First shown off to the public at CES in January, Parrot’s land and air MiniDrones are now fast approaching their August release date here in the UK. Designed with teenagers rather than toddlers in mind, these remote controlled toys have prices more within the reach of the everyday consumer than the firm’s £200 AR Drone.
The Rolling Spider quadcopter and two-wheeled Jumping Sumo ground vehicle are both steered using the FreeFlight 3 smartphone app, which should already be available for iOS and Android, and will be arriving on Windows 8.1 and Windows Phone 8.1 from October.
Although primarily designed for flight, the aptly named Rolling Spider can also roll along the floor. It weighs just 55 grams, making it surprisingly manoeuvrable and able to pick up impressive speed in quadcoptor mode when given enough room to accelerate. A gyroscope lets the Rolling Spider know what angle it’s currently at, while a downwards-facing VGA camera measures its speed relative to the ground. Using the gyroscope, the Spider hovers in a controlled manner when the user isn’t making any controller inputs, and is able to get itself into a hovering position when thrown into the air. You can also hit the “Land” button, which tells the Spider to make a safe landing, or hit the Emergency Landing button to have it drop to the ground immediately.
Tilting your smartphone back and forth controls speed, while an on-screen thumbstick controls the steering. There’s also a button for a one-touch loop-the-loop which is visually impressive, if not particularly useful. You can capture images using the VGA camera, although you can’t see a preview before you take them; you’ll only find out if your snap was any good once you connect the Rolling Spider to a PC via the MicroUSB port, which also acts as a charger.
Despite being simple and responsive, mastering the controls takes some time, and even though we were in a large room to practice, we found ourselves crashing into objects, walls and people during our first try with the Spider. Luckily, it’s made of stern stuff and even though its rotor blades will come flying off at the slightest impact, they click easily back into place. You’ll need a large room to take full advantage of the Rolling Spider and although we didn’t test it outside, we’d be nervous taking it outside simply because of how light it is; a gust of wind would likely send it way off course.
The giant rolling wheels can be attached to the Spider should you want it to scoot across the floor at high speed – then climb walls and roll along the ceiling, too. We aren’t convinced this is as fun as flying, although it does give the the added advantage of partially protecting the rotor blades from impacting with the walls and ceiling.
The 550mAh battery will only last eight minutes on a full charge, and you’ll need to set aside a whole hour to charge it fully. Extra batteries can be bought for $20, although what this price will translate to in British pounds remains to be seen.
The Parrot Rolling Spider goes on sale in August for £89.99 from the Apple store, as well as high street department stores including Selfridges.
Looking a little like late 1990s Robot Wars competitor Stinger, the Jumping Sumo is a rather bizarre yet fun RC drone. It has two main driving wheels, capable of a nippy top speed of 2m/s, attached to a central section which contains the electronics and a jumping mechanism. It too is controlled by the FreeFlight 3 mobile app, connected via the Sumo’s own local Wi-Fi hotspot.
The use of Wi-Fi, instead of the Bluetooth Smart used by the Rolling Spider, gives you a real time video feed of the on-board VGA camera. This means you can control the Sumo from a further distance even if it’s gone completely out of sight. An on-screen thumbstick controls acceleration, and you can turn either by tilting your device or using dedicated buttons within the app. The wheels can be snapped into a narrower configuration, making the vehicle smaller and more manoeuvrable in tight spaces, although doing this will sacrifice high-speed stability.
As the name suggests, the Jumping Sumo can leap up to 80cm into the air. This isn’t an instant action, though; you have to wait a couple of seconds for the mechanism to be primed for launch, and can’t be moving while it prepares to jump. The jumps are predictable and consistent, so you’ll soon know which objects in your home are possible to jump onto. The grippy wheels mean that you won’t go skating off an object after you land, as long as you calculate your trajectory correctly.
The jumping mechanism can also be used to “kick” small objects. Simply line the Sumo up in front of your target, hit the kick button and watch as your object violently sails across the room.
Driving the Sumo backwards can be difficult due to the position of the jumping mechanism. It has no wheels attached, so it rubs along the ground while moving forward. When going backwards, it often catches on the joins between tiles and will definitely get stuck in soft carpets, too. You’ll want to ensure you have a large, flat area when piloting the Sumo.
It’s also possible to pre-program routes into the Sumo, recording a series of actions and then replaying them with a tap in the app. Making our own routes wasn’t possible with the built of the FreeFlight 3 app we were shown at the launch event, but we were able to use some of the pre-programmed routes.
It uses the same battery as the Rolling Spider, but gets more than double the running time out of it, with Parrot suggesting a full 20 minutes from a single charge.
The Parrot Jumping Sumo will set you back £139.99 when it goes on sale in the UK in August.
Perhaps the most exciting thing about Parrot’s MiniDrones is the soon-to-be released software development kit (SDK) which will be made available to developers. We’re looking forward to seeing what people come up with, and we’re confident that these devices could find use not just in the home, but in schools and colleges too.
Parrot’s MiniDrones are fun toys when used in a large room but we have reservations about using them in the notoriously cramped, carpeted and multi-level houses here in the UK. If you’ve got the space for them, though, they are brilliantly fun little machines.