Parrot’s 2010 AR.Drone set a standard for iOS controlled toys, and the company has continued to evolve its drone lineup, branching into rolling and jumping drones, continuing its full-size lineup with entries like Bebop Drone, and entering the flying minidrone space with last year’s Rolling Spider. The company’s latest series of “Airborne” minidrones takes the smaller fliers back to a more basic drone design, eschewing the unusual but unique wheeled design of Rolling Spider in favor of more traditional flying drone features such as cameras and lighting. As with Parrot’s jumping drone lineup, the flying minidrones have now also been split into two separate models – in this case a “night” version and a “cargo” version. Both operate in basically the same manner with only a few key differences, so we’re covering both in a single review and will simply note the options that are specific to only one or the other.
The basic drone designs of the new Airborne drones are very similar to Rolling Spider, although in place of the large, removable wheels that were used for climbing walls, the Airborne models instead include a removable polyamide hull for indoor use. The units ship with the hull on, however it can be detached to provide more maneuverability for outdoor use, and the lesser weight also increases battery life. Airborne Cargo adds a Lego-style connector on top of the drone designed for carrying small items such as figurines or bricks, while Airborne Night includes adjustable LED lights for flying in the dark.
Parrot provides a choice of colors for each of the two Airborne models, with names for each similar to what the company did for its Jumping Drone lineup: Airborne Cargo includes Mars (white) and Travis (yellow), while Airborne Night offers customers a choice of Blaze (red), Swat (black) and Maclane (blue). Other than the colors, the drones in each lineup are identical to each other, and as with Rolling Spider, a set of decals is included in the box so you can customize your drone’s appearance even further. The box also includes a USB charging cable and the battery.
While the new Airborne drones still don’t include an extra battery pack or a separate charger — one of our key disappointments with last year’s Rolling Spider — Parrot has at least taken some steps to improve recharging performance, supporting higher-speed 2.4A charging that will let you juice up the drone in about 25 minutes. It’s a remarkable improvement over last year’s 90 minute recharge time. Considering that you’ll only get about 9 minutes of use out of a single battery under optimal conditions — that is, if you fly without the hull attached and avoid too many aerobatics — it’s definitely a step in the right direction. We were able to fly for about six to nine minutes at a time in our testing, which took place under various conditions.
You’ll need to supply your own 2.4A charger, as only the USB cable is included in the box. You can charge from a computer’s USB port, however, which can also be used to transfer photos and perform firmware updates much more quickly than using the iOS app, and most modern Macs now offer higher power output that should let you take advantage of the shorter charging time.
The Airborne Cargo and Airborne Night drones use the same Free Flight 3 app that has become Parrot’s standard for its entire drone family, and much like Rolling Spider, they communicate over a Bluetooth 4 connection, providing a practical range of about 50 feet or so from the controlling iOS device. Although Bluetooth allows for much lower power consumption and easier setup than Wi-Fi — you basically only need to open the app and it should detect the Airborne Drone and be ready to go — the range and bandwidth limitations continue to be a trade-off with these smaller flying minidrones. You still won’t get real-time video preview through the Free Flight app, and transferring photos and performing firmware updates is most likely best done over USB from your Mac or PC.
One odd limitation that continues to nag us in Free Flight 3 is the fact that the app’s control mode only works in a single landscape orientation, even though the app’s menu screen can be viewed either way; if you’re not already used to holding your iPhone with the home button to the left, you may find that disconcerting at first, especially if you start the app up in the other orientation and then have to flip it over. Otherwise, once you’re in flight mode the controls continue to be pretty intuitive, with three different control modes available: Joypad, Normal, and Ace.
The Joypad mode skips the use of the accelerometer in favour of two on-screen touchpads, the left controls turning and altitude while the right allows you to move the drone in one of four directions. Normal and Ace modes make use of the accelerometer to allow you to fly the drone more naturally by holding your finger on the screen and tilting your device, while also providing joypads to control direction and altitude and — in Ace mode — make 90-degree and 180-degree turns. While we found Normal and Ace to be a lot more fun and intuitive, Joypad mode does have the advantage of allowing you to film your drone in flight using your device’s camera. Additional controls allow you to take pictures, setup and perform basic pre-programmed aerobatic stunts, land and takeoff, and in the case of Airborne Night, control the front LEDs, which can be set at various intensities, or to strobe or flash modes.
Airborne Cargo and Airborne Night add some nice enhancements over last year’s Rolling Spider, returning to a more traditional flying drone design, and most importantly taking steps toward addressing the battery concerns by speeding up recharge times. That said, the battery life on the Airborne drones is still much shorter than we’d like to see, and regardless of whether it’s a necessary tradeoff, it doesn’t change the fact that some users will find that the nine minutes of flying time between charges one gets under only the most optimal conditions will limit the amount of enjoyment they can get out of these devices — and the problem is exacerbated somewhat by the fact that users are going to have to provide their own high-speed USB chargers since Parrot doesn’t even include a basic one in the box.
Anybody who plans to fly the Airborne drones away from home will likely want to invest in an additional battery — Parrot sells a battery and charger combo for $23 — adding to the price of the Airborne drones, which have already taken a $30 price bump over last year’s Rolling Spider. While the improvement in charging time is definitely welcome, the battery life is still low, and with no charger or extra batteries in the box, the Airborne Cargo and Airborne Night seem almost like starter kits rather than complete solutions — if you’re planning to buy one and take it seriously, we’d strongly recommend springing for at least one extra battery and charger kit right away. Despite this, the new Airborne drones can still be a lot of fun, and users who are willing to accept the battery and charging limitations for what they are will still get a lot of enjoyment out of them.
Company and Price
Compatible: iOS devices running iOS 7.0 or later