Frame review: VH qav210-style

In my experience with FPV freestyle, the frame of a quad is not very important in terms of flight characteristics. So long as it has a reasonable shape and weight distribution (particularly top-mounted battery), a frame will fly fine. When buying a frame, I care mostly about the following:

  • Price
  • Durability
  • Ease of maintenance

So far my go-to frame has been the qav 210 clone in its many incarnations. You cannot beat the price ($20 or less). It’s a pretty simple frame: unibody bottom plate, six standoffs, top plate. The main drawback has been durability. The plates break relatively easy, which isn’t a big deal to me because they are cheap and and easy to replace.

I recently found this “qav210 style” frame from Valuehobby which is almost a clone of the Astro X X5. The main difference is the unibody bottom plate, which I much prefer. At $20 it was an extremely good deal. It fixes the durability issues of the qav210 with no drawbacks that I can think of. See my video review for more.

KISS ESCs fire with new firmware

I have been flying KISS 24A ESCs for a while, and they have performed really well. However, I recently upgraded a couple of my quads to version 110b RC7. Since then, I have lost three ESCs to fires. Not sure if this is just bad luck or if it is related to the firmware update, but I would stay clear of it just in case. I will be downgrading my remaining ESCs to the previous release.

This seemingly innocuous landing cost me two burnt ESCs and motors.

Getting Better at FPV Freestyle

There are two kinds of people in the world of FPV: those who fly miniquads, and those who don’t. Among those of us who fly miniquads, there are again two kinds of people: those who primarily race, and those who mostly freestyle (like me). I’m sure you could keep zooming into subcultures forever, as XKCD once put it:

I’ll stop at this level, and define what I mean by freestyle for the purpose of this post. My interpretation of freestyle is to fly in a way that generates a pleasant HD video experience (either as the product, or as a side effect). To me, the only way I can enjoy someone else’s freestyle is by watching their footage. Obviously many will disagree, and that’s fine. This is about getting better at the thing I just defined, call it what you may.

I’ve been trying to improve at this for the past few months, and I believe it’s working. Here are some of the things I did and still do:

  • Record every single flight of mine with an HD camera whenever possible. This is because the only way I have to analyze my flights is by watching them on the screen, sometimes over and over. I see things that I missed when flying all the time, or moves that seemed graceful at the time but look awkward on video.
  • Watch as much flight footage as possible, immediately after a flying session. While the flights are still fresh in my memory, I want to learn from them. Did I repeat myself too much? Could I have tried something different? Did something not go the way I wanted it? Why?
  • Practice the same move over and over for the duration of a pack. For example, a few months ago I had a hard time performing powerloops consistently. This type of practice helped me quite a bit.
  • Analyze videos that I like. What makes them interesting? Are there tricks or moves I could not do? Do I understand how they are performed?

What works for you? Let me know in the comments, or in my Youtube channel.




The Drone and the Sequoia – Epilogue

Part I and Part II if you’d like to catch up. This is part III.

Day 5

Grandpoobah (the owner of the cannon) wanted to give it a shot himself, so he came over to Oakland with a more powerful electric pump, supposedly capable of 180 psi. We worked as a team: he held the cannon and aimed it, I pulled the trigger (a two-position gas valve requiring a quick smack). We were getting better with every attempt, but unfortunately the $20 pump from Amazon gave out after eight tries. The smell of burnt plastic signaled its quick demise. At that point I decided to give up on the cannon.

I went to the Arborist subreddit (not to be confused with r/trees) and explained my situation. As luck would have it, a redditor who lives nearby offered to come take a look and maybe climb the tree for me.

Day 6

At 3pm on Monday, I met with Chris at the tree. An arborist by trade, he brought a ton of specific gear for climbing the most challenging trees one could find. Super nice guy, it turned out that he’s also a rock climber who climbs at the same gym as I.

Chris getting ready to climb

The hardest part for him was throwing his arborist weight into the right branch. I was surprised by his technique; he threw the line by hand about as high as we could go with the fancy air cannon. It took him maybe ten attempts to get the line over the branch he wanted to use as an anchor. He then wiggled it until the weight came down on the other side and tied a rope to the end. Pulled the rope over, tested it to make sure the system wouldn’t give out, and proceeded to ascend.

A few minutes later he made it to where princess Garuda was patiently waiting for her hero to rescue her from the maw of the evil Cth… ok enough with this metaphor.

So high

At 4pm on February 13th, 121 hours after getting stuck, the Garuda was finally down on the ground. Chris did not want any compensation for his ascent so I bought him a case of my favorite beer (thanks so much dude!). I wouldn’t ask him to do this again, so I’m staying clear from those trees until I learn the ropes myself.

The Garuda was intact, ready to fly. Not even the props were damaged. The GoPro was still mostly charged. The battery was down to 0.8V, but I carefully nursed it back to health and it flies just fine (believe it or not).

