So if you have been on the Internet at all lately you have probably noticed someone saying something about drones and quadcopters or some other form of RC ‘copter. They are in the news when they cause mayhem and I am sure there is someone you know that has at least one. Certain fields of technology take a lurch forward occasionally. Sometimes it drops in price to make it available for nearly anyone interested. (quad for under $20 anyone?) In rare and beautiful circumstances both happen at the same time.
Some fascinating things have happened in RC and FPV (first-person-view) in the last couple years. Antanas for example were for years were little more than a sprig of wire sticking out of radio gear. Enter the circular polarized or ‘clover leaf’ antenna. This $10 part marks a fascinating simple step forward in technology. (watch Flitetest play with some) Then, I ask myself when did cameras get so small, like the Ultra Micro Camera by Spektrum?
While things have become very affordable and attainable, it may be a challenge to piece it all together to have a functioning set. Understanding batteries took quite a bit of research for me to be comfortable with. Therefore, I thought I would share an affordable entry level setup I recommend to friends. I am not a professional, or even that good, I just like to have fun flying. That was something that was priced out of my reach just a couple years ago.
I recommend a really small quad (nano-quad if you will) even though it is hard to fly outdoors in wind. Flying indoors made me careful and let me fly without thinking about the weather outside. It is easy to take someplace and fly without a bunch of setup. nano-quads like the Blade Nano QX can crash repeatedly and not break and parts are cheap when you eventually do break something. (frame, prop CC, CW, motor CC CW, electronics, even canopy)
I also recommend starting out RTF (Ready To Fly) to avoid the cost of extra control electronics. Quality nano-quads will allow you to later bind to a higher quality transmitter for finer control that will extend the fun and further hone your flying skills when you are ready.
Goggles for FPV are all over the place when it comes to quality and features. If you are going to go cheap, go all the way cheap because the midrange is a mangled mess of paying too much for what you get. There is a sweet spot in the high-mid range befor it makes the jump to crazy expensive that you will learn to appreciate as you go.
ALL IN ONE
The first option I can attest to being great is the ready to fly Razor Nano QX FPV all-in-one package. You get all you need without having to learn about batteries and transmitters. The Teleporter headset that comes with it is an entry level video receiver that will build appreciation, should you decide to upgrade in the future. While this will get you flying in a crash resilient way fast, it comes with some limitations.
What I like about this option is that it is real 5.8G video without the huge lag of WiFi video and the slow HD of the low-end. It can also teach you the basics of acro flight. You can turn off SAFE on this tiny little quad and learn to fly like the pros… although a little slower.
You will have to be aware that you don’t have much option for flexibility and gradual upgrades. The goggles can be used with other transmitters, but you will find that you won’t like it too much with better cameras with a wider field of view down the road. You can get a better transmitter to work with the little quad, but the quad itself has a limited scope and lifetime.
The upgrade path + DIY
So if you have confidence that you will want to upgrade over a period of time, there are a couple substitutions to the above setup that you can make. I would also recommend buying separate pieces if you like a little DIY. Much can be gained with some solder and a little tape down the road.
First step is to learn to fly without FPV. To do that I would highly recommend the Nano QX ready to fly package without a camera (more on camera later). The documentation is good. Search youtube for some ‘how to fly’ exercises (links below) and learn with SAFE off. Don’t let learning to fly in acro. mode hold you back from having fun, fly with SAFE on for fun right away.
The next evolution to your flying is FPV. To assemble a working FPV kit you need a camera, transmitter, receiver, and a screen to view it on. There are endless brands and options here, but if you start cheap you can learn as you go. I would recommend starting with a goggle because the experience is frankly more addictive.
I do like I have talked to people and tried a couple things and an easy screen/google to start is with the Quanum DIY Goggle Kit V2. This may look bulky but it is very light. Its primary structure is a foam box that you can cut to fit your face like no other. Plus, you can use the monitor outside the headset. You just can’t beat the value of these things. It is also a great solution if you wear glasses as they can just fit over the top. The kit supplies everything but the a battery, transmitter/receiver, and camera.
The reason I wouldn’t necessarily recommend Nano QX FPV, because the camera is hardwired. You can find it without the goggles and extras, and it is the best option if you want to avoid soldering completely. For a reusable camera that will make it possible to turn almost anything into FPV is the Ultra Micro Camera by Spektrum that I mentioned earlier. A cheaper option that I have not tried is the Blueskysea Super Mini. They look like the are the same thing, but the key is that they have a built-in transmitter on the 5.8G frequency and channels that are supported by many new receivers.
To make the third party camera work you have to either piggyback on the power going to the Nano’s board, or connect another battery. Either way, know that you will get shorter flight times. Having a bunch of batteries handy isn’t too expensive. If I get a chance I will make a post about one of those options.
Then to receive the signal before it can be shown on a screen you need a video receiver. There are plenty of receivers out there, but a cheap place to start is Boscam RC832. Some people will argue that there are much better receivers, but I have not found anything as cheap. The next step up in my mind would be Quanum RC540R if you are willing to wait for it to ship international.
An obvious con to buying everything separate is the assemble and debug step. To start right, you should charge your batteries. There are great videos on YouTube to get you going. Plug all the electronics in before you put it all together. Also, mind the video channels, a number on one may not correspond directly to another.
The Shopping List
- Razor Nano QX RTF $80
- Quanum DIY Goggle Kit V2 $64
- a battery $20
- a charger $53
- Ultra Micro Camera $85
- Boscam RC832 $32
- TOTAL $334
So I have been tinkering with flying for a little while, but I am a programmer at heart. What interests me is the next level of custom firmware and programmable things and IoT. I would love to find an Software Defined Radio based transmitter and a flight control firmware project built in .NET. Know of any? or have better ideas for a cheap entry setup. Let me know below…