Quadcopters

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With the availability of cheap quads with cameras, and a desire to get out of the house a little more often, I finally have enough justifications to explore my lifelong interest in RC flight.

I’m going to post my experiences and thoughts based on the Hubsan X4, Blade 180qx and the Syma X5SW – that’s the order I got them in.

In particular, this has been torturous for me. There’s so many sites with bits of information and there seems to be a language/cultural barrier resulting from the majority of products being made in China, and the majority of available products being the same devices poorly rebranded (one display unit I saw was boxed as something but the device was literally just the X5C).

Since this felt very whimsical to me, I decided to start small and cheap. I went to Sheldon’s Hobbies thinking I might get some helpful experience/advice. The shop was ok, the input of the clerk was interesting, but I wound up having to follow my own instinct and buying a $49 floor-model Hubsan X4.

I’ll summarize all 3 and review each, then do a quick compare/rant.

The Products

All three are “RTF” versions (Ready To Fly) which doesn’t mean they’re ready to fly, it means that they come with a controller that is paired with the vehicle.

Hubsan X4 ($49)

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This was fun, interspersed with frustration any annoyance. The thing is so small that the battery is a bit of an issue, and it’s really difficult to get the wires tucked away, which means you won’t, and then you’ll wonder why the thing flies so badly – the cables significantly affect flight.

I was able to get it to hover for a few seconds once, and then without any additional control inputs it suddenly veered to one side, up, and slammed into some furniture destroying one of the original props. It comes with spares.

Pros:

  • Light and cheap – breaking it won’t hurt you too much,
  • Zippy and bright lights, so good for kids,
  • Designed for indoor flight,
  • Absorbs a remarkable amount of punishment (things come off or unclick, but a little pressure fixes them),
  • Comes with a cheap, playstation-like controller,

Cons:

  • Light – so outdoors is probably a no,
  • Light – so you’ll want a large space to fly it in, flying it in your kids bedroom will probably leads to hospital bills,
  • Cheap – no features or wizardry,
  • Relatively poor flight handling, probably needs an expert to really fly it – but you’ll come back to it :),
  • Terrible. Instruction. Manual,
  • The battery cable desperately wants to get up into the rotors, which causes it to knock itself out of the sky occasionally,
  • Comes with a cheap, playtation-like controller, expect to be annoyed by it,
  • Short flying time,

Don’t buy this as your life long drone companion, buy this so you can learn enough about handling the thing.

I really didn’t enjoy this much, it doesn’t remotely feel like it wants to hover, and the tiniest inputs make it do strange things, ultimately it taught me basics I needed about handling – the need for delicate inputs to the controls, thinking about direction the thing is facing, ground effect and it’s wall/ceiling counterparts. Flying over things is perilous because there is suddenly ground effect under all or part of the qc.

No regrets at having bought it to start me off, though.

Blade 180QX ($120?)

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A friend loaned this to me the next day. Bigger, heftier, more features. This is where you really learn “which way the thing is facing matters, not which way you are facing/looking/moving”.

The body is just a flimsy piece of plastic/carbon fiber or something. There is a fairly good, detachable, stand-alone camera that takes a micro-sd. Takes good quality pictures and video. If you ever wanted to film a dog/cat/monkey pov… This is your baby.

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Beyond that, it’s much easier to handle than the Hubsan having a little more heft, and the power is startling when you first upgrade. But it won’t do too much damage if it hits things, people or cats. Not that it would go near cats. Of course.

I’d recommend the guards, but then I’m not going to recommend buying this unless you really want to be cautious stepping up.

Pros:

  • Zippy, powerful,
  • Heavy enough for outside, so long as there is no real wind,
  • Light enough for inside,
  • Light enough not to do much damage,
  • Moderate flight characteristics,
  • No fancy lights for orientation, just the props,
  • Replaceable body,
  • Detachable, standalone, SD-card camera,
  • Takes a fair amount of punishment,
  • Fun if you have room to let it rip,

Cons:

  • Not easy to stabilize, lot of ground effect,
  • Not suited to small spaces indoors,
  • Bad instructions, had to watch videos online,
  • Doesn’t come with guards,
  • The flimsy body is attached close to the edges so will easily break the connector,
  • Body is easily broken, I found flying characteristics were better without it but that leaves the electronics exposed,
  • It’s so light that it’s heavily affected by ground effect and blowback from furniture etc,

Over all, it was a good training vehicle. You could probably skip the X4 and go straight to this, but you’ll want plenty of space to start if you do.

Syma X5SW ($70)

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We’ve gotten into what actually feels a bit like drone territory now. Arrives with a little manual assembly required, some clip the guards and camera into place, use the supplied mini (magnetized, yay!) philips to fasten some screws.

This copter has some heft to it, the battery actually goes in a little compartment

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And there’s an on/off switch so you don’t have to keep yanking the power cable.

I tried flying the Blade before and after this; the Syma felt better in every way, even in the living room. There’s a lot more prop wash from this, so you’ll get a lot more ground effect and if you let it drift over towards walls and such you’ll get changes – but in a simple open space, this was much easier to get airborne and stable. Had to take it up to about 3-4 feet rather than the Blade’s 2 feet.

This one also boasts wifi (caveat: eats battery life) so that you can live-stream from the camera. Weirdly, it does this by creating a private wifi network that you have to join. Which is not intuitive nor explained.

