A long time ago, in a movie studio far, far away, George Lucas secured the merchandising rights to the Star Wars franchise, thus launching 40 years of branded figurines, lunchboxes, bedsheets, and waffle makers. Like the movies themselves, some gadgets have been great, and some have been terrible (remember the Darth Vader Potato Head?). Fortunately, Propel's Star Wars drones ($199) fall into the former camp; these flying machines not only look better than the other Star Wars-branded drones out there, but they perform better and have lots of fun features — including the ability to fight in battles.
They're also $199 each, making them at least twice as expensive as other flyable TIE fighters and X-Wings (such as those from Air Hogs). But Propel's versions are worth it.
Design: Very Realistic
This is one box you won't want to throw in the trash compactor. Each drone comes in a collector’s edition-style box that holds a few surprises. Lift off the top, and the drone is revealed inside a clear plastic case that lights up and starts playing tracks from Star Wars. It's as dramatic as the opening crawl from the movies.
Underneath are a few other boxes containing the controller, rotors, rotor cage, charger and two batteries.
We received all three Propel drones: the TIE Advanced x1, the X-Wing Fighter and the Speeder Bike. All three are have a high level of detail, down to little bits of battle damage and space wear. For the purposes of this review, I used the TIE fighter, which I think looks the best of the three. The drone is studded with white, blue and red LEDs, a translucent canopy and subtle shading on all sides.
Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideUniquely, the drones' rotors are located on the underside of each, rather than on top, as with most other drones. This reverse propulsion system has the effect of hiding the rotors to some degree, though they're most obvious on the X-Wing and Speeder bike, both of which have extra protrusions that make them look less like the real thing. The TIE fighter's rotors blend in more naturally. The one downside to this is that you’ll need to launch the drones from a hard surface and not, say, from a patch of grass. Don't try catching it midair, either.
In the front of each drone are two IR transmitters that are used when flying combat missions against other Propel Star Wars drones. The IR blasters can be swapped out for lasers, which will be released by early 2017. The lasers look far cooler (the TIE fighter has green lasers, and the X-Wing has red lasers, just like the movies), especially if you have a fog machine, and are more precise than the IR transmitters.
Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideEach drone can easily fit in the palm of your hand and weighs less than 1 pound, so you don't need to register them with the FAA.
The one thing I wish these drones had was a small camera; it would be great to see a first-person view of a TIE fighter/X-Wing dogfight.
Controller: Star Wars Sounds Built In
The controller, while comfortable, is larger than the drone itself, and is customized to each drone. For example, the TIE fighter's controller is black with red accents, while the X-Wing's controller is white. Each controller requires four AA batteries — remove the cover, and the controller plays a humorous message, which I won’t spoil for you.
Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideEach controller also comes with its own set of sound effects and music — the TIE Fighter's plays selected Imperial tracks, natch. That's fun, but it can be distracting, especially when you’re first learning to pilot the drone. Fortunately, you can lower the volume or turn the sound off entirely.
On the controller are two joysticks, four shoulder buttons and four more buttons in between the joysticks. The front of the controller also has a retractable arm to hold a smartphone. Propel plans to launch a smartphone app that will add additional features, such as games you can play with other Propel drones.
You'll definitely want to read the instruction manual before flying off to blast some womp rats; although the controls are intuitive enough, you'll want to learn which button starts and stops the drone, and which one(s) make it flip in the air.
For the young padawan, a training mode limits the speed and altitude of the drone, which I found very helpful when trying to figure out how to fly the thing.
Two of the shoulder buttons cause the drone to perform a 360-degree roll, while another lets you fire the IR blaster or lasers; another changes the speed settings.
In advanced mode, the drone has three speed settings. At top speed, the TIE fighter could probably make the Kessel Run in less than 12 parsecs (about 35 miles per hour, according to Propel). In fact, the TIE fighter comes with a second set of wing panels that makes it even speedier; you'll want to save this option for outdoors.
Credit: Nick Bush / Tom's GuideRegardless of whatever speed setting you select, you'll want to keep the TIE fighter at least six feet off the ground. I found that when flying it in a straight line, the drone had a tendency to nose down, driving it toward the ground.
After pressing the launch button, the controller said "TIE Fighter ready for launch," and the drone powered on, hovering about 3 feet in the air. It was pleasingly responsive and stable, even as I zipped it around the Tom's Guide offices. I could easily buzz my co-workers without fear of giving them an impromptu haircut. Piloting this drone was just like flying Beggar's Canyon back home. Still, you want to be careful, as stiff breezes can easily move these lightweight fliers around.
Other Star Wars-branded drones, such as the Air Hogs Millennium Falcon (which are admittedly less expensive), took a bit more finesse to keep airborne; I had to work to keep it hovering, whereas the Propel drone would stay largely in one place.
If you are lucky enough to have a friend who also has $200 to spare, you can recreate the battle of Scarif in your backyard. As mentioned, each drone comes with IR transmitters and receivers. In Combat mode, you can pilot your drone against other Propel Star Wars drones; three "hits" from an enemy’s IR transmitter causes a drone to fall to the ground (gently). When my TIE fighter was hit, the drone wobbled a little in the air, and the controller vibrated, letting me know I’d sustained some damage. It’s a great interactive feature.
Credit: Jeremy Lips / Tom's GuideYou'll definitely want to practice on your own before taking on your friends (or enemies). Although easy to maneuver, targeting an enemy drone is like "trying to hit a bullet with a smaller bullet whilst wearing a blindfold, riding a horse," to quote Scotty from Star Trek. You'll also want a lot of room, too — best to take them outside, or you will be running into walls and ceilings in no time.
Coming Soon to a Drone Near You
At the time of this review, there were a number of features that were not yet available. In the near future, you'll be able to swap out the IR transmitters with little lasers (estimated at around $40 for the kit), which will make hitting your opponent's drone harder, but will look far cooler — especially if you have a fog machine.
Additionally, Propel will release an iPhone app, which will allow you to connect with other pilots, fight virtual battles against them and show your ranking versus others.
Each drone comes with 12 pairs of rotors, so you'll have plenty of spares. The rotors pop off easily using an included tool. The motors are also replaceable (they plug into the main circuit board), but you'll have to pop open the entire drone, which involves removing about 15 screws. Conveniently, a small screwdriver comes with the controller.
While made out of somewhat flexible plastic, the TIE fighter's side panels are a little flimsy; I cracked one of them after a particularly hard landing.
I was able to get about 10 minutes of flight time — including crashes — out of the TIE fighter's battery before needing to recharge it. I like that you get two batteries with the drone; that way, I could recharge one while using the other. (It takes about 15 minutes to recharge each battery.)
A long time have I watched, waiting for a great Star Wars drone. Propel's TIE Advanced, X-Wing and Speeder bike not only work well as drones, but all the little Easter eggs — dialogue and music from the movies — are great treats for Star Wars' fans. The fact that you can do battle with up to 12 of these drones at once only adds to the fun. They may cost as much as a ticket to Alderaan, but they'll give you a helluva ride along the way.