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Joining the Quad Squad: How To Get Started with RC Quadcopters

By Terry Dunn

Want to shoot your own GoPro videos from high vantage points and other places you can't normally reach? You may want to mount one on a quadcopter. Getting started isn't difficult, but you'll benefit from our recommendations and tips for beginners. Welcome to the world of multi-rotor RC aircraft.

A cursory search on YouTube or Vimeo will yield a bountiful selection of footage captured from radio-controlled (RC) model aircraft known as multi-rotors. The name comes from the fact that these particular models rely solely on horizontal propellers (rotors) to provide lift and directional control. Most multi-rotors have four propellers, so they are called “quad-rotors”, or just “quads”. For the sake of simplicity in this article, I’ll brand all multi-rotors as “quads”, while recognizing that there are versions with three to eight airscrews…sometimes more.

Despite their unaerodynamic appearance, quads are ideal for capturing photographs and video footage from the sky. Many of them can heft a surprisingly heavy payload (i.e. good quality imaging equipment) and hold a steady posture in the air. With the ability to hover in place and fly in confined spaces, quads can often provide perspectives that no other filming technique can mimic. Watch some of those YouTube videos and you’ll see what I mean. Not only that, but quads are fun to fly with or without a camera attached.

But before you zip out and buy a quad of your own, there is one more thing you should know. Switch over to a news site and it won't take a lot of digging around to find the unglamorous B-side of quads. How about the wedding photographer who flew his camera-toting quad into the bride and groom? Then there is the wise guy who took his quad over Manhattan, only to crash into the side of a high rise, where his machine plummeted to the sidewalk 300 feet below. Let’s not forget the genius who flew his quad so high and so near JFK airport that it was spotted by a passing (and quite perturbed) airline captain! This unfortunate list goes on and on, yet the takeaway is but twofold:

  1. Multi-rotor models are capable of inflicting surprising amounts of injury and/or damage…think “flying Cuisinart”.

  2. Multi-rotor models require diligence and practiced skill to fly competently…think “unicycle”.

If you’re still reading, I assume that you have some aspiration of owning a quad and perhaps racking up those YouTube views. That goal is reasonable and attainable even if you’ve never operated a RC vehicle before. Just recognize that diving into multi-rotors without heeding the lessons above could render you the next bungler featured on the evening news. Not to mention that doing something with your quad that captures the attention of CNN is also likely to attract the attention of local police, the FAA, and quite possibly the FBI…and that’s no joke. My point is not to discourage you from buying a quad, but to inform you of the aspects of quad ownership that are often unintuitive.

Let's get started!

Anatomy of a Multi-Rotor

As with any RC vehicle, there are two basic components to deal with: the transmitter and the vehicle itself. The transmitter is the device you hold to provide control inputs. A quad transmitter is the standard two-joystick box that is also used for RC airplanes and helicopters. Moving the left joystick up or down changes the power setting on all four motors and makes the quad climb, descend, or maintain altitude. Moving the left joystick to the left or right causes the quad to yaw in that direction (i.e., it pivots about an imaginary vertical axis through the center of the vehicle). The right joystick controls pitch and roll. Simply put, whatever direction you move the right joystick will command the quad to tilt and translate in that direction.

Most quads are arranged in an X configuration (when looking from above) with a motor/propeller at each corner. A rechargeable lithium polymer battery provides power for the motors and the electronic equipment onboard the quad. As a beginner, it isn’t really necessary to understand the function of all of a quad’s electronics. Those lessons will come as you progress in the hobby. For now, you just need to understand that the four motors work in unison, at different speeds, to keep a quad hovering and maneuvering through the air.

I’m Learning To Fly, But I Ain’t Got Wings

One aspect of RC flight that many beginners have trouble with is the light touch that most quads and other RC aircraft demand. The overwhelming tendency of beginning pilots is to over-control and then overcorrect. The result is a herky-jerky flight path that that may or may not end well for the quad. Watching videos from these types of flights can make you turn green with nausea.

Fly with a light touch. The overwhelming tendency of beginning pilots is to over-control and then overcorrect.

