While other flying-camera makers have gone after enthusiasts, the Parrot Bebop is very approachable to average consumers looking to start shooting aerial video and photos without a big investment. (There's a good reason why you can find Parrot's drones in major retailers including Best Buy, Apple and Harvey Norman, as well as from mobile service providers.)
Made from foam, strong plastic and fiberglass, the Parrot Bebop is the safer, gentler quadcopter that you can pilot with the smartphone in your pocket. In an attempt to capture some of those enthusiasts, however, Parrot perhaps stretched a bit too far, making something that was too pricey for beginners and with not enough features or performance for experienced users. It's good for what it is, but in category that's growing rapidly, it's a tough sell.
Like Parrot's AR.Drones that came before it, the Bebop can be up and running in minutes. You'll want to charge up a battery, of course, and install Parrot's FreeFlight 3 app on an iOS, Android or Windows device. And if you're flying indoors, you can clip on the protective propeller hull, but really that's about it.
There are almost no instructions included in the box, though. To figure out the controls, you can download a user guide from Parrot's site or browse the mobile app's Help section, where you'll find written and video tutorials for the Bebop. There have been several feature updates to both the Bebop and FreeFlight app, but because the tutorials remain unchanged for the most part, some things you'll have to figure out on your own.
With the $499 Bebop (£400; AU$800) you'll get two batteries and one charger; a Micro-USB cable; the indoor hull and four additional propellers with a small mounting tool to lock them in place. For an additional $400 (£330; AU$700), you can pick up a Bebop bundled with Parrot's Skycontroller, which can also be purchased separately for $499 (£400; AU$800).
If you're not a fan of flying by touchscreen alone, the Skycontroller is a very large, clunky wireless controller that gives you two joysticks, discrete controls for the camera, a button for taking off and landing and one for emergency motor cutoff, status lights for the battery of the Bebop and the controller and a return-to-home button. Additionally, you can wirelessly pair a tablet or phone with it for first-person-view (FPV) flying.
The Skycontroller runs on Android, which allowed Parrot to install the FreeFlight app on it, so you don't need to pair a mobile device to fly -- you just won't have a visual from the camera. (It also means it takes a minute to boot up before you can use it.) A full-size HDMI output on the side lets you connect an external display to see what the camera sees and also supports VR headsets like the Oculus Rift, completely immersing you for FPV flight.
On top of the Skycontroller is an amplified Wi-Fi radio and four antennas allowing you to fly farther -- up to 1.4 miles (2.3km) -- than you can using a mobile device alone, which is up to 820 feet (250 meters). Unless you're in an area free of wireless interference and obstructions, this is more of a theoretical distance (for both, actually) and nothing you should actually attempt. Keep in mind, too, that while you might be able to fly out that far, with the Bebop's brief battery life, someone better be waiting at the other end.
Speaking of battery life, the Skycontroller uses the same pack as the Bebop, and when you buy the bundle you get a total of three batteries. Regardless, if you want physical controls as well as increased wireless range, the Skycontroller gives you those things, along with a place to mount a phone or tablet.
There are, however, many options in the vicinity of the $1,000 mark, such as the DJI Phantom 3 Advanced or for GoPro owners, 3DR's Solo -- or any number of other, lesser-known quadcopters. Also, the build quality on my test Skycontroller was a bit iffy given its price, and the thing is really big compared to transmitters for other models.
The Bebop's foam body and ABS-reinforced structure might look a bit less polished than other ready-to-fly (RTF) quadcopters, but it is deceivingly tough. The materials keep the Bebop light -- its maximum weight is 410 grams (14.5 ounces). It's compact, too, measuring roughly 12 inches (28cm) square and 1.5 inches (3.6cm) tall. Since the camera is electronically stabilized on three axes, there's no fragile gimbal to worry about should you crash.
If you do crash and damage a component, Parrot has made replacement parts available -- from props and batteries to camera and motherboard -- for you to buy and install yourself. Even if you don't crash, you'll probably want to buy another battery or two, some extra propellers and a few spare landing feet (I lost three of four after just a few flights).
The camera is a step up from the one found on its previous models like the AR.Drone 2.0, with an f2.2 fish-eye lens that has a 180-degree angle of view and a 14-megapixel sensor. Though the camera can't physically move, you can digitally pan and tilt it to help you get the shot you're after.
It can capture video at 1080p full-HD resolution; the AR.Drone 2.0 is limited to 720p. Video is recorded to the Bebop's 8GB of internal storage (there's no microSD or SD card slot) in MP4 format. Photos can be captured as JPEGs or Adobe DNG raw format.
Unlike the AR.Drone 2.0, the Bebop has a GNSS chipset with GPS, Glonass and Galileo built in. The chipset allows the Bebop to return to its take-off location on its own and hover in place 2 meters above the ground. The Bebop can fly in winds up to about 24 mph (40 kmh) and can reach speeds of around 45 mph (75 kmh).
When you can't get a GPS lock, such as when you're flying inside, a vertical camera and ultrasound and pressure sensors keep it from drifting while hovering at up to 8 meters (26 feet) above the ground.
