As I write this, the 2016 National Drone Racing Championships have just ended. This style of First Person View (FPV) competition continues to gain traction all over the world. In fact, the recent national event enjoyed coverage by ESPN. While not everyone has the space or resources necessary to set up a full-blown FPV race course, recent developments with miniature multi-rotors allow FPV racers to duke it out just about anywhere…even indoors.
I've talked about small FPV quads before, but none of those ships were ideally suited for small-scale racing…at least not in box-stock form. Most tiny racers must be modified in some fashion. For example, the uber-popular Tiny Whoop is basically a Blade Inductrix with micro FPV gear added. It won't be long, however, before mandatory mods become a thing of the past. I was recently offered the chance to check out a new mini FPV quad that has all of the necessary elements for indoor racing in a turnkey package.
The Aerix Drones Black Talon ($139) is a 118mm quad that comes with a 2.4GHz radio system, and a 5.8GHz video system. I received a pre-production model of the Black Talon. There may be some minor differences in production units, which recently began shipping to pre-order customers.
An FPV camera is integrated into the frame of the Black Talon, as is the video transmitter. Unlike some other small quads, which use a Wi-Fi signal to transmit video, the 5.8GHz system on the Black Talon has no detectable lag. When your race course requires you to weave between the La-Z-Boy and coffee table at top speed, even a little latency in the video system is a deal-breaker.
A 4.25" LCD monitor is included with the system and it is factory-tuned to pick up the Black Talon's streaming video. I am told that multiple video frequencies will be available to allow several Black Talons to race together without video interference. A further benefit of the 5.8GHz video system is that it is compatible with many popular FPV goggle sets. I was able to tune into the Black Talon's video frequency with both my Fat Shark and SkyZone brand goggles. Aerix Drones states that the video transmitter is FCC certified, so you do not need an amateur radio license to legally operate this system.
Half the fun of flying FPV is watching your video footage when the flight is over. Many micro-FPV set-ups do not provide onboard recording options, so you have to record on the receiving end of the video downlink. Not only does this usually result in low resolution, but you also record any static in the signal. The Black Talon, however, does allow you to record your flights in HD. The camera writes to an onboard microSD card at 720p/30FPS. You can also shoot 2MP still photos. Both capture options are controlled remotely from the transmitter.
The transmitter emulates an Xbox controller. Regular readers will know that I was not even remotely excited about that. I'm sure that this form factor provides a familiar feel for experienced gamers who want to try RC. But I don't think it's a very good layout for a quad. The control gimbal locations are asymmetric, as are the trim buttons. It's just plain awkward.
In spite of my preconceived bias against the transmitter, I tried to give it a fair assessment. I have to admit the ergonomic challenges I expected didn't really pose much of a problem. This still isn't the form factor I would choose, but it isn't a huge deal. I can work with it.
The only lingering complaint I had with the transmitter had to do with the thumb pads on the gimbals. I'm a long-time "pinch grip" flyer and thumb pads simply do not jibe with my technique. I repeated the trick I've used on several other mini-quad transmitters and replaced the thumb pads with aluminum tubes to emulate traditional joysticks. It's an easy fix that provides huge dividends for me.
The quad is powered by a single-cell 520mAh LiPo battery. The provided USB charger will fill the battery in about an hour. There are a few different ways to interface the battery with the charger that will complete the necessary electrical connections, but none of them are very secure physically. The orientation with the most solid physical connection didn't allow the USB plug to fit into my laptop. The best option for me was to use a short USB extension cable between my laptop and the charger.
A USB charger is also provided for the monitor's built-in battery. The monitor will run for about 30 minutes per charge, so it's good for several flights. The battery indicator on my unit consistently gives "low power" warnings after only a few minutes of use, but it keeps chugging along. I suspect the premature warning is just a calibration issue.
Flying the Black Talon
As I often do with new FPV platforms, I flew the first few hops of the Black Talon via line-of-sight. This allowed me to get the model trimmed and become familiar with its handling. The system has three settings for control sensitivity (they call it "speed"). I thought that the low setting was perfect for flying inside of my house, while medium and high were better for flying outdoors where I had more room and often needed extra punch to penetrate the wind. In all settings, the yaw response is noticeably more aggressive than pitch and roll.
I expected visual orientation to be a little difficult with the all-black color scheme, but that wasn't the case. The four LEDs, one on each corner of the quad (blue front/red rear), were surprisingly visible. They provided adequate visual cues most of the time…even in sunlight.
Before long, I transitioned to flying FPV using the monitor. I took it easy at first, sitting in my study while sending the Black Talon to other areas of the house. I was surprised to discover that I could explore rooms upstairs or even the basement and still have adequate video quality. No area was off limits.
I soon worked out a race course that wound through my kitchen, living room and study. Given the small size and bantam weight (70 grams/2.5 ounces) of the Black Talon, I wasn't concerned about causing any damage when I crashed. I became more aggressive with each successive lap and found that I could whip through doorways and around obstacles with surprising speed.
The motley collection of fencing and kids' toys in my back yard provided countless options for maneuvering the Black Talon. I kept challenging myself to fly through smaller and smaller gaps. Sometimes I made it through…sometimes not.
An onboard barometric sensor helps provide a measure of altitude stabilization. I've never seen such a feature in a quad this small. I'm not sure whether it was due to the sensor or just placebo effect, but the Black Talon did seem to maintain a consistent altitude better than any other mini-quad I've flown. It still requires real-time throttle adjustments during maneuvers, but it's not a big workload.
Most of my flights lasted between 5-6 minutes. I would suggest picking up a spare battery or two. The battery gets warm during use and has to cool down before charging. You don't want to be stuck with a dead battery when the flying conditions are just right.
The monitor does not include a sun shade, but I didn't have any difficulties using it outdoors. As long as I wasn't in direct sunlight, I could see the screen fine. Although, I must admit that swapping to goggles for my outdoor flights provided better video contrast and a more immersive experience.
I try not to baby my review models so that I get a good feel for their durability. Because of the type of flying that it is designed for, my Black Talon was abused more than usual. I lost count of how many times I crashed it into things and had it tumble down onto concrete or a tile floor. Props would sometimes break or fly off (four spares are included) and the prop guards were tweaked from time to time, but the quad proved to be amazingly resilient. There's no question that I'll somehow break it sooner or later. When that happens, I am told that spare parts will be available for purchase through the Aerix Drones website.
I've long recommended mini-quads as the perfect first step for quad-curious newbies. They let you get a feel for what multi-rotor flying is all about, but with little investment or risk. The Black Talon expands the potential benefits of mini-quads by providing a genuine FPV racing platform. It is small and light enough that just about any room or yard can be turned into a race course. I hope that other flyers in my area jump on the indoor FPV train. I can't wait to go head-to-head with a few other mini racing quads!
Terry is a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. 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.