The lure of being in the sky is powerful. From the Chinese kites developed as far back as the 5th century BCE to the awe of watching humans take the first steps on the surface of the Moon the fascination to take to the sky seems to be a part of the very nature of many people. Even now, in an age where you have to really work to find someone who has never been on an airplane, people still watch in awe at airshows, rocket launches, and other air-related events. Is it any wonder that the advent of the personal Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, known as a UAV, has spurred such interest around the world?
As we come out of a cold and bitter winter into spring, you may look towards the sky yourself and think of getting a UAV or drone of your own. There are lots of great smaller models of drone out there but in this article, I take a look at two of the heavier hitters, the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 and the Parallax ELEV-8. These are two very different commercial options, in a similar class, and both are outstanding for their different uses.
Lets start with what these drones have in common. They are both quad (four) bladed designs that have a reasonable learning curve, are reasonably priced for their capabilities, and have on-board smarts to make the flying experience more enjoyable. That is about where the similarities end.
The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is a fantastic flight experience. Open the box, charge the batteries, and you are pretty much ready to go. The AR.Drone 2.0 has a built in 720p video camera and is perfect for light duty pleasure flying and aerial photography. It is rather amazing that, for the price, you can get up and running so fast and have your very own images from the sky. The AR.Drone is controlled via a smartphone or tablet, iOS and Android compatible, over a WiFi signal provided by the drone itself. Yes, the drone is actually a flying base station. The WiFi bandwidth allows the video signal to be relayed in real-time back to the controlling device. Having a first person perspective from your drone is a ton of fun and gives you an amazing perspective. The drone has a USB port on-board for a USB dongle. If you want to capture full 720p video, you need to have the USB hooked up to allow for the higher data requirements. There is also an option for a GPS add-on module to fly pre-planned routes and provide a return-to-start option.
Where the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is like a Cessna 172—reliable, compact, and ready to go—the Parallax ELEV-8 is the C-130 of the at-home fleet. Heavier lift, ready for customization, and ready to work. You just need to be ready to work for the capabilities—work that I feel is worth it. In the ELEV-8, Parallax provides you what they are great at providing: a kit. They have designed the ELEV-8, built it, tested it, and provide you all of the kitted parts ready to assemble. We are talking ALL of the parts are in the kit, with nothing assembled. This caused both apprehension and sheer joy for me. Let’s start with the apprehension. This is not a small kit with some simple through-hole soldering. It is a complex machine with some tricky solder connections, and requires you to pay close attention to the directions and understand what you are doing at every step. If you’ve never built a robot or other kit before, I highly recommend you start with some of the more basic Parallax builds and work your way up. The joy, and what you gain, is the ability to really know every piece of your drone. You know exactly how the motors are wired, how the speed controllers for the props are integrated, the routing and abilities of your power bus, and the knowledge of how to expand your build. The essential ELEV-8 kit does not come with any payload but with a 2 pound (0.9 kg) lift capacity, the ELEV-8 is ready to accept any payload you can imagine that will fit into that weight requirement. Want a camera payload? You can easily integrate a GoPro HERO3+, with mass to spare, and capture video beyond 1080p HD. How about a scientific payload? There are a wealth of sensors available for instrumentation development on the Parallax website. How about a remote controlled egg-drop experiment with your kids? Easy enough with a couple actuators and maybe an XBee based remote control system.
The fun of the ELEV-8 is that there is nothing pre-determined beyond the fact that you get a stable, reliable, flying platform. If you want to upgrade your payload capabilities, you can upgrade with two additional props for a hex-copter capable of lifting up to 4 pounds (1.8 kg). Fly multiple cameras and capture a flying 360 panoramic. You can also build a 3 boom, 6 prop, configuration that is capable of the same 4 pound lift. The ELEV-8 does not come with the remote control system so you will need your own transmitter/receiver pair.
One thing to keep in mind is that buying either platform is an investment in a hobby. It is not a one time cost. You WILL crash either platform. It is inevitable. One of the ELEV-8 introductory videos even shows a crash on a first flight attempt. The ELEV-8 is obviously easy to repair. You built it yourself from parts and all of those parts are available from Parallax. In my finding, the AR.Drone was a little more fragile but did survive a drop from ~150 feet with a surprisingly small amount of damage. Looking up the spare parts that are available on the Parrot website, replacement parts to make the repairs to get back up and flying again were not substantial by any means. I don’t want to make it sound like either of these drones are prone to crashes. They are both stable and strong. When you are flying, uncontrolled descents with a sudden stop at the end are just a part of life.
In my mind, it is impossible to directly compare the two drones. They are both well designed and capable drones that are very good at exactly what they are intended to do. I recommend you look at what the capabilities are and then look at your own needs and skills to decide between the two. If you are intimidated by the complexity of the ELEV-8, Parallax has a wide array of kits available to begin your journey to building up the ELEV-8 and they are all a lot of fun.
For full disclosure, both Parallax and Parrot provide copies of the drones for testing and, in the case of the ELEV-8, building. Parallax provided everything I would need that they sell, which does not include a transmitter/receiver set. Based on the recommendation of Parallax and numerous friends, I bought the Spektrum DX6i transmitter and a Spektrum AR6210 receiver.