Flying Parrot's Disco Drone: An Enormous Amount of Almost-Affordable Fun

Parrot Disco drone flying
Photo: Brian Craig/Parrot
Parrot's Disco drone is incredibly easy to fly, even for a beginner, with an impressive autopilot, long range, and FPV included.

Yesterday morning, Parrot announced everything that you get with its new Disco drone, and it’s more than just the drone itself: You also get Parrot’s Skycontroller 2 and Parrot’s Cockpitglasses, which work as a FPV (first-person view) headset after you insert your smartphone in it. The kit will be available this September and will cost US $1,300. We were in Palm Springs, Calif., for the announcement, and we spent several hours with Disco out on a golf course in 106-degree heat, trying to find out whether the drone is worth the price, especially for someone who might be new to fixed-wing flight.

We came away with a bad sunburn and lot of impressions. There’s a reason that Disco is so expensive: Parrot stuffed it with some really sophisticated hardware and software, and that comes at a cost. But the result is a drone that is incredibly simple to fly for beginners and still a ton of fun for experienced pilots. The Disco is astonishingly robust, has spectacular video-capture capabilities, and comes with an FPV system that works great right out of the box. Is it worth it? Everything we learned is right after the break.

When we showed up at a golf course yesterday morning, Parrot assigned us to a specific hole, which came complete with a Parrot engineer, a couple of Disco drones, and a tent that provided a small amount of much appreciated shade. (Disclosure: Parrot covered our expenses relating to this Disco test flight.) I was vaguely expecting that Parrot would put on some kind of basic flight school, but nope, they were confident enough in Disco that all we got was a “this is what these controls do, here’s how you launch it, avoid trees and mountains, have fun!” Uh, okay. Maybe this is a good place to mention I have never flown a drone like this before, and I’ve barely flown any other drones, so all of the following opinions are coming from someone who has no idea what he’s doing.

So, to get started, let’s take a look at the controller.

Controller

The controller uses two spring-loaded joysticks, set up in a way familiar to anyone with radio-controlled (RC) aircraft experience. The Y axis of the left controller is your throttle, and the X and Y axes of the right controller are for roll and pitch, respectively. This leaves the X axis of the left controller free: Traditionally, it’s used for yaw, but Disco doesn’t have yaw control, since it uses elevons and doesn’t have a rudder. Instead, moving the left controller X axis in either direction puts the drone into Loiter mode, which is a useful feature to have literally at your fingertips: Anytime you need a breather, just tap the left controller left or right, and the autopilot instantly takes over, circling the drone in place until you take over again (this is called Loiter mode). If you go completely hands off without kicking in Loiter mode, the Disco will reliably return itself to straight and level flight, which is itself a good way to get out of any potentially problematic situation.

There are a bunch of other buttons on the controller, all of them useful:

  • Left trigger and dial: Toggles FPV modes and adjusts FPV camera pan
  • Right trigger: Toggles phone camera view
  • Home button: Push this and the drone will autonomously return to the GPS coordinates of its launch point and loiter overhead. Also works as an “Oh, sh*t” button, since the drone will immediately stabilize and climb to a safe altitude before returning.
  • Takeoff/Land button: Initiates takeoff or landing. You can push it again in the middle of a landing that’s going wrong, and the drone will turn it into a takeoff, autonomously climbing to 50 meters and entering Loiter mode.
  • A and B buttons: Programmable

A phone is optional, but Parrot is expecting that you’ll use one most of the time. It connects to the controller through a USB cable, and provides a streaming video view and important telemetry, including the battery life of both the drone and the controller.

Launch

Video: Grant McClure/Tell
See? Even I can do it. Just throw it like a Frisbee.

