Propel CEO Darren Matloff was fading behind a thick gray cloud created by a fog machine. He was trying to tell us about his company’s awesome new Star Wars drones, but even he was struggling to ignore the haze building between him and his small, but enthusiastic audience.
“I think that’s enough with the fog machine,” said Matloff, who instructed his support crew to open the front and back doors of the small Brooklyn space he’d rented to demonstrate his Star Wars battle drones and the new flight-training apps.
Matloff could be forgiven for the fog. It was there to help demonstrate the real, though safe, lasers Propel’s Star Wars Battle Drones use during in-air battle. With enough fog, you could see the red beams, but you could not see Matloff.
Propel’s T-65 X-wing Starfighter, Darth Vader’s TIE Advanced x1, and the 74-Z speeder bike with new software, all launch on Force Friday (September 1), along with a slew of other Star Wars-related merchandise, to celebrate and promote the upcoming release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi in December. The drones cost $179 in the U.S. and $249 in Canada (but the lasers are extra).
Perhaps the fog would not have grown so thick, if Matloff’s presentation were shorter, but he had a lot of ground to cover.
The drone collection, which we first saw last year at Star Wars Celebration is finally shipping in quantity in the U.S. (and Canada), and it’s not your run-of-the-mill Star Wars spaceship recreation with some propellers slapped on it. To start, each aircraft is hand-painted and looks like an incredibly scaled down version of the real thing. In addition, Propel has programmed the quad-copters to fly more like their movie counterparts. So, the X-Wing rolls wing-over wing and the Tie-Fighter does the same.
With that kind of maneuverability and the optional lasers (they go on sale later this year for an undisclosed price), air battles the look and feel like one of the Star Wars films is possible.
Race to the Death Star
Matloff had some of his expert pilots and flight designers give us a live demonstration. I watched through the fog as the drones, each about six-inches long, buzzed over my head and in front of me and, yes, I could even see the red lasers. Impressive, were their flight skills.
The battle ended when two of the drones slammed into each other and fell to the ground. Everyone applauded. I was just happy to not lose an eye (earlier that evening an intrepid Star Wars podcaster, but drone novice, plucked one of the drones out of the sky and a spinning propeller proceeded to chew up one of his knuckles).
Unlike more expensive drones, Propel’s Star Wars replicas, which can fly at a blazing 30 mph (for about 8 minutes per charge), are bare-bones when it comes to sensors (there’s a gyroscopic sensor, but no barometric sensor for altitude). They can’t hover in place or stabilize in any way without pilot assistance. Each drone ships with a very responsive remote control, but you still must be a darn good pilot to fly one.
Which brings us to the other big part of Matloff’s presentation: an all new pilot training app that essentially lets you use the toy’s controller to fly a virtual drone before flying the real thing.
The app, which I briefly tried, does such a good job of replicating the Propel Star Wars drone flight experience, in my case with the X-Wing, that it’s almost as difficult to fly a virtual Star Wars drone as is it a real one. However, Matloff insisted that, the app, which awards you stars and promotions for quality flight, can teach people how to fly his company’s drones and many who spend some time with the flight simulator doing everything from simple flight paths to engaging in battles have a much easier time flying the drones IRL.
All I can say is that I wish I had a lot more time with the app.
There’s also a flight training mode for the physical Propel Star Wars drones, which slows them down by 30 percent and keeps them from flying outside a virtual zone.
It should be worth spending all that time learning how to fly a Propel Sat Wars drone, since each one is engineered for team battle in which up to 12 drones can battle in the air at once. Doing that without radio interference is quite a feat. Propel uses Wi-Fi, Bluetooth and, for the first time in a consumer product, according to Matloff, a light-based communication technology called LiFI or Light Fidelity. Together, these communications protocols make up Propel’s Intelligent Awareness Technology, which delivers, they promise, “latency-free communication” between the drones, even as they shoot each other while flying at up to 30 MPH.
“It’s like Laser Tag on crack,” said Matloff.
Propel’s battle chops are sophisticated, too. The app keeps track of all the players and selects squad leaders on its own. It also keeps track of performance and can show who are the world’s best pilots. The goal, with these Star Wars battle drones and the multiplayer gaming is to create a worldwide community and global battle venues. Matloff envisions pro-level events with prizes.
I did get the opportunity to unbox and fly a drone.
The special edition packaging (we did not see standard packaging) borders on overkill. There’s a built-in light that turns on when you lift off the lid and speaker that plays different Star Wars themes each time you open the box.
For the flight demo, Propel arranged us would-be drone pilots around a square arena. We were separated from our drones, half Tie-Fighters and half X-Wings, by a thin, fabric mesh. Each of us wore headphones connected to our flight controllers. There’s a tons of audio guidance and original Star Wars sound effects.
It was easy to launch our drones, just a two second hold on one button on the controller. My thumbs were poised over the two metal joysticks, but my instructor told me to focus my attention on the right one, which controlled most of the drone’s forward, back, left, and right motion. The left joystick controlled turns and change altitude.
Initially, I was flying okay, but it was so hard to just keep the drone in place. Plus, I was supposed to shoot my opponent’s drones with my laser, something I could barely do, because I was so focused on keeping my drone in flight.
One by one, we crashed or flew into the mesh, which was poorly designed for this activity. Even with the safety rigs on the Star Wars drones, most of the drones were hopelessly ensnared in the mesh.
I did not stick around for the bonus flight round.
Propel has created some excellent-looking drones and accompanying software, but I am worried about the out-of-the box experience I bet teens (and adults) are going to try flying right away and may grow frustrated when they realize they need Yoda-level flight training to become pilots.
I waved away the last gray wisps of artificial fog and exited into the crisp, clear evening air, wondering if I’d ever be good enough to fly an awesome-looking Propel Star Wars Battle Drone. Crashing them into the walls was cool, but I imagine they’re much more fun when you can actually control them.