How To Get Into Hobby RC: Starter FPV Quadcopters

By Terry Dunn

Today, we're looking at four FPV starter quads that take different paths to the FPV destination.

I’ve written countless times that I think beginning multi-rotor pilots should learn the ropes with a small, inexpensive quad. More and more of those small quads are now being offered with built-in First Person View (FPV) systems. Although they’re not quite as inexpensive as their non-FPV cousins, they can do a little more. If flying via FPV is one of your goals in the hobby, these machines can serve two useful purposes:

  1. Provide a stress-free way to learn the basics of multi-rotor flight

  2. Provide a stress-free transition to the challenges introduced by going FPV

Today, I will look at four FPV starter quads that take different paths to the FPV destination. My goal is not to rank these models, but rather to illustrate the choices that are available, so that you can decide what suits you. All of the models are available as complete ready-to-fly packages. Also, none of the included FPV systems require an amateur radio license for operation.

WITH ALL FOUR QUADS POSITIONED TOGETHER, YOU CAN SEE THE RELATIVE SIZE DIFFERENCES. THEY ALL DO FPV WELL…JUST DIFFERENTLY.

For a few months, it looked as if FPV would soon become an illegal activity. The FAA made known that they intended to outlaw any form of FPV used by the pilot. More recent communications from the FAA have taken a much more relaxed stance, except in regard to over-the-horizon FPV activities. FPV is still legal as pending regulations are still being ironed out, yet the outlook for the future of FPV flying is once again promising. The uncertainty is moot with these indoor-oriented models, however, as indoor airspace is not regulated by the FAA. As long as you’re under a roof, you can fly FPV all you wish.

The FPV “Problem”

The first challenge posed by FPV is the limited situational awareness that it affords.

Before introducing the models, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the hurdles that I’ve faced while learning the nuances of FPV flight. I consider myself a fairly competent pilot, but there have been times that I was completely flummoxed by FPV. I wouldn’t say it’s like learning to fly all over again, but the transition has been tougher than I expected.

The first challenge posed by FPV is the limited situational awareness that it affords. Your only perspective comes from a single camera. Having your camera on a gimbal with the ability to pan and/or tilt, helps somewhat, but those actions take time are a distraction from actually flying the vehicle. It’s like driving a car with no rearview mirrors…while wearing a neck brace.

It took some time for me just to get used to looking at the world through a pinhole. Early on, if something caught my attention, I wanted to fling off the FPV goggles like a catcher about to make a throw to second base. Over time, I’ve taught myself to stay calm and focus on the camera. With that being said, the value of a having a trusted spotter at your side can’t be overstated. While you can only see 5% of the world around you, they can keep you informed of the other 95%.

For me, the most difficult parameter to judge via FPV is the model’s altitude. Coincidentally, altitude is also the most difficult aspect to fly consistently. I am gradually working on getting comfortable at flying really low passes when I’m wearing the goggles. I’m getting there.

For me, the most difficult parameter to judge via FPV is the model’s altitude.

Another issue I’ve faced with FPV is that when I’m wearing goggles, the sounds I hear are no longer in synch with what my eyes are seeing. I’ve had some people tell me that this discord makes them nauseous. Thankfully, I don’t get any physical symptoms. For me, it’s mostly a matter of not knowing precisely where the aircraft is. The wide angle lenses on FPV cameras make things look far away. When you combine that effect with the prop noise of the multi-rotor as it is taking off or hovering near the ground, it can be disconcerting. It sometimes sounds like the quad is right on top of me when it’s really 20 feet away.

This effect is most pronounced when I make high-speed passes with my racing quad. I can tell by the landmarks I see through the camera that I’m not actually flying close to me, but the Doppler effect of the prop noise sure makes it feel close at times. Again, my remedy has been to log lots of flight time as I learn to trust the camera more than my ears, and to have a spotter beside me whenever I fly outdoors.