Launching Disco is as easy (or as hard) as throwing a Frisbee. If you’ve thrown a Frisbee before, it’s easy. If you have no idea how to throw a Frisbee, it’s going to take some practice. You hold the drone Frisbee-like in one hand, and either hold the controller in your other hand or put the controller on the ground. Just like a Frisbee, Disco does not have any way of sensing or avoiding obstacles, so you’ll need a big open area without tall trees or buildings to launch safely. Facing into the wind, push the take-off/land button and the drone will spin up its motor, slowly at first (sort of a “get ready!”), and then at full power. Once the power comes on, it really starts to tug, and you toss it forward and upward and off it goes. You don’t need a lot of power behind your throw; it’s mostly about the technique of giving it some forward and upward velocity and letting it go at the right moment. The drone is able to handle even very bad low and sideways throws, rapidly stabilizing itself and gaining altitude. It’s almost startling to watch, because it makes you realize just how capable the autopilot is, although it’s worth noting that accidentally throwing sideways means that the drone will continue upward in that direction, which is why you need to either launch in a big open space, or have really good aim.

Once the drone is airborne, it climbs at a steep angle up to 50 meters and begins to fly in a slow circle. While this is going on, you don’t have to do anything, and you don’t even have to be holding the controller if you’d prefer to devote both of your hands to the launch process. Seriously, you can just plonk the controller down somewhere, launch the drone, and then spend however long you want composing yourself before picking the controller back up again to take over from the autopilot. The drone doesn’t mind— it’s perfectly happy to circle by itself until you’re good and ready.

In Flight

Taking over from the autopilot is as easy as giving the drone a command with one of the control sticks. It instantly snaps to your control, with no noticeable lag. All of the commands that you give Disco are intercepted and tempered by the autopilot system, which keeps the drone extremely stable. For example, if you give it full right roll, the autopilot will keep Disco at between 30 and 40 degrees, rather than letting you roll the drone over completely. It’ll also add throttle as you turn to keep the drone from stalling, and will in fact not allow a stall at all by enforcing a minimum airspeed. Pitch and roll are stabilized whether or not you’re providing inputs.

Video: Grant McClure/Tell
A Parrot engineer launching and flying the drone.

In general, I found that Disco is much easier to fly than a quadrotor, for one very simple reason: Disco is always flying forward. With a quadrotor, “forward” is arbitrary, since they can fly in any direction, and if the quadrotor is not pointing directly away from you, all of the control axes rotate. For example, if a quadrotor is hovering in front of you, and you rotate it 90 degrees so that it’s pointing to your right, you now have to use the left roll control to get it to fly what is, from your perspective, forward. Getting the hang of this (especially when distance and speed is involved) is not trivial, and is arguably the biggest cause of quadrotor destruction. Disco, being a flying wing, spends all of its time flying forward. All of the controls are consistent with its forward flight, making it (at least for me) much easier to just pick up and fly with very little experience and no training. This is true even as you fly circuits or figure eights, although I found it to be tricky when the drone was flying straight toward me. But again, you can always kick in Loiter mode or hit the Home button if things start to go wonky.

For someone who’s just starting out with drones or flying wings, Disco’s autopilot is absolutely brilliant. My very first flight was a joy, and not stressful in the least. A bunch of those little tricks that (I would assume) pilots pick up over time, like minimum airspeeds, coordinated turns, pitch control during throttle changes, and more, are all already built right in. The Disco just flies. It works. It does what you’d expect, when you’d expect it, even if you have no expectations. You don’t have to worry about anything at all. It’s utterly amazing, and I suspect that for many drone beginners this might justify Disco’s steep price.

For drone pros, it’s a different story. If you’re using Parrot’s controller, the autopilot (and how it intercepts and “tames” every command you send to the drone) is not optional. You can’t turn it off, or even turn it down very much. However, it’s very easy to connect your own RC controller, which gives you full manual control. You can still take advantage of Disco’s assisted takeoffs, landings, Loiter mode, and return to home, if you set things up that way. Overall, I felt like the Disco’s autopilot settings were on the conservative side, and I’d like to see the software offer more options to allow you to grow as a pilot.

A word about range: Range is very, very far. Parrot officially says 2 kilometers, but we heard that they’ve successfully flown Disco out to around 3.2 kilometers while still getting streaming FPV video back. That’s nuts. We’re talking about a Disco right out of the box, of course, without any modifications. With such a massive potential range, the built-in horizontal and vertical geofencing becomes an important feature to mention. Through the app, you can tell the drone that you don’t want it to get too far away from you, and it’ll happily obey. And remember, hitting the Home button will bring it back to you, no matter where it gets to.

