Review: Parrot Bebop
Caption: Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
Caption: Christie Hemm Klok/WIREDSkip Article Header. Skip to: Start of Article. Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
It’s hard to single-handedly kickstart an industry, only to watch competitors soar past. Back in 2010, Parrot’s AR.Drone quad-copters all but owned the skies. Today, smarter, faster fliers from the likes of DJI and 3DRobotics have clipped Parrot’s wings.
Enter Bebop, a high-flying beauty unlike anything else in the air. It’s a lightweight, nimble, downright sexy drone capable of capturing 1080p video out of the box, no pricey GoPro required, for $500. It vastly improves certain elements of the AR.Drone’s design, at the same time maintaining the versatility of its app-powered controls. So why isn’t this thing more fun to fly?
It’s certainly fun to look at. If automakers ever build a quad-rotor car, it’ll probably look like the Bebop. Its rounded, forward-sloping top half and colored accents (your choice of red, blue, or yellow) lend a supercar-like sense of speed, even when it’s sitting still. Batteries clip easily onto an upper deck and lock down with an admittedly cheap-feel Velcro strap. Thankfully, there’s now a power button, so you don’t have to disconnect the battery when you’re done flying. And Parrot bundles two of them, each with a promised (and tested) flight time of about 11 minutes.
You also get a pair of cool, curvy blade guards, which clip on and off with admirable ease. That’s in stark contrast to the AR.Drone’s clunky foam shell, which never seemed to fit snugly. However, the new guards necessarily leave a large gap in front to accommodate the camera’s field of view, and unnecessarily leave a smaller gap in back, so the protection is not total.
Speaking of the camera, it’s a 14-megapixel fisheye built into the Bebop’s nose, which faces front but angles down. AR.Drone enthusiasts will remember that model’s dual cameras, but here it’s just the one. Thanks to the higher resolution and fisheye lens, though, you can perform limited digital panning from within Parrot’s FreeFlight app—which, incidentally, receives a live video stream from the camera.
That app remains a blessing and a curse. For starters, it’s a requirement, not an option, so even if you spring for the dual-joystick Skycontroller (more on that later), you’ll still need your Android or iOS phone or tablet if you want to modify any flight settings or view live video. And if you’re flying outdoors, even the brightest screens can be hard to see.
Likewise, onscreen controls just plain suck. Make no mistake, they work, they just lack the precision and responsiveness of tactile joysticks—and that’s why the Bebop isn’t as fun as it should be. It’s really difficult to perform tight maneuvers when you’re constantly having to glance back down at the screen and reorient your thumbs.
The bitter irony is the app affords the kind of granularity you simply can’t get from a typical dual-joystick controller. A few taps in the Settings menu lets you set an altitude cap, tweak rotation speeds and maximum inclination, and even modify various camera options like exposure and white balance. You can do all this in real-time, either before liftoff or while the Bebop is in-flight. The flipside is that if you don’t go poking around the settings, you might find yourself wondering why your drone won’t fly higher or faster.Christie Hemm Klok/WIRED
The good news/bad news? Parrot’s Skycontroller dramatically transforms the Bebop flying experience, providing perfectly balanced joysticks, several handy one-touch controls, battery and range gauges, and extended range for the drone itself. It can also pair with FPV glasses like the Oculus Rift, a setup I’m dying to try. The Skycontroller is a huge, fairly heavy rig, with a neck strap for easier toting, but absolutely essential if you want to enjoy the Bebop to its fullest.
Here’s where it gets weird: You can’t buy a Bebop and then decide to add the Skycontroller later. Your only option is to get them as a bundle, which drives the total price tag to $900. Oh, and the extra range afforded by the Skycontroller’s own Wi-Fi antenna? It’s nullified if you keep your phone or tablet in the mix. If you fly without it, you lose the live feed and advanced settings.
I tested the Bebop both with and without the Skycontroller. Control preferences aside, it’s a precise and stable flier, even when there’s a breeze. Indeed, the Bebop relies on a smorgasbord of sensors to maintain its position, and I occasionally witnessed it “leaning into” the wind in an effort to avoid getting blown around. Though it couldn’t withstand strong gusts, it’s pretty good at holding position in lighter breezes. Best feature by far: the return-to-home icon (or button, if you use the Skycontroller). One press and the Bebop flies back to where it launched.
With the Skycontroller, the Bebop zips around as quickly and nimbly as DJI’s earlier-gen Phantom models, which I’ve also flown. It’s quite fun this way, and thanks to the app’s ability to restrict pitch, altitude and the like, you can easily switch between beginner and advanced pilots and back again. It’s uniquely kid-friendly.
Alas, unlike a lot of modern drones—even significantly cheaper ones—the Bebop has no down-facing LEDs to help with location or orientation. The color accents help a bit, but they’re mostly visible from the top of the drone. It’s also a bummer that Parrot’s long-promised flight-plan option, which would let you program airstrikes waypoints for the Bebop to fly, remains MIA, and company reps couldn’t commit to a release date. There are no plans for a follow-me feature, which is already available from at least a few competitors.
As for video, the Bebop records it to 8GB of onboard storage, good for roughly 40 minutes of 1080p flight footage. You can transfer photos and videos over Wi-Fi to your mobile device (assuming it has room), or connect the Bebop directly to your PC for much faster downloads. The video quality is extremely mixed—better than what you get from other built-in cameras, but nowhere near that of, say, a GoPro Hero 4. In my tests, the camera did a terrible job correcting for brightness, even after fiddling with the auto-white-balance settings. The higher I flew, the darker and murkier the images became. Low to the ground, without so much sky in the mix, video looked crisp and colorful. More fiddling helped, but at the expense of precious flight time.
I’ll make this simple: The Bebop is lots of fun to fly if you get it with the Skycontroller, not so much if you don’t. The companion app affords lots of great flight options, but it’s missing a few key features—and using it limits your flight range. The drone itself looks sweet and feels solid, but it’s on the small side and easy to lose sight of.
Maybe this isn’t so simple. True to its name, the Bebop is little all over the place, and when it comes to flying, that’s not really a good thing.Go Back to Top. Skip To: Start of Article.