There are plenty of build-it-yourself kits out there now for quadcopters – but building your own isn’t for everyone.
For those who want to have the fun without doing much work, the AR Drone 2 comes fully pre-assembled and it has many impressive features. Chief among these is the high definition wide-angle video camera with live streaming as well as recording to a USB flash drive.
The main part of the drone houses the electronics and battery. Four carbon fibre tubular arms project from this with the rotors, motor drivers and motors at the end of each.
You then slip one of the two expanded polypropylene “hulls” over the body, which protects it from damage in the event of a minor accident or collision.
Here's the more "decorative" version of the Parrot intended for outdoors flying where there's less risk of damage to walls, furniture, etc. It also has better performance than the "indoor" version with its polypropylene "hull". The colourful carapace also has an important outdoor benefit: it allows you to work out the PRA's orientation at a distance.
The “outdoor hull” only covers the electronics and battery, leaving the rotors exposed. This gives the best flying performance because it’s quite light. It also means that if you fly too low, you might end up mowing the lawn!
The “indoor hull” is larger and surrounds the rotors entirely as well as providing more protection to the main body. This reduces the chance of major damage in the event you strike a wall or some furniture.
We found the AR Drone 2 to be pretty robust, especially with the indoor hull in place. With it, it can shrug off minor impacts with obstacles; if you don’t hit them too hard, you can continue flying, often without any damage.
This is of course great for beginners, who will probably have a few mishaps before they get the hang of controlling the Drone.
It also has an an automatic motor cut-out if the unit experiences an impact, tilts past a certain angle or detects the rotors hitting an object. The unit will normally survive the resulting fall without any serious damage as long as it isn’t too high and/or the ground below it is reasonably soft (eg, grass). We had this feature activate a few times with our demo unit and each time, it was still perfectly flight-worthy.
This is thanks to its sturdy construction and energy-absorbing arm mounts; one arm usually takes the brunt of any impact.
The hull, being made of a foam material, is the most likely part to break but if does split, it can simply be glued back together. They even give you some double-sided tape in the box for field repairs, should they be necessary.
Stability and control
The AR Drone 2 is self-stabilising. When you press the take-off button, it rises straight up from the ground to a height of about one metre and hovers in place until you are ready to take control.
At any point, if you take your hands off the controls, it returns to a stable hover – this is great for beginners since if you lose control this is an easy way to recover. And if it’s being blown away by wind or something like that, you can just press the “land” button and it will gracefully settle down onto the ground.
If it flies out of range, it will hover and wait for you to get closer. The stated range is 50m in an open space but we were able to control the demo unit out to a range of about 100m.
If the Drone’s battery runs out during flight, it lands itself but you get a warning beforehand so you can fly it to a safe location for landing. If you’re controlling it with a phone and somebody calls you, it will either hover or land, depending on whether you’ve set it to indoor or outdoor mode.
There is a LED in each corner of the Drone, underneath the rotors. In flight, the two at the front turn green while the others are red, so you can see which way it is facing.
Sometimes they can be obscured by other parts of the Drone and so it isn’t always clear which way the Drone is facing just by looking at it.
If we owned one of these, we would think about fitting a bright blue LED under the camera to give a clear indication of which way it’s facing or perhaps paint the front a bright colour.
With the outdoor hull in place, the front is a bit more obvious since it looks significantly less symmetrical than the indoor hull.