Review: Griffin Helo TC RC Helicopter for iPhone, iPad + iPod touch
There were three reasons that we were genuinely excited about Griffin's new Helo TC Touch-Controlled Helicopter ($50) -- the second remote-controlled helicopter designed to work with iOS devices. One was its price tag, which is a sixth the cost of Parrot's earlier and widely-praised AR.Drone; next was its menacingly cool design, and last was its comparative simplicity. Whereas Parrot went broad and deep with AR.Drone, developing not only an Wi-Fi-controlled quadricopter but also an entire ecosystem of different apps, spare parts, and complex features, Griffin went in the opposite direction, releasing a much smaller, lighter helicopter reliant on Infrared technology -- and thereby making Helo TC susceptible to lighting-related interference. Regrettably, our review unit broke after twenty-some crashes and zero satisfying flight time, leaving us with little to recommend: unless you want to fly this copter indoors or away from direct sunlight, you'd be better off saving your pennies for Parrot's version.
Helo TC’s package is initially very appealing: the compact cardboard box has a small window to show off the black plastic and silver metal helicopter, which has four rotor blades and a balancing bar sticking out of its top, plus an ultralight body with just enough gears and electronics inside to handle several features: power, lighting, and of course flying. There’s a 180mAh battery inside, an on-off switch and charging port on the outside, and a collection of colored lights that flash when Helo TC is turned on and working. A bright white LED is mounted on the front like a spotlight, but only has limited value or visibility during daytime flying; Helo TC’s black frame otherwise makes it hard to see at night.
It should be noted that Helo TC starts out feeling relatively well-built for such a light, compact toy. Griffin’s design looks like a stealth plane mixed with an attack helicopter, a significant contrast with the softer-edged, foam-laden AR.Drone, and although we wouldn’t call Helo TC fear-provoking, it’s definitely pretty cool by RC copter standards. Metal is used so substantially in its body that when it tumbles to the ground—as it inevitably did—it doesn’t just splinter into a hundred pieces; most of the plastic proved quite resilient, as well. Tiny Philips 00 screws are used to hold everything together, conceivably enabling you to replace most of the parts individually. Griffin appears to expect that such replacements may be necessary, as it packs Helo TC with two sets of replacement top rotor blades and two replacement tail blades, suggesting that you buy a Philips 00 driver if you need to swap out a part.
Additionally, there’s a big, vaguely iPhone-sized backpack called the Flight Deck in the package; it uses two hard rubber clips to attach to your iOS device, connecting to its headphone port rather than the Dock Connector. Flight Deck turns out to be where the company has cut a lot of costs and corners relative to AR.Drone: it’s basically a big Infrared blaster with four lights on its top and two battery compartments on its bottom. You need to self-supply four AAA batteries in order to use the Flight Deck controller, and there’s no power switch to turn the unit on or off, nor is there a way to know if it’s on or receiving sufficient AAA power. Instead, you have to manually download Griffin’s free Helo TC application, which offers universal iPad, iPhone, and iPod touch support for devices running iOS 4.0 or later. The app will tell you to connect the controller, set the device’s volume to 100%, and activate Airplane Mode. It lets you know that it’s physically connected to Flight Deck and whether your volume settings are correct, but there’s no other way to get remaining battery status or a power indication.
While Flight Deck’s AAA battery requirements aren’t great, the tiny helicopter’s approach to power is impressive. Helo TC has a small rechargeable cell inside that runs for roughly eight minutes of active flying time, and is refueled during a 35-minute connection to any computer’s USB port; a small charging cable is in the package, and works perfectly. Though that’s not a lot of flight time, Griffin makes it super simple to keep Helo TC powered up, and lets you get back to action quickly, a major contrast with the AR.Drone, which requires 90 minutes to charge its battery, and generally flies for 15-30 minutes depending on how it’s pushed. While Parrot sells additional AR.Drone battery packs for $30 each, you could almost buy a second Helo TC for that price.
Having said all of that, the problem with Helo TC is that Griffin’s budget approach results in a helicopter that’s not particularly easy to control, and is extremely susceptible to crashing. Most of the issues appeared to be attributable to the use of an Infrared blaster to control the helicopter: if you try to use Helo TC in direct sunlight, hope to steer it when you’re not pointing Flight Deck directly at it, or don’t have sufficient AAA battery power, the helicopter’s going to crash. A lot. If you don’t have your iOS device in Airplane Mode and a call, e-mail, or other noise-making event interrupts the headphone port’s communication with Flight Deck, you’ll have other problems to deal with, too. You’ll need to make sure that your volume settings are correct each time you use the app, and again when you’re done using it.
Even with the app set up properly on an iPhone 4, we experienced so many failures of the copter to properly respond to commands—anything from just taking off to responding to lowering or motion controls—that flights became more a matter of managing disappointments than expecting actual fun. Under the best circumstances outside, Helo TC would take off, hover or fly for a minute or two, and then plummet to the ground below. In direct sunlight, the copter didn’t seem to be receiving commands from the app, and since Flight Deck has no power lights or other way to know if it’s actually working, we often found ourselves rebooting the app, turning Helo TC’s power on and off, and just praying that the copter would take off. When we moved Helo TC into the shadows, command responsiveness increased dramatically until the copter flew up or to the side into any well-lit area, at which point it would lose communication with the Flight Deck controller, and crash.
It’s obvious that Griffin tried to make Helo TC a cool toy. The sharp-looking application lets you control throttle (and elevation) on the left with swipe gestures, and then steer the copter with either tilt or virtual joystick controls; it also features an emergency button to gracefully land, a recording feature that remembers “flight plans” for automatic repetition, and three IR channels to support multiple copters flying in the same area at once. But the Infrared technology is a major limiting factor on Helo TC’s performance. Used outdoors in sunlight, throttle commands were ignored or so spotty that getting the copter to a safe height was a challenge, and it would come crashing to the ground as soon as it flew out of the controller’s line of sight. If you forget to turn the throttle off when you come over to resuscitate the chopper, its blades will spin into action when the Infrared sensor gets close; they didn’t feel sharp or hard enough to break skin, but kids, pets, and delicate hands should probably be kept at a safe distance. Finally, after many dissatisfying flights, the rear rotor just snapped off, leaving a blue cable dangling from the copter’s back—something that couldn’t be fixed with a Philips 00 screwdriver. While Helo TC still flew, it was even less stable than before, and couldn’t be used reliably.
While there’s an obvious comparison to be drawn between Helo TC and AR.Drone on paper, the reality is that these are two very different beasts—AR.Drone is a much more thoughtfully designed, practically usable flying machine, and Helo TC is a comparatively limited option that has far greater potential for disappointment, offset solely by the much lower price. AR.Drone’s built-in cameras and recording capabilities, multiple applications, indoor and outdoor flying chassis, and user-replaceable battery all contribute to fun flying experiences that you wish would last longer, but it was Parrot’s decision to use Wi-Fi that really made all the difference here. Regardless of the environment you’re in, so long as it’s not windy, AR.Drone actually delivers on the promise of radio-controlled flight. Helo TC’s reliance on Infrared makes for a comparatively mediocre experience and radically increases the chances of damage to the copter. As exciting as Helo TC initially was, we can’t in good faith recommend something that broke so quickly and delivered a sub-par experience. Hopefully Griffin will go back into the shop and come up with a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi version of Helo TC in time to take flight soon.