The thrill of First Person View (FPV) flying is a big draw for many aspiring RC hobbyists. Everybody wants to experience the sensation of flying from their model's perspective. While there are lots of beginner-oriented FPV multi-rotors on the market, there are very few fixed-wing options. A new entry in the fixed-wing column is the SmartPlane Pro FPV from TobyRich ($300).
I'll be honest. I didn't expect much from this model. The marketing material made it seem like something you might find in a Sky Mall catalog…plenty of cool factor, but no real substance. I've tested enough of those types of products to know that I shouldn't get my hopes up.
You can imagine my surprise when I discovered that the SmartPlane Pro FPV (SPPF) is actually a great-flying little airplane. In fact, the entire package works much better than I expected. I've really been enjoying it. Keep reading to find out what makes the SPPF stand out. I'll also share some things that could use improvement.
About the SmartPlane Pro FPV
This model is factory-assembled and includes everything needed to get airborne (except your smartphone). Inside the box, you'll find the foam airframe, a 1-cell 185mAh LiPo flight battery, a set of 5.8GHz FPV goggles, as well as the necessary battery chargers and two spare propellers. The SPPF is not a large model. It has a wingspan of 12" (305mm) and is 13" (330mm) long. The ready-to-fly airplane weighs 1.4 oz (41g).
Regular readers know that I am generally not a fan of RC models that utilize smartphone apps for the flight controls. I have yet to find any smartphone control interface that comes anywhere close to the precision of a dedicated transmitter with physical joysticks. With that said, the SmartPlane Pro app used to control the SPPF is definitely the best I've ever used.
The model links with your phone via Bluetooth. There are two primary control methods within the app. In Tilt mode, you hold the phone in portrait orientation. Your thumb controls the throttle with a virtual slider. Turns are made by rolling the phone in the direction you want the plane to go.
To use Joystick mode, you hold the phone in landscape orientation with both hands. Your left thumb controls the throttle slider while your right thumb moves right and left over a virtual joystick to make turns. A common drawback with these types of emulated joysticks is that you don't know where the midpoint is without looking down at the screen. The SPPF addresses this by including a physical thumb pad that attaches to the screen with suction cups.
I'm not sure whether to call the SPPF a 2-channel or 3-channel model. In addition to throttle, the airplane also has a rudder for yaw control and an elevator for pitch. Technically, that's three channels. However, the pilot only has direct control of the throttle and rudder. The elevator is controlled by the model's built-in autopilot. This automated element keeps the SPPF in the correct attitude during normal flight and also makes aerobatics possible.
The heart of any FPV model is the video downlink. Shortcuts here can lead to endless frustration. The SPPF's video system really rises above other beginner platforms I've used. Video is transmitted via a dedicated 5.8GHz signal (not Wi-Fi). This downlink is received and displayed on a set of goggles with a 5" (127mm) screen (not your phone). The goggles have a built-in rechargeable battery. You can also detach the headgear portion and use the screen as a monitor on a tripod. The end result is a flexible video system with a reliable connection and no detectable lag.
There is no built-in provision to record the video feed for later viewing. A different model in the SmartPlane lineup, the SmartPlane Pro FPV+ does have such a capability. I can't comment on its efficacy since I have not tested that specific model. Since we're talking about other variants, I'll also mention the baseline SmartPlane Pro, which does not have FPV gear. It is flown only by line-of-sight.
Flying the Smart Plane Pro FPV
The SPPF has two flight modes, airplane and helicopter. In airplane mode, the model maintains a horizontal stance while you steer it around. Jockeying the throttle will make the airplane climb and descend. Helicopter made makes the SPPF assume a nose-high attitude that reduces its forward speed considerably. The manual suggests that helicopter mode is useful for indoor flying.
In addition to the basic flight controls, there is a menu of tricks that can be activated during flight. For instance, I currently have my model set to perform a loop when I do a quick upward flick of the phone. The SPPF autopilot takes over to execute the loop and then control reverts back to me. Other special maneuvers include a "Cobra turn", hovering, and emergency landing. You can assign three maneuvers to different command actions.
