Drones! Star Wars! It seems like a match made in heaven, given how iconic some of the saga's ships are. Who wouldn't want a TIE fighter or an X-Wing to fly around? Anyone who says no clearly isn't a big fan, and probably watches Star Trek or something (...actually, some proper Trek drones would be very cool).
Last year saw the release of three Star Wars-inspired drones, made by Propel. This year sees them being released again. I got to get my hands on one of them to play with, all to work out whether you should go out and buy one. Is it worth it? Let's find out.
In a sentence, this is a drone shaped like Darth Vader's advanced TIE Fighter from the very first Star Wars film. It's one of three models released, with the X-Wing and Endor Speeder Bike also available for purchase. If these look familiar to you, there's a good reason for that: they were actually originally released last year, in what is now being described as a 'soft launch'. Don't be fooled though, because they're exactly the same. They just happen to have a different box, and there's an app to help you learn the controls.
So if you bought one last year, don't buy one this year. Unless you want to add a different ship to your collection.
Proper claims that while these things are referred to as drones by everyone (including them), they're not actually drones in the eyes of the law. They say that this is because they don't have cameras, a claim I'm dubious about. It doesn't matter anyway, because the UK's drone regulations only apply to anything weighing more than 250 grams. With the battery and safety cage attached, the TIE Fighter only weighed 104 grams. There might be a little bit of discrepancy with the other two, but I doubt that there will be nearly 150 grams of difference. So remember kids, this isn't a drone, it's a "remote control aerial toy".
I'd still keep it away from airports and other restricted airspaces, though.
The idea behind these drones is to fight them, and turn them into a form of competitive sport. Up to 12 people can fight in a single battle, with two CPUs simultaneously controlling flight and player controls - which Propel promises offers a zero latency experience.
Word of advice, though, read the manual. Even if you've used drones before, there's a lot to learn and you will need to memorise most of it to get a good flying experience.
Anyone who's ever flown a drone knows it can be a tricky thing to master, especially when you're not used to controlling something with three dimensions of manoeuvrability. This one is no different, but it's not that difficult to get the hang of. Not the basic flying around, anyway. The aerial tricks and weaponry takes a quite a bit of practise, particularly if actually trying to knock another person's drone out of the air.
Unfortunately you can't do that on your lonesome, and not knowing anyone willing to pay for one of these drones meant I couldn't practise aerial combat for myself. Maybe that's something Propel can introduce in future? Targets you can set up to give your skills some work without having letting the stress of social encounters and actual battles get in the way.
The promise of zero latency seems to ring true. Every time I made a change on the controller, the drone responded immediately and obeyed the commands. It's not some cheap cash-in with a hefty price tag attached, either. Flying is an incredibly painless experience, and aside from the fact it's a bit front-heavy and drifts about accordingly, I have no complaints. This definitely isn't one of those cheap sub-£50 RC toys you can find in the shops.
One of the main things I liked was the automatic take-off and landing procedures. I doubt there's a person alive who's turned on a drone for the first time and not figuratively shat themselves when the propellers start buzzing, so the fact it lifts itself safely off the ground is a nice comfort. Not that you'd really need it after a few attempts, given how taking off would normally just require pushing up on one of the control sticks.
Getting any aircraft — it doesn't matter what — back on the ground safely is no easy task, so the fact that Propel drones can do it automatically is a lifesaver. I tried to get it down manually, but I just ended up crashing when I was close to the ground. With these, all you need to do is press the button, and it'll automatically lower itself towards the ground and switch off when it's safe to do so. There's also an emergency cut off if you need it, but that literally cuts the engines regardless of what's happening. Considering this drone got to tree-top heights and can feel a bit fragile at times, it's not something you want to rely on.
Speaking of which, at the launch event Propel told us that the drone had a maximum height of three metres. I can tell you right now that this figure is bullshit. I couldn't tell you how high I got it exactly, but by the time I chickened out and told it to descend, my drone was well over three metres high and still seemed to have room to climb. They also told us that it'll stop descending one metre off the ground. Again, not true. Not in my case anyway.
