Flying First Person View (FPV) racers isn't easy. Weaving through the small gates that define a FPV race course demands confidence and skills that must be earned. Those first baby steps of becoming an FPV pilot can be rough for some. While there is no single training path that is guaranteed to work for everyone, there are definitely high-yield, low-risk methods to becoming a competent pilot.
Fat Shark recently announced a setup that combines several popular training tools into one box. Called "Fat Shark 101" ($250), this package includes simulator training as well as a flight-ready multi-rotor and goggles. The goal is to elevate you out of noob status and get you on the race course without leaving a trail of expletives and broken parts.
About Fat Shark 101
The 101 package is all-inclusive. I didn't have to add a thing to get it going. Even AA batteries for the transmitter are included. The core of the 101 set is a 105mm quadcopter. This quad uses brushed motors and is powered by a 2-cell 260mAh LiPo battery. Two batteries are provided in the kit, along with a USB charger for them.
No assembly is required for the quad. You can decide for yourself whether the shark-like profile is cool. I happen to like it. From a practicality standpoint, the tail really improves in-flight orientation when flying by line-of-sight.
I've always preached about the practicality of using small, indoor-capable quads as training tools. The prime drawback with that approach is that most of the smaller, beginner-oriented quads include an undersized control transmitter. Some are ridiculously small. You are often forced to readjust to the feel of the control sticks when you transition to a full-size transmitter.
The transmitter included with the 101 is not quite full-size, but it's close. The control gimbals, however, are full-size. I think there will be little, if any, challenge going from this unit to a standard transmitter.
The final main element of the 101 package is a set of full-screen goggles. The unit has a built-in 5.8GHz receiver, so it is compatible with most video transmitters used for racing. It is powered by a single 2600mAh 18650 Lithium-Ion battery that can be recharged via USB.
The quad side of the FPV system features a camera that is hard-mounted to the nose. This camera feeds an onboard video transmitter (VTX) which can operate on either the Fat Shark or Race Band 5.8GHz frequencies. Unlike most FPV systems, this one does not require an FAA amateur radio license (aka ham license) to operate. You will likely need the ham license if you probe deeper into FPV with other systems. But at least you won't have to check that box just to test the waters with the 101 package.
Other aspects of the Fat Shark 101 bundle are equally important, but less tangible. You get access to the Drone Racing League (DRL) simulator. This is an online simulator that lets you practice flying with zero risk. I can't overstate how helpful simulator time is for most pilots…even experienced ones. The package also includes a 3-month trial membership in the Academy of Model Aeronautics (required at most RC flying clubs), as well as the liability insurance provided to full AMA members.
There is a 3-position switch on the transmitter for selecting the flight mode that determines the flight behavior of the quad. The modes are beginner, intermediate, and pro. While the starting point may seem obvious, there are actually two equally valid options. A little background info will help paint the picture.
Beginner mode (also known as Angle mode or Horizon mode) has tilt limits. If you release the right control stick, the quad will self-level. The degree that you deflect the control stick in any direction equates to how far the quad will tilt in that direction. For instance, moving the control stick 25% to the right will cause the quad to lean to the right at 25% of the maximum tilt angle.
In Intermediate mode, there is no self-leveling and there are no tilt limits. Deflecting the control stick causes the quad to rotate in that direction at a given rate. The further you deflect the control stick, the faster it rotates. It will continue to rotate until you center the controls. Pro mode behaves the same as Intermediate, but the maximum rotation rates are higher. This makes the quad more responsive, but also more difficult to control.
There are two schools of thought regarding which mode beginning pilots should adopt. Most racers agree that mastering some flavor of rate mode should be your ultimate goal. It provides the precision and control you'll need to hustle around the race course. The question is whether it is better to get your feet wet with the self-leveling Beginner mode or take the bigger step directly to Intermediate.
Starting with Beginner mode will certainly make your initial attempts at flight much easier. The risk is that its self-leveling and tilt limits could become crutches that stymie further development of your skills. You can still have fun and exciting flights in Beginner mode, so it's easy to get stuck in that rut. I'm speaking from personal experience here. That's why some believe that it is better for race quad pilots to bypass Beginner mode and jump straight to Intermediate. My suggestion is to start out by giving Intermediate mode a solid chance on the sim. If you just can't get the hang of it, flip the switch to Beginner for a while.
As you get deeper into your training you can customize the quad's flight performance by modifying the flight mode settings. A micro USB socket on the quad allows you to connect it to your computer. You can then change parameters using Betaflight Configurator. Again, it's better to limit the variables. So I would ignore this capability up front.
The 101 system introduces new pilots to flying in graduated steps. You begin by learning the rudiments of multi-rotor control on the DRL simulator. The best part of this scenario is that the Fat Shark transmitter doubles as a computer game controller. All you have to do is connect the transmitter to your computer with the included micro USB cable. This allows you to learn to fly with exactly the same controller you will use for the real deal. Fewer variables is always a good thing.
Once you've become comfortable with the sim, you then fire up the quad. You literally fly on a leash. A tether is provided to anchor the quad to a water bottle. The idea is to provide sufficient freedom of motion to get the feel of hovering the quad in place. You just don't have to worry about an incorrect control input sending the quad into your 50-inch flat screen.
Next, it's time to say goodbye to the safety nets. You fly the quad untethered. My suggestion is to get comfortable controlling the quad via line-of-sight before attempting to don the FPV goggles. Your situational awareness is significantly altered with the goggles on. You can't avoid what you can't see.
More flight time will invariably make you more comfortable with flying. At some point, you will be prepared to try on the goggles. At some later point, you will be ready for Pro flight mode. We may be talking a matter of hours. Or maybe it's weeks. There is no set timeline. Go at your own pace and comfort level. Just keep in mind that flying with goggles in Pro mode is your eventual goal.
The kit also includes a pair of circular race gates. Practicing with the gates is a super way to hone your skills. They may look big at first. But just wait until you try to sprint through one with the quad!
Flying the Fat Shark 101
I just received a preproduction sample of the 101 kit. Although the quad can be flown outdoors, a few days of high winds have limited my test flights to the confines of my house. I'm not complaining. My floorplan has a natural racetrack that runs through several rooms. I've logged a few hot laps!
My initial impression of the quad's flying qualities is positive. I've exercised all three flight modes. Control response is crisp and predictable. I just haven't been able to successfully crank out any flips or rolls (Pro mode) because of my low ceilings. I'm really looking forward to calmer winds, so I can take it outside for some aerobatics.
Between missed turns and incomplete flips, I've knocked the quad around a little. There has been no damage so far. Even the props are still in good shape.
The battery mounting system is rather clever. A plastic shell cradles the battery and clips directly to the quad frame. The power plug on the quad is easy to access and the wires do not interfere with any moving parts. It is all very simple, clean, and easily managed.
All of my other quads of this size have been powered by single-cell battery packs. You can definitely feel the increased power of the 2-cell pack used here. Flight times are a little short at around 3.5 minutes. But then again, most racing quads have short flight times. Additional batteries are $17 for two packs and a charger.
Fat Shark is known for their FPV headsets, so it makes sense that the included goggles work well. They appear a little small, but I have not had any issues with the fit or comfort. I'm really impressed with the sharpness and vivid colors of the quad's FPV feed.
The onboard VTX transmits at less than 1 milliwatt of power, so range is somewhat limited.
The onboard VTX transmits at less than 1 milliwatt of power, so range is somewhat limited. I've found that I can venture just about anywhere within my house without the signal fading. Well, it's good as long as I keep the quad and the goggles on the same floor. Things get a little fuzzy when I send the quad up a flight of stairs. I expect the signal's range to improve outdoors.
The only technical issue I've noticed during flight testing relates to the flight battery status indicator that is imbedded in the video feed. It shows 40% remaining throughout most of a flight. I suspect that production units will be fine.
Production models of the Fat Shark 101 are scheduled to hit retailers sometime in January of 2018. My early peek at the preproduction kit suggests that this is a sensible starting rig for aspiring drone racers. It bundles together all of the gear needed to prepare you for race-quality multi-rotors. The concept makes a lot of sense and the included gear works nicely. We'll be spending more time with the 101 to get a better feel for its all-around flight performance and durability. So, look for a follow-up report in the coming weeks.
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.