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Hands on: Parrot MiniDrone at CES 2014

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Parrot's palm-sized quadrocopter, based on the popular AR.Drone, is one of the hits on this year's CES show floor.

When the original AR.Drone reached Australia a few years ago it really raised the bar in terms of consumer-grade remote control flying machines. It was certainly a step up from the cheap and nasty USB helicopters in terms of stability and performance, as you'd expect from the AR.Drone's $349 price tag.

I had plenty of fun putting the original AR.Drone through its paces, controlling it from iOS and Android devices. My key complaint was that it's just too big and unwieldy to fly inside, in your backyard or even in a park full of trees. You really need an open field and even then you have to watch out for cross winds once you get a few metres off the ground.

Since then we've seen the AR.Drone 2.0, which I haven't tested, but it retains the same design and the $349 price tag so it doesn't really address my fundamental frustrations with the concept. Now at CES 2014 in Las Vegas, Parrot has unveiled a prototype of the tiny MiniDrone which is expected to reach Australia later this year.

The MiniDrone draws on much of the same technology found in its big brother, including cameras and sonar to monitor the ground for improving flight stability. One of the key differences is that the MiniDrone relies on Bluetooth 4.0 rather than Wi-Fi for remote control from an iOS or Android device. This reduces the range to about 15 metres, plus the drop in available bandwidth means you don't get a live feed from the cameras in the drone. When using the full-sized Drone I found it too hard to watch the screen while I flew, because I needed to keep an eye on the Drone so it didn't get away from me. This is less of a problem with the Mini, so the lack of the camera feed is disappointing but not a deal-breaker.


This little drone is only 15 centimetres across, roughly a third the width of its big brother. The MiniDrone weighs 50 grams, although you can add thin plastic wheels to the sides which bump the weight up to 70 grams. Originally I thought the wheels were only optional safety guards for the rotors, which seemed like a good idea. But thanks to the attachable wheels you can actually drive the MiniDrone around on the floor or even drive it up a wall and across the ceiling. Parrot also unveiled the new ground-based Jumping Sumo remote control vehicle at CES, which I might look at in detail another day.

The MiniDrone certainly feels more stable than the full-sized AR.Drone I tested, partly because it's smaller and partly because it's inherited the improved flight stability features introduced with the AR.Drone 2.0. The MiniDrone is small enough to rest on your palm and you can even gently flick it into the air and engage the rotors. You can control it by tilting your mobile device and driving virtual joysticks on the screen. There's also a flip button which sees it do a quick 180 forward roll in mid-air.

One of the advantages of the MiniDrone's compact design is that it's a lot more robust, especially when you're using the wheels as crash guards. The full-sized AR Drone is easy to damage if you land roughly on a hard surface and when I tested it a few years ago I managed to snap a plastic cog driving one of the rotors. With the MiniDrone these kinds of components are fully enclosed, so it's less prone to damage and thus you're less likely to run into the expense of replacement parts.

Flying time with the MiniDrone is 8 to 10 minutes on a single charge, depending on whether you've got the extra weight of the wheels. Thankfully the battery is still removable so you can charge up a few batteries and have them ready to go, although this is less of a hassle if you'll be using the MiniDrone around the house. If you're taking a full-sized AR.Drone out to an open field then it's more important to have extra flight time up your sleeve.

The only real question that hangs over the MiniDrone is pricing. You'd expect it to be cheaper than the $349 full-sized AR Drone 2.0, but I'd really love to see it at less than $200. At this price it's still an expensive toy, but if you've sunk money into a few cheap and nasty USB helicopters you might see the value in upgrading to Parrot's slick MiniDrone. It's certainly one to watch out for this year.

Adam Turner travelled to CES as a guest of LG.