Springtime is typically trade-show season in the RC industry. For many, these shows mark the end of the winter "building season" and the start of model flying, boating, and driving for the year. Until recently, I had never been to an RC trade show. So I was particularly excited to attend AMA Expo East during the last weekend of February. I was able to check out newly-released products, see what other modelers have been up to, and hear some fantastic speakers.
The AMA Expo
In this context, "AMA" stands for the Academy of Model Aeronautics, which is a nationwide, non-profit, community-based organization that promotes and advocates for all types of aeromodeling. The majority of active model flyers are already familiar with this group, since AMA membership is a prerequisite to joining most local flying clubs.
As the name suggests, AMA Expo East is a sister event to AMA Expo West, which took place in Ontario, California in early January. The eastern event that I attended was held inside the Meadowlands Exposition Center in Secaucus, New Jersey. I was somewhat concerned that this location (just across the Hudson River from Midtown Manhattan) would be a hassle to get into and out of. It turned out to be a complete non-issue. The Exposition Center and adjoining hotel were easy to access and had plenty of free parking.
Numerous manufacturers had booths set up at the expo to show off their new (and legacy) products. These offerings ranged from custom pilot figures for RC models to emergency parachutes for your drone. There is a big difference between seeing a product in a magazine or online article and holding it in your hands. Many businesses were equipped to sell on-site and had special "expo pricing" to help seal the deal.
I was able to get my paws on the new Spektrum iX12 transmitter in the Horizon Hobby booth. This was good for me, not because I pine for the iX12, but because I have been skeptical of it since it was announced. You see, this radio has a quad-core processor and uses an Android operating system. It is basically a tablet and transmitter hybrid. While I appreciate new technology, I'm not convinced that an RC transmitter needs to be that complex.
Having the transmitter in-hand and being able to flip switches helped me realize that this radio isn't such a radical departure from the norm. I was also able to talk about my concerns with the Spektrum rep in the booth. He whittled down my skepticism even further. I'm not sold on the iX12 just yet, but I am definitely more open to it now.
Another item that caught my attention was the Stepcraft CNC system. This is a desktop unit that can be used as a milling machine, 3D printer, foam cutter, vinyl cutter, plotter, and more. The Stepcraft booth was crowded all weekend long as display machines churned out various samples. It appears to be an extremely versatile system for makers who like to use a variety of tools. It's on my radar. There are different models that range in size and capability.
While foam RC airplanes are more popular than ever, building from balsa kits is not dead yet. The production of balsa kits has shifted from the mainstream to a cottage industry of small manufacturers. Most of these outfits are able to hand-select the wood they use and produce the parts with laser cutters. As a result, modern balsa kits are better-designed and easier-to-build than ever.
One of the premier balsa kit companies in the US, Stevens AeroModel, was at AMA Expo East. Their booth was stuffed with display models of all types. They ranged from whimsical indoor flyers (great for first-time balsa builders) to larger parkflyers. They even had kits for RC airboats on hand. I was able to test drive one on the expo's indoor pond…totally fun!
Clubs and Organizations
In addition to manufacturers and retailers, many expo booths were occupied by various RC clubs, special interest groups, museums, and other non-profit organizations. One of the most eye-catching displays was on the turf of the Philadelphia Glider Council. They had a full-scale glider on-hand and they sponsored a drawing for a free glider ride (I didn't win).
The Northeast chapter of the DroidBuilders organization was well-represented. Of course, they brought a selection of large radio-controlled R2-D2 models. Kids and adults got a kick out of interacting with the droids as they roamed the expo floor.
If you weren't careful, you could walk right past the booth occupied by the Aviation Hall of Fame & Museum of New Jersey. I actually did pass it by several times. Then a buddy insisted that I pay more attention the next time around. I soon found myself holding a small piece of history. It was a section of truss structure salvaged from the Hindenburg crash! Aside from its immense historical significance, the engineer in me couldn't help but marvel at the lightness and rigidity of the Duralumin assembly.