Another hurdle for beginning pilots is overcoming the perspective of being outside the model. When the quad is in front of, and facing away from you, everything seems normal. Right is right, and forward is forward. When the nose of the quad is pointing towards you, however, the perspective changes. Now, when you command the quad to tilt to the right, you will see it tilt to your left. When you command it to tilt rearwards, it will move away from you. The quad is still responding to your commands the same way. It’s just that the quad’s right/left and front/back are no longer the same as yours.

Perhaps the hardest thing about flying a quad is simply keeping track of which end is which. Quads lack the wings, tail surfaces, and other visual cues that you are used to seeing on airplanes and helicopters. So, it is often difficult to know which way the quad is pointed. Such disorientation leads to erroneous control inputs. Commanding a zig, when you meant to zag is the root cause of many crashes.

While the challenges of becoming a competent quad pilot may seem daunting, I have yet to meet anyone that didn’t eventually get the hang of it. Most catch on rather quickly…especially kids. Mastering the necessary skills is simply a matter of getting some flight time under your belt and learning from your mistakes. And yes, that also means occasionally making repairs to your quad after an especially ham-fisted or harebrained flight.

Where To Start

Logging flight time does not mean that you have to put an expensive, camera-ready quad at the mercy of your fledgling skills. That would be like learning to juggle using flaming Ginsu knives or moody honey badgers. There are a couple of more sensible alternatives. One option is to get a RC flight simulator for your PC. The one I use is RealFlight 6.5, which includes a quad in its stock database of flying models. Just as important, RealFlight includes a USB controller with the same look and feel as a RC transmitter. This helps to make the transition from virtual flight to genuine flying pretty seamless.

Realflight software is good for practice.

One great thing about a software simulator is that it also lets you try your hand at RC airplanes and helicopters of all skills levels. It is really remarkable how broad the performance spectrum is for different models. Plus, no matter how badly you mangle the quad, airplane or helicopter on the screen, pressing the reset button will instantly make it as good as new!

Another way to learn quad flight is to purchase a micro quad. These are small (about 5”x 5”) quads that look and behave the same way that larger quads do. They are really amazing little machines. The advantage of learning with a micro quad is that they have such low mass and so little power driving their tiny propellers that they are very unlikely to cause any harm when you smack them into something (and you will).

My first quad was the 1SQ from Heli-Max. It is a “hobby grade” micro quad, as opposed to “toy grade”. This means that you can buy spare parts and keep it going if you somehow find a way to damage it. My 1SQ absorbed quite a bit of abuse as I learned the basics of quads, and it is still going strong with nothing more than replacement propellers.

Buying a micro quad with a gamepad-like transmitter or one that is controlled by an iphone won’t really help you transition to larger, more capable quads.

eBay is flooded with all types of micro quads. Some appear to be genuine, while others are obvious knock-offs of popular hobby-grade quads. Then, there are other quads of even more questionable pedigree. Honestly, I don’t know how to tell the good eBay finds from the bad. My recommendation is to spend a few more bucks and buy a micro-quad from your local hobby shop. If you decide to go the eBay (or similar) route, at least make sure that the micro-quad you choose includes a 2-stick transmitter. Buying a micro quad with a gamepad-like transmitter or one that is controlled by an iphone won’t really help you transition to larger, more capable quads.

A neat thing about micro quads is that you can fly them indoors. Foul weather and darkness need not impede your training. As I said, you will bump into things as you learn (and beyond). So be sensible and stay away from pets, kids, the plasma screen, Aunt Edith’s urn…you get the idea. And for Pete’s sake, turn off the ceiling fan! Other than exercising those precautions, there is little to worry about. As your piloting skills progress, you can challenge yourself to increasingly difficult tasks. You may start out just trying to land on the coffee table. In time, you’ll be dusting your ceramic frog collection with the micro quad’s rotor wash.

Stepping Up

Once you feel that you have the hang of quad flying, it’s time to upgrade to something capable of carrying a high quality camera. It is worth mentioning that there are some micro quads with integrated cameras (including the V-Cam version of the 1SQ). These quads are also a lot of fun and you can get some good experience tackling the challenges of filming without the benefit of a viewfinder. Just don’t expect the image quality to meet the level that we’ve become accustomed to from GoPro and similar cameras.

