Parrot's New Drone Puts You in the Cockpit

It’s not just the drone that feels like it’s flying.

By David Isaac

If you ever wanted to know what it was like to fly, but didn’t want to invest the $6,000 to $10,000 it takes to get a pilot’s license, the Parrot Disco—a drone that excels on many levels—may be the closest you’ll come to flying.

The Parrot Disco puts you in the cockpit—almost—by including a virtual reality-like headset (which Parrot calls "cockpitglasses") with the drone. You wear the headset as you fly the drone, and the headset lets you see what the drone sees, thanks to an HD camera built into its nose. A digital readout with various data points about the drone’s height, distance, and so on projects onto the screen, adding to the feeling that you’re in the machine and at the controls. In fact, the system succeeds so well that you might experience motion sickness if you’re not careful!

Parrot’s expert drone flyer pilots the Parrot Disco, using the Skycontroller 2 and cockpitglasses.

Three things stand out as you fly the Parrot Disco: its appearance, its ease of use, and its resilience. The elegant, ultramodern look of this flying wing isn’t a surprise when you consider that CEO Henri Seydoux co-founded the French fashion company Christian Louboutin and has a strong personal interest in art. Seydoux told Techwalla that uppermost in his mind was the idea that the drone should look high-tech and not like a traditional plane. The Parrot Disco caught everyone’s eye when Parrot unveiled it at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. In flight, it resembles a bird, (In fact, with several drones in the air at once, one of the attendees mistook a seagull for the drone). For bystanders and pilot alike, the Parrot Disco’s graceful, swooping circles are a pleasure to watch.

Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux at the press event with his new favorite drone.

The Parrot Disco is easy to fly because it relies on sophisticated technology to aid in flight stabilization. To launch it, you simply throw it like a frisbee. The Disco climbs to 50 meters and circles overhead (Parrot terms this "loitering") awaiting instructions from you. The controller closely resembles an Xbox video game controller with two joysticks. The left joystick puts the drone in and out of loiter mode; the right one controls climb and descent, and banks the drone left and right. There’s also a Home button if you lose track of the drone, which causes it to return to and circle above the controller. Other buttons handle taking pictures and capturing video. Also very handy is a button for entering and leaving flight mode, so you can quickly turn off the drone’s camera to see your surroundings. The drone’s flying ability made a strong impression on people at the event who live and breathe drones. Matt Maziarz, managing editor of Drones Magazine, called the Parrot Disco’s aerodynamics "awesome." Josh Pixler, of Flite Test—which, among other things, beat MIT at Red Bull’s Flugtag competition —gave it “four out of four stars.” He said he was concerned that the flight stabilization would make it too easy to operate, but said he was pleased to find that the Parrot Disco offers just enough challenge to newcomers to teach the principles of flying.

Landing the drone is the most challenging task for newbies. You need to bring the drone down low to the ground, which is nerve-wracking at first because you worry about crashing it. Once it’s at the appropriate near-ground altitude, you press the landing button. This puts the motor into reverse, slowing the drone’s velocity and causing the foldable propellor to flip up and away from the ground. The drone then skids to a halt on its belly.

The Parrot Disco coming in for a landing on a golf course in Palm Springs.

Advanced fliers can use an RC controller instead of the included Skycontroller 2. An expert drone flier from Parrot demonstrates what’s possible with the RC controller in this video clip:

The acrobatic moves that the Parrot Disco executed were truly amazing as the pilot sent it into spinning dives and inverted it just 4 inches off the ground—all while the drone was traveling at its top speed of 50 mph. The Parrot Disco’s maximum flight time is 45 minutes, more than double that of most drones. However, using an RC controller will reduce the flight time by about half.

The Parrot Disco will work with a traditional RC controller for full manual flight.

When I picked up the drone, I was surprised at how lightweight (1.6 pounds) and seemingly delicate it was. I had trouble believing that it would survive a belly landing, much less a full-on crash. But I was wrong: It’s not delicate at all. Composed of EPP (expanded polypropylene) and reinforced carbon tubes it’s incredibly robust—and it can resist wind velocities of up to 24 mph. Parrot’s engineers wisely minimized the drone’s number of mechanical parts. An electronic box located at the front handles most of the drone’s functions. And the wings detach—so if the drone crashes, the wings are more likely to pop off than to break. That combination of features helps the Parrot Disco survive accidents that would spell the end to most drones. I saw it crash into a mountain side and survive. I also saw it crash into a palm tree at 50 mph and survive.

Parrot brings a lot of drone experience to the Parrot Disco—and it shows. It gained some of its experience by producing its own Bebop drones, and some by acquiring Swiss drone maker SenseFly in 2012. SenseFly produces elite mapping and geographical information drones for commercial and civil users. The influence of SenseFly’s flying-wing drones on the Parrot Disco is obvious. Seydoux says that when his company acquired SenseFly, he wanted to put its technology into a recreational drone. Given that SenseFly’s drones retail for $25,000, the Parrot Disco’s price of $1,299 seems not unreasonable. That sticker price covers the drone, a pair of cockpitglasses, and the Skycontroller 2.

An electronic box that runs off a Linux dual-core processor handles most flight control functions.

The Parrot Disco works with FreeFlight Pro, a $120 app available for iPhone and iPad. The app lets you control flight parameters and watch live video on your smartphone or tablet. The drone comes with an adjustable holder that you can attach to the Skycontroller 2 if you prefer to fly without the cockpitglasses. The app also links you to the Parrot cloud which offers free storage of the data from all your flights. The drone itself contains 32GB of onboard storage, enabling you to save data to the cloud later if you’re flying without being linked to the app. For an additional $20 (via an in-app purchase), you can get Flight Plan, which lets you set flight paths in advance that the drone will then carry out autonomously. The Parrot Disco makes a terrific first impression on both beginners and expert drone flyers. If you want instant flying success and state-of-the-art technology in a resilient shell, this drone is for you. Parrot got it right with the Disco.

Photo credits: Techwalla, Parrot, Brian Craig Photography.