Review: Parrot's Rolling Spider Minidrone

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We preferred to liberate the 55 g (1.95 oz) plastic body of its oversized wheels and let it roam the skies uninhibited (Photo: Nick Lavars/Gizmag)

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Small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, yet noisy enough to irritate everyone around you in eight-minute bursts, there's plenty of fun to be had with Parrot's new Rolling Spider Minidrone. Billed as an easy-to-use toy with a bag full of pre-set trickery, the Rolling Spider is aimed at drone novices keen to get their piloting ambitions off the ground. Join Gizmag, as we take Parrot's latest smartphone-controlled UAV for a spin.

In line with Parrot's other consumer-oriented drones, assembling the Rolling Spider is a relatively simple process. Giant wheels clip onto either end of a wheel axle, which in turn clicks into place on top of the Rolling Spider's body. These wheels are optional, but they do serve to protect the drone and its plastic rotors from any walls, desk corners or body parts that will inevitably come into its path. Moreover, the idea is that these wheels enable the Rolling Spider to zip around the floor and up walls and ceilings, though we found the drone much easier to control once the training wheels were off (more on that later).

Charging the Rolling Spider via the Micro USB cable is a game you'll quickly get used to playing with a battery life of eight minutes, which can fluctuate depending on how often you're banging into obstacles and starting it up again. When the 90 minute charging process is complete, unplugging and setting the drone down on an even surface will see its fearsome red LED lights turn an agreeable green, indicating it is ready for take off.

In flight

The Rolling Spider is controlled by Parrot's FreeFlight 3 smartphone app, which is a free download and available on both iOS and Android. It will pair with your device automatically, assuming you've got Bluetooth switched on.

With large on-screen buttons and three control modes to choose from, flying the drone with your smartphone is a fairly user-friendly experience. Normal mode is touted as the easiest to pick up, but as is often the case with accelerometer-based control schemes, it is not as responsive and all too easy to become disoriented. Ace mode lets you use one finger to control the drone, with a left joystick to control its position and a second set of buttons to perform 90 and 180 degree turns.

Joypad mode is easily the most intuitive and the one we found ourselves using the most during the review. It does away with the accelerometer and hands control over to two traditional joysticks, the left thumb dictating elevation and orientation, the right moving the drone up, down, left and right. A large green button at the bottom of screen kicks the rotors into action, which in turn gradually lifts the Rolling Spider into the air.

With the large wheels attached, we found the drone to be rather stubborn on take off, preferring to dart left or right more than in a straight upward motion. One way to overcome this is to hold the drone's body steady in hand while it takes off. The controls become a whole lot more responsive once the Rolling Spider is in the air.

We preferred to liberate the 55 g (1.95 oz) plastic body of its oversized wheels and let it roam the skies uninhibited. A beginner drone it may be, but there's certainly a bit of a thrill when the rotors kick into action, a whirring sound that that could be described as a giant blowfly on steroids.

The challenge of maneuvering the Rolling Spider around corners and through doorways will be enough to keep you entertained for a while. But once you've got the hang of that there's a set of pre-set tricks to perform, including back flips, front flips and barrel rolls.

Settings, such as speed and maximum altitude, can be configured in the FreeFlight 3 app. This is quite a useful feature as it means when flying indoors you can set a virtual ceiling below your real-world one to prevent the rotors becoming acquainted with your light shade. Without such restrictions in place, the Rolling Spider has a range of 20 m (66 ft) and a top speed of 18 km/h (11 mph).

The drone also has a camera built-into the bottom to take stills. These are snapped at 0.3-megapixels, so the vision is a far cry from the HD video heroics of the Parrot A.R. Drone 2.0 or the DJI Phantom 2 Vision, but will be enough to capture the startled looks of those nearby.

Taking the good with bad

One significant downside to the Rolling Spider is its limited battery life. While understandable given its size, eight minutes of flying time before needing a recharge can be pretty frustrating. Still, these short stints might be viewed as as a good thing by parents with an intolerance to flying robots buzzing around the house.

One other criticism is the absence of an on/off switch. This means the Rolling Spider can only be turned on by plugging in the Micro USB and unplugging again, a slight inconvenience if you plan on taking the drone down to your local park. Parrot does say the Rolling Spider is an indoor and outdoor drone and we found this claim to more or less check out, at least when flying in relatively calm weather (though we did need to tow a laptop along for the ride because of the switch issue).

Our verdict

If what you're looking for is a toy capable of zipping around within sight, performing a few neat tricks and snapping low-res images then the Rolling Spider is perfectly capable. Aimed at children and newcomers it is enough to keep a novice entertained, while also enabling them to get the hang of piloting a drone.

Beyond this, if its a high-quality photography or a reliable surveillance tool you're after, then you will need to dig a bit deeper for a more sophisticated device. At US$99.95, the price point is the main attraction here and while not the cheapest mini-drone out there, it will provide a worthwhile introduction to the ups and downs of piloting a drone.

Product page: Parrot

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