Parrot drones are pricey but interesting - and frustrating - toys
By Jim Bray
When one thinks of drones these days one undoubtedly thinks about pilotless vehicles used against terrorists, or maybe futuristic freight delivery devices. But there are other drones available that are decidedly more consumer friendly - basically toys you can use to delight and amaze (and maybe annoy) your friends, neighbors and pets.
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Parrot, for example, makes a few such drones, two of which they sent me to play with: the approximately $250 Jumping Sumo and the approximately $160 Rolling Spider. That's a lot of cash for what's basically just a high tech toy, but to each his own. Heck, I've spent more than that on different stuff others might find questionable. Just ask my wife!
Jumping with abandon…
The little Jumping Sumo is practically small enough to be held in the palm of your hand, and is basically a little near-sphere with big, adjustable wheels on the sides. It seems more suited for indoor use than outdoor, despite Parrot's website's claim, and that's okay with me: I had quite a bit of fun freaking out our three indoor pussycats with it!
When you unpack the Jumping Sumo you have to install the battery and charge it, which takes about 90 minutes (that's charging time, not how long it takes to get the battery installed, fortunately!). Once it's charged and ready you have to fire it up, then bring up your smart phone or tablet's (I used my iPad Air) settings and connect to the device via Wi-Fi. You'll also need to download and install Parrot's app, FreeFlight 3, which you use to control the little rambunctious little bugger.
That's where I had the most trouble - and this is probably just because I'm a clumsy oaf when it comes to stuff like this. I had trouble "driving" the JS, embarrassingly so since I take my real world driving skills seriously. Things got better the more I used it, though, so perhaps there'd be hope if I were to keep the droid around.
You can make the thing roll, twist, zig zag and, my favorite, jump. There's a "road plan" feature on the app that lets you program a sequence of moves, with acrobatics if you like and you can create and navigate your own obstacle course. Or pets. And if you're confusing cats who are hiding in narrow spaces, you can tighten up the "wheelbase" by pushing the thing's wheels in closer to the body.
My cats didn't know what to think of the Jumping Sumo at first as it zipped around the room. Their curiosity is typical, however, and they certainly took notice of it - especially when it winds itself up and leaps into the air like a live beast - accompanied by a big clicking-type noise that could wake the dead. That was pretty funny. Parrot says the thing will jump up to 80 centimeters (about two and a half feet) and though I certainly didn't try measuring it, it doesn't seem like a baseless boast.
I tried getting the Rolling Sumo to climb stairs by jumping from one riser to the next, but it was tedious and, perhaps thanks to my driving skill, didn't work very well. But it sure does zip around the floor!
And of course since the Jumping Sumo's wheels are larger in diameter than the unit, it always lands on its "feet," catlike.
The battery only gives you "up to" 20 minutes of time at a pop, followed of course by another hour and a half of charging - which illustrates the conundrum with electric vehicles regardless of size!
I also had connection issues, in that the thing would hook into my iPad once, then not the next time, then it would be okay again. It was a pain, to be honest though, to be fair, I have intermittent Wi-Fi issues in my home and this could have contributed. I noted some online reviews that raised the same issue, though.
A built in camera gives you a Sumo's eye view of proceedings when you're in normal driving mode. The view from the camera, as it appears on the app, gives you a neat first person look at the world from a much lower perspective, as if you're a kitten exploring its environment. Or a pervert looking up ladies' skirts…
There's also a kick mode that turns it around so that its "leaping device" faces forward so it can be used to push stuff around. This means you're seeing backwards through the camera, though. You can also capture photos or video, though the quality is decidedly not state-of-the-art and you need a micro USB drive on which to store it.
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Parrot has stuck plenty of instruction videos on their website, which is good because the quick start guide is, shall we say, limited.
The Rolling Spider is a neat idea, a little "quadrocopter" whose four little rotors let you fly it around as if you were hunting ISIS members, and whose large but light wheels also protect it if you fly it into a ceiling, wall or other obstacle - which seems not only possible but likely, at least once! You don't have to attach the wheels - and I think the Spider looks a lot cooler without them - but you'll probably be glad you did because it might save you damaging the little thing.
If you get good at controlling the Spider you should be able to fly it at a wall, climb the wall and zip across the ceiling as if it were a, well, spider.
Setup is similar to the Sumo's, and you use the same app to control it. And as with the Sumo, Parrot has a pile of videos on its site aimed at helping you get up and running. Battery life is said to be up to eight minutes, which is about the limit of my attention span but, like the Rolling Sumo, kind of disappointing.
The Rolling Spider uses the same app as the Sumo but it connects via Bluetooth rather than the Sumo's Wi-Fi system. Alas, I could never get the thing to operate properly, even when I resorted to cussing. A firmware upgrade was released during my review period and I was hoping that would help, but even though upgrading should be a simple matter of a drag and drop from one folder into another, the Spider refused all my firmware advances. Perhaps there was a compatibility problem with my PC, but it was quite annoying and caused me to give up on the droid quickly.
These drones from Parrot are an interesting idea and could be a lot of fun, though I wonder about the price for what you're getting. There also seem to be some bugs that need to be worked out before these Parrots truly become the droids you're looking for.
Copyright 2014 Jim Bray
Jim Bray's columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.
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