The little brother to Parrot’s AR Drone 2.0 has eclipsed his sibling in speed, control and now functionality. The BeBop drone is a solid unit by itself, but the introduction of the SkyController and the ability to plot a path using GPS puts it in the big leagues with drones twice the price.
One of the most significant features of the BeBop is it’s massive 14 megapixel fisheye camera with a 180° field of view and a 2.2 f-stop with a centre-weighted iris. The onboard Graphics Processing Unit (GPU) not only auto-stabilizes the image it’s recording, but also creates a virtual gimbal system. Instead of physically tilting and panning the camera, the GPU removes the fish-eye effect and zooms-in on the image. You virtually “look around” by tilting and panning across the enormous image a 14 MP sensor makes. The effect is a rock solid image even in fairly high winds.
I took this video at 120 feet on a day with 20km/h wind speeds and a mix of sun and cloud. Watch for both the stabilization and the centre weighting of the camera:
Wind is the enemy of all drones, and most mid-range consumer drones can’t handle even a stiff breeze. The BeBop can.
The rotors are powerful enough to get the drone up to a maximum speed of 40 km/h (25 mph). And if you push it to the 300 foot altitude limit of your smartphone or tablet’s WiFi reach? That reach is extended to 2 kilometres or 650 feet by the SkyController.
The Bebop’s Achilles Heel is it’s smartphone or tablet-based controller. Touchscreen-based controllers don’t provide the physical feedback necessary for precise flying. Accidentally slide your thumb off the on-screen pad and you’re breaking eye contact with the bird to reposition your fingers back on the virtual control pad. Further, while you can see what the BeBop sees through the live streaming video, the delay is significant enough that the lag between what you see and how you react makes for a frustrating experience.
That’s why the SkyController is key to an optimal BeBop experience.
In addition to precise joystick control, the unit includes a massive 4 antenna array (#15) mounted on the top, boosting WiFi’s standard 300 foot range to 2 kilometres via the -36dbm signal it pumps out. The video lag is reduced and the precision is enhanced. The SkyController supports the BeBop with it’s own internal GPS, provides monitoring of the battery and WiFi levels (#9) through bright LEDs, and includes buttons for one-touch recording of video (#6) and snapping photos (#2). Other valuable buttons include landing, a “Back to Home” (#12) which returns to you via GPS and an emergency button (#10) which cuts the power in the event high wind threatens to carry your BeBop into a tree or worse.
The SkyController features an adjustable mount for your tablet (#16), and a FPV output. The First Person View jack is HDMI for connecting VR goggles or a large screen.
The controller is hefty — and heavy. It includes a shoulder strap for around your neck which is comfortable and eliminates the weight issue. The joysticks (#3, #13) are excellent and provide the best flight experience I’ve ever had with a drone.
The biggest advance in the BeBop drone family comes in the form of an in-app upgrade for FreeFlight3, the app (iOS, Android) used to configure and fly the drone. You can plot waypoints on a Google Map to make BeBop fly a specific course — great for anyone using the drone for cinematography. This isn’t military-grade hardware, so I’m not too disappointed that the precision is +/- 2 metres (6 feet).
The $20 app upgrade programs the BeBop for flight path, when to take a picture or video, take-off and landing, and how to tilt and pan to virtual gimbal. It’s all done as drag-and-drop in the app and can be saved for the inevitable “take 2”.