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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.