Star Wars Battle Drones review: Propel’s drones stay on target with 2nd-gene Star Wars quadcopters
Those with good memories – and Star Wars nuts – will remember last summer’s Star Wars battle drones launch well. Out of the blue, a company few people knew existed launched three of the coolest toy drones ever made, in the shape of the famous X-Wing, 74-Z Speeder bike and Darth Vader’s TIE x1 Advanced from the original Star Wars movies.
And – HOLY MOLY! – they also came with infrared beams and sensors so you could play aerial laser tag with them.
But there was trouble brewing. The drones were on a limited run and even then Propel had trouble meeting the huge demand. The company itself admitted that it “wasn’t ready in all of its guises” and that it “ran out of time to launch it properly”, so perhaps in 2017 it can do the job better. Luckily, there’s a new film in 2017 to launch alongside.
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Star Wars battle drones: Design
That’s right, Propel’s Star Wars battle drones are back and, um, they’re effectively the same as they were last year.
Not that this is a bad thing. No, I’m all for it. But with the release of Star Wars: Episode VIII The Last Jedi fast approaching (calm down at the back), it’s a surprising move. I’d have thought the company would at least give us a new ship design or a design overhaul.[gallery:4]
As it is, when Propel took me to Endor (sorry, Belgium) for a hush-hush “Battle Drone Experience”, it showed off exactly the same three ships as before, still equipped with infrared “blasters” rather than the more accurate Li-Fi lasers, which it promises will be available via an upgrade module later in 2017.
In case you missed it last year, Propel’s battle drones are the ultimate Star Wars toy and, yes, despite Propel’s protestations to the contrary, they are still toys. They’re small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, extremely lightweight and have no camera fitted to them. They still come in a glitzy box that plays the Star Wars theme when you open it (believe it or not you can recharge the box over USB when the battery dies) and each drone comes with its own physical twin-stick remote that controls the drone via Wi-Fi.
They fly well, too, but they’re not equipped with downward-facing cameras or sonar sensors – only a gyroscope and altimeter, so they tend to drift around a bit when you leave the sticks alone and need constant attention to keep in one place. They’re slightly trickier to keep under control than one of Parrot’s drones or, say, the DJI Spark and you should ensure you have plenty of space before you commence flying.
Neither are they pick up and fly products. After you’ve extracted one from its box and listened to the soundtrack play through the box’s rather tinny buillt-in speakers (and, yes, you can recharge the box once the battery runs out), you have to pry out a blanker and insert the rechargeable drone battery, unscrew a panel in the remote control and insert four AA batteries (not included) and clip on the rotors and the rotor cage before you can get going.
Star Wars battle drones: Learning to fly
However, learning to fly is part of the process and Propel gives you plenty of ways to earn your pilot stripes. Pair the remote with your phone or tablet, and you’ll be able to train yourself virtually, using the sticks to fly your drone on-screen and with 38 missions to negotiate there’s plenty of scope for practice.
In addition, the first time you take to the skies you can put your drone into beginner mode, limiting its flight floor and maximum altitude, protecting it from spills. The plastic cage protects the rotors so they don’t get ripped to shreds the first time you crash and burn.[gallery:6]
When you’re ready, it’s all about the battles and once you get stuck in all concerns about a lack of sensors and advanced flight technologies fade into the background, because shooting down your buddies and baddies in real life dog fights is incredibly good fun.
At its most basic, battle scores are indicated on the controller. Competitors have a set number of lives that whittle away until you’re dead, at which point your drone goes into a death spin, gently alighting on the floor. But you can also indulge in mass aerial brawls with up to 12 drones per battle, all the controllers linked together via a separate Wi-Fi channel updating the scores on a centralised phone or tablet.
There are different types of contest available this time, too. “Last Man Standing” delivers pretty much what you’d expect: the last drone in the air wins the battle. In “Capture the Death Star plans” battle, teams are allocated and one drone is selected at random from each – the first team to down that drone wins. And there’s a team-based, time-limited points competition where the team with the most points at the end of a set period of time wins.[gallery:5]
This, of course, is all based on the assumption that you have plenty of Star Wars, drone-mad mates on hand with £180 to drop on an X-Wing, TIE x1 Advanced or Speeder – and the space in which to set up such contests. If you don’t, you’ll be pleased to discover that Propel will eventually be building community-based features into the app as well, to help people set up battles and meet like-minded Star Wars fans.
Star Wars battle drones: Early verdict
It’s a shame there are no new ships – Propel says something fresh might be coming after launch; I wouldn’t hold your breath – but it’s good to see a second coming for these limited-run Star Wars drones.
Although there will still only be 100,000 units for sale across Europe, it at least gives Star Wars nuts who missed out last year another chance to indulge in their passion. In a year where the new Star Wars movie is set to feature a return of a different kind, it’s appropriate that Propel is giving its drones a second chance.