In terms of battery life, Parrot says you can expect 45 minutes, but over the course of the day, we found this to be conservative. If you’re not pinning the throttle the whole time (Disco has a top speed of 80 km/h) or maneuvering aggressively, and just cruising around, 60 minutes of uptime might be more accurate.

Landing

As with real aircraft, it’s the takeoffs and landings that are the tricky part. Parrot has made landing Disco as easy as it possibly can, but there’s still some skill involved, because (unlike a quadrotor), Disco needs to have a substantial amount of forward velocity as it lands. This means that you need to have a runway of sorts picked out—maybe 50 meters of smooth, open, and (ideally) soft space, like an open field. If you know what you’re doing, 50 meters (the length of an Olympic-size swimming pool) is probably more room than you need, but it’s a good place to start. Remember, Disco has no sense and avoid: You have to plan for where it’s going to land, or it will run into anything in its way.

Here’s how landing works: When you push the take-off/land button, Disco will throttle back and autonomously begin descending toward the ground at a safe speed. You want to already be going low and slow (say, 10 or 20 meters up with the throttle at midpoint or slower) before you hit the button. The lower and slower you’re going before you hit the button, the more control you’ll have over exactly where Disco touches down. As Disco descends in landing mode, your control over it is limited: You can roll to adjust its heading, and you can pitch it up if you need it to land longer, but you can’t increase the landing speed if it’s not coming down quickly enough. If it all starts to go wrong, hitting the take-off/land button again will cause the drone to abort, and it will power climb back up to 50 meters and loiter. The landing itself is, if all goes well, a gentle, controlled crash: When Disco senses it’s a meter or two above the ground, it reverses its throttle, stalls, and pancakes back to Earth, sliding to a stop within a few meters of touchdown. Done properly, everything holds together, with the hinged propeller neatly folding back as it touches the ground. Done sloppily, the wings break off and you have to put them back on again. Surprisingly, that’s not a big deal.

Crashing

The most unexpected thing for me was to see just how often the Discos crashed into stuff. There were lots of Discos in the air, perhaps 10 of them spread out over an 18-hole golf course, and more often than not at least one was up in a tree. Parrot’s guests weren’t the only ones responsible for this: The engineers occasionally crashed drones they were demoing, and one guy showing off Disco’s manual mode with an RC controller blasted straight into the top of a palm tree, losing both wings and plowing the drone’s body into a nearby lake.

Disco, simply put, didn’t care. With one exception, none of the drones suffered damage that prevented them from immediately flying again. Their foam bodies got a bit scraped up in some cases, like when one ended up in some kind of bush with vicious serrated spines on it that tore a gash in one wing. But there’s nothing in the wing, so it didn’t seem to bother the drone, or to significantly affect its flight performance. One drone did end up with a cracked wing, but again, the wings are just polystyrene. Not only are they cheap to replace (although we don’t know how much yet), you can actually just use regular glue to repair even wings that have snapped completely in half. If the elevon is damaged, tape it up, and it’ll be fine. If it’s not fine, Parrot will sell you spares of everything, but we don’t have prices yet. The wings are the most fragile component, we’re told, but they’re pure foam, so I can’t imagine they’d be that expensive to fix. All of the costly stuff is in the center body, which (in my experience) is tanklike. Parrot doesn’t include spares in the box, but if you manage to break what they give you to start out with, it’s because you were really, really, asking for it.

The ruggedness of the Disco will be a very unusual experience for anyone used to aerial robotics (or robots in general). Usually, running into something at high speed with a robot means that expensive stuff breaks. With Disco, it’s just part of flying. Crashes happen, and it’s not a big deal. It doesn’t cost you money or time, and doesn’t cause stress. Oh, you tried to fly through a bush by accident and your wing fell off? Snap it back on, reset the drone, and get back in the air. It’s as simple as that. Just have a pole or ladder ready in case you need to recover it from a tree.