Out of the tree, ready to fly.

And this concludes the epic of the drone and the sequoia. Moral of the story: arborists are great people and drone enthusiasts should be nice to them!

I’d like to say the Garuda lived happily ever after, but a few days later the Great Garuda Fire of 2017 happened (ESC, camera, canopy and motor perished in it). I fixed it up but I’m still waiting for a new canopy to fly it again.

If you enjoyed this series, check this site often for more adventures. In the meantime, find me on Youtube.

Beginner Quad Build – February 2017 Edition

One of the most frequent questions for those getting into FPV is what to build. People often find old posts or videos, and end up buying overpriced and obsolete components. Here’s a build that I would put together today (Winter 2017) for a friend just getting started.

The frame is the easiest part. When you’re new to FPV you’ll probably crash quite a bit, so you want a frame that will put up with a fair amount of abuse. I’d say 4mm arms are mandatory. My top choice today would be the MRM225. It’s relatively affordable, very spacious (and thus easy to build). If it’s not available (or if you want to spend less) you can go with a cheap frame from Amazon such as the Martian II.

My MRM225

Motors are also relatively easy, and don’t matter that much when you’re getting started. You’ll break them quite a bit too, so perhaps starting cheap is the way to go. You can always update motors later. As of today, Five RTF M2205 motors for about $50 shipped is a very good deal for a beginner (remember, always get at least one spare motor).

The choice of flight controller is very personal, and there are just too many options out there. It’s hard to go wrong with any F3/F4 controller that has the MPU-6000 gyro. A couple options out of many:

Note: Avoid anything with the MPU6500 if you can. It takes work to make it fly well, no reason to get a controller with that gyro today.

ESCs: today I’d say get Blheli_s 30A, preferably Dshot capable because why not. There are lots of choices on the market. The Cicada 30A works well, and I’ve heard good things about the Speedix 30A but I have not tried it yet. Remember, always get a spare if you can because these things break.

FPV Camera: until something much better comes along, I’ll keep recommending the HS1177. It just works, and you can find it for $20 plus shipping.

Video transmitter: you can either go the cheap route and get a Eachine from Banggood, or go with the very best if you can afford it: TBS Unify Pro, TBS Triumph antenna. The first option will get you flying, the second one will give you more flexibility and will last you a while. Anything in between is probably not worth it in my opinion, unless you need a vtx asap because the one you have broke and you want to fly. In that case, you may consider an ET200 on Amazon Prime. Pretty good, I have some of those.

Transmitter / receiver: I prefer FrSky, so I’d say go with a Taranis. For the receiver side, probably the best starter option today is the xm+ if you don’t care for telemetry. If you do want telemetry then get the X4R SB, but I believe it’s easier and more useful to get an OSD instead.

Misc parts: you’ll need a power distribution board, and today there is no point in getting one without 5V and 12V regulators. This one from RTFquads is cheap and works great. If you prefer one with OSD (useful mostly so that you know how your battery is doing, and thus when to land), then the RROSD v2 is a good choice.

Props / batteries: with the motors above you probably don’t want super aggressive props. There are too many prop choices out there, I believe the 5048s would work fine but you may want to start with 5040 props like the HQ durables. It’s always fun to try different props and find the ones you like, so just ask around or search. For batteries I’d get four or five of whatever is a good deal. Decent 1300 mAh 4S packs with a good discharge rate (usually advertised at 60C or more) should cost you no more than $25 each. Look for brands like Bonka, Tattu or Thunderpower.

Happy to answer questions in the comments or on my Youtube channel. Also if you get hooked into this hobby have my blessing: may you always have a fat enough wallet.

The Drone and the Sequoia – Part II

Part I here if you’d like to catch up.

Day 3 – the epic climb attempt

Friday morning I woke up very early and went to the park with a different idea. I took a line-of-sight Falcon 185 quad and tied a thin rope to it. I was able to fly it into the branch right below the Garuda, 75 feet off the ground. It got stuck as well, and after twenty minutes of tugging on the rope I realized that now I had two drones trapped in the tree. I could shake the branch and almost fan the first drone with its leaves. If it had been a ballon instead of a drone it might have moved, but no such luck. Defeated once more, lunch that tasted like failure with a side of bacon.

That afternoon I decided to attempt climbing the goddamn sequoia. I am a decent rock climber, so in theory it should have been another day in the vertical office. My friend Alejandro offered to come give me a belay, so around 3 pm we met in front of the Evil Tree of Cthulhu (as I was calling it by then). We roped up, and I attempted to free climb an overhanging branch. When I was about 15 feet off the deck with my back to the floor, I felt this was not the best idea so I came down. We managed to throw the rope over a branch maybe 20 feet up, and I ascended up with a gri-gri and a prusik knot. I made it to the top of a leaning branch, but the next move freaked me out. I had to grab a thinner vertical branch a few feet above my head and risk a very sketchy fall, so we decided it was best to abort.

