Parrot reenters the consumer drone space with the innovative new Anafi
Parrot was one of the first (if not the absolute first) companies to take a crack at the consumer drone space. The AR Drone came out in 2010 (!), and Parrot followed it up a solid upgrade in the AR Drone 2.0 a few years later. Since then, we’ve seen the Bebop, some clever flying toys, and had a bunch of fun with the fixed-wing Disco. But at this point, most consumers probably think DJI when they think of camera drones, because of how pervasive Phantoms and Mavics are. It’s not like this caught Parrot by surprise or anything—two years ago, they saw the direction that the market was trending, and started working on a completely new consumer platform designed to be exceptionally easy to use and exceptionally portable, with the ability to produce exceptionally good aerial videos.
Earlier last month, Parrot announced the Anafi, a US $700 consumer camera drone with a unique design and some unique features, coupled with the sort of thoughtful usability that we’ve come to expect from Parrot. We got a pretty good look at the drone in New York City, and have been trying one out over the past weeks. (Disclosure: Parrot covered our expenses to attend the Anafi launch event in NYC.) It’s officially available today, so here’s a detailed review to help you understand whether Anafi is the right drone for you.
At Parrot’s event in NYC, CEO Henri Seydoux introduced the drone with pictures like this:
The idea, Seydoux said, was to build a drone like an insect, with a head (camera), thorax (electronics), and abdomen (battery). Even the folding behavior is modeled off of insects. Anafi is light and efficient, just like insects, and it’s also deliberately designed to be small and safe, so that people enjoy both using it and being around it. The arms snap in and out briskly, and since it folds into a slim rectangle rather than a square, it’s much easier to slip into a bag. The drone in its case plus the remote are compact and (relatively) lightweight, so it’s not very difficult to rationalize carrying it around just in case.
Speaking of cases, the case is one of my favorite things about Anafi. It’s just so satisfying—a hard shell, with fabric on the outside, perfectly sized to carry the folded up Anafi all safe and snug, along with a USB cable and SD card adapter. The gimbal rests in a little cradle so you don’t have to worry about a clamp, and there are spaces hollowed out in the top for the props.
My only critique would be that you need to somewhat carefully position the props to fit into those spaces before you zip the case closed, and I think I may have inadvertently pinched the tip of one of the drone’s props by not paying close enough attention. I’d also have preferred a little extra space in there to carry extra props.
One of Anafi’s main selling points is its camera system. The 21-megapixel (5344×4016) Sony IMX230 sensor (with an Ambarella vision processing chip) shoots 4K video with room to spare. It can record video in P-LOG at 100 Mbps and take RAW photos. At standard HD, you can shoot 60 fps, and it’ll also shoot 12-megapixel rectilinear photos that are distortion free. Parrot put a lot of work into the lens system as well—it’s been carefully constructed to maintain image quality and optical stability within a very wide temperature range, which can be more of a problem than you might think.
Anafi’s camera also features a 2.8x zoom. Note that the zoom is digital, not optical, but it’s also lossless. This is possible because the sensor is large enough that the whole thing isn’t being used all at once when you’re recording video. When “zoomed out,” the video is downsampled from across the entire sensor, and “zooming in” reduces that downsampling until you’re using just the middle of the sensor with a pixel ratio of 1:1, so the quality stays the same. (Note that the 2.8x is only in HD; in 4K, more of the sensor gets used, so the zoom drops to 1.4x.)
Finally, Anafi’s camera optionally shoots in HDR, with an increase in exposure range of about two stops. It’s something you’ll notice if you’re shooting (say) dark objects in the same frame as a bright sky in the background: The HDR will help pull out more details in the dark areas without you having to manually raise the exposure, which would blow out the sky.
Everything you record lives on a micro SD card mounted underneath Anafi’s battery. Anafi comes with a micro to standard SD adapter in the case, but you can just plug the drone straight into a computer (via the charging port on the battery) and it’ll show up as external storage.
The footage that comes straight out of Anafi is gorgeous. Rich, smooth, full of detail, well balanced color without any tweaking, and the HDR is noticeable. I barely have any experience with drone video, but I have to admit, I felt a tiny little bit like a pro, even just watching footage I took flying Anafi around an uninspiring local park. I’d encourage you to watch Parrot’s videos to see the best of what Anafi can do.