Video

As soon as you launch Disco, it starts taking video with its nose camera. The video is stored on board the drone in MP4 format, and if you plug the drone into a computer with a USB cable, it shows up as an external drive and you can grab all of the footage. It’s very high quality stuff (1080p at 30 FPS), with software stabilization and blur removal that results in professional looking footage as long as you’re not in the middle of crazy acrobatics. You get stuff that’s very unlike a quadrotor, and quite beautiful, without even trying, like an afterthought. If you actually try, it gets even better.

During our flight tests, none of us were thinking about the fact that Disco was recording everything that we were doing. I downloaded the videos off the drone almost as an afterthought. But wow, were they ever spectacular to watch. We’re working on editing together a bunch of footage for you to have a look at.

FPV

Disco comes bundled with an FPV system: a headset that you put your phone (iOS or Android) into. There are lenses inside, and your phone displays split video feeds from the drone’s nosecam to generate a 3D view. You keep your phone connected to the controller with a USB cable (no proprietary connectors, thankfully), which is a bit awkward when you’re setting things up, but it turns out to be not a big deal in practice.

The FPV headset completely covers your eyes, and the video stream takes over your entire field of view. It’s designed to be like you’re sitting in a virtual cockpit in the nose of the Disco. Note that it’s first-person view, not first-person control: You’re still using the controller to fly the drone; the headset is just for the view.

When I tried the FPV out in the morning, it was somewhere between functional and usable, where usable is not as good as decent and decent is not as good as good. The quality was okay, but the frame rate was not that good. I could fly with it, but it wasn’t that “Wow, I’m Superman!” experience that I was hoping for. Parrot engineers explained that the FPV was running into two problems: First, there were a dozen Disco drones all in flight at once, and while we had an entire golf course to play with, that still meant that there were several drones all operating in overlapping areas, making for a noisy Wi-Fi environment in the 2.4-GHz band that Disco uses. There were no problems controlling all of these drones at once, but streaming HD video from each of them was a different story. Second, it was really freakin’ hot out. Disco is designed to operate between 5 and 35 degrees °C, and it was over 40 degrees °C by about 10 a.m. Drones and phones alike were overheating—not catastrophically, but enough that trying to handle streaming HD video was a challenge, and feeds were degraded.

The afternoon was much better. It wasn’t any cooler, but most people had fled back to the hotel, so there were only a handful of us left flying. Having fewer drones in the air (2 or 3 as opposed to 10 or 12) significantly improved the FPV experience. We’re not talking Oculus Rift levels of quality, since the display is phone-based, but there was certainly some “Wow, I’m flying!” in there. The quality was best when flying in a straight line with the controller pointed at the drone, and got a little choppy when maneuvering aggressively. Parrot made it sound like a typical user in a relatively RF-quiet environment will get consistently higher quality, but it’s not something we were able to experience for ourselves.

There are several different FPV modes that you can use while flying. There’s a pure video stream, a video stream with telemetry and an artificial horizon overlay, and a video stream with a “radar” overlay that displays the direction of the drone relative to the controller. This is useful to help you keep the controller’s antenna pointed at the drone to give you the best possible signal. You can also switch to a sort of augmented reality view, which sends you a stream from the camera on your phone. It’s a nice touch, making it easy to, say, launch the drone with the FPV headset on, and it also adds an overlay that highlights the location of the drone, so that you can easily spot it in the sky (or in a tree) if you’re not sure what the FPV view is showing you. Unfortunately, this last mode monopolizes the phone’s sensors, preventing the FPV view from using the Disco’s camera to give you head-controlled pan and tilt, which it would otherwise be capable of. Bit of a letdown here.

I was expecting Disco to be easier to fly in FPV, since I imagined that it would be like sitting in the cockpit of an airplane. It didn’t quite turn out that way, though—FPV is a different kind of challenge. Latency was around 250 milliseconds, which takes some getting used to, but really, it’s just a completely different perspective that will take more than a few flights to get used to. Where FPV really shines is at long range, where direct visual control is not practical.

FAA

This brings up a critical issue with Disco—U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) drone regulations. As Parrot points out in a very small footnote on their press release, “usage of Parrot Cockpitglasses requires the presence of a co-pilot.” At least for now, the FAA requires that someone with the ability to take control maintains visual line of sight with a drone at all times.

