In an ideal world your smartphone becomes a Swiss Army knife, handling dozens of different tasks that used to require specialized hardware. It can be your camcorder, your heart rate monitor, and in the case of Parrot’s Bebop drone, a flight controller.
This mass market approach has helped the French company achieve phenomenal sales growth over the last few years. Its first line of drones, the A.R., were simple enough that a beginner like Martha Stewart could head down to the beach and be flying with just her iPad in minutes.
With its newest unit, the Bebop, Parrot is playing catch-up, trying to best the combination of price, performance, and ease of use that made the DJI Phantom the world’s most popular drone. The sales pitch is that Parrot’s drone has evolved from a toy into a tool, a full-fledged high-definition camera in the sky with a price point of $499, half of the $999 you would spend on the latest Phantom or the Solo from 3D Robotics, which doesn’t even come with a camera. Hell, you don’t even need to learn how a remote control works, just use your mobile device.
The consumer drone market is exploding, and plenty of people are still touching these devices for the first time. That is Parrot’s opportunity. And when the Bebop is working well, it delivers good aerial footage at a price far below its competitors. But in our testing not everything worked perfectly, and there were points where the Parrot was dangerously unreliable.
The challenge for drone companies these days is to simultaneously satisfy a consumer who has never flown before and a professional looking to get great aerial footage. In straddling that divide, Parrot has made a drone with lots of interesting attributes which are unfortunately overshadowed by inconsistency.
Let’s start with the good stuff. The Bebop is sleek and colorful. It’s extremely light and small enough to be quite portable. And even in moderate winds, it holds its position well. You can take off and land with the press of a button. It has a downward-facing camera that helps it stabilize when it’s close to the ground. And the “return to home” function works well, usually bringing the drone back to within a foot or two of where it launched.
The Bebop takes a really unique approach to its camera. Instead of attaching a unit outside and underneath the drone, the Bebop’s camera is positioned in the nose and housed in the body of the drone itself. It also uses a fisheye lens, giving you a wide, 180-degree field of view. Instead of rotating the camera on a physical swivel, you simply swipe left and right within that larger image to choose your frame and focus. Occasionally, if you panned too far, the rotors would appear in your shot, but it wasn’t a major problem.
I liked this feature a lot. Piloting a drone and controlling a camera at the same time is tricky work, and I found this system, where I could simply swipe the image on my screen to perfect my framing, was easier than trying to fly and frame with other drones, like DJI’s Inspire One. I just had to lift up my right thumb and flick, never really taking myself out of position to steer.
The Bebop also includes Parrot’s first attempt at a more traditional flight controller, which it has dubbed the Skycontroller. It gave me more fine-grained control while flying, but was really large and heavy when compared to the RC controller that comes standard with most consumer drones. While the Bebop is great on the go, with the Skycontroller the overall package is bulkier than the competition. It also bumps the overall price up to $899, dangerously close to the new Phantom 3.
Crashes are a natural part of any adventurous droning, and the Bebop’s body and rotors proved durable. The foam rotor guards that come with the unit were helpful when navigating in close corners, allowing you to bounce off walls or the sides of trees. When, by accident, I pressed the emergency shut-off button instead of the return home button, it fell 20 feet out of the sky onto concrete, but had no problem flying once I powered it back on.
The footage from the Bebop is interesting. In outdoor light it can capture some very attractive aerial shots, although the focus is a bit soft. Luckily what you’re after here is mostly going to be wide landscapes, where fine detail is less important. And the image is rarely shaky, even when the actual drone is. That’s because, in addition to some internal shocks that dampen motion, it’s using digital image stabilization.
The downside of using software instead of hardware for framing your video is that some of the footage feels unnaturally smooth. While using the software to pan around within the camera’s field of view was a feature I enjoyed using, it would produce a herky jerky swivel in the video.
You can use the Wi-Fi network from the Bebop that pairs with your phone to transfer files. It’s not fast, but it works and offers you the ability to sync and save while you’re out in the field. The downside to this approach is that you can’t simply swap in a new SD card, as the memory is internal to the drone. You can delete files after they have been transferred, but you’re going to need a few gigabytes of space on your device after a full 20 minutes of video capture.
