Review: Parrot Rolling Spider

The Parrot Rolling Spider is a Bluetooth LE-enabled quadcopter you control with your phone. It’s the latest flying drone from the company that helped popularize smartphone-controlled copters for consumers with its AR Drone products. Weighing only 55 grams and small enough to land on your palm, this tiny take on the quadcopter is great for flying indoors. The big detachable wheels on the sides give the Rolling Spider a bouncy barrier as it plummets to the ground or ricochets against the ceiling.

It’s marketed primarily as a kid’s toy. In Parrot’s comically awful “official video“, a kid brother terrorizes his older sister with the Rolling Spider to a grating dubstep soundtrack. The kit includes some stickers in the box to personalize it, and it’s got some built-in tricks that seem made for kids, like scaling the walls and taking selfies from the air.

As much as it looks like a toy, though, it’s pretty fickle for a plaything. For one, it’s expensive. You can find other minicopters at half the $100 price tag that a 10-year-old can slam into the wall equally as well. Also, multicopters are generally more difficult to pilot than other RC devices because they rely so much on their sensors, and there are no spare blades or wheel shafts included in the package for when (not if) one breaks. Finally, each battery only offers about 8 minutes of flight, and the batteries require an hour and a half of charge time to fully recover. The Lithium Polymer batteries themselves are capable of a much faster recharge cycle, but because each battery can only be charged through the device itself, they’re limited to a slow charge. It’s surprising that there is currently no high-capacity external charger available.

It’s sturdier than most UAVs. all the sensitive bits are hidden away in the solid body cavity, and no wires are exposed. The Freeflight 3 app is fairly intuitive to use, and within a few minutes you can confidently be navigating it through doorways and around furniture. This is mostly due to its clever software that utilizes an astounding array of sensors. It uses a combination of ultrasonic, gyroscope, accelerometer, barometer, and even computer vision data to keep the copter so steady in the air, it looks like it’s hanging on a string from the ceiling. This is great for patient kids (and patient adults) who are new to flying, as it gives the pilot instant gratification.

The fact that Parrot has put such great effort into the onboard stabilization is surely because of the Spider’s reliance on Bluetooth LE communication. Although BLE is battery-efficient and allows the copter to pair with any phone (without forcing you to drop your Wi-Fi connection like its AR drone predecessors), it means that the phone “talks” to the Spider less frequently. BLE data rates hover around 10Hz, compared to, say, the 45Hz of an RC radio, or 50Hz of a computer mouse. This means that, as long as you give the Spider steady maneuvers, preferably with small pauses in between, its flight response is flawless. Shoving the controls around too quickly, like flying fast to the right and then suddenly flipping it to the left, will result in a loss of control. You’ll likely end up with the copter crunching against the wall often if you fly this way—the commands just can’t always get through fast enough.

If the controller can’t talk to the drone, the drone has to be smart enough to control itself. That’s the beauty of this little device: it’s impressively smart on the inside. A dissection reveals an ARM chip running a full Linux system to manage the myriad of sensors, a complexity that even most big flying robots can’t boast yet. Once you realize this, it makes the Spider’s $100 price tag look entirely more reasonable. There’s also massive untapped potential in the hardware that Parrot’s not yet taking advantage of. But, if the independent development on Parrot’s larger AR drone family is any indication, it won’t take long for hackers to give the Rolling Spider some new superpowers. This copter could very reasonably learn to fly a path through the office, or follow an iBeacon in your pocket, or connect to a Leap Motion to be controlled by a wave of a hand. But for now, it’s a fun gadget that’s entirely capable of entertaining pilots-at-heart.

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