You might have noticed one of the Propel drones' most unique features already. The rotors are on the underside, whereas most drones have them on the top. The 'reverse propulsion' system, as it's being called, can help the rotors reach speeds of up to 35 miles per hour, and the way they're positioned means they're far less noticeable than the regular propulsion on most drones. They're not completely invisible, because they are attached to protruding legs, but they're far less obvious than most. Provided, of course, you haven't left the training guard on.
The underside rotors do mean you need to take off from a solid surface, though, otherwise the motor will get jammed with mulch.
Battery life isn't fantastic, as you might expect. The manual promises six to eight minutes of flight from a battery with 90 per cent charge. Once it starts running out you'll find that the thing struggles to take off, and falls back to the ground almost immediately. There are two batteries in the box, which extends the playtime a bit more, but they take 40 minutes to fully charge (though it only takes 30 to reach 90 per cent, if you're in a hurry).
But that's the way with drones. The bigger the battery, the heavier it is. Make it too heavy and you struggle to take off and control the thing, provided you can even get it off the ground to begin with. Propel's drones are much lighter than they look, and are mostly hollow to accommodate the weight restrictions imposed on us by gravity. A meagre battery life is to be expected, though I imagine you'll squeeze some more out of it by turning off the LEDs adorning the chassis. They remain on even when the drone shuts down, so take that into consideration.
As I said before, battling isn't really something you can do on your own. So you need friends with enough expendable income to buy one for themselves. Up to 12 people can battle, and it involves whizzing around firing beams of light at each other to try and score hits.
It's pretty simple. Each drone has three lives (displayed on the controller, and in the app), and being hit means you lose a life. Once all three are gone your drone will power down for the remainder of the game. If you hit another person you earn points, with more being earned the closer to 'death' your opponent is - and the most coming from taking their third life and knocking them out of the game.
It's quite simple, and Propel hopes that this is the first step towards making competitive drone fighting a real thing. Sadly, however, it wouldn't do too well as a televised event, as you can see:
Admittedly there's a big difference between TV cameras and my phone, but the displays they had at the press event weren't that much more impressive.
There are acrobatic controls included as well, designed to help you avoid enemy fire and sneak into a more appropriate position. There's not much to say here, though you want to make sure you have plenty of height before you initiate some aerial manoeuvres. And don't string too many together without some breathing room, otherwise you're just going to crash into the ground.
Each drone's default weapons are infra red, which means you don't have to be quite as accurate as a laser. That said, people will be able to upgrade to a laser-based system from November. The lasers are supposed to be harder to aim, but offer better precision and are more effective than IR. How easy it will be to upgrade has yet to be seen, though it's been promised that everyone will be able to upgrade - even if they purchased the drone last year.
The controller is rather large and unwieldy, fine for someone with big hands like me but less so for people who don't. Arguments could be made that it needs to be that big to fit in the necessary components it needs, but some streamlining wouldn't go amiss. As for the controls themselves, they're pretty standard. Analogue sticks for movement, triggers for weapons and cycling the rotor speed, triggers for aerobatics, and so on.
There's a pull-out smartphone stand for use with the app, which is nice. Some drones have smartphone stands as separate accessories, so being included in the box is a welcome touch. It's pretty big too, and was able to hold my Galaxy S7 inside its bulky case with room to spare. It's not big enough to hold a tablet, but if you have a giant-sized phablet you shouldn't have any issues.
My biggest gripe is that the controller has a built-in speaker system that proves to be incredibly irritating. It plays music whenever you're flying, along with a number of sound effects. The sound effects I can deal with, since they tell you what's going on — things like weapons fire, a confirmation it's about to take off, calibration checks, and so on. The sound effects also include quotes from the original Star Wars trilogy, but with some second-rate voice actors doing terrible impressions. They're pretty jarring, and frankly the system could do without them.
Fortunately you can turn off the music without losing the sound effects, and you can lower the volume of the lot if you're finding it too obnoxious. There's also a headphone jack to ensure you're not annoying people around you, because those sounds are damn loud. Louder than the drone's rotors.
It also runs on four AA batteries which seems a little bit backwards these days. Is it too much to ask for a rechargeable controller and a battery gauge?
