When you hear drone, you probably think of a quadcopter like a DJI Phantom or Yuneec Typhoon. But drones can also be fixed-wing - operating more like a plane than a helicopter. These fixed-wing drones are far more popular in the high-end commercial sector, but there are a few that hobbyist can pick up for around the same price as a DJI or Yuneec. You might be wondering how these "drones" are different than traditional model airplanes that have been around for decades. I recently had the opportunity to find out, and as it turns out, they are quite different.
The Parrot Disco
The fixed-wing drone I tested out is the Parrot Disco. Parrot has been around for awhile, focusing mostly on quadcopters, and has everything from small toy drones to their popular Bebop series for more serious hobbyists. Several years back, Parrot purchased commercial drone maker senseFly, acquiring their flagship eBee fixed-wing drone. Some time later, we now have the Parrot Disco, which looks very familiar to the eBee, except with a more hobby friendly price than the eBee. It comes loaded with a stabilized camera capable of 14MP still and 1080p video recording. Parrot even threw in goggles for FPV flying as well.
The setup of the Disco was about as expected, but like many drones, could have been better. The instructions were borderline worthless, but the physical drone was fairly easy to assemble. The difficulty began at downloading the app and connecting to the drone. The drone had to repeatedly download firmware updates. It wasn't entirely clear if these were just sequential updates that had to be installed or if the install was failing multiple times. At any rate, after repeatedly clicking through the app enough times, 30 minutes later the controller connected to the drone.
My initial fear with a fixed wing drone was that it would be difficult to fly and would result in a lot of crashes. I thought that losing the ability to hover meant that I wouldn't have time to think through my controls as I was learning. I also recalled friends who fly RC planes on a regular basis crashing them occasionally. Turns out, these fears were mostly wrong. The brains in this thing are very smart - the Disco flight controller will do everything it can to keep the bird from flying into the ground in all but the most intentional of cases. While you have control over all the important levers like throttle and ailerons, the flight controller will adjust all of them in response to one of them in order to keep balance. For example, when turning, typically a plane will lose altitude if it does not adjust the throttle, so the Disco will auto increase throttle to maintain altitude when turning. The controls are somewhat dampened and limited, so there were no unexpected, sharp movements in my time flying. There is even a psuedo-hover mode that will put the Disco into repeated circular pattern. This is world's different than a true RC plane that typically has very limited flight control capabilities where the pilot is directly controlling servos on the moving part of a plane.
In fact, the only slightly tricky portion is the take-off and landing. The take-off is done with a hand launch, and it took a few tries to learn to throw it in sync with a full throttle. Landing is done by essentially just cutting the power to the motor and controlling the glide down, which can take a few attempts to time it right since the bird glides very well.
While all this flight stabilization makes it incredibly easy to fly, I found that somewhat ironically makes it not as fun. The amount of stabilization really disconnects the pilot from the plane, making the controller more like a general guide for which direction to head rather than any meaningful control. Turns are limited to wide, sweeping movements, making it difficult to quickly maneuver to a point of interest. The aircraft fights any attempt to reduce altitude, preventing some cool low flying videos. There is really is no skill to develop and hence, no opportunity to push the craft to its limits.
To be fair, that's probably the intended functionality so that pretty much anyone can fly it. Quadcopters certainly operate this way as well. It's what makes it a "drone" instead of a RC plane or helicopter. Yet, for some reason, flight stabilization makes a quadcopter fun - on a fixed wing, it takes the fun out of it. It's hard to explain, but perhaps I had the wrong expectations with the Disco.
Despite all of that, there are some things to like about the Disco. The 45 minutes battery is wonderful and really gives you plenty of time to play around without even thinking about the battery life. The top speed of about 50 mph is exhilarating to watch - though you will definitely need a large area to fly this thing. (Not a backyard toy unless your back yard is about 6 football fields large!)
Camera and FPV
Because it's a drone, it must have a camera I suppose. The camera is situated right inside the front nose. The picture quality is certainly below DJI, but it is reasonable enough (see above). The real problem is that even with some kind of gimbal stabilization, the camera still moves with the aircraft significantly more than a quadcopter. Something as simple as gaining altitude means the nose will point up, so every time the autopilot thinks its getting low, the nose will jerk up - not a great thing for aerial video. I wasn't able to actually get a smooth video longer than a handful of seconds. I’m sure I could use some more practice, but there are a lot of limitations with fixed wing video - at least with a camera in the nose. Here's an example clip:
The FPV is a cool idea, but in reality fulfills every requirement of a gimmick. It uses your phone, so it's already at the low end of the spectrum. Even so, the quality is much worse than what you may have seen from the Google Daydream. The difference is, of course, that instead of playing a game, you are piloting an aircraft that could crash into something. With the Disco, It's very easy to see why the FAA does not allow FPV flying outdoors without an additional spotter - you will definitely need it to be safe. For what it's worth, I found that flying without FPV was actually more fun anyway.
The Major Stall
Up until this point, I could see how the Disco might fill a fixed-wing niche in the hobby segment. It comes with some limitations, but if long flights with a strong autopilot are your thing and you have plenty of room, I could understand why you might want one. But if there's one thing that’s really going to kill the success of this drone, it's the price: $1300. Yes, 100 clams more than a Phantom 4 for an aircraft that is mostly made of foam and has a single motor vs four, with a far inferior camera. That is baffling. A quick glance at the Disco would have me guessing the price at around $300-$500. I have to imagine a fixed wing could be done for this price, it's just unfortunate that Parrot isn't the one to do it. Because I can't see anyone considering this over a Phantom at its current price.
The Fixed Wing Drone?
Although I almost always have fun flying drones, the Parrot Disco left me feeling a bit disappointed. While there are some rough patches in the Disco, a lot of the setbacks are inherent to a fixed wing drone. In many ways, I wasn't specifically testing the Disco, but more the concept of a fixed wing drone for the hobby space. The commercial space has a clear purpose, where the fixed-wing advantage of endurance and high speed are perfectly matched for an industry like agriculture. But for a hobby, those advantages come at a high cost. It's not necessarily that Parrot didn't execute well, but that the idea of a fixed wing is still in question. I'm hoping that someone will answer that question better than Parrot, because I’m convinced there is a small niche market. For most people, the quadcopter is the clear winner. For those that are determined to find a fixed-wing, I'd pass on the Disco.