How to Get Into Hobby RC: Learning to Fly Quadcopters

By Terry Dunn

Before buying a large, expensive ship with a camera attached, I think it is better to begin with a RC flight simulator and/or a small quad. Today, I want to share my techniques for becoming comfortable at the controls of any multi-rotor.

I’ve mentioned my recommended path for aspiring multi-rotor pilots several times in this column. Before buying a large, expensive ship with a camera attached, I think it is better to begin with a RC flight simulator and/or a small quad. I think that this approach will help you hone your piloting chops before accepting the risks of flying a bigger aircraft. I’m still holding firm to that opinion. I realize, however, that I have never adequately addressed how to use those tools to become a competent multi-rotor pilot. Today, I want to share my techniques for becoming comfortable at the controls of any multi-rotor.

FLYING MULTI-ROTORS IS EASY. FLYING THEM WELL IS HARD. IMPROVING YOUR SKILLS REQUIRES DEDICATED EFFORT.

The Hardware Option

There are tons of small quad-rotors out there that are adequate for learning the basics. The main feature to look for in a mini-quad is a 2-stick transmitter like you’ll be using with larger quads. In my opinion, the closer the transmitter is to the standard size, the better.

Another prime feature to look for is adjustable sensitivity for the flight controls. Many quads lack this very useful ability. Some have two or three preset sensitivity levels, while others have a full range of adjustments. Either adjustment method is good for what we’re trying to accomplish. The idea behind adjusting the sensitivity is to detune the quad’s response to your inputs and make it easier to fly.

I learned to fly quads with the HeliMax 1SQ, which fits all of the requirements listed above and has proven to be very resilient. While I still fly the 1SQ frequently, I have a new favorite quad for my indoor training sessions, the tiny Estes Proto-X SLT. The SLT is an updated version of the Proto-X that Norm reviewed a few months ago. Whenever I turn on the Proto-X, It’s easy to imagine my living room is like a course for the Red Bull Air Races…plenty of obstacles ready to be conquered!

The Heli-Max 1SQ

While, the actual quad appears mostly unchanged, the radio system received updates that make it much more beginner-friendly. The tiny, cartoon-like transmitter included with the original Proto-X is gone. It has been replaced by a significantly larger (though still smaller than standard) transmitter with adjustable control sensitivity. More specifically, there are two flight modes (standard and expert) with each mode having adjustable sensitivity.

Furthermore, the new Proto-X can be linked with any transmitter that uses the SLT protocol. This includes radios such as the Tactic TTX650 and the Hitec Flash 7. If you already have a favorite non-SLT radio, you can likely fly the Proto-X SLT with it using the AnyLink2 module. You have options.

I’ve flown the Proto-X SLT using the stock transmitter as well as a TTX650. Right out of the box, the sensitivity settings on the included transmitter are overly aggressive for most rookie flyers. Quite frankly, it’s a micro-sized rocket ship! It will even do flips. I had a lot of fun with mine in this mode, but I’ll admit that it got away from me a few times. After several flights, I reduced the sensitivity on every axis to the minimum value in regular mode. The manual explains this process well. Now the quad is much more docile and easy to manage indoors.

HERE WE SEE THE STOCK TRANSMITTER FOR THE PROTO-X SLT AND THE FULL-SIZE TACTIC TTX650 WHICH CAN ALSO BE USED. CONTROL SENSTIVITY OF THE PROTO-X CAN (AND SHOULD) BE REDUCED ON EITHER TRANSMITTER TO MAKE IT MORE DOCILE FOR ROOKIES.

I later linked the Proto-X SLT to my Tactic TTX650. With this radio, control sensitivity is governed by the “Dual Rate” option. Like the stock transmitter, this gives you two sensitivity settings that can be adjusted to your liking. A toggle switch allows you to alternate between those settings (high rate and low rate) in-flight if you wish.

The quad’s manual instructs you to set the dual rate values for pitch, roll, and yaw at 100 for high rates and 50 for low rates. I think that beginners should change the values to 50 and 25 respectively. With those settings, the Proto-X is really easy to fly on low rates, and peppy on high rates. If you have a computer radio like the TTX650 to link with the Proto-X SLT, I think it will help you get the most out of this little quad. Otherwise, you will still find good results by familiarizing yourself with the sensitivity controls on the stock transmitter.

Getting Airborne

Now that we’ve covered setting up the quad for rookie flyers, let’s get it airborne. The first thing you’ll want to do is get it trimmed for a hands-off hover. Give the quad power to lift it off the ground to at least waist height. Does the quad drift in any direction? If so, input trim adjustments on the transmitter until the drifting is gone. The quad’s manual should explain this process. I find it easier to land when making the trim inputs rather than doing it on the fly. You may not be able to completely eradicate drift, but get as close as you can.

Once the quad is trimmed, it’s time to start training. The best thing you can do to attain steady improvement is to practice a specific skill on each flight. If you always take off with the intent of merely flying around, you may eventually develop a reactionary skill set. Basically, you only learn how to react to circumstantial events. Some people may only figure out when to kill the power if a crash seems inevitable. It’s the model aviation equivalent of facing a bully by dropping into the fetal position. What we want to achieve is a more proactive, authoritative stance to flying. The quad should be in its current position and orientation because we commanded it to be so, rather than by random circumstance and our tacit approval. Let’s punch the bully in the nose.