Being so small and light means you don't have much room for a big battery. Held in place by little more than its cable connector and a velcro strap, Parrot's batteries give you up to 11 minutes of flight. Outside, I was able to get up to 10 minutes, but that was mostly just hovering in place while recording video. High winds, doing flips and fast flying will shorten that time, and unless you want to drop from the sky, you'll want to land well before the battery dies.
Just as with the company's older AR.Drones, the Bebop works with Parrot's FreeFlight app (version 3) for piloting the drone as well as controlling the camera, changing settings, and viewing videos and photos from a smartphone or tablet (Android, Windows Phone and iOS are supported). Eventually, the app will allow you to use the Bebop's GNSS chipset to set waypoints and create a flight plan for the drone allowing for completely autonomous flight. This feature is not yet available, and when it finally is released, Parrot will make it an in-app purchase.
Again, there's not much to getting the Bebop off the ground. Turn it on and wait for its Wi-Fi signal to show up in the list of networks on your or phone. Select the Bebop network and open the app on your device. From within the app's menu system you select the quadcopter, and it should connect and give you a Start button to open your control screen.
If you're using the Skycontroller, the setup is nearly the same, but you'll turn on the Bebop, then the controller. You'll select the Skycontroller from your available Wi-Fi networks on your mobile device, and also select the controller from the available devices within the app.
If you're flying with a phone or tablet, you have three control options: Normal, Ace and Joypad. Joypad works the most like a traditional transmitter. The left virtual joystick moves the quadcopter up and down and rotates it left and right, while the right joystick controls moving it forward and back and left and right.
Normal mode keeps the left joystick the same as Joypad mode. But, by pressing and holding on right stick, you can tilt your device forward, back, left or right to fly it in those directions. Ace mode moves all controls to the left stick. So you'll slide your finger up and down to change altitude or slide left and right to rotate, but then you'll also tilt your mobile device forward, back, left or right to move those directions. The right stick in Ace mode is used to pan and tilt the camera.
Take-offs and landings are done just by tapping a virtual button on the bottom of the screen. (There's also an emergency motor cut-off that will just stop the propellers from spinning.) In the settings screens you can set your maximum vertical and rotational speeds; maximum inclination, which controls how fast you accelerate; and maximum distance and altitude.
You might be tempted to set these to their maximums out of the box. However, if you've never flown before or need to keep the Bebop from flying into a tree or some other structure, you can use these to keep you out of trouble.
The biggest advantage to using your smartphone or tablet as the controller is that you don't have to carry a second device to use the Bebop. Just want to go out and shoot a quick video or snap some aerial photos? Take out the Bebop, connect your phone, and you're ready for takeoff.
It does, however, take some practice to fly by touchscreen. Moreover, the wireless range is much more limited. Both of these issues are solved by buying the Skycontroller. With sticks under your thumbs and buttons to control nearly everything including the camera, the Skycontroller definitely makes using the Bebop more pleasurable. That said, at its current price, it's a tough sell considering the overall capabilities of the quadcopter.
Regardless of which you choose, flying the Bebop literally has its ups and downs. Any wind stronger than a slight breeze and it's tough to keep the quadcopter hovering in place, which is understandable given its size. That's not to say you can't fly in wind, because you can, but if you're trying to hover to get a steady shot, it might be tough.
Should you panic, the Return Home feature is your main safety net with the Bebop. It can easily be activated in the app or on the Skycontroller, and the quadcopter will return directly to its starting position when the altitude is greater than 10 meters (32 feet).
If the altitude is 10 meters or less it will rise and stabilize itself at 10 meters before returning to its take-off position in a straight line. Once it has reached its take-off position, it will stop and hover 2 meters (6.5 feet) above the ground. The Bebop doesn't have object avoidance, though, so if there are trees or anything else between it and the take-off position, don't expect it to make it home.
You can activate Return Home on your own, but it will also automatically kick in if your wireless connection drops between the Bebop and your mobile device. In this case, the Bebop will hover in place for 30 seconds, and if the connection isn't re-established it will head back to its starting point. The main problem with this 30-second delay is that if you were already running low on power, you might not have 30 seconds to hover in place.
Considering the Bebop costs as much as a GoPro Hero4 Black alone, I wasn't expecting much from the quadcopter's camera. If you're goal is just to capture cool video from the sky for sharing online, you'll probably be pretty happy with what you get from the Bebop. The electronic image stabilization works really well, all things considered, but the electronic pan and tilt feature not so much.
Above is a frame from the Bebop's video. In it, you can see that the grass lacks fine detail and turns into mush within about 10 feet from the lens. There's edge crawl and aliasing artifacts. Also, since the digital pan and tilt are done using only certain areas of the sensor and lens, you can end up with a black area from the fish-eye lens as well as rolling shutter artifacts. If you stick to using the center of the lens and avoiding the extreme corners, this isn't an issue.
Basically, while the video quality isn't fantastic, it's fine for casual use, which at the end of the day is what this quadcopter is for.
The Bebop has some appealing qualities, including a compact, durable body and easy operation. Its overall value -- especially bundled with its extra wireless controller -- make it difficult to recommend.