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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