars. These spars each support an electric motor with a propeller.

You can choose between two covers for the hub; one that just covers the hub leaving the propellers exposed and another that fits over the hub and shrouds all four propellers. This latter configuration is a great idea because when you fly indoors, even though it won't stop you from knocking over that priceless Ming vase or smashing those hideous Meissen figures, it will minimize propeller damage.

So, the tech involved: To begin with, the AR.Drone is controlled by an application that runs on the iPhone and the iPod Touch and communicates with the helicopter over an ad hoc Wi-Fi connection (an Android version is promised for the near future). Note that, contrary to what it says on the Brookstone Web site, there is no iPad application that can control the AR.Drone.

Now, when I write "controlled" I don't just mean using the usual keys or buttons, I mean you can fly the AR.Drone by simply tilting the iPhone or iPod Touch (these devices both have three-axis gyroscope systems that provide the control inputs).

But wait! There's more! The AR.Drone also has two color cameras on board; one facing forward with a 93° wide-angle lens and VGA resolution (640 by 480 pixels) that operates at 30 frames per second, and another with a 64° lens that operates at 60 frames per second. You can watch the view of either or both cameras (the latter in picture-in-picture style) on your iPhone or iPod Touch. Way cool.

And here's where the tech gets really clever: The downward facing camera is used to auto-stabilize the 'copter so that it can hold a position even in a light wind. It achieves this feat by monitoring the image of the ground to detect positional changes.

And there's more cunning tech: The 'copter's height is maintained by an ultrasonic altimeter on the underside of the craft which is effective up to a height of 19.7 feet while movement is detected and controlled by its own on-board, two-axis gyrometer, three-axis accelerometer, and a high-precision single-axis yaw gyrometer. The whole system is controlled by an embedded Linux system running on a 468 MHz ARM9 processor with 128 MB of 200MHz DDR memory.

Power is supplied by an included Lithium Polymer battery providing a flying time of around 10 minutes (I'd recommend buying a second and even a third battery as they take about one hour to recharge which means an annoying wait between flights without another battery; Brookstone sells them for $29.95 each).

You start the AR.Drone by tapping the power button on the iPhone or iPod Touch screen. The machine will spin up its rotors and then autonomously rise to a height of about four feet and wait for you to take control. It really is that easy.

Flying is simple: You move the right hand on screen control up and down to increase or decrease height and left or right to rotate clockwise or counterclockwise (i.e. for pilots that's yaw right or left).

The left hand onscreen control enables sensing the iPhone or iPod Touch pitch so if you tilt the iPhone or iPod away from you the craft moves forward, while tilting towards you moves the craft backward. Not surprisingly, tilting right and left moves the craft as you might expect, right and left respectively.

The AR.Drone has a beginner mode which reduces the sensitivity of the controls and limits the maximum height. Alternatively there's an expert mode which takes a bit of practice (and a lot of crashes) to master.

This machine is really well designed and thought-out. When my son tried flying the AR.Drone, a gust of wind carried it over the house. Cursing colorfully I went around the house looking to see where it had landed on the roof. It turned out that the gust had carried it clean over the house and having lost connection with the control application, the AR.Drone was hovering at six feet above the ground patiently waiting for re-connection!

Outdoors with no obstructions the 'copter's maximum range is about 100 or so feet (in practice, the range is much like you'd experience with any Wi-Fi system).

Now, the really cool part: The "AR" in the name stands for Augmented Reality. You can apply "targets" to the copter's frame that can be detected by the camera systems on another AR.Drone when a game version of the control application is used. This allows the imposition of virtual gunfire and missile strikes that can be seen on the iPhone or iPod Touch screen – in other words, it's a dogfight! The software can determine when the other 'copter has been hit and you score points accordingly.

Not having two AR.Drones to play with (and not being capable of flying well enough for dog fighting anyway) I wasn't able to test this feature, but the videos on the Parrot Web site make it look very entertaining.

Parrot also provides a free developer's API. This consists of a library module that runs on the controller device (current versions are only available for Apple's IOS and Google's Android).

This library mediates all communications between the controller and the 'copter so there's no way to directly control an AR.Drone. Although this means it's easy to issue commands that actually involve some complex, low level control functions on the 'copter and prevent you from messing things up, it also means that implementations for other operating systems and control devices is completely controlled by Parrot, thus PC or Linux software development is currently not possible.

Why Parrot hasn't created a PC application is hard to fathom. Considering the current software, one feature that I wish the control application would implement is an auto-heading mode so that a movement to the right while flying forwards would cause the 'copter to turn into the direction of travel; currently you have to be coordinated enough to remember to use the rotate (yaw) control when using the left hand control to move right or left. As I have trouble with the "rub your head, pat your stomach" challenge at the best of times, this kind of control is going to take a lot of practice (I hope they don't want the review unit back too soon).

Another missing feature is the ability to record the video from the AR.Drone, something I'd hope to see in a near future release.

My few complaints and wants aside, this is a truly remarkable piece of engineering for the price. Similar though more sophisticated devices such as the Draganfly X6 are very pricey (starting at $18,990!) or they are do-it-yourself projects such as the incredible Mikrocopter Hexacopter (around $1,500). Compared to these devices the AR.Drone is cheap and pretty much instant fun. I'll give the AR.Drone a rating of 5 out of 5.

Gibbs files his flight plans in Ventura, Calif. Your mission to gearhead@gibbs.com.

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This story, "The AR.Drone: Start your Xmas shopping early" was originally published by Network World.

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