THE ESTES PROTO-X SLT IS AN UPDATED VERSION OF THE POPULAR MICRO QUAD. IT IS A MUCH IMPROVED PLATFORM FOR BEGINNING PILOTS.

To gain that proactive flying ability, you have to become comfortable flying the quad regardless of its orientation. A pilot should start with the basics and gradually add skills of increasing difficulty until it’s all second nature. The best way to achieve that is to map out a long-term training plan and dedicate flight time to developing the listed skills. Sure, you can take all the aimless joy rides you want between training sessions. However, I think your abilities will benefit most from specific training exercises.

The first thing you’ll want to learn is how to maintain a steady hover with the quad pointed away from you. It sounds rather easy, but it can be challenging, especially with twitchy quads. You’ll have to manage your throttle inputs to keep a constant altitude while also correcting any drift in pitch, roll or yaw. Sometimes throttle changes can cause the quad to yaw. Figure out how to anticipate those movements and address them before they’re even noticeable. Also note that hovering just above or even astride solid objects could cause the quad to veer. It may take several flights before you feel that you’ve mastered hovering--maybe several dozen. Invest whatever time it takes for this most fundamental quad skill.

The next thing to master is basic translation movements. From a hover, command the quad to move forward, backwards and side to side while keeping the nose pointed away from you. Some quads will automatically stop translating when you release the control stick, others will coast until you add a blip of control input in the opposite direction. Stick with this task until you can get through an entire flight without allowing the nose to drift in the yaw axis. By then, you should be able to bring the quad back to a landing at your feet every time.

Next, you should graduate to complex translation where the quad’s orientation changes. From a hover, push the right stick slightly forward to begin forward translation. While maintaining a slow, but steady forward speed. Input yaw commands with the left stick to steer the quad along a deliberate path. Start by tracing horizontal circles and then move to figure-8s. You will probably find that you have to provide throttle inputs to stay on a level plane during these maneuvers.

Hovering, basic translation, complex translation, and nose-in hovering are the building blocks of competent quad piloting.

When complex translation has become comfortable for you, move on to nose-in hovering. It is nothing more than hovering with the front of the quad pointed at you. In this orientation, pitch roll and yaw all seem backwards. This is the most difficult challenge for many pilots. Don’t be concerned if it takes a while to get the hang of it. Also be sure to provide a sufficient buffer so that an errant command doesn’t send the quad into your face!

I think that the four skills I’ve just described (hovering, basic translation, complex translation, and nose-in hovering) are the building blocks of competent quad piloting. Other than aerobatics, anything else you do will be a variation of one or more of those skills. As your abilities move forward, you should strive to envision and master different combinations. For instance you may want to try the complex translation exercise while using a side or reverse translation rather than forward. A task that I’ve been working on is maintaining a steady forward translation while the quad continuously spins.

An exercise that I have found particularly fun and challenging with the Proto-X is to toss the quad into the air (cathedral ceiling required!). I add power after the toss and the Proto-X will stabilize in a random orientation. My task is to recognize the orientation and bring the quad back to me quickly.

The small size of the Proto-X lets me practice precision flying that was impossible even with the 1SQ. I can weave it into really small areas…or at least try. My favorite new task is to land the Proto-X on the stair rail and see how far down it will slide before I have to add power and bail out. Fun stuff.

The Software Option

I recently upgraded my RC simulator, RealFlight, from version 6.5 to 7 (v7.5 is due out any time). This new version introduced a few features for quad flying that I’ll explain in a bit. But first, I want to explain how to configure a virtual quad to suit a beginner’s abilities. Just like the Proto-X SLT, the quad I chose in RealFlight was overly sensitive in stock form.

EVEN ON THE SIMULATOR, IT IS HELPFUL TO TUNE THE QUAD TO MATCH YOUR SKILLS. THESE ARE THE SETTINGS I USED TO TAME THE QAUI 330-XS IN REALFLIGHT 7

The quad that I’ve been using is the Gaui 330-XS. In the “Quick Edit” menu for the model, I reduced the motors’ power and control authority on ever axis to make it easier to fly. See the screen shot for the specific values that I used.

Once the quad is properly sedated, the training steps are exactly same as I explained for an indoor quad. You will want to take the same regimented approach to gradually fill your bag of tricks. In my opinion, the quads in the simulator are actually tougher to fly than the real thing. They don’t exhibit the same degree of self-leveling performance as my real quads. So, it takes a little more effort to maintain a steady hover. If you can hover on the simulator reasonably well, you should have no problem with a tangible quad.

REALFLIGHT 7 CONTAINS A SERIES OF CHALLENGE SCENARIOS TO TEST YOUR QUAD PILOTING SKILLS.

When you have reached a comfortable level of proficiency, you can try the simulator’s quad “challenge”. It contains a series of short courses with obstacles that must be flown through or landed atop. It provides a fun avenue to integrate all of your new flying skills. The record times shown for these courses seem impossibly fast. I’d love to see a video of the record setting flights! Once you pass all of the courses, the program unlocks a new quad model in the database.

Conclusion

Modern multi-rotors have all sorts of fancy gadgets that make it possible for total newbies to get airborne on day one. Yet, just as with any other RC aircraft, it takes dedication and practice to become a truly competent and confident pilot-in-command. Indoor quads and simulators offer the safest and most affordable paths to develop those skills. Make the most of the upcoming winter by devoting a little practice time each week (without ever going outside). When you emerge in the spring, you will be much better equipped to fly larger multi-rotors in the great outdoors.