Taking flight: Parrot AR.Drone quadricopter

We take a test flight with this iPhone-controlled spycam quadricopter.

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Parrot's AR.Drone is a mash-up of several interesting tech concepts. It's a remote control quadricopter that's piloted via an iPhone/iPod Touch app, while also providing a live-to-screen video feed from its built-in video camera, as well as optional augmented reality gaming apps.

A free App Store download called AR.FreeFlight is necessary for pairing and controlling the Drone. Once set up and installed, you have two flight-control options. In the beginner mode, users hold the left onscreen button to maneuver the Drone with the iPhone's accelerometer--tilt it left and the Drone glides to the left, forward to move it forward, and so on. The right side onscreen button is a virtual joystick that increases and decreases the altitude, and also rotates the Drone. The advanced mode uses a single onscreen virtual joystick to control the Drone, and is not for the faint of heart (or finger).

The battery level for the AR.Drone is also displayed on the iOS device screen. Interestingly, routers or an Internet connection are not necessary; the Drone generates its own Wi-Fi network connection for communicating with the remote control device.

The augmented reality comes into play via the front-facing camera on the Drone, streaming live (if choppy) footage to your iPhone/iPod Touch screen (at 640x480 pixels). Paired with that are optional integrated real-time special effects, adding a gamelike experience while flying the actual Drone.

There's actually a second camera on the Drone, located underneath and connected to an Inertial Measurement Unit, which makes it possible for the AR.Drone to measure its horizontal speed and enable stationary helicopter-style flight without any end user assistance. It can also be used to stream video as well. Fortunately, the AR.Drone's whirring motors are way too loud to enable the device to be used as a mini spy camera.

CNET/Sarah Tew

The Drone itself is made from a carbon tube structure and fiber-reinforced PA66 plastic. It comes with two hulls: one is an EPP hull to protect the propellers for indoor flight; the other is a shaped EPP (Expanded polypropylene) hull for outdoor flight, leaving the propellers exposed. Under the hood is a Parrot P6 ARM926 468MHz processor, 128MB of DDR RAM, and 128MB flash memory running Linux OS.

The AR.Drone is easy to pick up and fly (although also easy to crash, if in the wrong hands) judging from the long line of CNETers who have taken it for a spin. Unfortunately, the removable battery pack only runs for about 12 minutes of flight time, and requires 90 minutes to fully recharge, so multiple batteries are required for extended flight times.

Before you get too excited about buzzing the neighborhood, note that the AR.Drone also isn't cheap. It's currently available exclusively from Brookstone for $299, and additional battery packs cost $29.95.

(Note: As an added bonus, watch this week's Digital City podcast to see us test the AR.Drone out in the confines of our very tiny podcast studio.)

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