There is already an extraordinary variety of “drones” on the market – flocks of them. In just a couple of years these model aeroplanes with cameras have taken off, literally, faster than anything I’ve seen in consumer technology. But most drones are helicopters, or quadcopters (more motors, more rotors). It’s pretty much only the military that gets its hands on drones that fly, swoop and land like proper fixed-wing planes. Until this.
Parrot, an eccentric French electronics company whose stuff I’ve always liked, got into drones early. Their first efforts weren’t very good. I took one of their earliest models out to fly several Boxing Days ago: it refused to respond to any commands and was last seen floating off over west London. So although Parrot products as a whole have gone from strength to strength, I haven’t taken their drones very seriously since, as I’ve found China’s DJI range to be both tougher and cleverer.
But now there’s this, the Parrot Disco FPV – the first fixed-wing, military-style drone for the people. In many ways, it’s the sexiest on the market, and though being made from polypropylene foam isn’t too macho, it does mean the 115cm-wingspan machine is so light (750g) it can fly for 45 minutes at up to 80 km/h in winds of 40 km/h.
The Disco is also incredibly easy to fly, with loads of tricky functions (landing, notably) automated – and all parts replaceable in case of accident. It’s also seductively, hypnotically immersive; the Disco comes with a first-person-view (FPV) headset that places you in the pilot seat by live-streaming video from the full-HD front-mounted camera. Parrot insists, very sensibly, that you don’t fly alone with the headset on but have a “co-pilot” standing nearby.
To launch it you have to chuck it like a Frisbee, whereupon it senses take-off and flies automatically to 50m altitude and circles until you take the controls on the ground. The technicalities of landing are amazing: you press a button on the controller; the Disco adjusts its flaps and descends to 6m. It then assesses its situation based on signals from its altimeter, ultrasound sensor and vertical camera to land smoothly. There’s yet more tech in play for swooping around in the sky – it judges speed using a Pitot tube, as in real aircraft. A model it may be, but in my book, it’s a supermodel.