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TMCNet:  Smartphones can now control RC vehicles

[November 23, 2012]

Smartphones can now control RC vehicles

Nov 23, 2012 (Tulsa World - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) -- The concept of remote-controlled vehicles is nothing new, as all kinds of different miniature cars and helicopters have been zipping around for decades.

More and more of them, however, are starting to get a smartphone upgrade.

Thanks to wireless communication and free apps, you can now use a smartphone or tablet as a controller for a few RC vehicles, both traditional and ultra-modern. But are they really better than controllers you can hold in your hands I borrowed a few vehicles recently and put them to the test.

Helo TC, $49.99, Griffin Technologies The Helo TC is the most widely-available of the devices I tested -- you can even find them in Verizon stores. It's also the most traditional, as its form and function are just like a regular helicopter.

Helo's free app mimics a standard controller as well, with a vertically sliding throttle on the left to control altitude, and a virtual thumbstick on the right to control forward, reverse and side-to-side movement. There's also buttons for lights, an emergency landing and a flight pattern recorder.

But you'll probably be a little too embarrassed to record your flights. On my iPhone 5 there seemed to be maybe a millimeter or two zone between "stay on the ground" and "splat against the ceiling." Most of my flights involved frantically hovering up and down.

Trying to use the thumbstick in conjunction made things even sillier, as the lack of tactile feedback made operations feel like trying to pat my head and rub my stomach at the same time. I tried the tilt control option, but got mostly the same results. Fortunately the Helo is sturdy enough to survive multiple crashes.

Maybe the Helo would be easier to control on tablets, with a wider space for the throttle. I had fun with it, but more from laughing at my latest failure than from any real control.

Rover 2.0, $149.00, Brookstone The futuristic-looking Rover 2.0 wouldn't look out of place in the Batcave, though for the most part it behaves like a tank. Its main selling point is the front-mounted camera, which instantly transmits whatever it's looking at into the control app.

Two virtual sticks provide the movement. Move both forward to move forward, both back to move back, and the sticks in opposite directions to turn. Again, a tablet might be a better choice since there's so little room to work with, though I had better luck with the tilt controls than with the Helo.

The Rover is much speedier than its squat body implies, though you won't get much air from ramps. It's also on the large side, so running across furniture is out.

Seeing video of the Rover on your app as it's running is a blast, though the quality is low and things get extra-blurry while turning. You can also hear what the Rover's hearing and transmit your voice through it, which confused my dogs to no end.

The video is recordable, though you have to go into the app to access them. I enjoyed my time with the Rover, though for $149 I would have liked better video quality.

AR Drone 2.0, $299, Parrot Now this thing feels like the future. The AR Drone quadracopter looks like something the military would produce, and when it's airborne it manages to sound like a vacuum cleaner from the Jetsons. While flying -- or even when not -- people around couldn't keep themselves from stopping and gawking.

Yet the Drone had the simplest controls of all the devices. Holding a button and tilting the smartphone allows you to tilt it forward, back and side to side, while a virtual stick allows you to control altitude and rotation.

Taking off is as simple as hitting the "take off" button, and the Drone's advanced software keeps it level and steady. I didn't struggle in the least, as any mishaps you'll have will definitely be user error.

The best part of the Drone is the included HD camera. The images it transmits to the app are pristine, and recorded videos are thankfully saved with the rest of your phone's videos. There's no sound due to the rotor noise, but the views you'll get while flying around are so great it's hard to care.

I've never been a huge RC nut, but I can't stress enough how much fun it is to gracefully slide the drone around through the air. The AR Drone 2.0 is the most expensive of the three devices I tested, but it's worth every penny.

Robert Evatt 918-581-8447 robert.evatt@tulsaworld.com ___ (c)2012 Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) Visit Tulsa World (Tulsa, Okla.) at www.tulsaworld.com Distributed by MCT Information Services

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