I feel as though the controller is the weak link here. It's fine, and it works, but it has a lot of problems that really should've been picked up on before now. The sound effects especially. Propel said that the sounds were to "add atmosphere" and help people immerse themselves more, but personally I feel they do the opposite.
The app is probably the most important part of the ensemble, because it's actually brand new. It's been designed to help new users get to grips with their new drone without having to fire up the real thing and causing some actual damage.
It connects to the regular drone controller via Bluetooth, and walks you through all the different things you can do with the drone. It covers around 98 per cent of what the drone is capable of, according to the app's developers.
You play through a series of missions, each one requiring you to complete a preset list of tasks before you're allowed to move on. Once you've finished you get a star rating based on your overall performance which gamifies the whole process. It's not a perfect system, especially since it is possible to get the angles mixed up and lose sight (and control) of the on-screen drone. This seems to be a by-product of the view being that of a person actually flying the drone for real, which is understandably necessary. There's no point learning to fly the drone from a drone's-eye view, after all. You won't get that out in the real world.
These training missions do have missions where you can practise with the weaponry, but flying the virtual drone isn't the same as the real thing. I stand by my earlier comment about having some sort of target-based accessory.
The app also integrates itself into the battling process, showing who you're fighting, what your score is, and how many lives you have left. Once everything is set up it communicates with other players in the battle in real time, and does all the complicated stuff stuff like scorekeeping so you can keep yourself focused on the battle at hand.
The app also lets you order replacement parts, such as new rotors, batteries, and the like. Propel has promised 12 months warranty on everything, so if you break all your rotors you can get some new ones sent out free of charge.
The box is nice, particularly since is the collector's edition box with nice 3D modelling on the outside. Just a word of warning to anyone who buys one: there are light and sound effects that activate when you take the lid off. They're very loud and irritating, and the only way to turn them off is to cover them up or let the battery run down. The battery can be recharged, but frankly I don't see why you would want to. Here's a video, so you can see what I mean:
Actually Buying One
The collector's edition variants of these 'new' drones go on sale today for £199, exclusive to John Lewis. These are limited to 100,000 worldwide (which seems like a lot to be honest), though a standard edition will be released on 1st November. There doesn't seem to be much difference in the product, just that they have a slightly less stylised box. The standard edition costs £149, and can be bought from Argos, Maplin, and Hamley's.
The laser weapons modules will also be available on 1st November, but there's no pricing information just yet.
Should You Buy One?
It's hard to say. You are paying quite a bit of money for a toy that won't reach its full potential unless you know a bunch of people who also bought one. They're definitely well made, and they're lovely to fly, but on their own they're very limited. It is perfect for beginners, though, particularly with the training app to play with, so it shouldn't be that difficult to convince your friends or family to join in.
That probably makes it an ideal toy for a kid as well. It's Star Wars, which lots of kids (and kidults) love, it's relatively cheap compared to other decent drones on the market, and it shouldn't take them long to get to grips with. Despite being so light and seemingly fragile, the drone is also fairly durable, so it won't matter if they've got terrible hand-eye co-ordination and crash all the time.
If you have a kid and think it's worth spending this kind of money, go for it. If you have family and friends who can be convinced to buy one for themselves, go for it. If it's just going to be you flying around from time to time, I say no. Unless you want to keep it on display, in which case I can't judge you. They do look rather nice.
- A great toy that's actually good, not just a cheap licensed cash grab
- They're exactly the same as last year's models
- The music coming out of the controller are incredibly irritating, and loud. The music from the box isn't much better
- Controller needs some streamlining, and is a bit bulky for small-handed folk
- There's no camera, not that it's really designed to carry on.
- Good for groups, probably good for kids, not so great for individuals. You'll get more out of it if your friends have one. The more friends, the better
- Propel promises 12 months of cover, which gets you unlimited replacement parts should you need them. That means if you break a propeller or two, you can get replacements at no extra charge
- A companion app that's actually useful, helping you learn the ropes before you power up the real thing
- They do look very nice, and are lovely to fly, which is what you should want from any drone