Review: Parrot Bebop drone and Skycontroller

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Gizmag flew the Parrot Bebop off into beautiful sunsets to test how it both handles and shoots(Credit: Heidi Hoopes/Gizmag)

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As the latest in Parrot's line of smartphone-operated drones, the Bebop boasts a number of improvements over the AR.Drone 2.0 including a better camera, longer range, and an optional joystick-based controller. We put the Bebop in the hands of several quadcopter neophytes, tested it indoors (which is supposedly one of its strengths), and enlisted its 14-megapixel/1080p camera to capture some aerial footage. We also powered on Parrot's new Skycontroller, which adds physical controls and a more powerful Wi-Fi antenna for extended big range and potential FPV fun.

While either the Bebop or Skycontroller can be bought separately for US$499 a piece, we received the full combination package, which retails at US$899. At that price, you can expect everything you need to fly the drone.

In addition to a sunshade, a protective hull for indoor flying, extra rotors and other peripherals and tools, the combination includes three batteries that are interchangeable between the Bebop or controller. Each battery is good for about 11 minutes of flight time (longer when used in the Skycontroller), a figure given by Parrot that held up in our test flights.

14-megapixel flying

While the Bebop has a lot of new features, it sees Parrot continue with the use of Wi-Fi and digital controls. As with the AR Drone, the Bebop's camera – in this case a 14-megapixel/1080p unit – is situated in the nose rather than on a gimbal under the quad.

The "ultimate" flying combination is first person view (FPV) glasses, a tablet, and the Skycontroller, which both holds the tablet and provides physical controls. Multiple users in this scenario can fly together, acting as a teacher and beginner, or a duo in which one person helps another who is immersed via the FPV goggles.

Every new user, even kids, had no problem flying the Bebop successfully. The take off/land buttons let the dualcore ARM A9 chip, vertical camera and other sensors do the hard work of "aiming for the ground and missing," to quote Douglas Adams. The asymmetrical and high-contrast nose made it easier to keep tabs on which direction the Bebop was facing, since the Bebop does not have a "headless" mode which adjusts the controls relative to you.

We had difficulty flying the Bebop indoors, even with the hull on and settings adjusted. Though it was stable enough, even a little deviation meant we were crashing into walls or people. If you have a more open floor plan, however, it could work for you.

Outdoors the Bebop was amazing: stable, zippy, and predictable. Though we lost Wi-Fi connection a couple of times, the return-to-home feature kicked in after a minute of no connection and brought it safely back (one good reason to always make sure your GPS is calibrated before you fly). It has a top speed of 29 mph (47 km/h), something you can cap in the settings if you're worried about flying indoors or handing it off to a newbie.

Performing tricks is child's play with the app, as it relies only on pushing buttons. We did discover, however, that the Bebop needs a second to recover between tricks, and a few of our midair stalls were due to forcing the quad from one flip into another. Despite a couple minor crashes over the course of a week, the biggest injury was only a bent rotor, and we were pleased with the durability of the ABS-reinforced body that still only weighs 400 g (14 oz).

The onboard camera was enjoyable to play with, and resulted in some beautiful panoramas. While it's possible to pan that camera up to 180 degrees without moving the Bebop, we found ourselves still rotating the quad to pan around, because those controls were almost as smooth and avoided panning the quad's rotor into view. The camera settings also aid in nice stills shooting: saving in either DNG or JPG formats and burst mode, for starters.

Old-school controls with whopping Wi-Fi

In theory, the Skycontroller is designed be used with or without a mobile device and has two Wi-Fi antennas: short-range for connecting to a phone or tablet, and long-range at two different frequencies to boost the range of the Bebop up to 1.4 miles (2.2 km).

In practice, there is almost no reason not to use a tablet or phone with the Skycontroller, and it's made to easily slot in. It adds the first person view, and also provides a better interface for settings and tricks. You can interact with settings or push a firmware update by connecting the Android-based controller via its HDMI port to a TV. This port is also the only way to use FPV goggles with the Bebop.

The only complaint we had about the physical controls was that the camera joystick tended to stick a little and made panning the camera trickier than just panning the quad. But the convenience of having all the photo and video controls on buttons and sticks beat using the app.

Parrot's FreeFlight3 app

The FreeFlight3 app is full of features and generally user-friendly and responsive, though we sometimes had to rely on Google searches to find the answers we were looking for. Some comprehensive explanations are buried in Parrot blog posts rather than in the support system, but there is still a wealth of information if one can find it.

A new user would be amiss in not drilling down into all the settings to fine-tune the quad. A "hull" setting compensates for the extra weight of using the hull indoors. Tricks are set up solely through the app since you cannot kill motors manually. You can also govern maximum speed and height. Interestingly the top height allowed in the app is 150 m (492 ft), which actually exceeds the United States FAA limit of 122 m (400 ft). That said, lowering the top speed and height made indoor flight easier.

Reviews of previous Parrot drones complained about "sticky" controls and latency while using the app, but we didn't notice any difference when controlling the Bebop with our phone in comparison to the Skycontroller.

However, while functional, a phone is definitely too small to easily use all the controls available for the quad. Additionally, the combination of video processing and Wi-Fi connections sucked its battery, and in the midday sun tended to overheat the iPhone playing host to the Bebop.

We ran into a few bugs using the app, presumably features that hadn't been implemented yet for Android. Occasionally we had to restart the app before all the devices would respond appropriately, once connected to Wi-Fi signals.

We were unable to load the flight data connected with our account. That was unfortunate, as sharing flight data and photos and keeping stats on flights, including top speeds and altitudes, are interesting social features that would keep the Bebop fun.

This segues into one problem Parrot seems to have had with the Bebop package: overselling features before they're ready. Some features in the app aren't yet functional. And two common complaints exist online: that the advertised Flight Plan feature to allow for creating predetermined routes is still in development, and that Parrot backtracked on the pre-release announcement that head tracking via the Oculus Rift would be possible.

We actually attempted to use a DK2 version of the Rift, which you'll see in a few pictures, not realizing video translation wouldn't be functional. Instead, the Bebop is listed as compatible with two other FPV glasses, and the company says that it was waiting until the Rift was out of development status, as compatibility is currently a moving target otherwise.

Still, there are enough features to otherwise justify the cost of the Bebop package. It's clearly marketed towards drone enthusiasts who want it all to work nicely from the get-go, and the addition of Flight Plan would make it more competitive with DJI's autonomous flight system on its newer (and more expensive) Phantom models.

Below is a quick taste of the Bebop in action and footage from its onboard camera.

Product page: Parrot

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