The decision to use Wi-Fi and a mobile app as the core technology instead of a dedicated controller leads to some serious problems. There are some major trade-offs Parrot is making by building a drone that can be piloted with your smartphone or tablet.
The first thing you’re going to notice when you set up your Bebop is the battery. It slides over the top of the body, connecting inside the foam nose piece that houses the camera. But no matter how carefully you align the pieces, the battery is never going to lock into place with a satisfying click. It simply does not sit flush. Parrot has addressed this problem by including a velcro strap that you can use to secure the battery in place. This is literally putting a bandaid on a serious design issue. After some hard flying I always found a noticeable gap between the battery and the body of the drone. During two test flights by myself and a colleague, the battery came loose in flight and the unit lost power.
Parrot uses Wi-Fi and an app instead of the dedicated controllers and simple radio frequencies employed by most drones. This leads to a number of complications. With other drones, it’s relatively simple to pair them by turning on the unit and the controller. With Parrot’s FreeFlight app, even if you’re using the SkyController, you need jump into your settings, connect to the Wi-Fi network, then into the app, which will sometimes register the drone, but just as often not. If it doesn’t, you need to click into a submenu and try to discover it. Until you make this work the app’s home screen also has what amounts to a video ad for the Bebop on loop, which is not a great way to reward customers who presumably just shelled out hundreds of dollars for your product.
The trade-off for the Bebop being so small and lightweight is that each battery only lasts about 10 to 12 minutes. That’s enough to have a little fun, but definitely falls short of the 15-20 minutes you get with other drones. And it’s hard to imagine feeling safe opening up and letting the Bebop run to its full range of 2.2 kilometers when you aren’t sure if it will have enough battery to make it back.
That brings us to the biggest issue with this drone: connectivity. The first time it happened, the drone was less than a dozen feet from me. I assumed it was a problem with my phone, because I had, up till that point, been able to fly it hundreds of feet away without issue. But over the next three weeks this problem kept popping up. It happened with my iPhone, with other people’s iPhones, with the SkyController, and to folks using Android devices as well. Dozens of users have reported the same issue on Parrot’s website and in its forums.
In the most frightening instance I was gliding across a lake to try and grab a shot going under a bridge. I was in a park with no nearby buildings or equipment that could disrupt the signal, hell there weren’t even any competing Wi-Fi networks. My GPS was strong, and my channel was clear. Outside of flying in a faraday cage I’m not sure how I could be in a better environment.
It was around 100 feet away when I tried to reverse and the Bebop simply stopped responding. Most of the time when it lost connection it would hover in place, and I could rush through the process of jumping into settings, finding the Wi-Fi network again, then back into the app to repair the controller. All that was burning up my battery, but, hey, at least I could regain control. But in this case it just kept drifting, eventually zipping just a few feet over the head of a woman walking her dog by the lakeside before crashing into a tree.
We reached out to Parrot for comment on this. “Parrot is an engineering company and everything we do is linked to wireless and smartphones / mobile phones usage. Today, smartphones and / or tablets are part of your everyday life and are all equipped with cutting edge wireless technologies. Wi-Fi protocol is one of them, and this is the best technology adapted for controlling / piloting a drone such as the Bebop Drone,” the company said. “The Bebop Drone benefits from regular software updates. These software updates can include bugs fixed, new devices compatibilities, piloting improvement, etc. We recommend to all Bebop users that they download all product firmware and piloting software updates.”
When it was first introducing the Bebop, Parrot told me that it wanted to make something which was clearly a tool, not a toy. And when it works, the Bebop succeeds at that, delivering great video and responsive flight at a price point well below the competition. By using Wi-Fi, Parrot created a drone you can pilot with whatever smartphone or tablet you have, which helps to ease the learning curve for beginners. A drone this cheap and powerful has the potential to really expand the market.
But spend a couple weeks with the Bebop and cracks start to show. The shoddy build quality, lack of good documentation or online support, and finicky app are annoying, not deal breakers. But the limited battery life and sporadic connectivity won’t pass muster with anyone, whether you’re serious about your drone hobby or not.