First flight with Finwing Penguin

Finwing PenguinYesterday I got my first flight with the Finwing Penguin we put together in my drone class. It’s an ugly airplane but it sure flies good. I think that had a lot to do with the Pixhawk acting as autopilot. In old style RC, if you got in trouble you let go of the sticks and hoped the airplane had enough altitude to recover on its own. With the Pixhawk, you let go of the sticks and the autopilot puts it straight and level immediately. I kept thinking back to all the planes I might not have crashed if I’d had that feature…

Flying the Finwing Penguin

Flying was almost a non-event. The instructor took it off, took it to altitude, then handed the controller to me. The Pixhawk was in fly-by-wire mode. If I wanted to turn, I just moved the aileron stick in the direction I wanted to turn. The Pixhawk adjusted the elevator automatically to keep the Penguin at the same altitude. If I wanted to change altitude, I just climbed or dived until it was high as I wanted and let go of the stick. The Pixhawk automatically leveled the plane.

After flying it for awhile I gave the controller back to the instructor. Next, he demonstrated something really cool – auto pilot mode. He had a route (“mission” in drone parlance) programmed into the Pixhawk. As soon as he put the Penguin in autopilot mode it started flying the programmed mission. He let it fly the route a few times and turned off the transmitter. On a regular RC airplane, this would have caused the plane to crash. Not this time…

Failsafe

Another nice feature of the Pixhawk is something called failsafe mode. You can program it to make the airplane do things based on certain conditions. In our case, the instructor had programmed the Pixhawk to fly back to the starting (takeoff) point and then fly circles at 50′ altitude if radio signal was lost.

Sure enough, as soon has he turned off the transmitter the Penguin turned itself around and flew until it was directly overhead. Then it started flying in circles. After proving that failsafe worked as intended, he put the Finwing back in manual mode and landed it because the battery was getting low. He knew it was low thanks to telemetry, but that’s another post…

My own Finwing Penguin

I liked it so much that I ordered my own Finwing Penguin kit. You have 2 choices if you want one. You can order direct from Finwing or from Ready Made RC. It costs a little more to order from Ready Made RC but shipping is faster. I chose faster shipping. If you do order from ready Made RC, make sure to specify the M2815 motor and 60 amp ESC. The M2220 motor with 40 amp speed controller is underpowered for the Penguin in my opinion.

The other fixed wing I looked at was the Volantex Ranger EX. It’s about the same size as the Finwing Penguin and costs about the same. It’s better looking than the Penguin and has an ABS fuselage instead of foam like the Penguin. I decided on the Finwing because I figure the foam will be easier to modify or repair than ABS plastic.

It only took 3 days to arrive and I can’t wait to get started on it (still need to finish my F450 first…)

Building a drone with my son

building a drone with my sonFor Christmas this year, my son wants a cell phone. He’s not getting one. I decided to get him a learning opportunity instead. Two years ago he wanted a drone, so we got him a Holystone Universe Explorer. He likes flying it but it’s kind of worn out only after a few hours. It’s OK for a cheap drone but there are some things that aren’t so great. Flight time is only 5 or 6 minutes. It has a camera, but there isn’t a video down link so shooting pictures is shooting blind. It uses brushed motors that wear out after about after only 4 or 5 hours. At least with the short flight times that makes about 50 flights. It won’t hold a steady hover, I think because one of the motors is starting to go. So I decided for Christmas this year, I’ll be building a drone with my son.

Another F450 drone

I decided we’re going to build an F450. I already know how to build an F450 thanks to my drone class. It’s big enough to be easy to work on. Lots of companies make F450 parts and kits so repairs are cheap. It can lift enough to haul a decent camera or an LED bling kit. It’s easy to mount an FPV system. Flight times are about 12 minutes with a 5000 mAH battery. The best part is there’s room for an APM flight controller and GPS so we can fly autonomous missions.

The other kit I looked at was a 250 class quad. It was pretty tempting because it came with a camera and it’s small enough to fly inside. OK, border line small enough… It was also cheaper than the F450 kit I picked. For this project, the advantages of the F450 won out.

The half priced drone…

My F450 is a DJI kit. It was $190 for the kit and another $204 for the Pixhawk with GPS and telemetry. The F450 clone kit I bought for my son was only $122. It comes with an APM 2.8 flight controller (predecessor to the PixHawk) and an earlier GPS module. It doesn’t include a telemetry system, so that was another $39 from HobbyKing. Total cost for DJI F450/PixHawk set: $394. Total cost for clone F450/APM 2.8 set (including telemetry): $161. That’s actually a lot less than half price compared to the DJI…

Building a drone with my son

I chose the clone lit on purpose. I know that the DJI kit goes together without any problems. For all I know, the clone kit will, too. If you read through drone reviews on Amazon though, you find lots of complaints about problems with clone kits. Some people think that’s a problem, but it’s why I got my son a clone F450 instead of the DJI kit. No, I’m not heartless…

I figure if the clone kit gives us problems, it will be an opportunity. He can learn about troubleshooting. I can show him how to resolve issues with a vendor. I can teach him about cheapness vs. quality. We can learn problem solving skills. He can learn patience. In fact the more I think about it, the more I hope we DO have problems. Either way my kid will have a good flying drone when we’re done. And anything is better than getting him a cell phone. He already spends too much damn time online…

More about radios

FlySky FS-i6I’ve been finding all kinds of cool things since my last post. So much in fact that I need to write some more about radios. I especially want to talk about the FlySky FS-i6 and the Turnigy 9X. The FS-i6 is a 6 channel radio and the 9x is an 8 channel unit (in spite of the ‘9’ in the name). Both are 2.4 GHz radios with frequency hopping spread spectrum (FHSS) technology and both get mixed reviews but mostly good. What stands out to me is the price – the FS-i6 is only $49.95 (Banggood.com) and the Turnigy is $69.64 (Hobbyking.com). I have the Turnigy in hand and the FlySky on the way (I spent an extra $3.00 and ordered from GetFPF.com so I wouldn’t have to wait a month for shipping from China). If you like to tinker, this really is the Golden Age of RC flying…

Turnigy X9

My first cheap radio is the Turnigy X9. I bought this radio for 2 reasons. The first was price. Less than $65 for an 8 channel radio that manages to get good reviews? I have to try this. Yes I know it’s probably no Futaba… Price was only one reason though. I also liked the idea of being able to modify it. No way I’m going to hack up my Taranis, but a $65 radio? Why not? The only major issue I found in reviews is the holder for the transmitter batteries. Supposedly the can lose contact with the batteries, which makes the Tx shut off while you’re flying. I’m replacing the stock AA battery holder with a nice 9.9V, 1500 mAh LiFe battery I got from HobbyKing. I might also replace the LCD with a back lit one.

The X9 comes with a Turnigy iA8 8 channel Rx that supports sbus. That will make it nice for hooking it up to a mini Pixhawk on my CrashTestHobby 4 channel Pelican that I want to build into a many fixed wing drone. I’m really looking forward to testing this radio.

FlySky FS-i6

My second cheap radio is the FlySky FS-i6 6 channel radio. Ordered this based on a tip from CrashTestHobby. I don’t have this radio in hand yet, but I’m looking forward to testing it. It will go in my 3 channel Pelican. For $52.99 it was hard impossible to resist. One strange thing about the FS-i6 is that it runs on only 4 AA batteries. Most Tx’s that use AA’s use 8. Don’t know what that will do for Tx time, and a LiFe or LiPo pack won’t fit the battery compartment. Guess I’ll wait and see…

 

Radios, then and now

vintage craft rc radioI bought my first radio control system in 1977. It was a Kraft KP-4A, the best I could afford as a 7th grader. If I’d had more money I’d have bough a real Kraft radio or maybe a Proline. If I’d had less, I’d have been stuck with a Cirrus (Hobby Lobby) or Tower Hobbies system. But I had my Kraft radio, even if it wasn’t compatible with the upscale Kraft radios. It cost $204.00 plus shipping. Keep that price in mind later…

A Full House radio control system…

One of the big attractions (besides being a Kraft) was that it came as a full house system. That means it included 4 servos and NiCad batteries for both the transmitter and receiver. It also had open gimbals (plastic, not metal like the “real” Kraft radios). In those days, cheaper radios often used AA disposable batteries instead of NiCads, only included 2 servos, had closed gimbals, etc. The day I got it was one of the happiest days of my childhood.

A heavy radio control system…

As much as I loved my KP-4A, it was heavy. The battery (550 mAH) weighed a whopping 6 ounces. The servos (KP-14) were 1.6 ounces each, and the 4 channel receiver was 1.7 ounces. Add another half ounce for the switch/power harness and a 2 channel flight pack was almost 3/4 of a pound. Besides the weight, everything was BIG. It barely fit into my Airtronics Q-Tee and it was definitely too heavy for the Q-Tee.

In spite of the size and weight, I managed to get it stuffed into my Q-Tee and it actually flew successfully. After 4 or 5 flights the cabane struts broke and I couldn’t figure out a way to fix them without adding more weight to an airplane that was already too heavy. I put the Q-Tee on a shelf and built a Midwest Little Stick. The KP-4A was moving to a new home, a real Full House (4 channel) ship. Unfortunately it was also on the heavy side for the Little Stick, which never flew very good.

After the Little Stick, I went back to 2 channels and put the radio into a Bridi Soar Birdy glider. In spite of the heavy radio, the Soar Birdy actually flew really good. I wish I still had it, but I sold it many years ago when I lost interest in RC for awhile…

Kraft KP-4A vs today’s radios…

My KP-4A came with a full flight pack – receiver, 4 servos, NiCad batteries, and switch harness. It even came with a few molded plastic servo trays and a battery charger. It worked in the 72 MHz radio band, and there were only a few frequencies available. Frequency control was a big issue at RC flying sites. If someone turned on a transmitter on the same channel as yours while you were flying, you could probably say goodbye to your airplane. All of that cost $204 in 1977, which is about equal to $830 in today’s dollars. I recentl bought a new radio for $215, which would have cost about $53 in 1977 dollars…

Of course, all is not equal between the two. My Taranis radio only included the transmitter (Tx), receiver (Rx), and Tx battery. No Rx battery, no switch harness, no servos, and no battery charger. There is actually a really good reason it doesn’t include them, but I’ll add the cost of those items to make the comparison fair. I paid $22 for 2 batteries, $45 for a battery charger, $30 for 4 servos, and $15 for an electronic speed controller/BEC. Total money spent: $327, or about $80 in 1977 dollars.

For my “$80” I got a 9 channel radio that’s expandable to 16 channels. It operates on the 2.4 GHz band using some magic called SSFH (spread spectrum frequency hopping). Sounds fancy but all it means is that interference from other transmitters isn’t an issue.

First time flying an F450 drone

We finished our team built DJI Flame Wheel last Wed, so today we got to fly it. We were flying indoors in manual mode because we couldn’t get a good GPS signal. I was kind of nervous but I shouldn’t have been. Turns out that flying a quadcopter is a lot easier than flying an RC airplane. Amazing what advanced electronics can do for you. I can’t wait to finish mine and get it in the air.

Our team built Flame Wheel uses the DJI Naza flight control system with a Futaba radio. I’m using a Holybro Pixhawk control system and FrSky Turnigy radio. Setup for the class build was easy. I don’t know how hard mine will be to get going since I can’t find much documentation. From what I’ve read, the Pixhawk is a lot more complicated to set up than the Naza but is a lot more versatile.

Sometimes I just can’t control myself…

I should really cut up my credit cards. I haven’t even finished my F450 and I’m already buying parts for my next projects. The first is a DJI F550 Hexacopter. Instead of buying the ARF kit I just got the frame. I also ordered custom motors (T Motor 3110 series) and I’ll be running T Motor carbon fiber props. My reason for going with a hexacopter instead of a bigger quad is camera safety. If you lose a motor on a quadcopter it’s going to crash. The idea of crashing a $400 GoPro Hero 5 doesn’t appeal to me very much, so I decided on the extra safety of the hexacopter.

My second project is a pair of CrashTestHobby Pelican RC airplanes. I got both the polyhedral and aileron versions of the kit. The poly wing is for learning to fly RC (I’ve done it in the past, but it was a lonnnggg time ago). The aileron version will hopefully become a mini fixed wing drone with full avionics. I also want to get a Finwing Pelican since that’s what the class is using for fixed wing, but my wife is starting to question how much I’m spending. That one might have to wait…

First day of drone class…

Today was the first day of my drone class. We’re building the DJI F450 quadcopter first, then a fixed wing. We’re working in teams of 3, and each team also has a mentor. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get along with our team mentor. I won’t get into that though. It also turns out I didn’t need to buy my own kit because the school has kits for us to build.

Don’t tell my wife!!!

We don’t get to keep the school’s kit, so maybe I really did need to buy my own. The school’s F450 is a little different than mine. My kit came with 4 identical motors with normal threads on the prop shaft, with a nut to hold the prop. The school’s kits have 2 motors labelled CW (for clockwise) and 2 labelled CCW (no, not concealed carry CCW, counter-clockwise). The only difference is the CW have left hand threads on the prop shafts, and the props are threaded (no separate nut). School version is more idiot-proof, but mine is more flexible – especially if I decide to use the parts in other projects.

Radio – and more radio…

The school has Futaba 8 channel radios for us to use. I’m a big fan of Futaba, but for my radio I chose the Taranis X9D. I also ordered an L9R receiver for my fixed wing drone. Then I got to thinking about really long range and decided to get an EzUHF Tx module and matching Rx. Now I wish I could afford a second Taranis Tx to make a dedicated 433 MHz system. School avionics is all DJI but I chose the PixHawk for mine.

One thing at a time? No Way!!!

Now that I’ve barely started work on the F450 I’m already thinking fixed wing. At first I wanted a Great Planes J3 Cub, but after a lot of – ahem – research I’ve decided to go with a CrashTestHobby Storm Chaser. It’s big, flies easy, and the epp foam is bomb crash proof. It’s ugly, but easy to fly is more important right now. I can always build a better looking fuselage later. Those are easy, it’s wings that are hard. Of course I’ll need to get a second PixHawk for it…

Back to reality…

There is so much cool stuff for drones/RC planes that it’s easy to get carried away. Since I can’t really afford another Tx and PixHawk, I’ll really just be moving the radio and avionics to the Storm Chaser when the time comes. But I do have a second radio…

While I was cleaning out the garage this weekend, I managed to find all the pieces of my old JR 631 system. It’s FM, which means potential interference and a long string Rx antenna, but heck, it’s a working radio system. I won’t put it in anything expensive, but I have an almost finished Airtronics Q-Tee and a huge box of balsa. Now if I could just get my son interested in this stuff…

It’s been awhile…

My last post was in 2009, so it’s been 8 years since I’ve done anything with model airplanes. When I last posted (old site is archived here), I’d just gotten 2 Sterling 1/2A control line kits – the Beginner Series Cherokee and Thunder Jet. Then “life happened,” I got busy with other things (like trying to build a business), my dad passed away, I got heavily involved in shooting sports, etc, so I didn’t have any time or money for playing with toy airplanes.

Every time I’d go out to the garage I’d see all my old airplane stuff and remember how much fun I used to have… so this year I decided to take the plunge – I signed up for a drone class at the local Community College. OK, I know that’s RC, not control line. In fairness to me, RC was my original interest, C/L came along much later. Besides I’m not giving up on Control Line, just branching out so to speak.

My first drone is the DJI F450 drone kit, mainly because that’s what the class uses for the multi rotor build. We’re also doing a fixed wing, but I don’t like either of the class options so the instructor said I can build whatever I want as long as it has all the drone controls in it, and I can finish it in time. I’ll probably build a Great Planes J3 Cub kit.

Picking a flight controller was easy – the PixHawk is open source hardware AND software, so I went with that. For the radio, I spent a couple weeks trying to decide what Futaba radio to get, then decided to get the Taranis X9D Plus. It’s a long story that I hope to write about soon. In the mean time, it’s good to be back into aeromodeling. One thing I really need to do is migrate to WordPress to make this thing easier to keep up…