It's a drone! It's a plane! It's a Parrot!
At CES 2016, the Paris-based wireless technologies company revealed the Disco, a first-of-its-kind, ready-to-fly wing-shaped drone for consumers. Back in January, it was still a project. As of today, Parrot announced the Disco is on its way for $1,300, which roughly converts to £990 or AU$1,700.
Like Parrot's Bebop quadcopters and line of Minidrones, the Disco is designed to be something anyone can pick up and pilot -- and it is. The lightweight fixed-wing aircraft (it's less than 700 grams or 1.6 pounds) is made from flexible plastic foam with a single rear propeller strong enough to get the Disco up to about 50 mph (80 km) for flights up to 45 minutes.
A system of sensors inside -- accelerometer, gyroscope, magnetometer, barometer and GPS/GLONASS, plus a pitot tube for airspeed -- helps newbie pilots stay in the air. Parrot even gave the whole system a catchy name: CHUCK, which stands for Control Hub and Universal Computer Kit.
CHUCK makes it possible to simply toss the Disco into the air and have it automatically ascend to 50 meters (164 feet), at which point it will fly in a circle until you give it a command. Once you're up, turning left and right is as easy as pushing a direction on the right control stick, and the same goes for changing altitude. The left stick controls acceleration.
If you're used to flying a quadcopter, it takes some time to adjust to the control changes. I had never flown a fixed-wing aircraft before and neither had the other people I was flying it with, but within minutes all of us had the hang of piloting the Disco. However, just because it's easy to get it in the air and fly it around a bit doesn't mean you won't need some skills to keep it out of a tree.
For the Disco, Parrot shrank the supersize Skycontroller available for the Bebop drones. The new, smaller Skycontroller 2 design is closer to a controller you'd get with a toy drone or a gaming system, but the Wi-Fi MIMO remote control still has a theoretical range of 1.2 miles (1.9 km).
Above the controls is a holder for your smartphone (iOS or Android) so you can use Parrot's FreeFlight Pro app for a live view with telemetry. The app interface also lets you set speed, altitude and distance limits and your wireless and photo/video settings. The drone also captures photos and video to 32GB of internal storage.
However, the Disco comes with Parrot Cockpitglasses, a first-person-view (FPV) headset that, once you insert your smartphone and connect to the controller via USB, gives you a view from the full-HD camera in the nose. If you need to see something on the ground while you're flying, the Cockpitglasses can switch to the view from your smartphone's rear camera.
After flying it for a while, I found the biggest difference between piloting the Disco and a quad like the Bebop is that it can't hover in place or fly straight back or to the sides -- the Disco is constantly moving forward. What you can do is set it to loiter, which will start it circling in place while you regroup, contemplate your next move or get a drink. Parrot also lets you set a geofence to keep it from flying off. When it hits the set boundary, it will automatically return it to you.
The FPV headset provides a good picture and Parrot said the latency is about 250 ms. This would seemingly depend on how much wireless interference you encounter where you're flying. On one flight I didn't experience any lag or dropped frames and combined with the Disco's smooth gliding movement it made for a fantastic view. However, on a another flight using the headset paired with a Bebop 2, the video feed stuttered enough that if I were to attempt to navigate around or through trees, there's a chance I wouldn't have survived.
There's no sense-and-avoid system either, so if it's headed straight for a wall or tree you're on your own. If you don't pull up in time or change direction, you'll crash. Landing can be done automatically with a button press or you can manually land it, with the pressure sensors underneath helping to bring it in smoothly.
Also, if you want to skip the autopilot stuff, you can bind the Disco to a regular RC transmitter and pilot it in a full manual mode. This means if you start off a novice, the Disco is something you can grow with. Or, if you're already an experienced fixed-wing pilot, you can tweak it to do much more. (Though hobbyists will likely balk at the $1,300 price even if it does include the controller and FPV headset.)
It is an altogether different flying experience from a multirotor and because of this and its size, you'll need more space to fly the Disco. But if you have somewhere to fly and money is no object, the Disco's view from the sky is pretty incredible.