"Look up in the sky. It's a bird! It's a plane! No! It's the most cliché-driven introduction to a drone story that you have ever heard!" Forgive me for summoning the hackneyed phrasing, but it was that famous Superman line that flashed across my mind as I witnessed Parrot's new Disco drone gliding through the Californian skies, my neck craned to see the fixed-wing craft in full flight set across the solid, baking hot blue expanse above.
There's a chance you won't be familiar with Parrot's work. It's a French firm headed up by Henri Seydoux that specialises in consumer electronics ranging from high-end headphones to, more recently, drones. This latest product quite literally launching from the company is being billed as "the first fixed-wing drone for immersive flights"; that first part refers to how the Disco does away with the quadcopter-style four-rotor flight system seen in so many craft from DJi to 3DR, ultimately resulting in a design formed of a striking single expanse of wing, more like an aeroplane than a helicopter.
The "immersive" aspect, meanwhile, describes the ability to view the Disco's flight in real-time via a headset that holds the user's mobile phone inside, in the style of Google Cardboard or the Samsung Gear VR.
So, here I found myself, summoned from across the Atlantic to give the Disco a spin at SilverRock golf course in La Quinta, California. Now, a disclaimer before we proceed: while I have read and edited thousands of words about drones for Gizmodo UK, this was my first boots-on-the-ground go at flying one for myself; I certainly harboured some element of apprehension, envisioning some kerfuffle involving a mangled machine and countless crimson-faced apologies. As it turns out I needn't have worried, as Parrot is keen to express how easy it is to fly the Disco, rightly calling the experience "intuitive" and assuring users that previous piloting experience is not necessary to get going.
What's in the box?
The Disco set-up includes three main parts: the black-and-white craft itself, made from EPP expanded polypropylene, resembling a heavy duty form of polystyrene, a material that keeps the whole thing lightweight, which is then reinforced with carbon tubes laced throughout the wing; then for steering is the Skycontroller 2, a dual-joystick device that has a clip for attaching a phone for viewing the flight as it happens, also topped with a large flat antenna, itself about the size of a smartphone, packing fancy ceramic plates that beam out 2.5GHz of frequency, giving the pilot the ability to happily control the Disco from a range of up to two kilometres away; and, finally, is the Cockpitglasses headset mentioned above, designed to cradle iOS or Android phones from the market-leading manufacturers, which streams the 14-megapixel Full HD footage straight from the camera that is mounted at the front of the Disco. Plenty of flight footage can be kept on-board, with 32GB of storage packed inside.
Constructing the Disco is a breeze, involving no more than a couple of minutes' worth of simple putting together, where the two wings slot into the main body with the aid of two carbon tubes on each side that protrude from the wider end. In the pre-briefing to the golf-course flying session, CEO Henri Seydoux stressed how this simple, non-mechanical form was a driving force in designing the Disco, likening it to a "super-sophisticated paper plane". Size-wise, the Disco's wing-span stretches to a large, but not unwieldy, 1.1 metres.
Under a magnetically secured flap in the main middle section sits the C.H.U.C.K unit (that's short for Control Hub & Universal Computer for Kit), which is essentially the Linux-based brains of the operation, enabling auto-piloting for easy take-off and landing. A battery pack is plugged into the C.H.U.C.K unit with a simple single connection, and, once that's in, it's ready to be flown. Parrot says 45 minutes can be expected from the power unit, with up to 60 minutes potentially achievable on a non-intensive flight. Both of those figures will lessen if more involved manoeuvres and pace are engaged.
Come Fly With Me
Sitting centrally on the Skycontroller 2 pad is the take-off and landing button, which when pressed fires up a propellor that is placed at the back of the main unit. Once at full thrust it's just a matter of flinging the Disco into the sky.
No real control is needed at this point as the C.H.U.C.K unit does the hard work, controlling the Disco to a steady climb of 50 metres, where it then goes into 'loiter' mode, circling in the sky until it receives instructions from the pilot. As a rookie flyer myself, this automatic mode was a true relief, allowing the understandable panic of initial flight to subside before proceeding to properly manoeuvre the machine.
