Propel’s Star Wars Battle Drones, one of the major players at this year’s Force Friday II celebrations, are not a toy. Darren Matloff, CEO of Propel, could not be clearer about this.
“I’m not saying our drones can’t be played with by young people - we have all kinds of technology in there that makes them easy to fly. But it’s not a toy,” he reiterates at a world exclusive reveal of the drones in Brussels.
“We have put so much of the latest technology into the drones. It is revolutionary, creating a product that is so cutting edge but we’re putting it in the market at a price point that’s so compelling.”
The technology he refers to is impressive. Most impressive. The drones fly in a unique way, compared to their rivals in the market. They use a technology called ‘reverse propulsion’ - where the blades are on the bottom of the craft instead of on the top.
If the blades are faced upwards they pull in air. By putting them underneath, Propel claims you can control the drones better, as you are building a barrier of air that you essentially fly on. Couple this with ‘advanced flight algorithms’ Propel has created with help from expert drone pilots, and it means the drones fly like they do in the Star Wars movies - albeit with a lot of practice.
To make things even more ‘real’, the polycarbonate blades have been glass polished. So, when they are in use they are almost invisible.
“It is all about suspension of disbelief,” says Matloff. “It means you can go into fantasy mode and dream that you are flying your own X-Wing.”
Return of the Jedi
Many a Star Wars fans have dreamed of flying their own X-Wing but the dream Matloff is referring will be a recurring one for some. That’s because we’ve been here before with Propel, a (not-so) long time ago.
At the tail end of 2016, Propel announced its first iteration of these drones. Like its latest launch, a Speeder Bike, T-65 X-Wing and TIE Advance X1 drone was announced and if you were lucky you may have managed to get yourself one.
But the release turned out to be very limited. Propel went back to the drawing board, repainted, rejigged and relaunched its product with even bigger plans - and it’s all to do with laser beams.
“Drones are currently a part of racing, they are also used in filming but imagine if you could shoot while you are racing your other drones and points can be scored, information can be transferred,” says Matloff.
“That is what we have here. We have the first consumer product that shoots lasers and communicates.”
These drones are able to process real-time stats thanks to Li-Fi, the wireless technology that’s 100 times faster than current Wi-Fi. Propel has kitted out its drones with this technology, with the (new) hope that it will open up the whole drone space, gamifying it for the masses.
“This is the first consumer product in the world to have this technology," he notes. "We were able to hijack laser beams and transmit data through the light to other drones.”
It’s patent pending but the hope is that Li-Fi will mean that not only will myriad Star Wars drones can compete against each other, but thanks to an accompanying app and the sheer speed and amount of space Li-Fi allows for data, it will feel as if the drone pilots are competing in a computing game, with the twist being that the quadcopter they are controlling is real.
The Force Awakens
“We have created a platform for communication that is so fast you can shoot someone flying by at 25Mph and if you hit their sensor with your laser beam, this drop of light will send a package of information that doesn’t just say that you were shot but who the pilot is, how long they have been a pilot, their ranking, the game they are playing… all of that information can happen with this system,” says Matloff.
“This is a real game changer, not just in the drone space but lots of places. It means that these battles can come into life. The information can be sent to all the players of the game.”
Matloff is hopeful this battle drone dream will become a reality. “We filed patents on the technology and it looks like we will get awarded it too so we can have a Li-Fi coded battle fighting system,” he explains.
And if it does, expect Propel to announce official drone battles in a city near you in the near future. TechRadar got a taster of one of these at the unveiling in Brussels and it’s exciting stuff. Up to 12 players can compete and there are a number of games you can play.
Each game is a few minutes long, but that suits the drones that have around six minutes of flight time (pretty average in the drone space).
If the Li-Fi dream is put on hold - “Do. Or do not. There is no try” - then battles will still commence, thanks to the included IR sensor on the drones. They won’t be as precise but this backup tech will still make for fun battles. And to take these battles further an additional laser accessory will be available.
“What happens when you change to a visible laser is that the play pattern changes dramatically, says Matloff. “These lasers turn this product into a competitive sport. This is basically a live laser battling game. There’s been drone filming, drone racing… this is drone gaming.
“If you think about Star Wars and the battles they have in space, it is all about chasing each other. In these drones are windows with diodes in - these diodes are positioned for those lasers. You can have play patterns just like in the movie.”
A New Hope
But you can’t get into drone gaming without knowing how to fly a drone. Thankfully Propel has tried to make sure that even those who haven’t flown a drone before will pick it up with ease. It’s a fun idea and one that’s tackled in two ways: through an accompanying app and a mode on the Battle Drones that is built for newbies - T-Mode.
“We wanted to create something that meant that anyone, regardless of them ever using a drone before, could pick up this product and start to fly it. So we created an invisible ceiling and an invisible floor. Then there's T Mode - this streamlines the flying rig, how it turns and moves. The drone flies about 30% less than lowest speed too. And there is an automatic stop at 3.6 metres. When you descend, it stops about a metre from the ground.
“The problem with piloting a drone for the first time is that there is a worry that it will just fly away. By putting in invisible barriers it means that now you are not flying away or hitting the ground. You have a chance to actually figure out how to control the drone.”
Having tried the Star Wars battle drone, this mode is definitely a great addition but you will also want more training - becoming a Jedi in the drone space doesn’t just happen overnight. Propel knows this so has bundled an app where you can virtually fly your drone through 30-something levels before you even take it out of the box.
“You start off as a cadet, using a flight simulator,” explains Matloff. “We took the real physics engine - working with our pilots - and we feel that the engine is 98% equivalent to flying the real drone.
“Typically with flight simulators you are in a park, there is an open grass area, and it is just you and your drone. But we thought, ‘wouldn’t it be magical if you were in a Star Wars universe and you have a commander and each mission is teaching you how to fly the drone?’”
There’s a lot of care and attention that has been put into the latest Star Wars battle drones. It’s clear that Propel is hoping it’s second time lucky for its drone fleet. But to make sure it will be a hit with Star Wars fans, it’s pitching the first batch to collectors. Each drone is hand painted and individually numbered. And they come in their own interactive display case.
“When I sat down with my creative team, we had the idea: let’s not build a drone but a narrative as that is what Star Wars is all about. Take the consumer on a journey through the Star Wars universe, let’s make it fun, let’s make it a game. And through this we can create an extremely immersive product," says Matloff.
“It starts from the unboxing - the special edition box that opens to music is released for Force Friday II, then when you put the controller together there is more stuff that happens. It’s great for fans.”
It’s great to see Propel aiming for the sky with its battle drones. But a lot of things need to happen for its drones to become the competitive sport its CEO is hoping. They have to become mass market enough so that whoever buys one knows a group of people who has them too.
Or, at the very least, it has to entice drone owners to gather for battle drone events. And that’s not to mention the red tape around drone use at the moment.
Propel has created a fantastic product but it’s one that truly comes alive when it’s faced with other drones to battle with - and the odds of this happening are pretty high.
But, as Han Solo states in A New Hope, “Never tell me the odds.”