Review: Parrot Minidrone Rolling Spider
Parrot's release of the toy quadricopter AR.Drone in 2010 was prescient, arriving just before military, commercial, and consumer videography drones began to make headlines across the world. For $300, any iOS device user could pilot a camera-equipped flying machine for 15 minutes per battery charge, snapping pictures or recording videos from up to 150 feet away. As we noted in positively reviewing AR.Drone back then, we were concerned about the price tag, short battery life, and fragility of its hull — issues Parrot largely left unresolved in the modestly tweaked sequel AR.Drone 2.0. For better and worse, a lot has changed with the recent release of Minidrone Rolling Spider ($100). The price has obviously dropped dramatically, the hull issues have been virtually eliminated, and a number of other user experience elements have been improved — all welcome improvements. But this tiny sequel has an unexpected new issue: atrocious battery life.
Measuring roughly 5” by 5” in its most basic form, the nearly palm-sized Rolling Spider looks like a baby compared with the AR.Drones. Available in three different body colors, it has a Terminator-like front “face” including bi-colored “eye” status lights, and includes a collection of different stickers to give it a “mouth.” Used in the basic mode, Rolling Spider is a tiny copter. It can fly at roughly 66-foot distances from any iOS device equipped with Bluetooth 4, using a pressure sensor, gyroscope, and accelerometer to keep aloft and as stable as wind conditions permit. Optionally, a new Free Fall mode allows it to take off immediately after it detects that you’ve dropped it.
Although Parrot’s new FreeFlight 3 software still doesn’t make flying as intuitive as it could be for novices, it’s easy enough to learn in a day, and fun while it lasts, with an impressively super-simple pairing process. Beyond two on-screen joysticks that can be reconfigured somewhat to user tastes, collectively enabling height, rotation, and Z-axis movement, hidden buttons can be tapped to make Rolling Spider spin 360 degrees forward, backward, left, or right in the air, a cute trick that rapidly depletes the battery. The more barrel rolls you do, the quicker Rolling Spider’s promised “8-minute” battery life seems to evaporate. When an on-screen indicator says that the battery life is low — around 10-15% — the quadricopter will continue to fly until depleted, but won’t be able to restart its engines after landing, regardless of how much power is available.
Adding a pair of included 6.75” hard plastic wheels and a detachable axle enables Rolling Spider to do some other tricks. As a replacement for the prior foam hulls, these wheels are large enough to prevent the quadricopter from smashing its plastic blades into a person or room, effectively creating a 7” box around the 5” toy. With the wheels attached, you can bring the copter into contact with walls, ceilings, and floors, and it will roll on them rather than skidding or crashing. While the wheels are pretty cool and certainly less likely to break apart than AR.Drone’s original foam chassis, they cut the battery life by 25% to a promised “6-minute” flight time. In real world testing, a wheel-equipped Rolling Spider has just enough flying power to get set up, move around briefly in the air, and do a few sweeps around a yard before requiring a recharge.
Battery life is one of the things that radically reduces the Rolling Spider’s fun factor relative to AR.Drone. Each recharge of the 550mAh included LiPo battery takes around 90 minutes, and requires the gyrocopter itself: you must plug the toy into an included micro-USB cable and self-supplied USB power source. Unlike AR.Drone, there’s no separate battery charger, and once again, there’s no spare battery in the box. Rolling Spider’s use of Bluetooth 4 rather than Wi-Fi is great for energy conservation, and a reason the battery’s half the size of its predecessors, but the low-power wireless standard is starved for bandwidth and distance. On our first launch of the toy, a firmware update was suggested, with ultra-tiny print noting that it would take a stunning 35 minutes over Bluetooth versus 1 minute if Rolling Spider is connected to USB and manually computer-updated. Part of the problem is that the firmware is over 2 Gigabytes in size. Your iOS device will likely turn itself off before it completes the firmware update wirelessly.
Another Bluetooth-imposed limitation is camera streaming. The AR.Drones could livestream video back to your iOS device as they’re flying, but Rolling Spider can’t. It has a bottom-facing 640x480 camera that can snap photos in flight to be USB-transferred later to your computer. The pictures don’t look very good — think pre-iPhone cell phone snaps — and the fun of in-flight surveillance via AR.Drone’s front-facing camera is gone.
Parrot’s FreeFlight 3 app lets your iOS device’s integrated camera take pictures and videos of Rolling Spider in flight, but that’s not quite the same as watching live video from a quadricopter. What that leaves you with is the enjoyment of piloting a small flying machine at a 66-foot maximum distance for very brief periods of time. To mitigate this, spare batteries will apparently be available in the future for $20 each, though we couldn’t find any in stores at review time.
Rating Rolling Spider is a challenge for only one reason: its poor battery life. If it could fly for three times as long, it would be a very viable toy for almost anyone, with a super-attractive price point and enough capabilities to make flying and rolling around fun. But between the short duration of flying, the long recharging time, and the requirement that the quadricopter itself be used for charging even spare batteries, it’s certain that you’ll spend a lot more time staring at an immobilized Rolling Spider than actually playing with it. Despite the excitement factor they had when seeing Rolling Spider for the first time, our kids were rapidly disappointed by the super-short flight times and confused by the somewhat sparing control interface. All but the most patient adults will likely feel the same way. For that reason, despite the positives Rolling Spider has going for it, we regrettably can’t recommend it widely to our readers. It’s a really cool drone that can’t stay in the air long enough to deliver the thrills you’d expect. Our limited recommendation acknowledges its value for those willing to buy and recharge plenty of spare batteries.