In San Francisco, Parrot unveiled a smaller, faster, longer lasting version of its Linux-based Bebop drone, helping to solidify its dominance in the mid-range consumer market. One of the key new features is an emergency cutoff that instantly kills the quadrotor motors when a blade hits an obstacle. The increasing focus on safety was also demonstrated this week when 3DR (Solo) and DJI (Phantom) announced similar new technology to make it easier for their customers to avoid restricted airspace (see farther below).
France-based Parrot was an early leader in consumer unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with its AR.Drone quadrotors, which bridged the gap between the toy and prosumer/commercial markets. Parrot also owns a big chunk of the toy drone and robot market with products like the Rolling Spider and Jumping Sumo, as well as a newer line of Jumping, Airborne, and Hydrofoil mini-drones, selling from $145 to $220.
Like all these devices, as well as the original BeBop, which was launched in 2014, the BeBop 2 runs Parrot’s open source Linux flight stack. The BeBop replaced the AR.Drone line, but with a higher price and more powerful features that overlap slightly with prosumer, $700 to $1,400 drones like DJI’s Phantom, Yuneec’s Typhoon, and 3DR’s Solo.
The $550 Bebop 2, which ships Dec, 14, lacks many of the high-end camera, navigation, and autonomous flight capabilities of the prosumer drones. However, it does address one of the biggest drawbacks of all drones: limited flight time and safety.
The Bebop 2 is now claimed to more than double flight time to 25 minutes, according to several launch reports, including stories from Make and The Verge. The smaller, lighter (500-gram) quadcopter has been completely redesigned with fewer moving parts, greater ruggedization, and more powerful motors and wider blades that let it fly at up to a claimed 37 mph horizontally. According to CNET, Parrot claims the Bebop 2 can launch to a height of 100 meters in 18 seconds.
The new emergency cut-out feature instantly shuts off all four propeller motors if the drone encounters an object. This not only reduces the chance of injury, but also helps protect the Bebop. Other new features include an updated GPS with more precise locational capabilities.
More Bebop Features
One feature that hasn’t changed much is the BeBop’s unique, nose-mounted 14-megapixel fisheye camera. Parrot updated the video stabilization firmware, however, and added a new lens cover.
The fisheye design lets users control the camera from a mobile device, panning around within the 180° image to choose which part to record. Professional videographers will probably prefer the more flexible, hardware-stabilized camera gimbals found on prosumer drones, despite the fact that this adds to the price and weight while also reducing battery life.
For an additional $250, bringing the price to $800, you can add an updated Parrot Skycontroller. This external flight controller can extend the WiFi-controlled flight range from 300 m to 2 km compared to using the same FreeFlight app running on a mobile device.
Many of the Bebop 2’s firmware improvements will eventually be available as an update on the original Bebop, says Make. As before, the Bebop 2 is available with a Linux SDK for app development, and developers can now turn to a new Parrot for Developers website. Although the Bebop 2 lacks some of the autonomous features of higher-end drones, a new Bebop Drone Flight Plan app lets users plot a flight route on a map and precisely define parameters such as direction, altitude, speed, camera angle, and video recording.
Parrot plans to spin off its drone unit later this year as an independent subsidiary. The drone unit, which has expanded with the acquisitions of commercial drone companies like Airinov, Pix4D, and senseFly, enjoyed a 60 percent increase in revenue from 3Q 2014 to 3Q 2015, says The Verge. Parrot also makes Android-based automotive infotainment systems, Bluetooth headsets, and other devices.
Earlier this year, Parrot joined the Linux Foundation’s Dronecode project, which is aiming to unify open source drone projects and provide a common codebase to help accelerate software development. It’s unclear, however, if the Bebop 2’s stack has been in any way aligned with Dronecode.
Drone vendors get proactive on no fly zones
This week 3DR and DJI each revealed plans to make it easier for their customers to comply with FAA mandated no-fly zones in the U.S. by integrating a dynamic airspace mapping service called AirMap. In the coming weeks, 3DR will integrate AirMap software into the flight control app for its Linux-based Solo quadcopter.
AirMap compiles the latest airspace information, and displays restricted, warning and informational areas on a map, including real-time Temporary Flight Restrictions for wildfires, sporting events, and “other sensitive places,” says 3DR. Users receive a warning if the Solo enters a restricted area.
DJI calls its AirMap-based service “Geospatial Environment Online” (GEO). DJI had previously offered geofencing features to keep drones such as the Phantom out of FAA-restricted airways. GEO, which ships in December, uses AirMap to make this a more dynamic, up-to-date system. As with the 3DR service, it now restricts the airspace around sensitive locations like prisons and power plants.
One major difference between the implementations is that while 3DR only warns the user about a potential violation, DJI actually prevents a drone from flying to a restricted area. A new feature, however, lets users override the restrictions by setting up a special account with DJI and then informing the company when they go decide to go rogue. The override feature is not available for sensitive national security locations, says DJI.
"Our years of actual user experience have shown that in most instances, strict geofencing is the wrong approach for this technology, and instead we are helping operators make informed, accountable decisions," stated Brendan Schulman, DJI VP of Policy and Legal Affairs.
The AirMap integration by 3DR and DJI is intended to prove to the FAA that self-policing can work in place of expected airspace regulations. This week, the FAA posted an update on plans announced in September to require registration of drones. The blog post assured drone owners that registration will be easy, and will not require users to pay a drone registration company to streamline registration.
Earlier this month, DJI took a step away from its proprietary development approach by announcing a $499 Manifold development computer and open SDK that runs Ubuntu on a quad-core Tegra K1. The catch is that the Manifold currently works only with DJI’s new high-end, $3,300-and-up Matrice 100 drone. However, a similar Onboard-SDK with Linux support was also released for the Phantom 3 and the $2,900-and-up Inspire.
Yuneec is also going for a more open Linux-based design. In September, Qualcomm said the maker of Typhoon drones would be one of the first companies to use Snapdragon Flight. This drone flight control reference design runs Ubuntu on a Snapdragon 801 SoC.