When you activate the system, motor power defaults to 50%. That's plenty for a gentle hand launch into the wind. In fact, I don't think I've botched a launch yet!
My suggestion for rookie flyer is to get comfortable flying via line-of-sight before donning the FPV goggles. This allows you to easily comprehend the effects of your control inputs. Line-of-sight also gives you much better overall situational awareness. There are few things worse than landing (or crashing) when flying FPV and having no idea where your model is! When you do fly FPV, it's always a good idea to have a spotter help you out.
The SPPF flies slowly and predictably. New flyers will appreciate this since it gives them more time to think before making a control input. This is doubly helpful since the airplane's small size makes it difficult to see before it gets very far away.
I was a little concerned that the SPPF would be twitchy because the control surfaces are large and have a lot of movement. It actually flies very smoothly, however. I'm truly impressed with how well this model responds to control inputs and executes gentle, predictable turns.
With the throttle set around 60%, I am able to fly the SPPF a little above head height without losing altitude. If you get too aggressive with your turns, you'll have to add power to stay airborne.
I've used both the Tilt and Joystick control methods. I didn't expect to like Tilt mode, but it turned out to be intuitive and easy for me. On the flip side, I was disappointed by the thumbpad in Joystick mode. It just didn't work very consistently. I had much better luck flying in joystick mode without the thumb pad attached.
The TobyRich website suggests that you can fly the SPPF in your living room. That's not really practical. Even in Helicopter flight mode (which is fun), the model needs some space to move around. If you have access to an indoor basketball court, or maybe a large garage, that would be ideal.
The trick functions are a neat diversion from flying laps. Autopilot kicks in and the airplane does its thing. An audible notification on your phone lets you know that a trick is in process and tells you when to resume control.
FPV with the SPPF
The included goggles are a little smaller than most others I've tried, but they still fit on my big noggin. More importantly, the system works. The goggles dutifully connect to the video feed every time I arm the SPPF. I don't know what the output power of the video signal is, but I've never lost signal…even when the model is at the edge of its control range.
Once again, the slow speed and docile nature of the SPPF are helpful with FPV. The limited Bluetooth range won't let you venture far away. So the airplane's relaxed pace keeps you from having to make constant turns. If you've become comfortable flying the SPPF via line-of-sight, I think you'll have no trouble transitioning to FPV…and you'll love the new perspective.
Improving the SPPF
I'm really impressed by the SPPF overall, but I do see some things that could be better. The on-screen battery indicator is overly conservative. My flights have been averaging 8 to 10 minutes per charge. Yet, the app often warns of an empty battery well before I need to land. That wouldn't be such a big deal if not for the constant audible warnings. If there is a way to turn those off in the app, I haven't found it. I could turn my phone volume down, but I do want to hear the other messages that might pop up, particularly warnings about exceeding Bluetooth range.
The model's overall black color makes in-flight orientation difficult at times. After a few outings with the airplane, I painted the left wingtip orange. This has helped me tell which way it is going a little better.
I've noticed that the rudder oscillates back and forth in a wide arc during flight. It almost looks like a fish swimming through the air. My hunch is that aerodynamic forces are overpowering the magnetic actuator. The funny thing is that it doesn't seem to adversely affect control response. Like I said, the airplane is a joy to fly. But the engineer in me yearns to figure out why the rudder is swaying and fix it.
If the siren song of FPV flight has been calling you, but you have zero experience with RC gadgets, the SmartPlane Pro FPV is worth looking at. I entered this review with low expectations and a general distaste for mass-market RC products. I have to admit that this model has swayed me. While it is not cheap, it also does not make any compromises. The airframe is durable and flies very well. Even though it uses your smartphone for flight control, it's the best execution of app controls that I've seen. It also includes a reliable and flexible video system. The overall package requires no special skills and works quite well.
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.