Written on Sunday, September 20, 2020
Table of Content
- Drone classes
- Hardware you need
- The skill levels
- The cool parts
- Bottom line
I become addicted to flying a drone at the beginning of 2020. I like the
idea since the first DJI showed in the news years ago. It was very expensive
and big. But prices go down and the drones become smaller and just easier to
use. They are all designed for videography. And it's cool when you travel a
lot and visit awesome sites. But when you live in a city like me a classic
drone is hardly usable. An now we are facing the restrictions that will
prevent ppl from flying them over the other ppl. I also don't travel that
much. For those reasons I never bought one. I wanted it as anyone but don't
have a real reason to use it.
That time I did not know anything about custom drones. They are made mostly
for racing. Hence the name that sticks to them. And those are way more
interesting. Technologyimprove to the level that racing drones become very
small and cheap. I watched a few videos how ppl racing in the coffeeshop
under tables and chairs and over lamps under the ceiling. This looked
amazing. The best part was the live video feed in goggles. I was ready to
buy my first starter kit - EMAX TinyHawk RTF.
China's delivery took some time. But it finally arrived and I was super
excited. Flying a racing drone is way different and harder than flying DJI
type of doing. So the first days were constant crashes and learning how to
not hit the ceiling right after takeoff. After a week the first challenge
was to fly from room to room. It seems like an easy task but it's not for
a new pilot. And that's the whole point. I was hooked because it requires
leaning and rewards you at every step. And there is a lot to learn and a
hell lot of steps to take.
Racing drones are mostly known for those big and dangerous beasts that
require a big chunk of a battery. In reality, all our hobby drones are micro
drones. The normal-sized drone is a military airplane that just doesn't have
a pilot in it. This micro category is divided into drone classes. Those are
invented by the community and have loosely defined definitions. But that's
fine. It is just to make life easier for discussions and finding information
about the given drone family.
The most common is the "5-inch" class. Maybe also named "6s". One says about
propellers size other about the battery cells count. Big drones need big
batteries. Those are packed in a series of cells. As I mentioned those quads
are very dangerous. Putting a finger in the rotating blades will cut it in a
split second. What you gain is speed and power to have a GoPro mounted on
them. With bigger antennas and better electronics range is also wider. They
are not cheap and require a lot of manual maintenance. Not for a newbie.
Another group of drones is named "Toothipics". These measure around 3" and
runs on 2-3s batteries. They are way smaller and lighter. Are easy to carry
around. Still powerful to do all kinds of tricks. But instead of GoPro, all
they can have is a tiny Insta360 Go. Most pilots do not use the second
camera as those are mostly for training and freestyle in the backyard or a
park. The name was given by a kebabfpv who first build such a quad.
Third, the smallest class is known as "Whoop". From a TinyWhoop drone
invented by Jesse Perkins. For some time it was the only such small quad.
It was very cheap and safe to fly over people. Now there are many more to
choose and everyone hijacked this name as a new category. This is the best
choice for a first FPV drone. There are many ready to fly (RTF) packs for a
relatively low price to choose like EMAX TinyHawk. They run on 1s batteries.
This makes them unpowered. For flying in very tight terrain as an apartment,
it's exactly the idea. This also helps new pilots get used to flying. You
can fly outside but it will be not good for many tricks and wind will become
a problem. But it is still super fun at the beginning.
To fly FPV Drones you need three basic components: a drone, radio
controller, and a pair of goggles. Also batteries for all of them, spare
propeller, etc. But those main three are the most essential. You'll swap
batteries or propellers a lot but stick with the goggles and radio for a
The drone part is obvious. But the other to are mostly ignored by the
regular people. And those are as important as the drone itself.
Most cheap video drones use your phone/tablet as a steering device. Touch
screens are the worst thing to use for super-precise steering. What you need
is a (very) good manual controller. Each controller has two sticks and
operates in mode 2 - left stick controls yaw and throttle, right roll, and
pitch. Those are the most important parts. If there is an option, take one
that uses HAL sensors. Some Chinese controllers are not that expensive and
use HAL sensors like Jumper T12 or T18. I highly recommend them. Using a
cheaper, toy-like controller will result in bad flying. This is the first
upgrade you should make.
Goggles are your virtual eyes. You can fly without them in LOS (Line Of
Sight). It means flying around you as far as you can clearly see the drone.
It's still fun to do but it's nothing compared to the FPV with goggles on
your head. Professional goggles are very, very expensive. It's the most
expensive part of the FPV hobby. But there are cheaper options. What's the
difference between them? Mostly ergonomics and features. I personally still
use cheap box goggles that are big and bulky without andy DVR on board.
But the video quality is basically the same as it's all analog PAL/NTSC. You
can't go higher than that. Start with cheap ones and upgrade when you're
ready to dive into the hobby.
I invented the 5-level hierarchy for a typical drone pilot. From complete
noob to a pro licensed sports star.
You don't know anything about the drones. You know they exist and can fly.
You have all the hardware, the quad is ready to fly. You crash each time
seconds after takeoff. You need to learn everything.
You fly in stab/horizon mode. Indoors. You can takeoff a hoover for some
time and move around a little bit. You crash after few seconds after
finishing any maneuver.
You fly in stab/horizon mode. Indoors. You can fly from room to room and get
back. It takes time but you can avoid crashes on known paths. You learned
the knowledge of moving the sticks very delicately and don't panic when
something goes out of plan. You repaired your drone (physically).
