There’s always been little doubt that drones make great toys — the problem is that they’re far from cheap. Now the makers of the AR.Drone are revealing two new toys built from their technology that are small, easy to use, and — if the time we’ve spent with them here at CES is any indication — a great deal of fun.
The first is called the MiniDrone, and just as the name suggests, it really is a smaller quadrocopter cut from the same cloth as the AR.Drone. You can hold it in the palm of your hand but it actually has quite a bit of power. We used it inside and it zipped across a room very quickly. Its four rotors spin with ferocity and sound like a swarm of bees attacking, but the MiniDrone keeps its balance and it surprisingly easy to control.
It's controlled just like the AR.Drone using an iPhone app. The makers say that they spent quite a bit of time to make sure that the drone would be stable and easy to use — particularly important since Parrot hopes kids will use the MiniDrone. In practice it seems their work has paid off: you can control the pitch and yaw using one thumb and altitude and rotation using another. You can also use the accelerometer in the iPhone to change the drone's direction. It may sound complicated, but the computer on board the drone makes it very difficult to spin out of control, and at any time you can release both thumbs and the drone will instantly return to a stable hover. It's so stable, in fact, that we were able to bounce off of walls and hit it in air without knocking it out of the skies.
By default the MiniDrone comes with large wheels, which primarily serve to let the toy roll around. They become particularly useful as a protective barrier around the rotors, allowing the drone to bounce around without getting destroyed.
On the tech side of things, Parrot's using an accelerometer, ultrasonic sensor, gyroscope, and downards-facing camera to give the drone all it needs to stay aloft. Unlike the AR.Drone, there's no usable camera on board and no video output — you'll have to make do with watching the MiniDrone buzz around the room. Bluetooth 4.0 is used to communicate with the drone, and the company says that offers a maximum range in clear air of about 160 feet. We didn't have any issues with range during testing, but you may do well to be concerned about the battery life — the company promises 6-7 minutes on a full charge. At least it will be a very fun few minutes.
The second toy isn’t a drone at all, it’s more like a toy car meets robot bug. Parrot’s calling it the Jumping Sumo, and it uses two wheels plus and accelerometer and a gyroscope to drive all over the floor. Since each wheel is independently controlled, it can turn on a dime, and it includes a QVGA camera so you can see from the robot’s perspective.
Like the drone, it's controlled using an app. There's a thumb-controlled accelerator to move forwards or backwards and you can tilt the iPad to drive around as well. The real impressive part is how quickly it can turn. A quick down swipe with your right thumb will make it immediately turn 180 degrees, and left and right swipes will create a quick 90-degree turn. There's also a button to perform a spring-loaded jump of about 3 feet. Lastly, there's a number of preset performances, like a high-speed pirouette that turns the video feed into an unintelligible blur.
The Jumping Sumo uses an accelerometer and gyroscope to make sure it goes straight, and it talks with the iPad app using dual-band 802.11ac Wi-Fi — the newest standard. That's said to give the feisty toy a 160-foot range and 20 minutes of battery life.
Both toys are in pre-production, and the apps need some final touches, but both are a great way to kill some time. Parrot says both will be available sometime this year, and pricing hasn’t been determined. You can be sure they’ll cost less than the $299 AR.Drone, however.