Parrot defined the consumer quadrotor with its excellent (and affordable) AR Drone, which was first announced at CES 2010. Since then, Parrot has been expanding its quadrotor lineup, with mini quadrotors, wheeled quadrotors, semi-aquatic quadrotors, and quadrotors with beastly cameras inside of them.
At CES 2016, Parrot announced something new: a fixed wing drone called Disco, which promised a totally different flying experience. With a top speed of 70 kilometeres per hour, a flight time of 45 minutes, and a design that might even be (relatively) crash-friendly, Disco is totally different from the experience that you get with a quadcopter.
Today, Disco is official, and as it turns out, we’re not just getting a new fixed-wing drone: Parrot is bundling Disco with a complete first-person view, or FPV, system. You get the drone, a completely redesigned long-range Skycontroller, and Parrot Cockpitglasses, which turn your smartphone into an immersive display that lets you fly from the perspective of the drone itself.
The Disco drone itself is essentially the same as what we saw back at CES. It’s compact (55 cm nose to tail with a 114 cm wingspan) and lightweight (0.72 kg), made primarily out of expanded polypropylene foamy stuff with carbon fiber tubes for structural reinforcement. There’s a brushless motor at the back, spinning up a folding propeller, and two elvons provide pitch and roll control. Inside the Disco’s body is a big fat lithium battery, that epic 14 megapixel ultra wide-angle digitally stabilized camera out of the Bebop, and an autopilot called C.H.U.C.K.
C.H.U.C.K (Control Hub & Universal Computer Kit, which I’m just going to call the autopilot because repeatedly calling it C.H.U.C.K seems silly) is a big part of what’s going to make Disco a drone that you’ll be able to toss into the air and fly on your first try. To launch the drone, you toss it into the sky “like a frisbee,” and the autopilot will take it up to 50 meters and start circling until you’re comfortable taking over. Once you do, the autopilot will continue to quietly assist you in the background, smoothing out your control inputs for stable flight and making sure you don’t accidentally stall the aircraft.[shortcode ieee-pullquote quote="To launch the drone, you toss it into the sky "like a frisbee," and the autopilot will take it up to 50 meters and start circling until you're comfortable taking over." expand=1]
The autopilot includes an accelerometer, gyro, magnetometer, altimeter, ultrasonic sensor, vertical camera, and a combined GPS/GNSS module. You can set a GPS fence, and the autopilot will make sure that the drone doesn’t go too far, and it will automatically return to its takeoff position and start circling if you lose control of it. When you’re ready to land, it’s as easy as pushing a button: the drone finds its way back to you, descends, deploys its flaps, reverses its engine, and then makes a gentle, semi-controlled crash-ish landing more or less at your feet.
Disco comes with its own updated controller: the Parrot Skycontroller 2. It talks to Disco over Wi-Fi, and has a (theoretical) maximum range of two kilometers. Rather than the clumsy control of a touchscreen, the Skycontroller gives you two joysticks to work with, along with a bunch of customizable ’direct access’ buttons and a pair of trigger buttons. Connecting the controller to a tablet or smartphone gives you additional options: it’s how you set the geofencing, for example, or lets you record the video feed. If you’d rather fly in manual mode with your own RC controller, the autopilot module includes a port that makes it easy to connect a custom transmitter.
The final piece of this whole system is Parrot’s Cockpitglasses, a FPV headset. It’s a “dumb” headset: you have to put your iOS or Android phone it in for it to work. The headset will give you a streaming view from the Disco’s front 14 megapixel camera, for a "fully immersive, wide-angle HD view of the flight." The images are distortion corrected and software stabilized, and you also get a data overlay that shows you real-time flight telemetry.
The complete Disco package has a suggested retail price of $1,299. It’s a lot, but you’re also getting a lot of high quality hardware. We’re not sure yet whether you can buy the pieces individually, but we’ll find out, as later today, we’re getting a chance to boogie down with the Disco ourselves. We’ve got plenty of questions about the flight experience: there’s only so much that a press release conveys, and we’re anxious to try everything out for ourselves. Personally, I have flown a fixed-wing drone approximately zero times, so I’m very much hoping that the Disco will be a fun (and forgiving) first flight.
We’ll have more for you on the Disco, including video and some comments from Parrot founder and CEO Henri Seydoux, later this week.
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.