When most of us think of consumer drones, what comes to mind are the buzzing quadcopters currently ushering in a new era of aerial photography (and paranoia). But, French drone company Parrot wants you to think differently.
With the release of their new Disco drone, the company is pushing a new form factor for consumer drones—the single fixed wing—which it hopes will catch on among hobbyists and professionals. As you can see in the video above, I spent a recent afternoon piloting the Disco and, as an avid quadcopter pilot myself, discovered both advantages and disadvantages in the single wing design.
The most prominent disadvantage: It’s not that easy. On my first flight of the Disco using first-person-view (FPV) goggles where you navigate on your smartphone with a video transmitted from the drone-mounted camera, I crashed it into a tree at 30 miles an hour. Pierre Riols, the Parrot engineer who acted as my instructor and minder, clearly winced.
Flying a fixed wing aircraft is a decidedly different experience from flying a quadcopter. If I had been flying my quadcopter, a DJI Phantom 3 Professional, I could have seen the trees ahead, let go of the controls and the drone would have come to a stop, hovering while I got my bearings. But being a flying wing, the Disco forever needs to be moving forward at quick speed. It doesn’t hover. And it doesn’t stop in mid-air. Of course, I knew that in advance, but it still didn’t prevent me from hitting the tree.
But I was impressed that we found the drone largely intact. We used the smart phone attached to the Disco’s remote control to hunt for it using GPS. It had some scrapes and perhaps a dent or two in the sturdy foam wing, but it started up again perfectly. If I had crashed my Phantom at that speed, I’d be sending it back to DJI for an expensive repair.
Chalk it up to user error, I guess. More flight time with the Disco would certainly gain me more comfort with the particular way it flies. Assuming I chose a big open area to fly, crashes like this one would likely be less common, too.
All the same, the Disco flies like a dream. Rarely have I experienced such a joyful feeling of flight than with the Disco. While the Phantom and other consumer drones like the 3DR Solo can fly relatively fast, you never really derive the same sensation of soaring. I made long, swooping bank turns and steep dives using the joysticks on the remote control, all the while watching the world below flow through my field of view below. It was really cool and a lot of fun to fly.
With the included remote control, called the SkyController 2, the Disco does not allow you to do flips or rolls or other stunts. However, by adding an additional radio transmitter, you can use a high-end remote and perform maneuvers worthy of a professional stunt pilot.
Made of expanded Polypropylene (EPP) with carbon tubes for reinforcement, the Disco is also impressively light. It weighs just 1.6 pounds. Compare that to the Solo, which weighs four pounds when mounted with a GoPro, and the Phantom 4, at three pounds. The wind was low on the day I flew, so I can’t say whether faster winds would have affected the lightweight Disco’s stability, though.
Being a light wing aircraft with just one engine mounted in the center rear, the Disco can also fly longer than other drones. Parrot says flight time can surpass 45 minutes, nearly double what I get with my Phantom.
The camera mounted on the nose of the Disco can shoot 14-megapixel images. It can film video in 720p resolution, and the company says filming in higher-definition 1080p is coming in the future as a firmware release. The Disco comes with 32GB of internal storage, which is sufficient for a lot of aerial photography, but why they didn’t include a slot for an SD card is puzzling. That said, the images that I saw from the Disco nicely captured the experience.
On my second flight, I managed to avoid crashing the Disco and landed it softly on the fairway. I was nervous as I made the approach, feeling sheepish that I had crashed it earlier. Landing required me to approach from about 100 yards and then to push the landing button on the remote. The drone took over and glided itself to a stop on the short-cut grass. Heaving a sigh of relief I handed the remote to Pierre, who was visibly relieved.
In the video above that I produced, I wanted to include footage from the Disco that I had flown, but Parrot refused to provide it to me. (Perhaps because they did not want crashing into a tree to be part of the report, even though crashing your drone is an integral part of every beginner’s experience.) The footage from the drone seen in the video above is generic footage they made available to everyone.
The Parrot Disco drone is scheduled for release in September at a cost of $1,300, which makes it about as expensive as the Phantom 4. If your priority is aerial photography, I’d say the Phantom is the better bet. But for those interested in experiencing the feeling of flight while piloting an aircraft, then the Disco might be worth the investment.