A few years back, the French company Parrot decided that it would be sort of cool to start building robots. It's not like they were a robotics company: they mostly made Bluetooth stuff. And speakers. And some kind of fantastic headphones. But out of nowhere, Parrot came up with the AR.Drone, which they debuted at CES 2010. After four years (and two versions) it's still arguably the best, most affordable (and fun!) flying robot we've ever seen. And at CES this week, Parrot expanded its family of robots, with a miniaturized version of the AR.Drone plus a wheeled sumo robot that jumps.
We've always liked how Parrot manages to take some of the latest research-inspired technology and stuff it into its consumer robots. The two new robots sport some capabilities that, until now, we've only spotted in research labs.
Let's start off with the new Parrot MiniDrone. It's…well, it's essentially a mini AR.Drone quadcopter, at about a tenth the size of its bigger sibling. Parrot took everything that made the AR.Drone fly so well and miniaturized it, including (most importantly) the optical flow stabilization system:
Underneath the MiniDrone is an optical flow camera along with a sonar rangefinder, plus some reasonably serious computing power in the form of a 500 MHz processor and 1GB of RAM. The drone can sense how high it is off of the ground, and using optical flow, it can also sense its own motion relative to the ground. This, with the assistance of a barometer, accelerometer, and gyro, enables the MiniDrone to consistently and reliably self-stabilize, such that if you take your hands off of the controller, it'll hover flawlessly all by itself.
As with the AR.Drone, the MiniDrone is controlled with your mobile device, although it's using Bluetooth Low Energy instead of Wi-Fi. There's no room for a camera on the MiniDrone, so you won't get that first-person view, but Bluetooth LE's shorter range will generally keep it closer to you anyway.
For novice pilots (or lazy ones), the MiniDrone comes with a pair of (relatively) gigantic clip-on wheels that allow it to drive along the ground using thrust from the props. They also double as a sort of protective roll cage that prevents the drone from crashing into most things. We love this feature, especially since it's something that we've only very recently seen from robotics research labs.
This robot is called Jumping Sumo. I'm not sure where the "sumo" bit comes from, but it's certainly quite a jumper: an actuated, spring-loaded tail can repeatedly launch the robot vertically, up to 80 cm in the air. Depending on how much jumping you do, battery life is about 20 minutes.
Jumping Sumo has a QVGA camera and talks to your mobile devices via 2.4 GHz or 5 GHz 802.11AC Wi-Fi, providing a control range of over 150 feet. Sometimes these two-wheeled robots can be hard to drive, but a gyro and accelerometer help with steering a bit, allowing you to make very precise 90 degree turns and do all kinds of crazy acrobatics.
The whole jumping thing is another feature that we've seen showup in roboticsresearch over the last year or two; it's a very efficient way to avoid obstacles, and it's fun to see in a little robot that you can buy and play with on your own.
While Parrot hasn't yet set a price or specific release date for either of these robots (beyond sometime later this year), we're expecting them to be quite affordable (perhaps in the $US 100–200 range or lower), considering how Parrot managed to price the AR.Drone.
Photos: Evan Ackerman
An earlier version of this story posted 6 Jan 2014 | 23:10 GMT.
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Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.