Since the introduction of the App Store, developers have been writing applications that attempt to extend the usability of your iPhone beyond what the device itself can do. From credit card readers to lightbulbs to fitness accessories, it seems like almost anything can be controlled with an iPhone now. The iSpy Helicopter is no different. If you’re familiar with the concept of the Parrot AR Drone, the iSpy Helicopter will immediately make sense. With just your iPhone, a special app, and a small transmitter that plugs into your headphone jack, you can pilot your own mini helicopter. How well does it work? Read on to find out.
The iSpy Helicopter is a little device, measuring in at just 7.7 x 1.7 x 4.2 in. It’s small size is a good thing however, since it’s an indoor helicopter, and if it was any larger it might be cumbersome to move around. The helicopter contains two sets of rotor blades on top, as a well as a balance bar and a rear tail propeller, all of which are used to control it. In the box you’ll find two spare rotor blades and a spare propeller, in case of an accident.
Upon first inspection, I found the helicopter to look quite fragile and breakable, since it consists of many intricate and precise parts, but after using it for over a week, I found out that it’s very resilient against sudden shock and falls. On the left side of the helicopter you’ll find a small power switch along with the port used for charging it. A USB cable is included. One full charge on the helicopter takes about 45 minutes, and from that, you’ll get 8-10 minutes of continuous fly time. It might not seem like a lot, but I found out that the battery life is about average when compared to other RC helicopters of a similar caliber. One thing I found odd about the charging process is that there doesn’t appear to be any LED indicator on the helicopter to show charging status.
On the bottom of the helicopter is an assembly which contains both the onboard VGA camera, and a spot for Micro SD cards. The device comes with a 512 MB card and corresponding USB adapter so you can plug it into your computer. Neither the photos nor the videos you’ll take with the iSpy Helicopter are of great quality, since the camera has only a 640×480 resolution. Photos appear heavily compressed and not very sharp. The video, while not phone camera quality by a stretch, was better in my opinion. While flying the helicopter, video is silky smooth with practically no shake at all. The only downfall here is the lack on an onboard mic. Aside from the camera, the rest of the helicopter is pretty standard, with bright LED lights flanking the outside.
Of course, in order to control the helicopter from your iPhone, you’ll need the transmitter that comes bundled in the package. The transmitter is fairly small and unobtrusive, having roughly the same thickness as the iPhone 5 and stretching nearly all the way across the bottom of the iPhone when plugged in. The iPhone 5 isn’t the only compatible device, however. All models of iPhone, iPad, and iPod touch are supported, according to iHelicopters. Two LEDs on the transmitter indicate either charging or powered status, and a transparent window on the edge provides a clear window for the signal to pass through. Although the iSpy Helicopter is an indoor device (it can’t fly in bright sunlight) I took it outside to test the transmitters range, and it only lost its signal when the helicopter was several feet higher than the roofline of a 1-story house.
In order to use the helicopter, you’ll have to download the WL Toys app from the App Store. Unfortunately the app is neither retina, nor iPhone 5 optimized, which was a bummer. Hopefully this will come in the future. For those wondering, yes, the app works with iOS 7. After plugging in the transmitter, you can launch the app and choose the correct model of helicopter from the start screen. All you have to do is flip the on switch, turn your volume all the way up, and you’re ready to fly. The app has a few basic controls you’ll need to learn. On the left side is a slider which controls the rotor speed (height) of the helicopter. On the right is a classic joystick, which is used for rotation and forward/reverse. You can also switch it to gyro mode, which will allow you fly the helicopter by tilting the device. There’s also buttons to takes photos and videos, and a toggle for the onboard LEDs. Above the speed controller is a turbo button, but I’m not quite sure what it does.
Flying the iSpy Helicopter is fun, but challenging to learn. The first few times I attempted to fly it, it would come crashing down in a matter of seconds. I thought I’d break it. After an hour or so of playtime, the controls become much easier to use, and you’ll get the feel of it. It’s incredibly fun once you can keep it in the air. The more you fly it, the more comfortable you’ll get. The biggest mental block to get over is the fear that you’ll break it by crashing it. It’s a very resilient machine.
The iSpy Helicopter is a really fun gadget. It’s also a cool way to extend the functionality of your iPhone. I’d really like to see a higher quality onboard camera, and improved outdoor flying ability, but aside from that, I’m very happy with the device. If you’re into RC gadgets or just want a cool toy for your iPhone, I recommend the iSpy Helicopter. You can buy it here for $69.95.