When buying a drone there seems to be two distinct camps: the hardcore pilot that is willing to spend hours immersed in simulators to perfect their DJI ride and those who just want to pick up the controls of their dinky device zip it around a tree or two and not crash.
With the launch of Propel’s second iteration of its Star Wars battling drones – for Force Friday II – it is trying very hard to cater for both camps. And it’s easy to see why.
Propel has made a decent name for itself in the drone market, building on the goodwill it received from being a major player in the remote controlled helicopter space.
In the UK at least, the majority of drones you see sold in electronics stores such as Maplins have been created by Propel – these are mainly smaller drones with cameras attached or a rather gimmicky Batman drone.
When the company was offered the Star Wars license last year, though, it set out to make a compelling product that wasn’t just something throwaway.
The problem was, it launched its first drones to much fanfare but couldn’t back this with supply, soon selling out. Skip to now and Propel is ready to reach for the Star Wars once more, using Disney’s lucrative Force Friday II push to reveal its latest battle drones.
When it comes to to this version of its drones, Propel has done something of a Force Awakens with this product. It’s new, but it’s achingly similar to what was revealed before. But given that there were only a small number of people that go their hands on the drones first time around, that really is no bad thing.
The simple fact is: these drones should be played with by those who have even just the smallest hint of love for Star Wars as they’ve clearly been created by a company whose passion for the franchise is as big as the Death Star… or should that be as big as the Starkiller Base?
Design and features
It starts with the packaging. The initial batch of drones are badged as collector's editions. What that means is they are hand painted, individually numbered and come in a special display case.
Take the box out of its outer layer, then lift the case lid and the familiar Star Wars fanfare starts playing. The first time this happens it will bring a massive smile to your face.
Once the lid is off, the drone is presented in a see-through perspex display case that’s lit from the bottom. It’s an ideal shelf warmer as it is but, if you are anything like us, you’ll want to get the drone out and actually play with it.
Take it out of its case and it’s surprisingly light. Made from expanded polypropylene – as are many drones on the market – despite its lightweight feel it’s very durable. And it needs to be given how many scrapes you are likely to have when flying the thing.
In our tests we used the T-65 X-Wing but you also have the choices of a 74-Z Speeder Bike, last seen whizzing through the Forest Moon of Endor, or Darth Vader’s ship, the TIE Advanced X1.
The hand-painted design has clearly had care put into it and the paint job is an improvement from the original batch of drones released – at least for our untrained eye.
Given the X-Wing needs to fly, there’s no moveable wings here, they are fixed in place.
On the bottom of the drone, there’s an IR receiver and four metal bits that protrude from the chassis. These are where you put on the propellers.
In the box there are 12 propellers and believe us when we say they are needed. In our tests we definitely lost a few. But more on that later.
Flip it right-side up and there are back LED lights, a moveable battery lock mechanism and the battery itself. When it’s presented in the display case you don’t need to keep the battery in the drone as there is a faux battery cover that you can use.
It’s a nice touch that the battery fits into the cockpit of the X-Wing. In the box you get two batteries so you can hot-swap when flying your drone out and about. Given each battery charge is only around six to eight minutes’ flight time, it’s recommended to bring both with you.
Also in the box is a protective training cage – we recommend you put this on for at least the first few flights – a multi-tool to help get the propellers on and off, a bunch of spare parts, charger and the all-important 2.4Ghz wireless controller.
Now, anyone that’s used a drone will know that the controllers are always bulky. This one is of no exception.
As we trialled the X-Wing drone, the controller comes in fetching Rebel Alliance white. Choose Darth’s ship and it’ll be Imperial black. There’s a nice touch with the on/off button. It’s the Alliance Starbird crest, which lights up when the controller is on.
The controller takes AA batteries to work – they aren’t supplied in the box so make sure you stock up. There’s a lovely touch when you unscrew the battery case that’s along similar lines to the sounds the display case makes. Again, it’s this deft touch that proves this drone has been made by a company with a deep love for the franchise.
When you first use the Star Wars battling drone, T-Mode is your friend. While you will no doubt want to power up the drone and shoot off at 50Kph immediately, we really advise against it – unless you are adept at drone flying. Propel has pulled out all the stops to make the learning curve as shallow as it can be, but if you have no patience, you need to learn patience. We know there's more than one way to skin a womp rat but please at least put it in T-Mode first.
This puts an invisible protective barrier around the drone. There’s a ceiling height of about six feet, which means the drone won’t fly away. It won’t crash to the ground either, but stay about a meter above. Even with this mode on, initial piloting is tricky.
Connecting the drone and controller is, however, simple. Turn the controller on, make sure the drone’s battery is in, then it’s a quick up and down press on the left control stick. To take off, a two-second press of the bottom left front-facing button.
When taking off, familiar Star Wars quotes and sound effects can be heard, which adds to the whole atmosphere and then you are up and ready.
