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Parrot, perhaps best known as the makers of the AR.Drone 2.0 smartphone-controlled mini quadcopter, made public an impressive new addition to their fleet this week: "Bebop." Whereas previous Parrot drones were built for hobbyists, with shaky, non-stabilized flight cameras, the Bebop looks as though it may become a serious contender in the precipitously growing aerial-video market. The most notable features being touted for the new quadcopter are a unique image-stabilization system, and the ability, with the right hardware, to pair it with an Oculus Rift virtual reality headset.
Keeping the camera steady and level has been one of the biggest challenges facing videographers ever since they started mounting cameras on aircraft, manned or unmanned. The propellers generate vibration, wind and turbulence buffet the aircraft and, finally, the horizon is constantly shifting. Motorized gimbals and gyroscopic stabilizers have been the principal means of combating this trifecta of interference. Although, scaled down, relatively low-cost gimbals can now be had on the prosumer market, but drawbacks remain: they add weight and consume precious battery power. These factors translate into even shorter flying times, which on multi-rotos are already measured in minutes, if not seconds.
"Its camera features a 180-degree fisheye lens, allowing it to capture a wider field of view than it needs, so the image can be cropped by onboard software, with an image-stabilization algorithm applied."
Bebop does things differently. Its camera features a 180-degree fisheye lens, allowing it to capture a wider field of view than it needs, so the image can be cropped by onboard software, with an image-stabilization algorithm applied. If this sounds like electronic image stabilization (found on every consumer camcorder), that's because that is exactly what it is. However, Bebop's electronic image stabilization is a tad more sophisticated than your average home-movie camera. It uses an array of sensors to keep track of movement, and tell the software which way to "pan-and-scan." If Bebop gets jolted left, the screen of video that it's shooting instantly pans right.
By cropping the image, you lose resolution, which is why optical image stabilization is preferred. Bebop's camera can get away with it though, as long as the sensor is sufficiently oversampled. For example, an UltraHD 4K sensor lets you crop the image 4x, and it provides a Full HD (1080p) image. At this point, nothing is finalized, so we don't know what the Bebops's resolution will be, but almost certainly it will use oversampling. And considering the GoPro HERO3+ Black Edition can take 12MP photos, we know that the kind of hi-res, small-camera sensors the Bebop needs exist.
The other major feature introduced by Bebop is the ability to pair its camera with the Oculus Rift. The camera on the Bebop isn't 3D, so you won't quite get a full-blown virtual reality experience. But it does give you a truly first-person means of living your flights. To link the Oculus, it looks like you will need the Skycontroller, an accessory whose primary function is to extend the Wi-Fi range of the mobile device controlling the quadcopter up to 1.2 miles (2 kilometers). Those lucky enough to get to play around with the prototype are reporting a healthy amount of latency through the Oculus. One hopes this is merely a bug that will be worked out by the time the system goes into production. Either way, props to Parrot for being first to market with this concept.
Bebop has GPS as part of the flight control system, and we can expect it to have similar autopilot features as the AR.Drone 2.0 does when paired with the Flight Recorder USB dongle. The prototype uses a 1200 mAh battery, which is reported to last around 12 minutes. Many have criticized it for having a short flying time; however, 12 minutes is about average right now for quadcopters in this range—you really need fixed-wing planes, which can glide to get significantly longer flights. There is no word yet on whether larger-capacity batteries will be available.
One neat legacy from the Parrot AR.Drone 2.0, which will almost certainly carry over, perhaps with enhancements to Bebop, is the app-driven flight control system, AR.Freeflight. With an iOS or Android smartphone or mobile device—phones are ideal because of their size—you hook up to the quadcopter's Wi-Fi and fly it right from your phone. The app also displays a low-latency FPV video feed from the camera as well as flight data overlays. From the video feed, you can record low-res video, snap stills, and even stream live to the Internet as long as your data plan gives you enough upload credit. By adding the Flight Recorder module, available separately, you can even use your phone to program in a waypoint-guided autopilot course or record a 3D plot of your flight path for subsequent analysis or just to prove to your friends what awesome tricks you pulled off. Since the software is open source, if the app doesn't do something you want it to, simply take some coding lessons and create the feature you want yourself—easy! This app-based approach has really been one of the Parrot AR.Drone's biggest appeals because it saves you from having to invest in an expensive radio controller and it combines control, video, and flight data in one easily portable device. Just don't for get to charge your phone's batteries.
It's worth emphasizing: the prototype has just now been made public. A release date is unknown at this point, and any specifications and features may change before Bebop goes into production. Because multi-rotor aircraft rely so heavily on computerized flight controllers, it will undoubtedly take a fair amount of field testing before Parrot is confident with the programming.