Beyond micro quads, there is a lot of room to grow in terms of cost and capabilities, but let’s focus on the next logical step. The DJI Phantom is a very popular quad that is capable of carrying a GoPro camera. The Phantom includes all of the things that you want in an intermediate quad: attitude stabilization, brushless motors, a GPS unit, a built-in GoPro mount, etc. What has made the Phantom so popular is that all of these components come preconfigured and integrated as a flight-ready system. You can bring home a Phantom and have it flying in the time it takes to charge the included battery (about an hour).

If you choose to buy a Phantom, I think you will agree that it is considerably easier to fly than a micro quad. I’ve found the Phantom’s stabilization and position-holding ability to be rock solid. I can park it in the sky and take my hands off of the joysticks. Even if there is a light breeze, the Phantom will stay in place until I command it to go somewhere else.

Unlike micro quads, the Phantom has enough mass and horsepower to cause grief when you hit something with it. The conscientious world citizen in you should want no part in causing a dent in a car, or maybe buying stitches for a stranger. The savvy economist in you should never forget that you don’t want to squander the nearly $1000 tied up in a Phantom with the latest GoPro by crashing it into a lake. Play it safe on both counts with your first flights and find a nice open space devoid of other people. You will appreciate the elbow room until you get comfortable flying the Phantom. Even later, you should always ask yourself “Is it safe to fly here?”

Some makers will shun the turnkey approach afforded by the Phantom, since it's an all-in-one package that works out of the box. Fortunately, DJI and other companies offer many quads in kit form. This lets you choose the components you want and customize the quad to your liking. Taking the DIY route also provides you with an intimate knowledge of how the different components of a quad work in unison to achieve controlled flight.

What’s Next?

You may find that a Phantom/GoPro combo is all that you need to satisfy your aerial photography ambitions. For many fliers, however, this stage is a gateway to more capable set-ups. One popular upgrade is to add a First Person View (FPV) system. FPV provides a real-time video downlink from the quad. When you connect that downlink to a portable screen or video goggles, you get the same bird’s eye view as the onboard camera…neat stuff for sure. FPV systems are often coupled with a two-axis gimbal that lets you pan and tilt the camera during flight. Just be aware that most FPV systems require a HAM Technician license to operate legally.

Gear for FPV flying.

GoPro Heroes are awesome little cameras that will serve you well. If, however, you yearn to carry higher end video equipment, there is probably a multi-rotor to fit the bill. The cost and complexity of these aircraft climb accordingly. Most of the larger multi-rotors have six or eight motors. Some of these units can run several thousand dollars (without video equipment). It’s a matter of balancing your budget and skills with the image quality that you aim to achieve.

Finding Solidarity and Community

With the ever-growing popularity of quads, there’s no reason to jump in to the hobby alone. Unless you live way out in the boonies, there is probably an established quad flyer not too far away. Search for RC clubs and hobby shops in your area to get started. Most RCers are happy to share their knowledge and experience. There are also numerous online forums that discuss all aspects of quads and other RC endeavors. My favorite is RCGroups.com. The only problem with online forums is filtering out the genuine good advice from the well-meaning misinformation of self-proclaimed experts. With a little lurking, you can usually pick out who the trustworthy members are.

You should also consider joining the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA), which is a national organization that provides a united voice for all types of aeromodelers. In fact, AMA membership is a prerequisite for joining most local RC clubs. Among other things, the $58 annual dues provide an insurance policy for you and help the AMA in its efforts to protect modelers from unnecessary regulations. This is especially important now, as the FAA is considering folding model aircraft operations into its jurisdiction.

Get Going!

This beginner's guide is admittedly light on technical information. There will be plenty of time for that stuff once you’re ready to buy a quad of your own. I hope, however, that the roadmap presented here will help you to avoid some of the common mistakes and misconceptions of budding multi-rotor pilots. Flying quads is a lot of fun, and shooting videos only sweetens the deal. It just takes a little bit of training and situational awareness to be successful. Now go have fun and make a video worthy of awards, not the news!