You fly in stab/horizon mode. Indoors and outdoors. You go outside and can
fly around the trees. You crash a few times per pack. You rescued a crashed
drone from the tree using turtle mode. You squashed the last juice from the
first battery packs and needed a replacement.
You fly in air/rate mode. Mostly outdoors. You learned the rate mode and a
few basic tricks. You crash once a few packs. You can hit a small gap in a
tree. You own more than one drone. You know exactly what each part of the
drone works and what upgrades/replacements you want to do. You killed at
last one quad.
You fly in air/rate mode. Mostly outdoors. You start in a race. You practice
individual tricks. You start to train racing. You place gates on the grass.
You were on at last one race with prizes.
This is the last level as you can only be better at anything you already
learned. There is no new type of skill to acquire. You spend another 90% of
the time to become a master.
Keeping the quadcopter in the air and steering it is a very difficult task.
That's why almost all the drones are driven by computers. Especially the
commercial like DJI is making. It needs to be easy and safe to fly. They
have many sensors and systems for obstacle avoidance. Pilots do not steer
the engines. The pilot gives orders to the drone computer that he wants to
fly forward with a given speed, take a turn or stop. Stopping is
particularly important because it's way harder than most peoples imagine.
Racing quads works a little differently. There is still a computer that runs
all the motors but there is little help. The pilot is deciding how much and
how fast the drone should rotate in a given axis. In reality, there is not
even a "forward" nor "stop" action. It's just a pitch rotation.
Example. As a pilot you push the stick forward, wait for a second and go
back to the center. A computer-guided drone will fly forward by pitching
down and increase the throttle. Then after that second it will pitch up, use
the throttle to slow the forward movement, and then pitch to the horizon and
adjust the throttle to hover. Racing drones will pitch down and the drone
will fly forward but also decrease altitude. There is no stopping so it will
just pitch back and drift.
If you understand that difference now we can get back to the most important
thing. Racing quads have two modes to control those axis rotations.
Horizon / Stab mode
In this mode stick movement control how much rotate the aircraft. Exactly as
in the example. If the pilot moves the stick in some direction the drone
will rotate the same amount. When the stick is centered the drone will also
center. Another benefit of this mode is that the computer helps with keeping
the drone aligned with the horizon. That way it's easier to fly and it is
used mostly for indoor flying. But this is very limiting.
Acro / Rate / Normal mode
This mode is where the fun begins. It's super hard to learn at first. It's
just so different that our brain needs to get used to it. But when it does
it's the most freedom and smooth way to fly. So what's all about it? The
stick positions define how fast should quad rotates ina given axis. There is
zero assistance from the computer.
For example, you do not keep the stick forward to fly forward it will just
keep the drone rotating - pitching slow or fast. Pushing the stick fully
forward and keeping it in that position will result in 360 rolls. Until it
crashes. To move forward you move the stick a little bit and go back to the
center. This way the drone will pitch a little bit and stay that way. You
also need to add throttle to not hit the ground. With the right amount of
throttle, it will fly forward with too much it will fly up and forward. And
it will do this until you correct position by moving the stick back the same
amount to pitch back. But if the craft gets the momentum it will drift
forward for some time. To really stop it you need to pitch up to use engine
force to slow and then in the right moment pitch down to the horizon. If you
do this too late it will start to fly backward... It does not feel like fun
and it is definitely not for a beginner.
In both modes the throttle management works the same way - just changes the
motors speed. In commercial drones, this stick controls the altitude of the
As you can see flying racing drones is fun and challenging at the same time.
Using small whoop you can explore your apartment like never before. See it
from the view of a fly. Build tracks from household stuff like chairs and
cardboard boxes. Then taking it outside to the garden or near the park is
another level of excitement. Racing between trees and branches, chasing
birds, looking at the neighborhood from above. Looking at yourself from all
Finally when you learn acro mode and just start to "feel" the aircraft. Then
you become free. The pure feeling of flying whenever you want at any angle
You are only blocked by your own reflex and skills.
To this day I love to just go in the air and fly around. Without any tricks,
hitting small gaps, or trying to get the fastest lap. Just be there and fly
like a bird. For me, it is an act of meditation. It's hard to describe to
someone who never experiences it. Looking at videos and flying yourself in
the area you think you know very well is on another level.
Know what OOBE (Out Of Body Experience) is? Well, FPV is just like that.
You can look at yourself and just fly in places you'll never be able to be.
I think this is why it's so addicting.
Not that important but still a perk is just a fact that you have a drone.
For many people, it will be a status symbol. Definitely a cool gadget.
Strangers stop nearby when I'm flying just to look and comment. And kids
love this stuff. When wearing a goggle with pointing antennas and a big
radio controller with many switches you look like form dystopian cyberpunk
There is fun and all. But it's also a good exercise for your mind. You will
sharpen your reaction time, spatial awareness, and being calm in stressful
situations. In the beginning, you will lack all of those and crash. Training
FPV is literally training your brain. You will exceed those skills thanks to
this hobby. It will help you on the road while biking or driving.
Training outside will force you to take fresh air and find new exciting
places to fly. For me, it's a reason to leave the apartment. Each journey
now a quest to find that perfect spot to ripp. If you're like me and like to
spend a lot of time behind the computer everything that encourages me to
move is a good thing.
I hope I interested you and soon you'll be in the air :)
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