About a fortnight ago, I read a review over at Gizmodo on the Phantom 4 drone titled “The DJI Phantom 4 is the nicest drone I’ve ever crashed.” I looked at the damage to the expensive piece of flying hardware and thought “God, that would be heartbreaking as a reviewer. I wonder how he dealt with that?”
And then on Easter Sunday, I watched the Parrot Bebop 2 quadcopter drone fly itself into a tree and plummet to the ground with a sickening thud.
The Parrot Bebop 2 is a quadcopter drone with a forward mounted camera. It’s the latest in Parrot’s ever-growing line of consumer level drones and with its 1080p video camera, will bring out the action movie director in everyone who attempts to pilot it.
The Bebop 2 can be piloted via Parrot’s Skycontroller accessory but most punters will likely be using another, more urbane control solution: their smartphone. Using the FreeFlight 3 application, pilots can control the Bebop 2 directly via the touchscreen. Connection between drone and phone is established through a wifi signal emitted by the Bebop 2 itself. Touchscreen controls are often a sticking point for more experienced pilots, most of whom prefer a more nuanced control scheme.
For novice and intermediate pilots, it should be fine — once they find their way through the app’s myriad menus of course, adorned as they are with phrases like “My Pilotings” that seem to have been mauled in translation. Behind an overlay that displays metrics about what the drone is doing, your phone screen will show you what the drone’s 1080p camera can see. This serves two purposes — helping you to better pilot the drone once it moves further away from you and knowing how a particular shot is going to look in real time.
The Bebop 2’s official page on the Parrot website lists it as the “first leisure drone in the 500g category with a battery life of 25 minutes.” The battery life claim certainly has merit as I got, plus or minus a few minutes, exactly that amount of time out of the drone from a full charge. The same can not be said of my poor iPhone 6 whose battery was frequently swallowed whole by the exercise. The Bebop 2’s battery took around an hour to charge from flat-to-full, so having spare batteries for hot-swapping on longer flights will be a must.
It’s clear from the moment you tell the Bebop 2 to take off that it is a powerful machine. It’s four props buzz ferociously and it floats in the air at about eye-height like an angry hornet. There’s something that feels rather predatory about the way it moves, the big black eye on the front dispassionately observing everything around it. Indeed, the giant camera on the front may make some people rather uncomfortable. At one point I had a person whose backyard I could only partially see into openly flip me off. On another occasion, I had neighbourhood police wander over to see what the hell I was doing in a public park with a drone (it was fine, they were cool, especially when I let them take a heavily supervised turn behind the wheel).
The drone is surprisingly nimble for its size, though obviously not as much as smaller or lighter drones. Using the controls on my phone screen, I was able to get the Bebop 2 to perform some pretty amazing maneuvers, sharp turns and even tricks with ease. Its stability is also extremely impressive — I took it out on an especially blustery day to see how it performed in the wind and the way it handled, I swear you wouldn’t even know the difference between that and a completely still day. Add to this that the camera has its own stabilisation hardware and you’ll never see a choppy or shaky shot when you pore over your footage.
All of these moments were captured by the camera, because the drone automatically begins to record the moment you take off. There’s no sound obviously, because all you’d hear would be a deafening monotone buzz, but the video is crystal clear. The drone then stores photos and video in its 8GB on board storage for retrieval. We had a few problems exporting on a Mac, but this wasn’t so much a fault with the drone as it was the Mac and its attendant apps making a mess. Connecting the drone to the Windows 10 laptop I am writing this very review on and retrieving the files on board was as seamless as plugging in a USB stick. The drone does everything for you, all you have to do is copy it over to your PC when you’re done flying.
I know, I know. You want to hear about the crash.
I took the drone out on Easter Sunday to continue the review, even though at that point I didn’t really need to. I’d spent hours flying it by then and had collected more than enough data to start this piece. But drones are cool and I was going to have to send it back to the PR company that sent it over soon so why not make the most of it, you know? I took the drone back down to the park near my house because it’s a large open area with very few things for the drone to fly into should I lose control of it. After about ten minutes of happily piloting the Bebop 2 around, swooping and diving in the moderate breeze I found myself nearing the edge of the park and went to bring the drone back into the open centre area.
It was at this moment that my phone’s wifi connection to the drone dropped out. This didn’t startle me too badly. It had happened on two or three other occasions, leaving my poor drone stranded in the air. The good news is that the drone’s response to a connection drop out is to return to the spot where it took off and attempt to land. That’s a smart thing for a drone to do, and in most cases very helpful! Except in this case, I’d gone around a small clump of mid-sized trees toward the outer edge of the park. I was far enough away that they didn’t pose a danger while I flew the Bebop 2 around, but they did stand between the drone and its point of origin.
Hovering out of my reach, I had to watch in mounting horror as the drone turned in the air and began to glide gently-but-purposefully towards the trees. Other drones, like the Phantom 4 mentioned in the intro, have systems on board that allow them to automatically pilot around obstacles in situations such as this. The Bebop 2 sadly features no such functionality.
Seeing what was about to occur, and still trying desperately to get the wifi connection back, I started to sprint for the tree, hoping to catch the drone and that I wouldn’t be cut to ribbons by the still-spinning props. I wasn’t fast enough. The Bebop 2 entered the branches about ten feet up. I heard its blades whir against the leaves and twigs and then several softer thuds as it tumbled downward before striking the ground on one of its rear support struts and coming to a rest.
The app on my phone immediately starting blaring, flashing a warning about an engine problem. I shut the drone down and picked it up to inspect it for injuries. The impact had driven a crack through the strut the drone had landed on. While the wiring and the actual engine remained unharmed (and full credit must be given to the Parrot’s sturdy design in that regard), the crack meant that while the drone could still take off, it no longer held steady in the air, the damaged limb vibrating hard enough to potentially cause further damage. Additionally, one of the replaceable plastic propellers had been torn (though Parrot provides in a number of spare front and rear props in the box for just such disasters which is very helpful of them). Parrot’s official page touts the drone’s reinforced structure, so it is disappointing that such a short drop would still be enough to damage it in this way. I’ve seen much lighter drones take far worse punishment and come away without a scratch. Though the event was more or less beyond my control, I’d still like to apologise to Parrot for the trouble because I really do feel awful about it.
Despite this one ridiculous and lamentable event, my time with the Parrot Bebop 2 was extremely enjoyable. It is very fast and very nimble. Its in-air stability is extremely impressive considering how easy it is to whip it around. Its camera takes gorgeous images, moving or still. Retailing for an average of AU$$800, the Bebop 2 is still probably a bit pricey for newcomers, and the touchscreen controls may disappoint more seasoned pilots used to a set of physical controls (though, as mentioned, the Skycontroller should help there). This is a mighty fine drone that is fairly easy to learn, tremendous fun to fly and perfect for those looking to do a bit of (non-creepy) aerial photography.
Highlights: Nimble, fast, fun, great camera
Lowlights: Wifi connection drops out regularly, touchscreen controls may be a bugbear for some
The Parrot Bebop 2 is out now