This post is the latest in the Drones and Small Unmanned Aerial Systems Special Series, which profiles interesting information, research and thoughts on using drones, UAVs and remotely piloted vehicles for journalism and photography, that Kike learns about during his travels.
Chances are that over the last few months you have come across the increasingly popular videos of people flying mini-copters that evoke scenes of Star Wars . If this reference doesn’t ring a bell, I suggest checking out the epic Return of the Jedi speeder bike race and you will know what I am talking about.
It is likely that some of the mini-copter videos that are creating so much buzz were produced by a fellow Spaniard who goes by the name of Charpu, a nickname for Carlos Puertolas, and whom I interviewed for this post. Charpu, now animation director at Dreamworks, came to the United States to pursue his passion for animation.
“Quadcopters are something that always intrigued me,” says Charpu. “ I used to be a skater. Now I am 34. I wanted to find an outlet for my constant search for thrills, but without the danger. So flying quadcopters was a perfect fit.”
So what is all this buzz about mini drones about? The term mini drone, or mini quadcopter, is related to the size. The smaller frame of mini drones has helped their popularity. They have the ability to go through small spaces, fly through windows and gaps, and go around trees.
“The 250s are the first ones that became popular,” says Charpu.” That is, 250mm from motor to motor. Things have evolved though, and you can go up to a frame of 300mm and it will still be considered a mini.”
People may wonder how mini drones became so popular so suddenly. It was the development of FPV technology that helped push this process. People got hooked watching those acrobatic videos on the internet. “I have been flying RC for about 4 or 5 years. But it was not until the combination of the smaller size, agility and FPV came together that I got me hooked again,” says Charpu.
“Phantoms and the like are easy to fly. They are built with multiple safety features,” says Charpu.” And everyone can easily get started with them. Mini Quadcopters are smaller, of course, but the biggest difference is they have been designed for speed.”
If you decide to build a mini drone yourself, these are some of the basic components you will need:
- Frame, which is nothing but a carbon fiber element that holds all your components together. The size is measured motor shaft to motor shaft, diagonally. The Lumenier QAV250 Mini FPV Quadcopter airframe has gained lots of popularity lately. The QAV250 is a symmetric 250mm size airframe that accommodates 5″ props.
- ESC (Electronic Speed Controllers) that send signals to the motors. Your ESC needs to be compatible with the motors and the battery.
- Motors (x4).
- Flight Controller, such as the NAZE .
- Radio and Receiver .
The radio sends signals that are captured by the receiver on board. The receiver is connected to the flight controller that sends the information to the four speed controllers, which are connected to the motors.
This configuration will allow you to fly a mini drone in what its called LOS (Line of Sight). To take the whole experience to a new level, you will need to add an FPV set up. That will mean using goggles or a monitor to view the action, plus a video transmitter and receiver with their antennas.
While reading this article you are probably coming to terms with your wishes, and finding mini drones to be quite cool. You now have different options to get started:
1. Out of the box and ready to fly simple mini-drone, like a Hubsan X4 or a Blade Pico QX.
2. Out of the box and ready to fly FPV mini-drone, like the Hubsan H107D FPV
3. Build your own.
4. Professionally built hi-end mini copter.
“I always suggest starting out small if this is your first time getting into FPV or multirotors,” says Andy Graber, GetFPV General Manager. “The small ones are cheap and can usually take a few more crashes. They are a great way to practice indoors as well.
For basic multirotor flight, I suggest the Hubsan X4. It is a great way to practice before moving up to a larger size. Many people start with something this size and then move up to the Lumenier QAV250 .
“The Lumenier QAV250 is GetFPV’s best selling model,” says Graber. “It is extremely popular for its size and performance. It can be a great entry level quadcopter, while at the same time upgrade-able for those advanced pilots looking to speed in excess of 75mph. The QAV250 has many accessories and add-ons, making it very flexible and customizable.”
Once you have decided on which option, you will have to answer two questions:
What frame size do you want?
Are you interested in carrying a camera on your mini-copter?
There are pros and cons to everything. But to put it simply, the smaller the size, the smaller the space you need to fly through things, such as narrow corridors or an open window.
“If you don’t want to carry a camera,” says Charpu. “you don’t need much power. Adding a Go Pro might require some additional power to maintain the same performance. If you go for a smaller frame, your engines will be smaller, and so will be the propellers. So there will be less thrust to carry additional weight. “
People should be aware there is a little delay when viewing directly from a Go Pro Camera. For this reason, all those proficient flyers you see online chose their FPV system to be based on a security camera that is always sending an analog signal with no delay. “If you use a Go Pro as your main source of images,” says Charpu, “It creates a little delay between what you see and what is really happening. And that is a little dangerous when we are flying full speed inside buildings or navigating around trees.”
There are also two additional advantages of using a security camera over a Go Pro for viewing: Firstly, they run on the batteries from your copter, so you won’t run into a risky situation if you have forgotten to charge your Go Pro. Secondly, they do well in low light, but also on exposure adjustment. They quickly modify the camera exposure if you fly from a darker area into an open light area, or vice versa.
“No matter your choice,” says Charpu,“deciding on a frame size is essential.”