Spending time with the started quads has helped me work through most of my FPV hang-ups. The ability to fly them indoors regardless of daylight or weather conditions is a big advantage. Here are the four starter FPV quads in order from smallest to largest:

Blade FPV Nano QX

The Blade FPV Nano QX is a derivative of the very popular base model Nano QX. The new version comes with an integrated camera and video transmitter. This is the only quad of the bunch that includes goggles (Fat Shark Teleporter) rather than a screen for displaying the FPV signal. The included radio transmitter is a medium-sized no-frills unit, but it is comfortable and works well. Alternately, a “Bind-N-Fly” version is available for those who already own compatible goggles and a Spektrum radio system.

THE BLADE FPV NANO QX IS THE ONLY SYSTEM THAT INCLUDES GOGGLES RATHER THAN A SCREEN. IT HAS BEEN A GREAT TOOL FOR HELPING ME LEARN TO RELAX DURING FPV FLIGHTS.

The camera system and the quad are both powered by the same 1-cell 150mAh Lipo battery. This provides flight times of about five minutes. While that may seem like a short time, additional batteries are quite cheap. Blade includes a USB charger.

I have to admit that the FPV Nano QX is the quad that has been most useful in furthering my FPV skills. Unlike the other systems with screens, I can’t just look up for a line of sight view whenever I get into a jam. I have to stick to the goggles and try to work things out with only the FPV perspective. As famous airshow pilot Bob Hoover would say, I fly as far into the crash as I can. While it was unnerving at first in the tight confines of my living room, wearing the goggles has taught me to stay cool and avoid over controlling the quad when trouble appears. These skills translate well when flying my larger, outdoor FPV ships.

The frame of the Nano QX has built-in blade guards that help to keep the props from striking things. Although the guards look flimsy, they’re still holding up after countless bumps with inanimate objects.

The included goggles have QVGA resolution (320x240). Higher resolution goggles are available, but these seem fine to me. In fact, the Teleporters can be paired with just about any other 5.8GHz video transmitter once you add other FPV ships to your fleet.

Estes Proto-X FPV

The Proto-X FPV is a big brother to the Proto-X SLT that is one of my favorite quads. The FPV version has a built-in, fixed-position camera. It uses a single-cell 650mAh LiPo battery that is charged via a USB cable. The package includes a 4GB micro-SD card that fits onboard the quad for recording straight from the camera. There is also a card slot on the transmitter for recording the downlinked video, but no card is included for that purpose.

HERE, THE PROTO-X FPV TAKES A PHOTO OF ME AS I RECIPROCATE. THIS VIDEO SYSTEM WAS THE EASIEST TO USE.

The transmitter for the Proto-X FPV is nearly full-size. The real-time camera image is displayed on a 95mm x 55mm color screen that is built into the case. The kit also includes a plastic glare shield that is helpful when standing below bright lights or sunlight. What I like most about this quad is that there is no extra preflight set up required for the video system. You turn on the transmitter, plug in and turn on the quad, and everything is up and running a few seconds later. It’s not that any of the other quads are overly long or laborious to get going, but the Proto-X is exceptionally easy.

Out of the box, the Proto-X is a little bit touchy on the controls. You can, however, adjust the sensitivity via the transmitter’s on-screen menu. This can be an important adjustment to make for new flyers, so don’t overlook it. The quad also has a “flip” mode so you can do some simple aerobatics as you gain flying confidence.

INDOOR FLYING IS THE PRIME DOMAIN OF THE PROTO-X FPV, BUT IT IS CAPABLE OF FLYING OUTDOORS IN CALM WINDS.

The Proto-X FPV is small enough that I don’t have any reservations about flying it inside my house. I typically start out in my living room (with cathedral ceilings), but I sometimes use the FPV advantage to venture through open doors into other rooms. The video may flicker from time to time, but I’ve never lost signal. On calm days, I’ll sometimes venture outside with this quad.

Dromida Ominus FPV

The Ominus FPV takes the original, ultra-tough Ominus quad and adds a camera with Wi-Fi downlink for FPV. A free app lets you receive the video signal on your smart phone. The included, medium-sized transmitter has an interesting mount for holding your phone. A spring-loaded clamp is attached to an arm that holds the phone about 10” above the face of the transmitter. When flying, this puts the phone much closer to your face than screens mounted on the transmitter, making it easier to see. The clamp had a lip that prevented it from grasping the OtterBox case on my iPhone, so I simply cut away the lip.

