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When I was a kid, we played videogames with plastic Atari controllers—mine had teeth marks on the joystick for some reason. But time marches on, and now we play with all kinds of futuristic implements: a plastic Fender Stratocaster, motion-sensing nunchucks...and a sophisticated dual-camera, Wi-Fi equipped, iPhone-controlled quadricopter.
Yes, really. Not only is the AR.Drone a mind-blowingly cool toy and efficient way of making nerdy new friends at the park, its support for augmented reality gaming could really help it take off (ooh! pun!) if developers jump on the open platform. At press time, no games were ready, except the built-in "Drone Wars" which requires two copters, one more than we had. But the potential for awesomeness is clear.
The Drone is about the size of a large pizza and weighs less than a pound. But its tech is fierce: two cameras, a three-axis accelerometer, two gryometers, an ultrasound sensor, a tiny computer system with an ARM9 processor and 802.11b/g Wi-Fi, and four rotors spinning at 35,000 rpm. All this rad is piloted using the AR.FreeFlight application on your iOS device. The Drone actually creates its own Wi-Fi network, which your iDevice connects to, enabling outdoor missions.
Your screen displays what the Drone's front camera sees at 640x480. That camera can recognize neon tags stuck to other Drones or real-world objects; which, if you're playing a game, become augmented-reality obstacles or enemies on your screen. With a tap you can switch to the bottom-facing 176x144 camera, which is connected to the Inertial Measurement Unit to help the Drone stay stable, even during light wind turbulence. You raise, lower, and rotate it with a D-pad under your right thumb. To move forward, back, or to either side, you press a Motion Activation button with your left thumb, then tilt the iPhone. Another button takes off and lands with autopilot.
Seriously, that's all there is to it. I've been a controller spaz since my Atari days, and even I got the hang of the Drone after a few flights. Sadly, the battery only lasts 15 minutes or so, then you'll break for an hour to charge. (So get a spare, they're £29.99 in the UK, but US pricing was still unannounced at press time.) Even with its limits—peak altitude around 10 feet, slight lag, instability in anything beyond a light wind—it's incredibly fun to fly.
Aimed at pilots over 14, it's got a considerable learning curve before you’ll reach ace status, but the software settings provide a lot of control, and this little chopper is tough. Even cringe-inducing crashes did nothing more than nick up the foam hull a bit. And you get two hulls, one for indoors with ring-shaped shields around the rotors and a sleeker orange one for outdoors. Best of all, the Drone automatically stabilizes itself when you release the control buttons (or get a phone call!), and it's a great feeling to avoid a wipeout by simply...letting go.
Check out our videos of Susie and Robbie's first flight, and a behind the scenes look at the rad photo shoot of the Parrot AR Drone.