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Hands on: Parrot MiniDrone at CES 2014


Gadgets on the go

Adam Turner is an award-winning Australian freelance technology journalist with a passion for gadgets and the "digital lounge room".

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Parrot's MiniDrone quadrocopter on show at CES 2014 in Las Vegas.

Parrot's MiniDrone quadrocopter on show at CES 2014 in Las Vegas.

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.

6 comments so far

  • I wish they'd make this thing with a *real* radio-controller, instead of those stupid phone-controllers. At least we'd get some decent range and wouldn't run our phones' batteries down so quickly.

    Date and time
    January 10, 2014, 10:22AM
    • The market is flooded with them, plus there are dozens of companies that make kits to convert the ar.drones to use conventional controllers

      Date and time
      January 10, 2014, 2:20PM
  • With all these drones likely to be flying around and spying is it illegal for me to continue flying my half dozen ballons from my house up to 50 metres with dangling fine wires?
    Honest these wires are to get better TV reception and are not designed to trap wayward drones!

    Date and time
    January 10, 2014, 1:38PM
    • Take the cover off a microwave magnetron, and make a wave guide so the output is directional.

      Put on some steel mesh glasses to protect your eyes from the microwave radiation.

      When a drone comes near, zap them with it, and watch them drop out of the sky.....

      ECM in action....privacy restored.

      Date and time
      January 14, 2014, 4:30PM
  • The price tag for this is rediculous. My first AR drone cost me $350, the second cost $290.. you can buy mini quads off Ebay with these features or more for much less. I also don't think a mini quad of this size needs all the whizz bang of the full size drone, and the controls! argh!! sell a simple 2.4ghz controller with it and include a dual receiver for wifi and standard. If you are going to charge that much, you have no excuse not to include one. The touch screen is slow and unresponsive. One thing I have learned through out all of it, it's actually more fun and cheaper to just go to hobbyking or similar and buy the parts and build your own - it's not rocket science and if you cant figure something out, youtube it.

    Date and time
    January 11, 2014, 11:00PM
    • It is timely to raise the question of what can be done to a drone that invades your privacy or physical space. 'Balloon' for example needs his tv signal boosted with his innovative method. There will be interesting test cases coming up when this things are shot from the sky or are electronically interned with etc

      To say nothing of what will happen when someone is injured by an out of power drone dropping on their heads.

      I can see another field day coming up for the ambulance chasing legal fraternity

      Date and time
      January 12, 2014, 10:32AM

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