Now I had the following in the tree:

  • one FPV drone (the Garuda).
  • one line-of-sight drone (the Falcon 185).
  • two Black Diamond quickdraws and two slings that I’d used to build an anchor.

Clearly things were not moving in the right direction.

Later that evening I went to Target, where I bought a cheap 12-volt pump capable of about 130 psi  to try the next day. I went to bed imagining that the two drones were enduring that wet and cold night together. Keeping each other’s spirits up, not losing hope.

Day 4

The situation was almost comical by now. Rescuing my drones was becoming an obsession. I woke up early and went to the park before breakfast. I decided that I would bring down the tethered drone or cut the rope trying. I pulled like a madman for about an hour, and then those two things happened. The rope got cut at the right spot, and that freed the drone on the other side so it came down.

With the second drone down, I decided to start exploring the tree carefully with another first-person drone. The reason I failed with the first drone, I reasoned, was that I could not see where I was trying to go. Perhaps I could thread the fpv drone like a needle between branches. I successfully managed to go through the tree a few times:

I did not get this drone stuck (minor victory) but I did not manage to thread a rope either because the trailing part would get tangled before I could get to the branch I wanted.

I went home and I rigged an XT60 connector to the electric pump so I could charge it repeatedly with a battery instead of having to walk to my car each time. Back at the park and tried several shots with the cannon, but it was no use. Even though I made the pump go over its limit and overheat, I still could not get the throw weight high enough. By now my wife was very unhappy with my obsession, and the idea of giving up was gaining appeal. This was not to happen though. No drone left behind would be my political slogan (I’d lose but that’s ok).

The next post will conclude this saga. In the meantime, check out my Youtube channel for some intensely interesting flying footage.

The Drone and the Sequoia – A Story of Failure and Persistence (Part I)

I have had drones stuck in trees before. Most of the times I brought them down by hurling available objects up high until I got lucky. A couple of times I had to climb. Once I even had to use a rope and a harness for safety. On February 8th 2017 I finally found my match. This is how it started:

It was a rainy afternoon, and I was driving to one of the usual coffee shops to sit down and try to look busy on my laptop. As I often do, I decided to stop at the park for a quick flight. No warm-up or anything, I went straight into the tall trees to start with a powerloop. Eighteen short seconds later, my waterproofed Garuda was firmly lodged in a branch about 80 feet off the deck. My first impulse was to try to fight my way out of the tree with quick throttle bursts. Quick tip: if you fly Betaflight, set small_angle=180  is mandatory as it lets you arm at any angle (or mid air even).

That did not work. After a few minutes of trying (nothing to lose, really), the battery gave up on me and I resorted to plan B (spoiler: good thing the alphabet has 26 letters).

Plan B: Sticks and stones

Unfortunately there was not much throwable stuff in the park. A few branches and pine cones, that I could not get anywhere close. I drove back home and picked up the first things that I deemed useful: a tennis racket and a few balls, a nerf bow and a few arrows. I suck at tennis, but I still managed to get the balls close enough to the drone in terms of height. I realized that it was useless anyway, because it was relatively deep inside the tree. I could not score a direct hit on it with a tennis ball from the ground, I’d always hit other branches first. The nerf arrows were a no-go. To make it more annoying, the park was muddy and a storm was brewing. I decided to give up for the day, and let my beloved Garuda spend its first night alone. We had a really intense storm that evening. I went back to the park the next morning to see if the wind had done me a solid and blown the drone out. No dice.

Day 2: The compressed air cannon

I posted the situation to the #drone_rescue channel of our regional drone slack. One of our members (grandpoobah) offered me to borrow his “drone retrieval unit”, a compressed air cannon that shoots a 12-ounce weight (supposedly) 100 feet up into the air. On a very rainy Thursday afternoon, I drove to his house in San Francisco to pick it up. He explained the basics to me: pump at least 110 psi into it with a bike pump, stick the weight in there, fire at will. Try to get the weight over the branch where the quad sits, wiggle the line so that it comes down on the other side, shake the branch. Profit. Sounded simple.

It was simple indeed, but not easy. When I got back to the park it was drizzling, and I got to fire a few shots before it got dark. Pumping the cannon with a foot pump was exhausting. The ground was soaking wet, and after a few tries so was I. 110 psi was nowhere near enough; I could get the weight perhaps 60 feet up into the air, not much higher than by slinging it manually. That was still significantly below the drone. Another battle lost, I headed to the nearest Starbucks for a White Chocolate Mocha. As I waited for my drink I went to the bathroom to clean up a bit. In the mirror, I saw my face splattered with dry mud. It reminded me of Derek Zoolander after a day at the coal mine, except for the ridiculously good looking part.

[To be continued]

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