What it's really like to fly a droneNovember 30, 2012: 12:29 PM ET
The $300 AR.Drone is piloted with an iPhone app. Question is, is it really worth the price?
By Rob Walker, contributor
FORTUNE -- When a friend told me a few months back that me that he owned an AR.Drone -- a $300 "unmanned aerial vehicle" intended for the mainstream consumer market -- I practically invited myself over. The thing sounded like fun, and I wanted to play with it. We ended up in a nearby park. Controlling the UAV by way of an iPhone app that allows the user to monitor what the flying object's cameras "sees," we lounged on the grass and watched it go. Children froze in place to study the hovering curiosity.
At the time, there was already news of an improved AR.Drone 2.0 on the way. At one of the promotional side attractions at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas earlier this year, 15 people from nine countries competed for a $5,000 prize awarded to the most skilled user of the new version, which featured a high-definition camera, and promised various improvements in the control mechanism and flight stability. The footage was certainly impressive -- the winner, from Japan, was a guy calling himself "Kamikaze" -- and the new device generated plenty of buzz from the tech-elite types who scour CES for things that make their edges bleed.
When the AR.Drone 2.0 made its way to the actual market, I was anxious to give it a spin. (Or a hover. Whatever.) Frankly I'd found the control mechanism for the original version somewhat confusing -- so the thrill of controlling the hypercool object kept bumping against the stressful sense that I was doing it wrong. This had reportedly been tweaked.
So how was it? My first flights on the new version were tentative, and conducted in my back yard. The best news: The control interface has indeed improved. I used the iPad version of the AR.Drone app, and with the obligatory glance at the instruction manual, I pretty quickly launched the object into an aerial exploration of my own property. Basically, one button can be used to control its vertical elevation, and horizontal orientation. To make it truly fly, you hold down a second button simultaneously, and move the controller; the drone (more or less) obediently mimics what you're doing. The communication happens by way of a WiFi transmitter in the UAV, and Parrot says the AR.Drone can operate up to 150 feet or so from the controller.
Emboldened, I moved my test to a nearby community garden, so I could experiment with greater distance and elevation without actually freaking out my neighbors. I probably need more practice, and would have benefited from a less gusty day -- my AR.Drone wobbled and got balky about rising more than 25 or so feet vertically. But I found even a tentative exploration of this familiar space from the air to be both fascinating and fun. Toggling between the device's two cameras was easy, and so was recording some pretty fun aerial video.
The biggest frustration is the AR.Drone's highly limited battery life. I don't see how even the most scrupulous pilot could get more than 30 minutes of satisfying use out of one charge, particularly if you actually want to make videos or take pictures. And unfortunately for me, my test-run period coincided with a string of windy days. The device is pretty light, and easily knocked off-course by non-ideal weather; I surely became more timid in my experiments when I deduced that the wrong gust could put this thing on a stranger's two-story roof.
That said, if I had an extra $300 (plus the cost of two or three spare batteries) this is where I'd fling it. Advocates of the civilian drone idea argue strenuously that little unmanned aerial vehicles have many useful, tool-like functions. And that may prove to be the case, but for now, the appeal is pretty much the opposite: There's nothing mundane or familiar about how it feels to fly one of these things, to play with the way it extends human vision, or to mesmerize little kids in the park. And it may be the very notoriety of the technology that helps it seem so exhilarating. It's exotic to wonder who might controlling some mysterious flying object, but it's jarring to realize the answer is: me.