In practice, this places a severe restriction on the range of Disco, far lower than the drone can handle. Effectively, this partially negates one of Disco’s significant selling points, since it’s got kilometers of range that (at least in the United States) you’re not really allowed to use. Last we heard, the FAA is “aggressively researching” beyond line-of-sight flight, and we feel like (at least with Disco) autonomy is robust enough to warrant some leeway.

Future

Disco’s autopilot is Linux-based, and it’ll include an SDK to let you do whatever you want with the drone. All of the connectors on the autopilot are standard, so adding your own gear to Disco is very simple. It sounds like Parrot will, eventually, be selling just the autopilot module on its own, allowing you to build your own aircraft around it while still leveraging all of the sophisticated autonomous and assistive features that make Disco so easy and reliable to fly. Parrot is also offering a $20 in-app upgrade that will give Disco full flight autonomy. In the app, you can set GPS waypoints that the drone will follow, even coming into a landing all by itself. Lastly, we heard some rumors that Parrot is considering payloads for Disco— it sounds like the drone is easily capable of lifting more.

Should You Buy It?

Let’s be very clear about this—$1,300 is a lot of money for a drone. The Disco is not a toy that you casually purchase for fun— it’s a piece of expensive, sophisticated technology on par with a new high-end laptop or DSLR. You can certainly buy very good quadrotors for less. A lot less. A flying wing made mostly of Styrofoam seems like it should not be that expensive (certainly less expensive than a quadrotor, right?), but based on our experience yesterday, there are a couple of arguments to be made as to why Disco is worth paying for.

Skycontroller: The radio equipment is usually the most expensive (and most important) part of a drone. Parrot’s second generation Skycontroller is ideal for beginner and intermediate pilots, and the crazy massive Wi-Fi antenna on the end will keep you talking to your drone from kilometers away. The layout is thoughtful and complete, with a free app that gives you a video feed and telemetry on your phone, and easy access to all the features you’ll need for fun, safe flying.

Easy FPV: Want to try out flying Disco from a first-person perspective? It’s already included and set up for you, with no need to buy or configure anything else. As you upgrade your phone, the FPV experience will get better, too.

Autopilot: Disco’s autopilot system is incredible, and we were hearing about how great it was all day during our test flights from people who review drones for a living. All of the hard parts are more or less done for you, from takeoff to landing. In flight, the autopilot isn’t intrusive, but it makes sure that the drone stays under control at all times. You can fly where you want and how you want, but if you run the risk of stalling Disco or making some otherwise potentially fatal mistake, the autopilot gently pulls you back from the brink. Plus, the geofencing, loiter capability, and Return to Home feature make flying stress free.

Ruggedness: What really makes flying stress free is the fact that you can crash, and most of the time, it’s fine. Bushes, trees, the ground, whatever— wings pop off, you pop them back on again, and toss Disco right back into the sky. If the wings get torn up, they’re easy to fix with glue and tape, and since all of the electronics are safely stowed away inside the body of the drone, the expensive stuff is well protected. You’ll have to get used to the fact that plowing your drone into a tree is simply not a big deal, but when you do, it makes flying even more fun, because so much of the low-level worry that tends to accompany drone piloting is just gone.

Having said all that, we still feel like Disco is on the expensive side, considering where competition in the drone space is right now. And to be honest, we’re not sure exactly who Disco is for. Is it for a beginner, who will appreciate the sophisticated autopilot but probably not want to jump into the hobby with such an expensive purchase? Is it for an experienced RC pilot, who wants a versatile and capable platform but either won’t use the Skycontroller or will be frustrated by the always-on autopilot? It seems like Disco is more for someone in between—someone who’s been flying quadrotors, perhaps, and is looking for something new and different. Even for that narrow niche, though, $1,300 feels like a lot.

If you buy Disco in September, you definitely won’t be disappointed, but if you wait for the price to drop a bit (and we think it will), you might feel better about picking one up. Don’t get me wrong—if you’ve got the pockets, it would be hard to find an easier or more exhilarating way to introduce yourself to fixed-wing FPV flight.

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Automaton

IEEE Spectrum’s award-winning robotics blog, featuring news, articles, and videos on robots, humanoids, drones, automation, artificial intelligence, and more.
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