The left joystick on the Skycontroller 2 was set to control the direction of flight; left and right toggling correspond to control the Disco in easterly and westerly flight respectively, while pulling it down makes the craft climb skywards and levering the joystick upwards causes the Disco to descend, much in the way you would see in the flight controls of a real aircraft. The right joystick governed the speed, where pushing it upwards gave more acceleration and pulling it back down slowed the speed of flight. The controls, though, are totally customisable so that these default inputs could be swapped around.
At first I was flying the Disco without the first-person view (FPV) goggles strapped to my face, instead keeping an eye on the sky and seeing the Disco do its thing as I steered it with reassuring ease, careful to avoid smacking it into the harsh and rocky hills to my right and the watery and sandy bunkers to my left. When the Disco went out of sight (which happens pretty quickly seeing as this things zips about a quite a clip, up to 80kph, aided in my flight by the still California skies) I could look down at the mobile phone clipped onto the Skycontroller 2, running Parrot's proprietary FreeFlightPro app that streams the live-feed camera footage.
Little to no latency issues marred the experience as I viewed the flight on the phone, swinging the craft around to see a little tiny me on the screen, and toggling the shoulder buttons to adjust the camera's viewing angle to below and above. After a few more minutes of enjoyable flight, it was time to give landing a go. This was done by flying the Disco out to a decent distance and turning back towards myself, at which point I was instructed to go into a deep descent by pushing the right joystick up; this is a little concerning as you see the Disco heading rapidly towards terra firma, but once it was about 10 metres off the ground, I hit the landing button which caused the craft to audibly cut out engines and cleverly hit the ground with a scud and stop. Relieved whoops abounded.
Strap Yourself In
While the experience thus far was certainly intuitive and without incident, it was once I popped on the Cockpitglasses headset that flying the Disco really came into its own. The phone was unclipped from the Skycontroller 2, re-clipped into a neat housing and subsequently slotted into the Cockpitglasses main unit. Generous padding and a lightweight build meant that once strapped to my face there was no discomfort, and straight away I was immersed in world as seen by the Disco's front-facing camera. One of Parrot's people chucked the newly re-started Disco into action and I took off into the skies.
Where before I would be switching my gaze between controller and airborne craft, I was now simply flying as though it was me soaring above the Californian desert, some part of me thinking once more about Superman, channelling the superhero's power of flight as if it were my own. Fully engaged in what was in front of my eyes, I followed the path of a nearby stream, ventured above dusty brush, and directed myself towards the rocky La Quinta hills before feinting away and back to safety. It honestly was excellent.
Telemetry read-outs on the screen showed me height of flight, distance travelled from starting point, battery levels of craft and controller, and a baseline horizon line. I felt half like I was in a video game and half like an RAF fighter pilot.
Once I had again touched down and the goggles came off, I was buzzing and eager for more. That's not to say there weren't some mishaps among the others in the test group I was part of: a crash into a tree, a failed take-off resulting in a swift splat on the ground – but nothing that broke the durable Disco nor stopped it from working. It's a tough unit from what I saw, and assuredly easily repairable if a wing were to be snapped in a more severe crash.
It's Pro Time
The day was topped off by seeing a professional show off his skills with the Parrot Disco. While the C.H.U.C.K computer does some welcomed legwork for the novice, the Disco can also be easily hooked up to custom controllers for experts to take advantage of the craft. Once a professional controller is hooked into C.H.U.C.K, small thin-wire antennae protrude out of the middle unit, giving a better signal aiding more adept flight control for those with more developed skills.
Olivier the specialist showed us the Disco doing balletic barrel rolls and large-diameter backflips, low-to-ground skimming passes and impressive lofty turns at pace. So, while there is very little to learn for the novice with the Disco, it is also geared toward "enthusiasts" who want to really test the Disco's capabilities.
I jokingly wished there was some sort of electromagnetic pulse weaponry on-board to take out the fellow flyers in the skies who were testing the Disco alongside me, to really turn it into a video-game-like experience. Though seeing as the Disco will cost £1,149 when it is released next month in September, users might understandably be reluctant to knock these things out of the sky with fabled electricity-disabling stun shots. Definitely one to keep an eye on if you've the money for the full Superman experience.