A major differentiator for Anafi (compared to other camera drones) is that the camera can look up: It can rotate 180 degrees, from straight down to straight up. Sometimes Parrot seems to be promoting this heavily, but they also describe it as “a novelty,” which I think is probably more accurate. Like, when you get an opportunity to use this feature, it’s pretty cool, but it doesn’t come up all that often, because drones are generally best at flying above things and looking down. The example that Parrot shows is someone on a ropes course—yeah, it’s great for that, but how often are you on a ropes course?
I guess for people who rock climb or are in the circus, it might come in handy more often. To get the most out of the upward looking camera, you’ll need to fly very low and close to things, and move the drone and the camera at the same time to create shots with more depth. I think there’s definitely potential with this, but it’s going to take me a lot more practice to get any good at it.
The reason that Anafi can have an upward looking camera is that its gimbal only has two axes of physical stabilization—the gimbal moves to stabilize the image in pitch and in roll, but not in yaw. Anafi instead uses digital stabilization to compensate for uncommanded yaw movement and keep the video smooth. Most other camera drones use mechanical stabilization in all three axes, which requires another joint in the gimbal that constrains the camera from pitching upward.
What’s interesting about this design choice is that Parrot didn’t initially design Anafi with two-axis mechanical stabilization to enable the upward looking camera; rather, their goal was to design the most cost effective and reliable stabilization system (without sacrificing image quality), and this is what they came up with. The bit about being able to look up was just a bonus. Seydoux, the CEO, pointed out that we humans also manage just fine with the same kind of stabilization: Our eyes compensate mechanically when we yaw and pitch our heads, but in a gentle roll (like, tilting your head sideways), our eyes don’t twist in our sockets. Instead, our brain compensates. Try it—if you focus on something and tilt your head a little bit, that thing won’t immediately go all wonky, because your software is helping stabilize it.
It sort of seems like three-axis mechanical stabilization should be way better than two axis, but Parrot did a whole bunch of testing, and came to the conclusion that most of the uncommanded motion of the drone (like if it’s fighting gusts of wind) happens through some combination of pitch and roll, depending on where the wind is coming from. Drones simply do not need nearly as much stabilization in the yaw axis, so Parrot has concluded that doing it digitally is totally fine. Anafi stabilizes its video on a frame-by-frame basis, using a camera sensor that’s much larger than the video that it’s actually recording. That gives the drone some leeway in correcting for movement. The one downside I did notice with the lack of yaw axis on the gimbal is that it makes it a bit more difficult to do silky smooth panning shots. The default yaw sensitivity for the drone is super low, probably to improve the appearance of pans, but I cranked it up immediately because I got frustrated with the drone responding slowly in flight.
The Anafi controller is not quite as svelte as the drone that it directs. It’s chunky, and weighs more than the drone does, although it’s comfortable to hold. The control sticks are relatively low profile, but I do wish that Parrot had made them detachable to slim down the overall profile. The antenna doubles as flip-out phone holder; when you open this up, the controller turns itself on, and closing it again turns the controller off. The phone holder is spring loaded, and looks like it’ll expand to fit most phones, but probably not any tablets.
Controls are minimal, but everything you need is physically at your fingertips. There’s a launch/landing button, and a return to home button on the front. At the back, where your fingers naturally rest, you’ll find switches for gimbal vertical panning and zooming, as well as buttons for recording and snapping the camera back to a forward orientation. And that’s it. The drone can do a lot more stuff, but that’s all within the app. You can also control the Anafi with just your phone and the app, but personally, I hate not having physical controls, along with convenient buttons, more reliable connectivity, and so on.
The controller connects to Anafi with Wi-Fi, just like most drones in this price range. It’s not as long range as a dedicated radio link like you’ll find on the Mavic Pro, but Parrot took the reliability of the Wi-Fi link very seriously. The drone has four antennas, one on each foot, which makes sure that two antennas are pointed at the controller at a time, no matter what the orientation of the drone is (the antennas are selected on a per-packet basis for optimal connectivity). It’ll also dynamically switch between 2.4 GHz, 5 GHz, and 10 MHz bands.