From here don’t panic, the controlling is all about small steady movements. A low push forward on the right stick moves the craft forward, back for back and you get the idea. Too fast a push and you are likely to smash into the nearest object.
Propel uses something called 'reverse propulsion' to control its drones in the air – this is why its propellers are situated on the bottom of the drone, rather than the top. This pushing down on the air (as opposed to pulling) is meant to give a slicker ride.
We did find that our craft veered to the right on the first couple of attempts of flying it. This was partly a panic response from us but also because the drone’s gyro wasn’t calibrated properly. The upper right front-facing button reset this for you.
You can turn the LEDs on and off with the bottom button below this and the final button on the front of the controller is for connecting up a phone. More on this later.
There’s a barometer pressure sensor next to the left control stick which we found a tad confusing to use. The weapon fire and craft roll trigger buttons were great fun, though. One press of the left or right top trigger buttons and you can roll your drone just like in the movies – well, kinda – it’s really addictive to do. You can change the speed of the craft with the bottom left button and fire your weapon with the bottom right trigger.
We did find that when we crashed the drone – trust us, it will happen – that we had to reset everything to fly again.
The drone itself doesn’t have an on/off button which is a little frustrating. Instead you have to take the battery out and put it back in. Do this and it comes to life once more.
We then had to turn off the controller and turn it back on. We then had to calibrate the gyro each time we wanted to fly, otherwise it would veer left and right on take off. It’s a little fiddly but you do get used to the process after a number of flights.
It’s also worth noting that the controller has a headphone jack. You will be missing out on a lot of the fun if you don’t wear headphones while flying the drone – the official Star Wars sounds and music are constant and really add to the flying experience, making it much more immersive than other drones we have tried.
The music on the display case did start to annoy, though. There doesn’t seem to be any way of turning it off, so every time you get the drone out to play with, the music starts.
It’s loud too, so you won’t get away with a sneaky midnight flight without waking up half the house. It could do with an off button – but this is something Propel doesn’t seem to like to add to its kit.
We have had the X-Wing battle drone for some time now and flying it has become easier. It’s understandable why there is so much replacement stuff included in the box, though.
The propellers are see through so you don’t really notice they are there mid flight, which adds to the illusion but if you crash, finding them on the ground is a nightmare. We lost a couple within our first hour of flying the drone so do beware. Propel is going to offer some sort of part replacement plan, though, so keep an eye out for that.
At the time of review, there was also quite a big part of the new battle drones missing and that’s the accompanying app. We’ve contacted Propel to see when it will be released because in the instruction manual it states it is “coming soon” which means it won’t be ready for launch.
We did try it at the world’s-first reveal of these drones in Brussels, however, and even with our limited time with it it feels like an essential part of the package. It’s essentially a 30-part training app, where you fly a virtual drone using the actual controller – there a smartphone holder situated on the top of the controller.
Load it up and you control a virtual drone – it’s a great simulator as the places you fly the drone feel like they are part of the Star Wars universe.
Smartphones will eventually play a bigger part in this battling drone too. Propel has put some pretty advanced technology into its drones. It's added Li-Fi to the mix (the light tech that means you can pass data around 100x faster than Wi-Fi) and it eventually wants this to help offer real-time stats to phones via an app when these drones are in battle. Again, we couldn't try out this part of the drone experience. It's also worth noting that Propel has stated this technology is patent pending. If they do get the go ahead with it, then these will be the first consumer devices in the world to have Li-Fi in them.
Even without it, these drones are meant for battle. Propel has big things planned for its Star Wars drones. There’s an IR sensor on the drones that will be used for 'battles', where there will be games that can be played against multiple drone – 12 in all. Propel is calling this 'drone gaming'.
We got a glimpse of it at the event in Brussels and it’s stunning to watch these drones fly and shoot at each other. The battles we saw used an additional add-on – a safe laser beam which will be available at a later date.
This mean that every weapon fire was accompanied by a laser beam burst. It really does feel like you are part of a Star Wars battle.
But, again, we couldn’t properly test this as we only had one drone to hand. Just knowing that the potential to do this is within the drone, though, is an enticing prospect and we can’t wait to hear more about how Propel will look to capitalise on this side of the drones it’s released.
Propel's T-65 X-Wing high performance battling drone is a joy to use. But it takes time to master, even with the T-Mode stabilizers on. The upcoming app will help with this but, believe us, you will need practice, practice, practice. We're just thankful there's a lot of spare parts and propellers in the box!
And what a box it is, there has been a lot of thought put into this collector's edition that will make all Star Wars fans smile – from the grand musical unboxing to the constant sound effects and movie quotes.
But we've been here before with Propel. If you haven't purchased the first iteration of these drones, then this is a definite buy. If you did then maybe wait until the next launch – as apart from cosmetic and messaging tweaks and app integration there's just not enough here to repurchase.
Those new to Propel's drones, though, are in for a real treat.
The Propel Star Wars performance battling drones are out from 1 September, costing £199 ($240/$340 AU).