Regular readers of this column will know that I am a fan of rare and offbeat RC vehicles. This review definitely fits that mold. The Kyosho Blizzard SR ($350) blends my eccentric taste with a built-in capability for FPV driving. This vehicle provided my first taste of surface FPV and the Blizzard's pedestrian speeds were welcome.
The Blizzard is actually not a new design. This Snowcat-like RC vehicle was originally introduced by Kyosho in 1981. There have been several iterations of the Blizzard since then, but the core of the design has changed very little. The latest version reviewed here features a Wi-Fi radio link for control in lieu of the traditional 75MHz or 2.4GHz systems used for surface RC vehicles. The Wi-Fi link lets you drive the Blizzard via a smart phone app while also providing a real-time video link from the onboard camera. A 2.4GHz radio-equipped version of the Blizzard ($308) is also available, but you forfeit the camera.
Viscera of the Beast
In spite of the complexity suggested by the wide tracks and multitude of wheels, the Blizzard is deceptively simple. Just as with full-scale tracked vehicles, steering is accomplished by varying the relative speed of the right and left tracks. In this case, each track is driven by a dedicated motor and ESC. So controlling the speed of individual tracks is easy.
The Blizzard is mostly assembled at the factory. You will need to attach the plow mechanism, which takes just a few minutes. The remaining steps deal with installing the iReceiver app on your phone or tablet and then linking it to the vehicle. I alternately used an iPhone 4S, iPhone 6, and an iPad Mini with the Blizzard. All three systems were configured without any trouble. The process was not intuitive to me, but the steps in the manual are accurate.
The manual suggests propping up the Blizzard with the tracks off the ground during the set-up process. It's good advice. When configuring the iPad Mini, one of the tracks jumped to full speed when I made an errant input. Had it been on the ground at the time, the renegade Blizzard probably would have broken something in my workshop or on the vehicle itself.
The Blizzard is built around a simple plastic tub chassis. There is a lot of empty space, so nothing feels cramped or cluttered. The molded-in battery bay fits standard 6-cell Sub-C NiCad/NiMH battery packs. I used a Duratrax 3000mAh NiMH pack for all of my testing. Most 2-cell hard-case LiPo batteries should fit as well. A Velcro strap is used to secure the battery in place.
This kit includes a standard Molex connector on the battery leads. I swapped this for a Deans Ultra Plug. The main power lead is routed through a mechanical on/off switch. I would normally bypass such a switch since I find them redundant and potential failure points. I decided to keep it in place here to see how it holds up. So far, so good.
Each track on the Blizzard uses four idler wheels and one drive sprocket. The idler wheels are mounted on bogey-like arms with springs that allow a small amount of suspension travel. The sprocket features an exposed chain drive, which connects to a series of internal plastic gears before terminating at the brass pinion gear on the motor. The powerplants are 370-size brushed motors like those commonly found on 1/18-scale RC cars. The actual tracks are one-piece units made of a soft plastic material. The ends of the track connect together like the master link on a bicycle chain.
A Kyosho KS201 servo is used to raise and lower the plow. This is controlled via a toggle button in the app. The plow is either fully up or fully down, with no in-between options. You can, however, dig into the set-up options and redefine the specific up and down positions.
The internal drive parts, receiver, and ESCs are covered by a plastic shell that is secured in place with a single screw. The camera is attached to a pedestal atop this cover, providing a great vantage point through the large windshield of the body. However, this configuration limits access to the components below the cover. The ribbon cable that attaches the camera to the receiver prevents complete removal of the cover. It is difficult to even skew the cover off to one side for access.
The gear cover limitations shouldn't be an issue unless you ever need to work on the drivetrain or radio components. I removed it so I could take photos of the Blizzards innards. I removed the attachment screw, and then flexed the cover to provide access to the two screws holding the camera pedestal. I then cut a slot in the cover which allowed the ribbon cable to escape. There's got to be a better way to design these parts.
The Blizzard is topped with a Lexan shell. It comes prepainted and also has factory-applied decals. The body features a few nice scale touches like faux mirrors, lights, handrails, and an exhaust stack.
Driving the Blizzard SR
Arming the Blizzard is a bit awkward for me, as it is with all of my Wi-Fi-control RC vehicles. One of the tenets of RC protocol is to always turn on your transmitter before you arm the vehicle. The idea is to prevent having a live vehicle without an active control method in place. By the same logic, you should always turn off the vehicle before powering down the radio system. Wi-Fi radio systems force us to do things in the opposite order. First you turn on the vehicle, and then you connect your control device to the resulting Wi-Fi network. To ease my misgivings about this approach, I elevate the tracks off the ground as I did during the initial set-up. Placing the Blizzard atop a spray paint lid works nicely.
The iReceiver app emulates the twin control levers we normally associate with driving a tank. Each lever controls the speed of the track on its respective side. The difference here is that the levers have been replaced with emulated thumb pads. As you place your thumbs on the screen, the device vibrates to affirm that your digits are in the right place. I have taught myself to position my thumbs one at a time so I know that both of the "levers" are active.
Actual driving is pretty easy. You push both levers forward to move straight ahead. When you want to turn, you ease back the lever on the side of the direction you want to turn. There is also a reverse capability. To activate reverse, you have to move your thumbs in a slight zig-zag motion while pulling the levers downward. You can even have one track moving forward and the other moving in reverse. That will result in the Blizzard spinning in place at about 60rpm.
Now that I've logged some time using the app for control, I can say that the system works well. I've had a few instances with the iPhone 4S where it took a few tries to get the app to link to the vehicle. But once it was linked, I never experienced any dropouts in the control system. Nor was there any detectable latency in the controls. The iPhone 6 and iPad Mini had no trouble linking every time. Clearly the smart device you use can play a role in how well the overall system works. Kyosho also suggests that unraveling the bundled antenna wire and elevating it on a mast can improve Wi-Fi performance.
If you lift a thumb off of the screen while driving, even for a millisecond, the emulated control lever returns to neutral. This will cause you to lose control of the relevant track until you reinitialize your thumb position on the screen. I'm training myself to keep firm pressure on the screen to avoid this. Maybe I'm just old school, but I still prefer the tactile feedback of a spring-loaded joystick gimbal over emulated touch-screen controls.
Although the Blizzard replicates a snow vehicle, it can easily traverse many types of terrain. That's a good thing since it is currently the middle of summer and snow is rather scarce. Because the tracks are made of soft plastic, you can even run it indoors without worrying that it will ruin your floors.
So far, I've run the Blizzard indoors, over grass, dirt, soft sand and mud. It doesn't seem to care what the terrain is like. It just keeps on rolling. Top speed on hard surfaces is a brisk walking pace. Steep inclines and obstacles are no big deal. However, the limits are more often defined by the physical clearance of the plow rather than the power and traction of the vehicle. If you really want to see what extremes the Blizzard is capable of, remove the plow.
With the plow omitted, the Blizzard climbs like a monkey. I was really surprised by the variety of things that it rolled right over. I reminded me of the Axial Wraith rock crawler that I previously reviewed. As with the Wraith, driving technique also played a big part in determining whether an obstacle was conquered. Sometimes just coming in at a slightly different angle or speed is all it takes.
Let's not dismiss the plow completely however. I had fun using it to push around piles of dirt, rocks, leaves and sand just like a bulldozer. The Blizzard is fairly lightweight, so sometimes the plow merely ascended the front edge of a pile rather than digging into it. I'm looking forward to trying it in the snow.
When you are ready to try FPV driving, a button in the app places the live camera feed as the background. Although numerous buttons and the control levers are overlaid on the image, I didn't think that anything was difficult to see. I had fun exploring familiar indoor spaces using the FPV system. Given the low vantage point, you may have trouble navigating new spaces…but I suppose that's half the fun.
When things were working properly, I didn't notice much latency in the video signal. The slow speed of the Blizzard compensated for any delay that was present. I did have problems with the image freezing from time to time. That would be a big deal with a quad racer hurtling through the sky, but it's not really an issue with the dawdling Blizzard.
The app allows you to shoot still photos and video that are then stored directly to your smart device. I was able to retrieve photos, but I've yet to successfully record and retrieve a video file. While it's irritating that this portion of the app is flakey, I have to admit that I probably wouldn't use it very often anyway. The resolution of the still photos is only 640x360. I'm sure the video files are no better. If you want high-quality recordings of your outings, it's probably best to strap on a GoPro or Mobius. Even then, expect a bouncy ride.
I'm having somewhat mixed feelings as I wrap up this review. Looking at the Blizzard purely as an RC vehicle, I think it hits all the right notes. It is unique, simple, and rugged while also having the ability to do things that few other RC mounts can do. My dilemma comes when I analyze the Wi-Fi-based control system. It requires a few more steps to start each run (as compared to a standard RC control system), and sometimes the linkup doesn't go smoothly.
So the question I'm forced to ask myself is: "Are the extra capabilities afforded by the Wi-Fi system worth the additional overhead it creates?" With some refinement to the requisite smartphone app and a more consistent video downlink, the answer would be a resounding "yes". The app in its current state, however, leaves me torn. I definitely enjoyed the FPV option, but I sometimes found myself wishing for the reliability, simplicity and familiarity of a 2.4GHz system.
At one point, I actually removed the Wi-Fi system and installed a 2.4GHz 2-stick radio to satisfy my curiosity. I was surprised to find that the differences in driving with the two systems were much more subtle than I expected. In the end, I was glad to have chosen the Wi-Fi version of the Blizzard over the 2.4GHz unit. It isn't perfect, but the important parts work well to provide a very unique RC driving experience.