We live in a golden age of geekdom. The technology in our hands is what has been dreamt of for years, the people making movies are geeks who grew up with those same dreams in front of them and are now able to create the universes we love unfettered by limitations of special effects, but that magic is not limited to the screen. While full size X-Wings are still a little way off, Propel have spent the last nine years building high quality drones and are now ready to introduce Star Wars drones fully equipped for battle.
At London’s Madame Tussauds, Propel CEO Darren Matloff unveiled this dream come true, favourite ships from a galaxy far, far away equipped with lasers to do battle across the skies of Earth, or at least a back garden. The initial line includes a 74-Z Speederbike, a TIE Advanced X1 (Darth Vader’s personal TIE fighter), and the classic symbol of the Rebellion, the T-65 X-Wing starfighter, and lined up for 2017 is the larger Millennium Falcon.
These collector’s edition products will be available in time for the holidays and have been crafted by people who built them because they wanted to own them. Intricately designed, each model is hand painted and comes with a gorgeous display box which opens to reveal an illuminated base in the style of the Imperial walkways and plays a variety of music tracks from the films when opened.
Installing batteries into the controller you are guided by voices from the light side or the dark, such the Emperor telling you “Good, good! Your hate has made you powerful, now fulfil your destiny and install four double A batteries!”
The TIE Advanced and Millennium Falcon are perfectly suited for drone adaptation, their shape allowing the four propellers to be housed without compromise, while the X-Wing requires additional front struts to support the forward blades and the speeder bike is necessarily supported by four such struts to achieve stability and control, but Propel have done well within the necessary conflict between screen accuracy and practical requirement.
Drones have long been enjoyed by a community of enthusiasts which has grown with the more accessible pricing of radio controlled products in recent years, but it is still an entertainment area that can be daunting for novices.
There is a substantial initial purchase cost and a steep learning curve which can be fraught with expensive peril in the event of a bad crash, but speaking with pilots Matt Hennem and Jack Bishop, that awareness was part of the design of the drones and the control system and it becomes clear Propel seek to appeal to both established operators and the wider potential audience.
Featuring innovative practical solutions to train new pilots, there is a training mode where inbuilt barometric sensors prevent the ships flying above three meters or going so low as to crash into the floor, instead hovering comfortably, meaning that straight out of the box new users can start flying and feel relatively comfortable doing so.
There is also a piloting application for smartphones and tablet devices which links via Bluetooth to the controller and teaches the operator with an onscreen simulation that matches the physics of the drone, allowing virtual practice in preparation for the big battles.
The battles can take two different forms. For trainees there is infrared battling with less precision required, and moving up there are genuine laser battles using li-fi (light fidelity) to transmit data allowing large amounts of information to be communicated across all the battling drones which is tracked and recorded on applications linked to the controllers. In battle mode, drones can take three hits and will then lower themselves out of the battle area, casualties of war.
The training mode can be turned off once pilots are more accustomed to the craft, and the flight controls themselves can be switched between automatic and manual for more advanced users, and Matt Hennem spoke about his discussions with Darren Matloff over details as specific as the choice of gimbals in the control sticks.
By having experienced pilots on board through development Propel have made devices that will measure up to the high standards expected of them and it is clear they are passionate about creating quality products that will justify Disney’s faith in them.
Matloff talked enthusiastically about his desire to build a community around these drones and the possibility of hosting competitions in the future. With capacity for up to twenty four pilots flying simultaneously, there is potential for some wonderful Star Wars dogfighting, and the possibility of re-enacting the battle of Yavin with more X-Wings than the original (non-special edition) of A New Hope would be amazing.
Watching the drones fight in the old Planetarium (now the Marvel 4D experience) with a planet rising in the background was brilliant to see. The craft are astonishingly manoeuvrable and able to accelerate to thirty miles per hour in three seconds. With top speeds in excess of 35mph they are even able to perform barrel rolls, an incredible feat for a drone and something that just looks damn cool in a dogfight.
A perfect choice of venue for the launch gave guests a chance to drink with Han Solo in a familiar cantina after the battle, pose next to Princess Leia, and even offer a glass of wine to Darth Vader.
For those who have not visited the Star Wars exhibition at Madam Tussauds previously, it is well worth it and the chance to sit in the pilot seat of the Millennium Falcon as it jumps to hyperspace is worth the cost of admission alone. Since the opening eighteen months ago the exhibition has added a new display from The Force Awakens of a Jakku room with Rey and BB-8.
While guests at the event were not able to fly the drones themselves, it is clear these are the drones we’re looking for. The attention to detail and clear love behind the product shows this is a product created by geeks for geeks, yet considering the level of technology involved the prices are not as hefty as one might expect although they are certainly not priced as toys with a listed retail price of £229, but certain outlets are offering preorders available at £199.
With a release date of 2nd December 2016, you can register to be put on the reserve list and preorder the set of all four by visiting Propel’s site
Special thanks to Gemma of Harvard for the invite and Dario for braving Mos Eisley and the battlefield