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CES 2010: Parrot AR.Drone Lifts Off

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If you’ve heard of Parrot, you probably associate the brand with hands-free Bluetooth car kits or digital photo frames. At a push, you might associate Parrot with streaming audio products and Philippe Starck designed wireless speakers. However, I’ll wager that you wouldn’t associate Parrot with radio controlled helicopters, but that’s exactly what the company is showing off at CES.

Now, I quite like radio controlled helicopters, since my wife was kind enough to give me one as a Christmas present. Of course I crashed it in a matter of minutes and then spent the next day stripping it down and replacing the main gear, main blades, rear horizontal fin and fly bar - these things are not easy to fly, I assure you! Thankfully Parrot hasn’t gone for the same ultra-realistic flight model of my E-Sky Belt CP V2, citing its AR.Drone as a groundbreaking toy.

But the really special thing about the Parrot AR.Drone is the controller, or lack of it. Rather than using a traditional RC controller, Parrot’s new toy is controlled via an iPhone. The AR.Drone broadcasts its own Wi-Fi network, which you then connect to via your iPhone. You then employ a combination of the iPhone’s accelerometer and touch-screen interfaces to control the aircraft. Tilting the iPhone left and right will steer the AR.Drone, while control buttons on the screen take care of vertical, rudder and throttle duties.

Parrot is citing the AR.Drone as an Augmented Reality toy because it also has a camera built into the fuselage, which transmits video back to the iPhone at 15fps. This means that you don’t have to be able to physically see the AR.Drone to control it, you can simply fly it via the video feed, as if you were sitting in the cockpit.

I can’t comment on how difficult the AR.Drone is to fly, since I didn’t get a chance to try it. However, given that the AR.Drone is, as Parrot puts it, a quadricopter – it has four sets of blades rather than one, which allegedly makes it far easier to hover and harder to crash, which is definitely good news. And if you’re flying it in a confined space, you can attach a surround that protects the blades from impact.

If you get bored of simply flying the AR.Drone around, you can try one of the video games that is designed to be used with it. Pushing the augmented reality moniker that bit further, the games overlay themselves on the video stream on the iPhone, allowing you to mix real flying with alien blasting. And if you have a friend with an AR.Drone you can even initiate a dogfight, without actually blowing each other out of the sky.

Parrot could give no word on pricing or availability in Europe, but hopefully we won’t have to wait too long. I’ll be chasing up Parrot as soon as I’m back in the UK, because who wouldn’t want to play with a helicopter and call it work?

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