Between selectable dual-rates and flight modes, there are four different adjustments to the quad’s sensitivity. Even the lowest setting seems a little touchy for beginners, but it isn’t too bad. The Ominous FPV also has a “flip” button to make it tumble around the sky.

YOU’LL NEED TO ADD YOUR SMARTPHONE TO COMPLETE THE VIDEO SYSTEM OF THE OMINUS FPV. NOTE THE LONG REACH OF THE PHONE HOLDER.

The camera is simply mounted to the bottom of the quad with a foam rubber insulator, which does a fine job. The lens can be manually tilted within a narrow range of angles. A 1-cell 700mAh Lipo provides about 9 minutes of flight time. Charging is accomplished via a USB device.

The wi-fi/phone combination provided the best image quality of all four systems tested in this article. The image was clear and had good color. The downlink did freeze on me at a few random times, but most of my flights progressed without disruption of the video.

THE OMINUS FPV ADDS A WI-FI CAMERA TO A TOUGH AIRFRAME. THIS PROVIDED THE BEST IMAGE QUALITY OF ALL THE TESTED FPV SYSTEMS.

The size of the Ominus FPV puts it right at the upper edge of what I’m comfortable with inside my house. It could really do some damage if one of the rotors struck something. I typically take it into my back yard as long as the wind is reasonable. I have also flown the Ominus FPV at an indoor basketball court. Such a venue is ideal if you have access to one.

Ares Ethos FPV

The Ethos FPV is by far the largest and most powerful of the quads I tested. Whereas the other quads have power systems with a single-cell battery, the Ethos uses a 2-cell 1200mAh LiPo. Its greater size and power is not a good or bad thing, it just defines the areas where the Ethos can be comfortably flown. I won’t fly it inside my house, but it is right at home at the indoor basketball court. I’ll also fly the Ethos FPV at my RC club’s flying field. It has enough power and speed that it can tolerate a fair bit of wind. Just keep in mind that, without GPS, the currents will carry these quads downwind unless you make corrective inputs.

THE ARES ETHOS FPV IS THE BIGGEST QUAD OF THE BUNCH. IT INCLUDES A FULL-SIZE TRANSMITTER WITH A DETACHABLE SCREEN FOR FPV.

The package includes a full-size transmitter with dual-rates for adjusting the quad’s sensitivity. The FPV screen is a separate unit with a built-in rechargeable battery. It can be mounted into a receptacle at the top of the transmitter while you fly. On the quad side, the video transmitter has a large antenna that must be screwed into place before the system is turned on. Between the tail-like video antenna and the spaceship-inspired body on the Ethos, visual orientation is easier than with most other quads.

THE ETHOS FPV PERFORMS VERY WELL BUT IT MUST BE FLOWN OUTDOORS OR IN A LARGE INDOOR SPACE.

Overall, the FPV system has performed well and the quad is easy to fly. The “flip” button on this quad is particularly aggressive and almost no altitude is lost during the maneuver. I recently took the Ethos FPV to an indoor flying session and passed the transmitter to anyone who wanted to fly it. Those who flew it commented on commanding presence and ease of flight.

I had not tested any Ares products prior to this article. The Ethos FPV impressed me with the quality of its fit and finish--it’s a tight setup. I’ll be testing other Ares quads soon to see how they compare.

THE RANGE OF SIZES IN THE FPV QUADS IS ALSO REFLECTED IN THEIR BATTERIES. ALL USE LIPO CELLS, BUT ONLY THE ETHOS REQUIRES A 2-CELL BATTERY (FAR LEFT).

Wrap Up

FPV flying is a lot of fun, but it can be a little daunting to get started. These indoor flyers provide a less costly avenue into FPV and lower the stakes while you get the hang of things. All of the models tested here would do well in that capacity. They just differ in their sizes and FPV systems. Find the setup that works for you and get started!

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight