With the release of the Parrot’s Bebop coming December 1st, IEEE Spectrum took the opportunity to take one for a test flight at an event in New York City. As previously reported, the Bebop has a number of advanced features, but by far the most fun is the support for first person video flying.
A fisheye lens on the front of the US $500 Bebop allows pilots to look in any direction in a 180-degree field of view, much as a helicopter pilot can look around her without having to rotate or tilt her aircraft. The video can be viewed and the drone controlled using a smartphone or phablet interface as with many of Parrot’s earlier drones, but Parrot also offers a dedicated “Skycontroller” that attaches to a full size tablet (the Skycontroller is bundled with a BeBop in an $800 package). The antenna on the front of the Skycontroller allows a Bebop to be controlled out to a range of about 1.5 kilometers.
In addition, Virtual Reality glasses can be plugged into the Skycontroller to provide an immersive experience of flying. Parrot says it is working on some compatibility issues with the latest developers version of the Oculus Rift, but once ironed out, the Rift will allow users to look around the drone’s field of view by simply turning their head.
As I have a terrible habit of smashing up drones at Parrot’s press events, going all the way back to the original AR Drone’s debut at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, I had some trepidations about flying the Bebop around the event space. However, the joystick-based Skycontroller made flying much easier than using the soft controls on a tablet or smartphone screen. Using the VR glasses made it easier still, eliminating the need to mentally remap left and right joystick manouvers depending whether or not the drone was flying away or towards me. This gave me the confidence and ability to fly the Bebop at higher speeds than I would normally try, as well as sucessfully maneuver it around some of the people gathered around the room, only crashing into a wall, like, one time.