I was able to test a ton of new products during 2017. Here are a few things that stand out for me as I look back over the year. It's mostly RC stuff…but not all!
The science of designing FPV racing quads is far from stable. Power systems, batteries, and flight controllers are still on ever changing trajectories. It seems that your new quad is obsolete before you can even get it airborne. One of the trends I've noticed is that quad frames are getting ever smaller. Not so long ago, 250mm ships were the norm. A snapshot of the current quad market would show many options measuring 150mm or less.
My first thought about smaller frames was that building them would be difficult. That was based on the difficulties that I had cramming all of the necessary gear into the 250mm racer I built a couple of years ago. The flip side is that all of the onboard electronics have become smaller as well. Perhaps my concern is unfounded. I hope to form an experience-based opinion by building a sub-100mm quad in the coming year.
While I did not build a small race quad in 2017, I did test a few factory-built designs. My favorite was the Vortex 150 from Immersion RC. This 150mm quad yields nothing performance-wise to my larger racers. In fact, it is probably the fastest and most maneuverable ship in my multi-rotor fleet.
One of the prime advantages of the smaller generation of quads is that you're dealing with less mass. Less mass means that you're not as likely to break something when you crash…and crashes are inevitable. Less mass also means that the aircraft is able to respond to quick changes in direction more quickly. That's definitely a bonus since the goal is often to dart about like a hummingbird.
A further benefit of the shrinking nature of multi-rotors is that truly great-flying indoor racers are now practical. Indoor FPV racing has become really popular, especially at this time of year. My favorite, and one of the most popular indoor racers is the Blade Inductrix FPV. It is tiny, agile, and tough. While my Inductrix FPV is still box stock, lots of people modify theirs (or build from scratch) with custom motors, flight controllers, frames…you name it. If you want to put your finger on the pulse of indoor quad racing trends, google "tiny whoop" and prepare to spend some time in the rabbit hole.
One of the most popular genres of the RC hobby is scale airplanes. There are a lot of options within that category, but I think that factory-built foam airplanes are the most numerous type of scale RC models. The quality of these offerings has improved dramatically over the last few years. A top-shelf scale foamy from just a few years ago would be considered sub-par by today's standards. I reviewed several foam airplanes during 2017. The Flightline RC F8F-1 Bearcat ($200) is my favorite and best exemplifies the current state of the art.
I think the primary thing that separates truly impressive scale RC airplanes from the herd is where concessions are made in accuracy for the sake of weight, complexity, or price. For example, you would normally expect that the propeller on an RC model would look nothing like the full-scale version. If the "real" airplane has retractable landing gear, the RC version might or might not.
The Flightline RC Bearcat makes very few of the traditional concessions. It has a 4-blade propeller that is very similar in appearance and relative size to that found on the real airplane. Not only does it come with retractable landing gear, but that gear is quite detailed. The struts and wheels resemble Bearcat units. There are working gear doors that blend into the wing when the gear is retracted. Even the wheel wells are painted in a zinc chromate-like color. While not all of these features are 100% accurate, only a purist would really know the difference. For most of us (including me), the overall effect is quite pleasing.
Another notable cosmetic bonus of the Bearcat is that it includes very nice self-adhesive vinyl decals. Unlike more traditional decals, they conform well to compound curves and do not have an annoying clear border. What really stands out is that the kit includes several sheets of decals. This allows you to replicate one of numerous historical color schemes on your model. Most other factory-built scale models are all finished in the exact same way.
In addition to the visual features of the Bearcat, it also performs well. You expect a warbird model to have plenty of power and good maneuverability. At the same time, small-winged fighter planes like the Bearcat might be challenging to fly. In this case, the model strikes a good balance between performance and manageability. Overall, I think the Flightline RC Bearcat is a really impressive off-the-shelf model.
Most of the RC boats I've owned have been ready-to-run speedboat types. The idea is to just hook up a battery and have some fun making rooster tails on the lake. My experience with the ProBoat Alpha Patrol Boat (APB) has been quite different. That's why it ranks as a 2017 favorite.
While the APB is a sporty boat, it is also a scale model. It emulates the small PBR (Patrol Boat River) used during the Vietnam War and made famous in the movie, 'Apocalypse Now'. For me, the Alpha scratches two itches. It's a quick and nimble little boat that is fun to just drive around. The APB also presents a great opportunity to add scale details. The fact that it has actual water-jet drives for propulsion is a bonus.
I initially tested the APB in stock form. I then decided to make it look like the 'Erebus' from Coppola's flick. This allowed me to utilize a few of the detailing tricks I use on my airplane models. I also experimented with several detailing techniques that were completely new to me. Some things worked out well, others could be improved upon. However, I am really happy with the completed boat.
My final favorite product of 2017 has nothing to do with RC, unless you count Wi-Fi as a form of radio control. The Nanoleaf Aurora (starts at $200) is an expandable LED lighting kit. The 8.25"-tall (210mm) triangular panel panels can be linked together in any shape that you desire. Up to 30 panels can be connected to a single power supply.
The appeal of the Aurora is not so much its useful illumination, but rather its artistic charms. Think of it as a lava lamp for your wall. The LED lights within the panels can generate 16 million different colors. Using a smartphone app, you control the lights via Wi-Fi. You can set static colors, pre-programmed transition patterns, or even make your own custom transitions. I recently added the Rhythm module to my Aurora. This device causes the lights to change in unison with music being played in the room.
I personally find the Aurora set to be a soothing piece of art. It's nice to have on in while I'm in the room, but it is rarely the focus of my attention. What I'm finding is that Aurora's appeal spans generations, and for different reasons. My kids and their friends can spend hours experimenting with the lights and all of the customization options found in the app. I was really surprised, however, by the interest my parents have shown in the Aurora.
During a recent visit, my folks asked about the strange shape hanging on the wall. I gave a quick demo of the Aurora, including the effects of using the Rhythm module. They were quite impressed with the lights…especially when they were synched with music. Apparently, they had a set of disco lights in the 70s that did the same thing. Nostalgia runs deep. They even talked of buying an Aurora set for themselves.
I've already lined up several new products to review in 2018. No spoilers, but I'll tell you that some of them look very innovative. I can't wait to wring them all out and share the results with you!
Terry is a freelance writer living in Buffalo, NY. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow him on Twitter and Facebook. You can also hear Terry talk about RC hobbies as one of the hosts of the RC Roundtable podcast.