Getting started was a breeze. The thing has – in so much as something you are controlling remotely by radio – a great feel to it. It can cope with a fair bit of wind. Camera quality is ok but not as good as the Blade, maybe I can attach the blade’s camera to this o_O

You can also do “FPV” with this – you clip your phone to the top of the remote and install an app, figure setup out for yourself and then you can see from the drone’s camera almost-live. There’s a wee bit of lag. But you can probably use it to help recover the drone or avoid power lines and such.

It also features “headless” mode (these people need to hire someone who speaks English before they start trying to name things in it),

The only down I really had with this so far was the relatively short battery life (the other two products seemed to use a lot less battery when not flying), but there are better batteries available for it and I *was* using streaming wifi.

And the manual. Jesus, Joseph, Mary and the guy next door. Seriously. The manual is unintelligible in places, and the rest was harder to read than getting Google Goggles to translate the chinese text. There are major things missing and it doesn’t flow in a sensible order. Only halfway thru the manual does it tell you to charge the battery….

There are a few minor dings to the overall experience. It’s not easy to tell what modes the controller is in.

But it was very easy to get the copter into a relatively stable posture quickly.

I tried the Blade after the first flight to see if that was just increase in skill. It wasn’t.
Pros:

  • Hefty, seems sturdy,
  • Enclosure for the battery,
  • Easy assembly,
  • Comes with guards and camera,
  • Features FPV, “headless” mode (fly the way you point vs the way the front is),
  • Feels pretty easy to fly, I have a lot to learn, but I haven’t hit anything with this one yet,
  • Cheap! Actually cheaper than the blade,
  • Decent picture quality,
  • Landing struts give good clearance which helps with flight,
  • It’s designed to let you throw it into the air and hit the rotors so you can skip the ground effect entirely, but that’s best suited to the outdoors or large open indoor spaces,

Cons:

  • Light assembly required, miniscrewdriver provided,
  • Shorter (than expected) flight time,
  • Battery seems to drain more while not in flight than other two quads,
  • The FPV app is not westerner friendly – things are highlighted red, for instance, to indicate they aren’t pressed rather than that you shouldn’t press them,
  • Atrocious manual: I think I got lucky realizing that the Wifi was a network I had to join on my phone, there was no feedback in the app to hint me towards that,
  • Atrocious manual: the overall translation quality is “awful” it no point do you ever not think “this is a bad translation”, that’s the pinacle, when that’s all you think. It dives into real intelligibility. “electric quantity of the aircraft”, “3D eversion”, “Throwing flight intsructions”, “long bright state”, “may cause a swollen battery”, “No-rechargeable battery can’t charge”.

The Experience

I’m having fun and eager to get reasonable enough at flying now to go get some pictures out at Alum Park or something. But I’ve found getting to this state to be incredibly frustrating.

The market is full of variants (and rebrands and …) with no consistency to how things are described.

Firstly, there are so many bits of jargon (RTF, BNF, FPV) which often don’t mean what they say: None of the aircraft was Ready To Fly, and all that means is Comes With Controller. BNF means “Bind-n-Fly” – or “No Controller In Box”.

There’s no obvious or reliable indication of with or without camera, without or without headless, and so on. There’s nowhere with a good, solid, comparison chart. And things like how the controller feels, what sort of environment the craft is for, etc, are all really hard to gauge until you’re hands on. Because of their fragility, you might have a hard time finding a place that will let you try flying before you buy, but I do recommend you go buy from a store, since they may have demo models you can see and/or buy for a discount.

Model numbers don’t work the way you think. The X5SW is more expensive than the X8 or X11. It’s hard to tell what the various X8 models do, but it also turned out the X8 flies like a boat. The X11 seems to be a midget version.

Research has been a real pain.

None of the craft has been easy to stabilize. I figured hovering was a basic function of these things, but no.

The problem is those rotor blades: like your car, you have to start with the break on. So the controller stick is always non-centering horizontally.
The Blade and the Syma both talk about their envelope management capabilities, but you spend a remarkable amount of time trying to make fine tuning adjustments to get them stable.

I haven’t managed to get a single one of them to hover steadily yet. I know – learning is part of the fun, but that’s crap. Getting the things off the ground and hovering is a key tool in learning how to fly them. It’s a crutch that absolutely should be there. Flight instruction – for real pilots military or recreational – breaks take off, landing and flight into separate sections.

I’m also seeing some odd flight characteristics that I haven’t figured out how to explain yet. I had the blade moving around slowly going where I expected it to, and then I tried to drift it to one side and it just dropped, and on lifting off again no matter what input I gave it, it went right, until it hit a wall and fell to the ground again.

Overall, the quality has been impressive given the cheap pricing.

The X5SW is by far the best of the 3. If you’re totally new to RC/Flying, it won’t be the worst thing to start with, but I’d encourage you to get something smaller/cheaper first – the Hubsan X4 or one of those nanos. Or don’t. I might have dinged my X5SW up a bunch before I got the basics, but I’d have saved $49, then again it would probably have shortened the lifespan of the X5, and I would probably not be so pleased with it’s performance if I didn’t have a reference.

One Comment

I don’t just mean “hovering is hard”: even when I get one of these drones perfectly stable, the stick is so sensitive and so lacking a ‘center’ that it’s night on-impossible to get it to hover. One second it’s gently descending, and tiny stick input has it climbing.

I’ve also figured that it’s this ultra-sensitivity that results in turning. The same stick is used for throttle and either turning or slewing. Either way, it’s a major piece of thumb skill to get it to do only one of those two things.

I think triggers + bumpers like on the console controllers is probably needed – that way you free up the throttle stick for *just* throttle and you can give it a center position. Or I’d settle for a way to click it perhaps and have it tell the drone “maintain altitude”.

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