DJI’s 4K-filming Inspire 1 might be the poster drone for our new airborne overlords but Parrot’s Bebop is the one you’ll more realistically see taking off from a back garden near you.
It’s essentially a supercharged version of 2010’s AR.Drone, with built-in GPS and a better camera, now capable of shooting 14MP stills and Full HD video – and at S$719 it’s within the reach of most wallets.
To fly the Bebop you need an Android or iOS device and Parrot’s free FreeFlight 3 app, which talks directly to the drone’s own Wi-Fi connection. Connecting it is just a case of turning it on, selecting the Bebop from your phone or tablet’s Wi-Fi menu and firing up the app. Simply hit ‘Take Off’ to leave terra firma and it’ll rise to about 1.5m off the ground and hover there waiting for further instruction. It drifts a little, but remains pretty stationary until you’re ready to take control.
The Bebop’s altitude and rotation are controlled by a virtual thumbstick on the left of the touchscreen, but only Joypad mode uses a second one on the opposite side to control the drone’s lateral and forward movement. Ace and Normal modes use tilt control, which takes some getting used to but does allow you to keep your eyes on the Bebop rather than constantly glancing down to the touchscreen to check your thumb hasn’t slipped out of place.
We started with Joypad mode, switched to tilt control when we were familiar with how it handled but ultimately preferred the accuracy offered by having two thumbsticks. Which one you pick is just personal preference but either way there’s one thing to remember: directions are reversed when you fly the drone towards you.
It’s easy to forget when in flight but a gentle collision with a bush or two usually works as a handy reminder. It’s also easy to forget that there’s not much resistance in the air, so stopping distances can be pretty long, particularly when it’s windy. You can also buy the Bebop with a Sky Controller – a proper handset that hangs round your neck and adds physical buttons and joysticks, plus extends the range to a whopping 2km.
We haven’t been able to test it but it bumps the total price to S$1289. Considering the Bebop’s size it seems unlikely the extra range will be much use, plus all that extra cash changes the proposition quite drastically.
Buzzing the tower
Once you’ve got the hang of it you can start pulling off some pretty nifty manoeuvres; flying low and fast before quickly rising high into the sky looks particularly impressive when the footage is played back. Within the app’s menus there are settings to control things such as how quickly it can climb, descend and rotate, which can be used as safety features, or to control how the video looks if you’ve got a specific shot in mind.
Fortunately the Bebop has retained the AR.Drone’s ability to do flips and rolls just by double-tapping on the screen, although the onboard camera won’t record them. A couple of those and any onlookers who saw your unscheduled landing in the scenery will definitely be convinced you’re a Top Gun of the drone world. And it will attract a crowd, so be sure to follow the rules and ensure they don’t get too close (see boxout).
1. Weight a minute
Unless you intend to fly a drone for commercial purposes, or it weighs over 20kg (which the Bebop doesn’t) you don’t need permission from the CAA.
2. Line of sight
Don’t fly your drone where you can’t see it. Keep it in line of sight and no more than 500m horizontally, and 122m vertically, away from the pilot.
3. Keep your distance
Keep the drone 50m away from people, buildings, or cars. If you’re flying near a large group of people, make it 150m or get permission.
4. Private eyes
Be aware of privacy laws. Don’t go snooping in people’s gardens and then publish the pics or video online, even if it’s just on social media.
5. Get off my land
Seems pretty obvious this one but never fly a drone in restricted airspace, such as near an airport. They don’t like that one bit. Full rules can be found at www.caa.co.uk/uas
You can set a height limit on the Bebop that goes all the way up to 150m. That’s higher than you’re legally allowed to fly it, but it’s also way beyond the Wi-Fi range. At just over 60m up our iPad Mini lost signal with the Bebop, resulting in a worrying moment that ended with it landing in a thorny hedge. Ouch.
With GPS now built-in the Bebop should theoretically be able to find its way back to where it took off at the push of a virtual button, but when we hit ‘Return to Home’ it flew worryingly close to a tree, so we took over and landed it ourselves. When driving you can forgive GPS for being a few metres off, but when it comes to landing a S$700+ drone anywhere other than in a desert you really need it to be inch perfect.
How’s that collision detection tech coming along, drone makers?
The app’s default view shows a live feed from the Bebop’s camera, but it often doesn’t refresh quickly enough to allow you to completely rely on it for drone’s-eye-view piloting, meaning those races will have to wait. That wouldn’t be a problem if you could tell which end was which when it’s a significant distance away from you, but even with the front half painted bright yellow (it also comes in blue and red) it can be difficult to tell which way your Bebop is facing with the naked eye.
We flew the Bebop in varying conditions and it got noticeably flustered in blustery winds, even when flying just a couple of metres off the ground. What’s impressive, though, is how little that shows up on the recorded footage. It could almost have been shot on a crane or a camera dolly. Only Ace mode offers on-screen camera controls. If using either of the other two you need to drag two fingers on the screen to digitally alter the angle. It works well but it’s best to hover in place while making any adjustments.
The camera struggles a bit with exposure on videos, particularly when changing altitude. This is particularly noticeable if it’s a bit overcast, but in clear blue skies the footage looks great, plus it’s steady as a rock. Blow it up for a big screen and edges start to fuzz a bit but when viewed back on an iPad you don’t notice. This is footage destined for social media, not Hollywood, so the quality is more than adequate.
Drone academy: UAVs on patrol
As well as the live video feed, if you pre-load a section of map you can switch to a top-down satellite view that shows exactly where your Bebop is during flight, although considering the its size and range the map’s too zoomed out to be of any real use. It automatically records telemetry data for each flight which can be viewed via the app’s Drone Academy section.
It shows a flight summary, a 2D flightpath overlaid on a Google map, plus a graph plotting altitude and speed across the duration of each flight. It looks impressive but for most people its actual usefulness will be fairly limited.
We filled the Bebop’s built-in storage after about four flights of on-off recording, which works out at over 25 mins of Full HD video. By default it starts recording as soon as it takes off, although you can start and stop it mid-flight if you know exactly what you want to shoot and are concerned about wasting space. There’s also a button for shooting stills, or you can set it to time-lapse mode.
The pictures aren’t quite as sharp as what you’d get from a current high-end smartphone, but they’re not far off. Oh, and last time we checked an LG G3 couldn’t fly. You can transfer what you’ve shot directly to your phone or tablet over Wi-Fi, which takes bloody ages and uses up crucial battery life, but it does mean you can check your footage or pics without a laptop.
You’ll find two batteries in the box with your Bebop. Each one should give you about 11 minutes of flying time but we found it could surpass that with some careful piloting (or a bit of rest stuck in a bush post-crash). Plan your flights before take-off and with a pitstop to change batteries you could probably eke out close to half an hour in the air.
With sensible management of the onboard storage that should mean you never have to waste time transferring footage while you’re out in the field, but doing so does make it very easy to upload straight to YouTube.