App and Software Features
Connecting to the drone is a cinch. It creates its own Wi-Fi network, which you connect to with your phone. Plug the phone into the controller, it syncs with Anafi instantly, and you’re good to go.
The app has all the options you’d expect—tweaks to the control orientation and sensitivity, options for both film and sport modes, and the ability to set maximum altitude and distance. You can also easily calibrate the drone and the controller, and rezero the camera gimbal as well. The main screen is mostly video feed, which is good, but the necessary status indicators (battery life of drone and controller and whatnot) are easy to see. I wish the signal strength indicator was more explicit and a little bit more forceful, however, since that’s one of the primary restrictions on the length and distance of any drone flight. Also, there doesn’t seem to be a way to adjust the speed of the camera zoom, which I hope they’ll fix in a software update, because it’s very, very slow.
From within the app, you can select from a number of intelligent flight and camera modes, including:
- 360°: ANAFI spins 360°, shooting your surroundings in one smooth video.
- Reveal: ANAFI moves forward filming the ground, gradually lifting its camera to reveal the landscape on the horizon.
- Epic: ANAFI gradually flies away at a distance of 60 meters, putting the landscape in perspective.
- Rise: ANAFI rises with the camera facing the ground and gradually turning towards the horizon, ending with a panorama revealing the backdrop.
- Dolly Zoom: Keeps your subject the same size while the background zooms in-and-out to defy perspective.
- Boomerang: Follows a trajectory of the same name, moving ANAFI from front to back, maintaining you at the center.
- Tornado: Spirals ANAFI from bottom to top keeping you in the center of the video at all times.
There’s also a Follow Me mode that will track you as you move, plus a Flight Plan mode that allows you to create detailed autonomous flight plans, specifying the drone’s location in 3D space along with what the camera should be doing. On the beta version of the app we’re testing, both Follow Me mode and Flight Plan mode are locked. If Anafi follows Parrot’s general model, these will be available as in-app purchases. I’m fine with this, because I’d rather pay less for the drone up front, and only buy into the extra modes if I want them.
At the launch event, Parrot also mentioned that there would be a mode that uses Anafi to build 3D models of structures:
That’d be cool, but we haven’t heard much more about it, and I don’t see it in the beta version of the app. Parrot also mentioned that there will be a comprehensive SDK for Anafi, but they’re not really focusing on that so close to the release.
In general, I appreciate the simplicity of Parrot’s approach to controlling Anafi, although advanced pilots might find themselves more frustrated. I should also also mention (and this is a purely anecdotal experience) that DJI’s Android app doesn’t always work very well with my Nexus 5x, to the point where I’ve had to borrow an old iPhone 6 just to reliably fly my Mavic Pro. I’ve heard other people complain about DJI’s Android app as well. So far, I haven’t had any issues with Parrot’s Android app at all.
Flight Restrictions and Safety
Finding a safe and legal place to fly a drone can be tricky. We here at IEEE Spectrum take this very seriously, as I’m sure you do too—our Parrot Anafi is registered with the FAA, and I’m an AMA member. It’s illegal to fly anywhere near Washington, D.C., where I live, but it’s okay to fly in state parks in Maryland (I double checked with the rangers at the park I wanted to fly at), so that’s where the Anafi got airborne.
Please, if you have a drone or are thinking about buying a drone, make sure you follow the FAA’s rules, understand where it’s legal to fly, and use good judgement around people and obstacles. Every time someone does something stupid with a drone, it makes things increasingly problematic for the rest of us.
Parrot has a much different philosophy than DJI when it comes to flying drones legally. I’m sure Parrot takes legal flying just as seriously, but DJI will lock down your drone if it detects (through GPS) that you’re in a no-fly zone. Parrot’s app does not do this, nor does it notify you (at least in the beta app that we’re testing) that you may be breaking any flight rules based on your location, as the DJI app does. I have mixed feelings about this; I like that I can, for example, fly my Anafi inside my apartment, which is totally legal, even though my house is in a no-fly zone.
