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Multi-Rotors, First-Person View, And The Hardware You Need

Busting Through The Jargon

Drones regularly make news headlines, presented as controversial tools of death and destruction by mainstream media. Increasingly evident, however, is the presence of innocent and enthusiastic drone hobbyists. A market explosion is occurring, and the ability to fly and observe from small craft remotely is thrilling indeed. This technology is readily available, so let's dive in and define some of the concepts and components.

Look back a decade or two. Were you ever into model rockets? Remote-controlled aircraft? If you're like us, the same inclination to build and tweak your own PC compels you to geek out over automotive technology, root your phone, and marvel at our achievements in space. Although few of us will ever pilot our own aircraft, we still love to dream about defying gravity.

We enjoyed our time with two-stroke engines, balsa, and epoxy. It was fun flying our first trainer aircraft in patterns from the ground. But now we want to get into multi-rotors, flying from the "cockpit", and more advanced capabilities truly worthy of analysis on Tom's Hardware. It's a great time to get your feet wet with the hobby, and this first story will tell you everything you need to know before you fill a shopping cart with the gear for your maiden voyage.

Let's cover some definitions.

FPV (first-person view) is the umbrella term given to remotely-controlled vehicles piloted via a video feed from the craft itself. The opposing idiom is LOS (line-of-sight), which refers to more conventionally standing at a distance and manipulating whatever it is you're controlling based on what you can see from there. The two approaches have unique advantages and challenges, though you obviously have more freedom to roam when you aren't constrained to line-of-sight. Boats, cars, and planes can all be controlled through first-person view. At least for the foreseeable future, however, we're focusing on multi-rotors. 

These are airborne craft supported by more than two propellers (props). The most common form of multi-rotor is the quadcopter, naturally sporting four props. Other familiar configurations include tricopters and hexacopters. Usually, rotors are arranged symmetrically and in the same horizontal plane.

When multi-rotors are flown using an FPV system, they are classified as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs). The informal term most commonly used is drones, although the hobby generally prefers avoiding that label to maintain an appropriate disparity with large-scale drones used in combat.

For those who can't build their own UAV, the DJI Phantom Aerial UAV Drone Quadcopter is a nice RTF system. It is specifically designed to hold a GoPro camera. However, WiFi streaming from the camera is not possible as it may interfere with the remote control.

As you shop for your first multi-rotor (and remote-controlled vehicles in general), notice that abbreviations are used to convey the amount of assembly you should expect to do. RTF means “ready to fly”. Theoretically, you should be able to open a RTF box, connect the power, and go. You should still pay attention to what's included, though, because it's sometimes assumed that you own certain items, such as batteries and a transmitter. The A in ARTF stands for “almost”; this is used loosely, and may even mean that all the parts are included, but complete assembly is needed.

With this basic knowledge, we can start talking about what it takes to build an FPV multi-rotor, and cover some of the decisions you have to make (along with the corresponding costs). Investment is most definitely required in both time and cash, but the opportunities are seemingly limitless. And being able to fly above the treetops, miles away, seeing sights you never imagined, proves reward enough.

  • gio2vanni86
    Great article, and quite an amazing beautiful video shot at the end. Been seeing these around, and have really loved the idea of filming at a elevated level. I actually do hope you guys do more of these. I am bookmarking this for future reference. Thank you.
    Reply
  • Joshua M Below
    I'd really like to see build costs.
    Reply
  • freiss
    Darn it, now you've piqued my interest. :-)
    As stated below, a rundown on build costs would be nice. Hey, you could even do a series of FPV articles akin to the PC builds...budget, mid-range, and enthusiast!
    Reply
  • Steveymoo
    So, how much would the components cost to lift a heavy DSLR with some decent glass? I is pretty curious.
    Reply
  • es0
    It would be awesome if you did build guides for different aircraft. I have begun building different ground based vehicles using arduinos and Pi's and would love to take to the skys next!
    Reply
  • thechief73
    Excellent article, nicely explained. Also glad to see someone in the media make a clarification from drones and multi-copters.

    FYI, DO NOT CALL THESE DRONES: Drones are for military use to kill people. These are, as the authors title states: multi-copters, multi-rotors, or RC model aircraft. By using the word "Drone" you give all the uneducated fear mongers and the law writers canon fodder to regulate this hobby into oblivion before it really gets a chance to take off. Some states and other countries have already passed laws that almost or outright make this hobby a CRIME!

    I have been in the hobby about a year now and I have to say it is so far one of the most fun and rewarding things I have done. I will be doing this until I no longer have the means to do so. I highly recommend anyone that is interested in joining the hobby to buy a Hubsan X4 or one of the many similar RTF mini-quad models. This is widley regarded as the best way to learn how to fly a multi-rotor.

    http://www.youtube.com/user/juz70/videos - not my channel, just really neat.

    So, how much would the components cost to lift a heavy DSLR with some decent glass? I is pretty curious.
    Just a few options: DJI S1000, SkyJib-8 Ti-QR, and CINESTAR-8.
    It would be awesome if you did build guides for different aircraft. I have begun building different ground based vehicles using arduinos and Pi's and would love to take to the skys next!
    Check out youtube, there are thousands of guide videos on the subject.
    Reply
  • HKILLER
    i would highly recommend these 2 for those who that don't want to go through the trouble of the build and already have an smart device such as iphone or android ones...
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16886113011&cm_re=parrot-_-86-113-011-_-Product
    and this cheaper model of it....
    http://www.newegg.com/Product/Product.aspx?Item=N82E16814998083&cm_re=parrot-_-14-998-083-_-Product
    Reply
  • rmirwin2
    There is one other regulating authority which is important to keep in mind for those seriously interested. In the US that would be the FCC, since transmission of quality RC and video signals over the available frequencies requires a Technician's class Amateur radio license. Many will find that a relatively easy thing to get that will also maximize the enjoyment of the hobby. Check in with ARRL.org, where you can get everything you need.
    Reply
  • bluescrn
    Great intro to multicopters. But for beginners, it's best not to start out with a serious $500+ quadcopter, as there's a pretty good chance that you'll wreck it on it's first flight...

    Do yourself a favour and get a 'toy grade' mini quadcopter first, such as the Hubsan X4/Q4 Nano or similar. These are cheap, loads of fun, can be flown indoors, are much safer than the big ones, and are a great way to learn to fly a multicopter. Spend a couple of hours playing with one of these, and you'll significantly reduce the time/money spent on crash repairs when you start flying a more serious multicopter.
    Reply
  • bluescrn
    Oh, and if you go down the ready-to-fly route (or even if you self-build), try not to be the next idiot losing control of a DJI Phantom in a location where they shouldn't have been flying at all ( e.g. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_U8iHn_2l0U )

    Stick to quiet and safe flying locations, be aware of wind, line-of-sight, and possible sources of RF interference. And don't rely too much on GPS/return-to-home - you might not have a GPS lock when you need it (or it might not have had a lock at take-off, to determine the home position!)
    Reply