Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Radio-controlled Awesome

If you don’t think remote controlled helicopters are neat, skip this post (also, what the hell is wrong with you?) If do think they’re neat but don’t have one yet, read on for my review.

R/C helicopters have been around for a while, but have typically been expensive, kind of hard to control, and often required a lot of space. They were more for dedicated hobbyists and not the casual amateur. In the last few years, electronics, batteries, and other components have gotten better while costs dropped. Very small quad-copters started showing up at expensive toy prices, eventually a few hit the $100 mark. Somewhere around May or June, Blade introduced the Nano QX. I’ve owned one for about six weeks. It’s the first real remote-controlled anything for me, and it’s one of the best toys I’ve bought in a long time.

The Nano QX is small and light, with a well-designed frame that protects the plastic blades in most situations. If you brush up against a wall or the ceiling, the frame hits instead of the blades. Because it’s very light, when you crash it is unlikely anything will break. Mechanically, it’s very simple. There’s a frame, four plastic blades with four motors all wired to single controller board, and a small battery that slides into a spot in frame underneath the controller electronics. There are maybe 11 or 12 parts total. All of them are easy to replace and available at Amazon or other places online. If you buy it with a remote control, you should pay about $100.

What really makes it easy to fly is the electronic controller. In the default mode, you plug in the battery and put it down on a level surface. The controller board initializes and calls that “level.” From that point on, if the blades are spinning, then the controller is going to try to keep this little guy level.  While in flight, if you let go of the controls, it returns to a level hover. When it runs into  breeze or draft (the A/C at my office blows pretty hard), it’ll get moved, but it will stay level.

With a little practice, you can pick it up (throttle at zero), turn it upside down, and toss it with one hand while applying a bit a throttle with the other. Your Nano will flip itself over and probably end up hovering. It’s not magic, you can’t throw it against the wall has hard as you want, but it works better than most people expect. The end result is a small, light, durable, relatively cheap, easy to fix toy helicopter that does most of the hard work of keeping itself in the air.

To computer/gadget geeks, these things are addictive. A couple of months ago, someone in my office brought his Nano in. At first I stayed away from it. I once tried a friend’s coaxial micro helicopter and even though I was flying it inside a large gym, I nearly broke it in less than a minute and it cost him way more than $100. But, this guy in my office kept encouraging people to try it. Eventually a few of us did. It takes a few minutes to learn the basics. After that, it’s easy to keep it in the air. You crash it a few times and realize it’s ok. When you get a bit out of control, just kill the throttle and it drops to the ground and doesn’t hurt itself. Set it right side up (or toss it) and off it goes. You quickly build confidence that you can keep it in the air and that it’s actually kind of hard to break in a crash.

A couple of us ordered them a week or two later. Three more people bought theirs a couple of weeks after that. On Friday, we had five of them all in the air at once. They’re durable enough that the rest of the office thinks they make good targets for Nerf guns. So far, even a direct hit doesn’t break it. They’re fun, user friendly, not too expensive, and hard to break. What’s not to love?

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