Elsewhere, I do the work to make sure that the places I fly outdoors are legal, using AirMap or a similar service. However, my concern is that many people won’t take that step, and that we’ll be more likely see Anafi drones flying illegally. It’s hard to say whether it should be Parrot’s responsibility to get involved in this, but I’d feel better if they were a little more insistent about helping their users understand how to safely and legally fly their new drone.
Anafi is as easy to fly as you’d expect. Plug phone into controller, turn on drone, push takeoff button, and you’re airborne. An optical sensor underneath the drone (as well as sonar) keeps it in a very steady hover, and it’ll recover quickly to that hover as soon as you stop giving it control input. It’s smooth and straightforward to fly, although a little rocky in rapid descent—I feel like that may be fixed in a software update. Anafi has no trouble in light winds; according to the specs, you can fly it in winds of up to 30 mph. Most of my test flights were in winds of 6 mph or less, which I didn’t notice in the resulting camera footage.
My flights averaged between 16 and 18 minutes in length, bringing the battery down to 25 percent—this is very much in line with Parrot’s estimate of 25 maximum flight time (at which point the drone initiates the emergency landing mode). I didn’t try the dead battery return to home, but the standard return to home works just fine. Anafi will prevent you from crashing it into the ground, and will ignore “down” inputs from the controller once it reaches an altitude of a foot or two. To land, you’ll need to push the button on the controller. I wasn’t able to test Anafi’s maximum range (advertised as 2.5 miles), because that’s well beyond my line of sight, but I had no signal issues flying the drone far away enough that I was having trouble keeping track of exactly where it was.
The video feed from the camera back to the phone is robust, and low latency, at least compared to other Wi-Fi-based drones. You’ll likely notice just a bit of lag, but in my experience, it wasn’t enough to throw off control of the drone. It might be a factor if you’re doing extreme maneuvering around obstacles, but this isn’t really the drone for aggressive obstacle dodging: It’s a drone for taking good video.
Anafi does not have any sensors to protect it from running into obstacles. This is certainly a differentiator from many of DJI’s drones, and it’s a highlight when you compare them on paper, especially for people thinking about buying their first drone. Obstacle avoidance is one of the reasons IEEE Spectrum bought a DJI Mavic Pro a few months ago for a project we’re doing in Africa. And I have to say, I appreciate having it there, but I don’t actually use it all that much. Perhaps this is because I’m not an especially daring drone pilot (yet), but like, I just don’t fly too close to obstacles (remember, the FAA requires that you maintain line of sight when flying your drone, so I know where it is and where it’s going). I fly carefully, and so far, I haven’t hit anything. This is not to say that obstacle avoidance isn’t a useful feature, and could potentially save you from having a (very expensive) crash, but my personal experience is that I valued it very highly before buying a drone, and somewhat less after.
The fundamental concern is what will happen to the drone if it crashes into something. I’m not going to do any intentionally destructive testing with my Anafi, but at the demo event in NYC, we witnessed a bit of a failed hand launch, where the drone plowed into a window at about 10 ft, and then landed on the hard floor. As far as I could tell, it was fine: The Parrot engineers looked it over, and then tossed it into the air again right away.
The Anafi’s frame is “carbon fiber filled with hollow glass microbeads,” and it certainly feels very strong—the frame extends just beyond the camera, so that if the drone runs into anything head-on, the frame will absorb the hit. The legs have a bit of flex, which probably helps with hard landings. We were also told that the props will detect any collisions and the motors will immediately stop.
The props themselves seem impossibly fragile, even though they aren’t. They’re translucent (you can sort of see through them), and they’re shaped like leaves. We asked Parrot for details about the design, and here’s what Chris Roberts, chief sales and marketing officer for Parrot, told us:
We’ve made a lot of effort in designing optimal propellers so ANAFI is a very quiet drone, the quietest drone of its category. When designing ANAFI propellers, we had in mind the objective to get the best compromise between:
- Power consumption in hovering mode (flight time);
- Maximum thrust/Total aircraft weight ratio (flight agility);
- General behavior of the propeller in an airflow (efficiency of the propeller when the drone is moving)
Our team of aerodynamic experts entered the quest for the best blade design with a really open mindset. We used state-of-the-art digital tools for blade designing to cover a wide range of shapes. At that stage, we did not reject any blade shapes based on design consideration. We selected a short list of concepts with promising results in airflow simulation and made some fast prototyping. All those prototypes were then evaluated under a number of criteria (including the four mentioned above) in our labs and wind tunnel. At that stage, when comparing the results, we considered the design and the industrialization. We were able to converge within three iterations to this blade shape that allows us to win on all aspects.
