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Hands-On with Parrot's Bebop Drone Quadcopter

By Norman Chan

A consumer quadcopter that's FPV flight-ready.

Last week, we attended the unveiling of Parrot's newest RC quadrotor, the Bebop Drone. Though it was founded as an audio and car accessories company, Parrot has been moving into the consumer RC toy market, starting with the AR.Drone quadrotor that it released three years ago. The Bebop will be the company's fourth RC quad, after the AR.Drone 2 and the MiniDrone that was announced at CES. The AR.Drone--sold for $300 online and at retail stores like Brookstone--was successful for the company, and Parrot clearly wants to take advantage of rising quadrotor interest with the Bebop, which will be its high-end model. Like the AR.Drone, it'll be positioned as a ready-to-fly package for consumers, competing with camera-mounted quadrotor kits like DJI's Phantom 2 but presumably at a lower cost (pricing wasn't announced).

The Bebop won't be released until much later this year, but Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux confidently demoed early pre-production prototypes for a crowd of attending press in the courtyard of San Francisco's Old Mint museum. We were allowed to fly the prototypes briefly and even demo its FPV feature using an Oculus Rift development kit. Here's what we took away.

Similarities and Differences with AR.Drone

Parrot is calling the Bebop a drone, but we all know that it's technically an RC quadrotor. It has autonomous flight capabilities that the AR.Drone didn't have, but this is a very different type of quad while won't replace the AR.Drone line. Parrot designed the Bebop with weight and safety in mind; the quadrotor is lifted by four brushless outrunner motors, spinning at much lower RPM than what you'd find on something like the Phantom. That's because the Bebop weighs much less--380 grams without its foam bumpers--and uses a three-blade design for its propellers. The motors are linked so that if one fails or is blocked, the others immediately stop spinning so the quad doesn't fly out of control.

Bebop does inherit some design elements from the AR.Drone, though. It's stabilized with the use of accelerometers and gyros, and has a vertical camera underneath its body to calculate flight speed and direction (much like an optical sensor on the bottom of a mouse). An ultrasound sensor monitors altitude up to eight meters, and the onboard GPS is used for flight tracking, but not flight stabilization (eg. it won't use GPS to compensate for wind at high altitudes). Flight time is estimated to be 12 minutes for the 1200mAh LiPo battery, which takes two hours to recharge. While that's lower than the 20+ minutes offered by the new Phantoms, we've found that we seldom sustain a single flight for more than 10 minutes without landing anyway. Flying and tracking these quads for extended durations can be mentally exhausting. One thing that's nice is that the battery is attached via a standard power connector, so third-party batteries may be usable.

You Fly with a Tablet

Bebop will be sold as two different kits: a standard model and one that comes with a discrete transmitter (we'll get to that in a moment). The standard kit is flown using a mobile app, in this case demonstrated with an iPad. That means that like the AR.Drone, flight controls are handled over a Wi-Fi connection, with the overhead and latency that comes along with it. From our experience, flight with Wi-Fi is responsive enough in close quarters, but we're unsure of its reliability and responsiveness over long distances, given the Bebop has a theoretical range of 2KM with its flight controller extender.

The app also lets you plot waypoints using the onboard GPS, a feature not available on the Phantom without the optional Ground Station accessory. Flight data can be tracked and stored on Parrot's servers, and the company isn't imposing any GPS-based flight restrictions for flying close to airports--you're trusted to abide by safety guidelines and regulations on your own.

Using the iPad, altitude and direction and controlled with an onscreen thumbstick, with lateral movement controlled with the tablet's gryoscope by tilting. We're again not confident that virtual controls can provide the same level of control (and definitely not feedback) as physical flight sticks. On the right side of the tablet are on-screen controls for the Bebop's camera.

The Innovative Camera System

This is probably the coolest part of the Bebop. It has a 14MP fisheye camera mounted on the front, which Parrot claims will be able to record stabilized video without the need for a physical gimbal. Instead, the Bebop has an on-board GPU that performs digital stabilization on the video, cropping a 1080p video from the 14MP feed. This also allows you to pan and look around using the Bebop flight app, with up to 180 degrees of view. Videos and photos are stored on the 8GB of onboard flash, and can be transferred off over Wi-Fi or USB.

The live feed from the demo wasn't clear enough for us to evaluate the video quality, but Parrot says that it's comparable to that of a action cameras like the GoPro Hero 3. The digital stabilization looked good, and it's a technology I could see being used in concert with motorized gimbals for motion stabilization in future camera systems. Panning around in the app looked like interacting with a streetview-style panorama, but with video instead of static images. When you reach the edge of the frame, curved borders and white space showed the limits of the fisheye lens, like unrendered VR space.

Skycontroller Transmitter

An second kit will come with a physical controller, called the Skycontroller. It still pairs with the Bebop over Wi-Fi, but has 4 MIMO antennas (36dBM signal strength) to extend the Bebop's range to 2Km (range is 30m without the extender). At the center of the Skycontroller is mounting dock for a tablet, and flight sticks on the left and right fly the Bebop like a standard RC quad. Buttons below the sticks automate launch and landing, which is a nice feature. Also useful: the Skycontroller is powered by the same kind of battery as the Bebop, in case users plan on buying extras.

It's also likely that the Skycontroller will cost more than your standard RC transmitter, given that it has some processing on-board. It's basically a tablet, running Android 4.2, with allows it to have USB input and HDMI video out. HDMI out will let users pipe the Bebop's video to an external monitor (as in the case of our demo) for video production purposes. It'll also allow the Bebop to be connected to HUDs like the Oculus Rift for FPV flying.

It's FPV Ready and Oculus Compatible

This was the big surprise with the Parrot Bebop announcement. Using an Android app running on the Skycontroller, users will be able to connect the Bebop to eyewear like the Oculus Rift or Zeiss Cinemizer glasses. With the Oculus, the Bebop sends a perspective-distorted video feed for the optics to "correct", even though it won't be in stereoscopic 3D. Oculus sends positional data back to the Skycontroller over USB so as you move your head, the software shifts the field of view as to make it look like you're panning the camera around. In our brief hands-on with the Oculus-connected Bebop, the video feed from the quad wasn't immediate, making it difficult to correlate our actions on the Skycontroller with movements on the quad. There wasn't enough latency to make me feel nauseous, but I definitely felt the last of presence. Video bitrate in the prototype wasn't great either, and being unfamiliar with the sensitivity and positioning of the Skycontroller sticks and buttons didn't help.

Pricing won't be announced for the Bebop won't be made until closer to release, but I would hope that it's in the $500-$600 range for what the hardware is offering. If Parrot wants this to be an appealing entry-level RC quad for consumers, it's going to have to be much more affordable than the Phantom 2s. RC enthusiasts are spending much less than $1000 to build their own quads, so this is really a product for someone who wants to buy a hassle-free kit that's ready to fly out of the box. Parrot told us that it hopes that the Bebop will appeal to younger flyers. The AR.Drone was an expensive toy at $300, so I'm hoping that Parrot chooses to use this as an opportunity to open quads to a larger market with aggressive pricing. Otherwise, I can't see a lot of parents buying this as an expensive Christmas present.