The AR.Drone’s front camera is protected by both versions of the hull – the slightly insect-like appearance is misleading, as the “tail” is actually the front. Illustrative image © Richard Kilpatrick.
Aerial photography has always been an expensive endeavour, finds Richard Kilpatrick, but the AR.Drone, though more of a toy than a work tool, provides an affordable alternative.
Author: Richard Kilpatrick
24 Nov 2011 Tags: Accessories
Despite its relative limitations, the iPad has inspired unprecedented optimism among developers.
Hardcore techies have tried most things with a struggling, underpowered computer – watching hourglass timers spin interminably as their repurposed industrial PC accomplishes something a regular desktop would in a 20th of the time. But since Apple cracked the balance of power, the sky has been the limit in mobile computing. And one company saw the sky as a boundary that couldn’t be left alone. Parrot, better known for its in-car audio accessories and mobile-phone kit, developed an unusual augmented-reality gaming device called the AR.Drone. This quadricopter is a world removed from the pocket money electronic pests that hover for 15 seconds before clattering noisily behind the sofa; with onboard processing that rivals the smartphones the control app runs on, it offers a simple interface to an otherwise difficult flight technique.
For aerial video, there’s a growing base of enthusiasts using this inexpensive device to mount and mobilise compact video cameras such as the Go Pro Hero HD. It’s this capability that makes it interesting for film-makers – giving access to views, locations and angles that would otherwise be impossible to reach. At least, that’s the theory. I’ve been abusing a £299 AR.Drone for the past couple of weeks to see how realistic that is.
From a cold start, with little experience of radio-controlled flight beyond some very off-putting and expensive experiments with traditional aircraft (RC helicopters are a considerably more effective way of disposing of any spare cash you had lying around), the Parrot is astounding. It comes with two hulls – a spindly one that leaves the rotor blades exposed for outdoor use, and a distinctive four-ring design that provides protection for indoor use. The body and hulls are made of high-density foam, with a shock-mounted internal electronics box and carbon-fibre cross supporting the easily maintained motors. Fitted with an indoor hull and powered up, it’s a matter of seconds to join the wireless network the AR.Drone creates and take control via one of the two free iPhone/iPad apps.
The upper-left corner shows the view from the ground camera, taking off from the patio, with settings and camera selection icons. The main view is from the front camera, with battery status in the top right, altitude and direction control on the right, direction touch point on the left, and Emergency (shutdown) and Landing (controlled descent) icons.
Parrots apps are for free flight or a race application using the colours of the hulls and accessory hoops to create a competitive augmented reality game. Similarly, a beanie hat with the orange/green pattern is available to make the Drone “stalk” a human. Control is via touchscreen and tilting the iPad for flight. The altitude of the drone can be limited for indoor use, and is maintained by an ultrasonic sensor underneath the unit. This is, if anything, too sensitive – the open flap of a cardboard box was enough to confuse it and send it shooting upwards. Two cameras provide a video feed to the iPad and also references for speed (ground-facing camera) and horizon; Parrot’s apps do not capture stills or video.
Take off and landing are automated, the AR.Drone hovering at a fixed height if control is lost, and an emergency shutdown button lets gravity solve the problem if all else fails (if the battery drains, it will attempt to land). Two batteries are included, giving 10-12 minutes of flight each. Third-party batteries can provide up to 20 minutes, though some require flight without hulls fitted.
With a third-party app, the AR.Drone gets a lot more interesting. Response to height control, stability and speed can be customised, and the video stream can be captured – albeit at a very low resolution, it’s sufficient for shaky phone-camera video footage, opening up the possibility that in situations such as the recent riots across the UK, footage could be captured by a skilled pilot from otherwise impossible vantage points. I’ve tested Drone Ace, an inexpensive app from Logic Consulting that provides very comprehensive control including pre-programmed flight patterns and video capture. Good reactions are essential, as it’s possible to hit 11mph if speed limits are disabled. At 500g, the AR.Drone is easily affected by strong winds or unexpected currents, so outdoor flight does require skill. With care, it’s possible to fly it over a reasonable 20m radius in a built-up area from a fixed point without problems. The range can be much greater if there are fewer obstructions, up to 70m, and flight height of 6m or more is easy to handle (it can hit an altitude of 50m if conditions are right). As you learn to control it, the video feed becomes more important than looking at the drone; imagine you are inside it, flying the device – you learn how to watch for obstructions. Visual control is aided by the ability to have the ground camera overlaid on the forward view.
You will crash. It’s inevitable. In a crash, all the propellers are shut off before it hits the ground and the control application flashes an emergency message. More serious crashes may damage the hulls or body – replacement parts for exposed components are cheap and Parrot publishes video tutorials for repairing everything from a cracked hull to replacing the main board or central cross. Few serious crashes will cost more than £50 in parts to repair.
For serious aerial work, the AR.Drone comes very close – when equipped with an additional HD camera – to being a usable platform. For hobbyist, amateur film and just getting a better angle on something you’d rather not be near, it’s perfect. Getting the right degree of skill as a pilot takes very little time and it’s relatively inexpensive. Now a wireless streaming version of the Go Pro is available, getting quality, marketable footage with the risk of losing the hardware may well be an acceptable trade-off, as retrieving the storage is no longer necessary.
Upgraded batteries, housings and components improve the performance of the AR.Drone for very little outlay, and control is now possible from Ubuntu Linux PCs or Android devices in addition to the extensive support for iOS.
For more information, visit ardrone.parrot.com.
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