Building your own mini-copter:
“It is easy to get sucked into buying the cheapest thing possible when getting started,” says Graber. “While this can help save a little money up front, in the long run you end up replacing cheap parts much sooner. Often times a critical piece will fail early and it will potentially trash your whole quad. I’d suggest looking at the medium-high range in most of the gear, on items like motors, ESCs and airframe.”
Make sure the motors you choose are the correct size and KV for the aircraft. Too big/small or too high/low of a KV can be very inefficient. Take a look at what others are running on a similar setup.
ESC (Electronic Speed Controllers)
Make sure your ESCs are rated for enough amperage as well as voltage. If you are running 4s, make sure your ESC can handle that voltage and amperage. A larger prop will have more thrust, but also require more amps.
For these fast mini races a high “C” rated battery is important. The higher the C rating means the battery can discharge more energy faster. Also, size is important. Too big will weigh down the quad and make it feel very sluggish, too little will not have long enough flight times. A popular size for Minis is 1300mAh – 1800mAh in the 3-4s range.
The Naze32 and CC3D board are currently the two most popular flight controllers for minis. They have a large, supportive community behind each, and the software is constantly updated.
Radio and Receiver
You’ll want a radio with at least 5 channels, and having more is nice for added functionality. 2.4GHz digital radios are the best all around and give good range of up to 1km away in most cases. The FrSky Taranis is one of our most popular advanced radios and at a great price.
While flying minis, you’ll break a ton of propellers, so this is one area where having lots of spares is important. The size and the pitch of the propeller – prop – is important when it comes to your setup. Most people start with a 5×3″ prop and eventually move up to a more aggressive and powerful prop like 5×4 or 6×4.5.
Lessons from the field:
Each master has his or her own book of tricks, so I asked Charpu to share several lessons he has learned during his flying adventures:
. Mini quads are not toys. They can go fast. Very fast. And for that reason, they can be dangerous, create physical damage and even hurt someone or yourself. Do not treat them like toys. Use them with respect, understanding they are highly advanced gadgets with technology that allows them to fly. The key is responsibility. Where do you fly them? And around whom? It matters. Always be safe.
. The perception of ‘drones’ changes with different audiences. Opinions are really mixed. People in general do not fully understand what these things are. The first time people have heard of them is in connection with the military. People react strangely around the word “drone”. As pilots, we should always be friendly and explain what this is all about. They can be fun. This is nothing else but a hobby.
. Having mini-copters as your hobby allows you to learn a lot about technology and electronics. The whole process becomes a learning experience in itself. You not only go out and fly; the fact that you have to put parts back when you crash, or every time you add new upgrades, makes you grow in areas that you will probably never be interested in.
. This hobby might help children in learning and developing skills. It has the flying side, similar in a way to video games. But on top, it adds the learning portion of the equation as kids need to build the machines and fix them after crashes.
. When you are flying FPV you may feel disconnected initially. Then, with time, you become one with the machine, especially if you fly many times in a same day.
. All people are different when it comes to vertigo or motion sickness. In my case, for example, I once tried to fly my quad while sitting in a car in motion. I got motion sickness, because there was a difference between the motion I was feeling as the car moved and what I saw in my goggles.
The Mini-Copter Tool Box:
“Generally most mini-copters are fairly simple to build in terms of tools,” says Graber. “Most are built with hex head screws in metric, so a good metric hex driver set is always good to have. Beyond that I always have a Xacto razor blade knife, zip ties, pliers and a soldering iron.”
For a more advanced kit, you should have many of the same tools listed above, but if you plan on being in the hobby for a while, then investing in a nicer set of tools will go a long way. Also a high quality soldering iron/station is very helpful. Check out Hakko for an inexpensive but still high quality soldering station.
What is in Charpu’s gear bag?
Lumenier QAV250 Carbon Fiber Frame
Flight Controller Naze32
Motors: Cobra 1960kv
Escs: Kiss 18 amp
Propellers HQ 6×4.5
GoPro Hero4 Black 4K
QAV250-CF-VDCP CF Vibration Camera Damping Plate
ImmersionRC 5.8GHz 600mw Audio / Video Transmitter
ImmersionRC 5.8 GHz SpiroNET Antenna Set RHCP (SMA Connector)
FPV Camera CM650
Cool facts about Mini-Copters:
. Their small size allows you to take them just about anywhere. They are easy to transport and travel with.
. The power to weight ratio on the really fast mini-copters is about 8:1.
. Most minis fly on 5″ or 6″ propellers.
. Flight times range from 4-10 minutes.
Team Lumenier is comprised of some of the top FPV pilots in the world. It is an elite group of pilots, hand selected by Lumenier.
One of our original team pilots – and one of the most well known – is “Juz,” as he is known on YouTube. His name is Justin Welander, and he lives in Australia. He was one of the original pioneers in aerobatic FPV.
Charpu (Carlos Puertolas) joined the FPV scene about a year ago and has really progressed quickly. He is now known as one of the best FPV pilots in the world, and continuously pushes the envelope on what is possible with these little machines.
One of the newest team pilots, “Skizto” or Jonathon Davis, joined Team Lumenier earlier this year. He is known for his very fluid and smooth flying, performing flips and rolls seamlessly as he navigates tight quarters.
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Popular minicopters and drones include: