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Flight Controllers: The Processor Behind Every Multi-Rotor Flight

Multi-Rotors, First-Person View, And The Hardware You Need
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Multi-rotors are unique in the world of R/C hobbyists. Usually, when it comes to controlling a model boat or plane, the pilot has absolute, precise control over the motor. A nudge of the throttle translates to a proportional increase in RPM. The same is true of input to the rudders, ailerons, flaps, and other parts involved in changing speed or direction.

The distinction with multi-rotors, whether or not advantageous, is that no human is capable of controlling the rotational speeds of three or more motors simultaneously with enough precision to balance a craft in the air. This is where flight controllers come into play.

A flight controller (FC) is a small circuit board of varying complexity. Its function is to direct the RPM of each motor in response to input. A command from the pilot for the multi-rotor to move forward is fed into the flight controller, which determines how to manipulate the motors accordingly.

The majority of flight controllers also employ sensors to supplement their calculations. These range from simple gyroscopes for orientation to barometers for automatically holding altitudes. GPS can also be used for auto-pilot or fail-safe purposes. More on that shortly.

With a proper flight controller setup, a pilot’s control inputs should correspond exactly to the behavior of the craft. Flight controllers are configurable and programmable, allowing for adjustments based on varying multi-rotor configurations. Gains or PIDs are used to tune the controller, yielding snappy, locked-in response. Depending on your choice of flight controller, various software is available to write your own settings.

Many flight controllers allow for different flight modes, selectable using a transmitter switch. An example of a three-position setup might be a GPS lock mode, a self-leveling mode, and a manual mode. Different settings can be applied to each profile, achieving varying flight characteristics.

Getting To Know Flight Controllers

DJI, arguably the dominant player in multi-rotors, produces two models. The Naza-M Lite is a high-quality, easy-to-set up unit with GPS and fail-safe capacities. Its Naza-M V2 is virtually identical, but includes a handful of additional features, such as the ability to daisy chain DJI expansions (a Bluetooth module, for example). Also, it allows up to eight motors, rather than six.

DJI Naza Lite flight controllerDJI Naza Lite flight controller

Multiple flight modes are available: GPS lock, altitude lock, orientation mode (moving forward always happens away from take-off point, regardless of craft rotation), and a non-stabilized manual mode.

The Nazas are the ultimate hobby flight controllers, with a multitude of features, optimized ease of use, and relatively straightforward setup. They may, however, no be the best choice for every multi-rotor. Let's get into why.

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