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Hands on ... AR.Drone 2.0

Remote control cars should come with the type of warning associated with any other gateway drug.

My casual interest in toys grew into a desire to build my own high-performance car, which was then followed by a desire to take to the skies.

I dabbled with helicopters a few years ago but I got my fingers burned. After waiting six weeks for my top-of-the-range helicopter from China, I managed just 15 seconds of flight time before I lost control. The chopper careered into a wheelie bin, exploding in a cloud of smoke and shrapnel.

It turns out helicopters are more difficult to control than cars – something I should probably have researched before I pressed "up" on the joystick.

The AR.Drone 2.0 from French electronics firm Parrot solves most of the problems normally associated with flying toy helicopters. This aircraft – technically a quadrocopter with four independent rotors – doesn't come with a controller at all. Instead, the instruction manual includes a link to download an app (available for iPhone, iPad and iPod Touch and Android handsets) which acts as the remote handset.

Open the phone app and you are presented with a live-eye view from the aircraft's front-facing camera. A green button labelled "take off" automatically launches the craft to a stable hover a metre off the ground where it will stay, automatically compensating for the wind until you decide to take over.

There are lots of control options with the AR.Drone, but by default it responds to the built-in accelerometer found in most handsets. Tilt the phone forwards and the craft goes forwards, tilt left and it goes left. Touch-based controls on-screen govern the height and rotation of the craft, while a simple "land" button performs a controlled touch-down.

A clever feature of the latest model is a built-in compass. This correlates with the compass in the phone allowing the aircraft to compensate automatically when it's facing a different direction – tilt right and the copter goes to your right, no matter what direction it's facing.

If things go badly wrong there's a red "emergency" button which instantly cuts power and the drone drops like a stone. It's not something you'd want to use often, but if you're about to fly into a tree it's the lesser of two evils.

Running time from the rechargeable battery is just 12 minutes under typical conditions, so a second battery is essential to get the most from the drone.

The AR.Drone 2.0 is an incredible machine. But the best bit isn't the technology – it's the fact it's arguably not a toy at all. Roofers, tree surgeons, estate agents and surveyors could all make business justifications for the eagle-eye view that the AR.Drone offers, even if it's more fun than you should really have at work.

See my first test flight at http://bit.ly/droneflight.

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Consumer electronics

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