The noise thing is a bigger deal than you might think—this drone is very, very quiet. Noise reduction is about more than just minimizing annoyance; part of Parrot’s goal was to make the drone less scary, and just generally more pleasant to be around. And they managed to do it, too. Producing 64 decibels in a hover a few feet away, Anafi is about 8 dB quieter than a hovering Mavic Air, at just over 72 dB.
To put that in perspective, a difference of 10 decibels would make the Mavic Air twice as loud as Anafi. Anafi also makes a sort of whistling noise rather than a buzzing noise. You can have a normal conversation while the Anafi is hovering within just a few feet, and it doesn’t feel like it’s going to buzz over and murder you. To be explicit about it: My Mavic Pro scares me a little bit; My Anafi doesn’t. Parrot pointed this out as well, explaining that one of their priorities with Anafi was to make people feel safe and comfortable around the drone, and noise is a significant part of that. I think they’ve been successful.
Battery and Charging
Both the drone and the controller charge via USB-C, no power bricks or adapters necessary. The drone’s battery has a capacity of 20.52 Wh (yielding the 25 minutes of max flight time, which Parrot verified to us on video), and the speed at which it’ll charge depends entirely on what you plug it into. For example, the USB-C phone charger that came with my Nexus 5x will charge the drone at 15 W, so it’ll take about an hour and a half to go from empty to full. If I get a USB-C laptop charger and plug the drone into that, it can charge (at 24 W) in about an hour. The battery is smart enough to manage its own health, so you really can just plug it into pretty much whatever and not worry, and Anafi comes packaged with a standard USB to USB-C cable to make charging easy. For what it’s worth, it works the other way as well—if you have the right cable, Anafi’s battery will charge your stuff.
USB charging for both Anafi and its controller means that you can charge both from any portable USB battery pack, which is an underrated feature for a portable drone. You can buy an extra battery for Anafi (it’s $100), but you can also just use the same kind of battery pack that you use for your phone or whatever, meaning that you don’t have to buy or carry the extra pack. For example, I’ve got this Anker PowerCore II 24.12 Wh USB battery pack that I bought for $20. If I plug Anafi into it, it’ll charge the drone to full (once). Its output is 10 W, so it’ll take a couple hours, but that doesn’t bother me all that much. Anafi is designed to be portable and used on the go, so you can top it off in between flights, and while the case isn’t designed specifically for this, you can charge the drone while it’s packed away by plugging in a USB cable and then not zipping the case up completely.
I like this drone. I’m not really what you’d call a drone expert, and I haven’t flown the Mavic Air, which is most folks that I’ve talked to say the Anafi should be compared to. But I do have a Mavic Pro, and when I think about what drone I’d take along with me to fly for fun, it’s the Anafi.
First, flying Anafi is easy, pleasant, and low stress. The drone is quiet and stable and does what you expect it to do, while the controller and the app work reliably and give you just enough control to do what you want, but not too much more. Anafi is small, light, and quiet, helping instill a feeling of safety and confidence. Lack of obstacle avoidance sensors are a shame in the abstract, but in practice, I don’t find myself missing them all that much.
Second, Anafi is very good at doing what you buy a drone to do: take aerial pictures and video. I may not need to shoot raw or in P-LOG or whatever, but the HDR is definitely helpful, and the footage that comes directly out of the drone looks great without me having to mess with it at all, which is important since I don’t have the time, energy, or desire to mess with video very much.
Lastly, I travel with enough gear as it is, and I appreciate the fact that Anafi only adds itself. I don’t need a dedicated spare battery, charger, or a cable—the stuff I have anyway to charge my phone (USB outlet, USB-C cable, and spare battery pack) all work for Anafi as well. It doesn’t feel like a compromise, either. It just feels like how things should work.
The Parrot Anafi is available as of today for $700.
[ Parrot ]