Another museum with reps at the expo was the Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Complex. It is basically an air and space museum located aboard a retired aircraft carrier docked at a Manhattan pier. I learned that I could catch a bus right outside the expo, and it would drop me off only a few blocks away from the ship. Yes, I went. Yes, it was awesome. Yes, I'll tell you all about it…in an upcoming article.
Stuff To Do
AMA Expo East offered plenty of things to look at, but there were also many things to do. I already mentioned the boat pond. Boats of all shapes and sizes could be found cruising the rectangular waterway. Many of the wooden boats showcased amazing craftsmanship and attention to detail.
One corner of the building was caged off to allow indoor flying activities. The Garden State Circle Burners brough an electric-powered model so that folks could have a go at control-line flying. Some people (especially kids) took to it right away. Others, however, did not. That airplane took a severe pounding, but it kept on flying throughout the entire weekend. When the control-line plane wasn't carving circles, you could find RC helicopters, mini racing quads, and aerobatic airplanes zooming around the cage.
There were two "Make N' Take" areas that catered to kids. The Central New Jersey Area Rocketry Society ran the rocket zone. Kids could make their own rockets from the supplies on hand. There were also a number of rockets built by club members on display. These modelers have a great sense of humor. I never realized how crazy and off-beat a model rocket could be!
The airplane Make N' Take was run by the Bergen County Silent Fliers. Here, kids assembled simple, rubber band-powered balsa airplanes. There was also an adjoining area where they could test-fly their creations. If childish squeals of delight are a reliable indicator, the airplanes were definitely a big hit…in every sense of the word.
The AMA scheduled a number of presentations throughout the weekend. Many speakers focused on topics specific to aeromodeling. There were also talks that covered full-scale aviation and space themes.
Julian Guthrie talked a bit about the motley collection of real-life characters in her book 'How to Make a Spaceship'. Apparently, you attract some very unique people when you offer a $10M prize for building a privately-funded spaceship. I couldn't leave without buying a signed copy of the book.
A personal highlight for me was meeting Dan Kreigh, who spoke alongside Guthrie. He was part of the team that built SpaceShipOne and ultimately won the XPRIZE jackpot talked about in Guthrie's book. Even before that accomplishment, I was a fan of Kreigh's unique RC airplane designs. Dan also brought along a helium-filled RC model of SpaceShipOne that he flew around the arena.
Another fascinating talk was given by Mason Hutchison of Scaled Composites. He is an engineer working on Stratolaunch. When this airplane takes flight, with a wingspan of 385 feet, it will be the largest aircraft ever flown. Stratolaunch has been in the news recently since it has begun taxi testing.
Hutchison conveyed just how massive this airplane is and the particular engineering challenges that it presents. He also addressed how the relatively small development team has approached the project with ingenuity and no small amount of imitation (hint: it uses a lot of parts pulled from two Boeing 747s).
The center of the show floor was occupied by dozens of models entered into a static competition. Airplanes, helicopters, boats, and cars…even a tank, were divided into several categories for judging. These were all functional models, but they were graded based solely on the builder's craftsmanship. And there was some amazing work to be found.
Many builders started with nothing more than a blank sheet of paper. They drew their own plans and then hand-built every piece of their creation. I thought that Rob Caso's Hansa-Brandenburg W.12 was a particular standout, as was John Sabini's Macchi MC.205. Both had stunning levels of detail, and both were award-winners. It can be simultaneously inspiring and deflating to see such tremendous craftsmanship. It's best to choose the former rather than the latter.
I wasn't sure what to expect at my first RC trade show. I'm really glad that I made the effort to go. I feel like I got a broad snapshot of the state of the RC hobby. Plus, I was able see a lot of great models, do plenty of fun things, and hang out with a bunch of like-minded people.
If you would like to see more photos from the event, I've posted an album for you to view.
Next year's AMA Expo East will also be held at the Meadowlands Exposition Center during February of 2019. Things will be a little different for the next AMA Expo West. It will actually be held in November of 2018. The location will also be changing to the Fairplex Exposition Center in Pomona, California.
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.