How To Get Into Hobby RC: 5 Multi-Rotor Models Under $50

I’ve always said that mini-quads are the best way to get started with multi-rotors. They provide a low-cost way to learn fundamental piloting skills before you put an expensive flying machine (and innocent bystanders) at risk. Additionally, their small size lets them be flown indoors. So you can hone your skills night and day, regardless of the weather. When I first began advocating the use of mini-quads as trainers, a hobby-quality unit would typically cost $100 or more. The price bar has come way down. Numerous mini-quads can now be had for less than $50. We’ll look at a handful of those choices today.

My intent with this article is not to rank the different models, but rather to illustrate the range of options, as well as the limitations that are found at this price point. I think that someone with zero flying experience could be successful with any of the multi-rotors that I tested. With that said, I felt that one of the quads stood out as an exceptional choice for new pilots. You’ll have to keep reading to see which one!

I tried to approach my testing with the mindset of a rank beginner. I think that stable hovering and docile control response are the best attributes to facilitate flight training. So I focused heavily on those aspects. Pilots who already have some stick time may put greater emphasis on other qualities such as aerobatic ability or toughness. Decide what factors are most important to you and choose accordingly. Even within this small sample of multi-rotors, I observed significant differences that could impact which is the best fit for different pilots.

The Economics of Ergonomics

The radio transmitters for most larger multi-rotors (i.e. those bigger than mini-quads) are quite standardized in terms of size, form factor and functionality. They follow the decades-old standard that is used for RC airplanes and helicopters. You may have switches and dials for various functions, but the core controls consist of a pair of 2-axis joysticks on the face of a box measuring approximately 6″x6″.

If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image.

If your end game is to step up to a larger multi-rotor (and thus, one of these standardized transmitters) it would make sense to start out with a transmitter made in that image. The problem is that most inexpensive mini-quads come with transmitters that are nothing like the norm. Some are ridiculously tiny. Others look like gamepads. Most have thumb rests atop the joysticks, making the common “pinch” grip impractical. Regardless of how well the multi-rotor may fly, using these off-nominal transmitters limits the quad’s effectiveness as a training tool. You may even pick up bad habits.

The good news is that an awkward transmitter isn’t necessarily a deal-breaker. I have yet to find a transmitter that could not be easily (and cheaply) modified to adequately resemble the standard form factor. In most cases, it’s just a matter of attaching the housing to a piece of foam and replacing the thumb rests with aluminum tubing. Of the five quads tested here, I found it “necessary” to modify all but one of them. Three received the foam and aluminum treatment, while one received only aluminum joysticks. See last year’s review of the Dromida Kodo for details on my transmitter modification technique.

The Lineup

In alphabetical order by manufacturer, these are the multi-rotors that I tested (prices as of 1/1/16):

  • Ares Spidex ($45)
  • Blade Pico QX ($40)
  • Estes Proto-Z ($25)
  • Revell Hexagon ($37)
  • Syma X11 ($27)

All of these quads included a full set of spare propellers and a USB charging cord. All but one of them have the ability to adjust the sensitivity of the flight controls. Nearly all of my flight time was spent using the most docile setting available for each multi-rotor.

The flight times listed in the table are the average of three flights that included mixtures of hovering and translation. I ignored any low-battery warnings while measuring the timed flights. I flew until the multi-rotor wouldn’t stay airborne any longer.

Ares Spidex

My previous experiences with Ares quads have all been positive, so I had high expectations for the Spidex. I wasn’t disappointed. Like its predecessors, the Spidex is well-thought out and refined.

Including the spider-like legs that double as prop guards, this quad has the largest footprint of the multi-rotors that I tested. This is also the only unit to include a transmitter that I didn’t feel obligated to modify. Although it is not full-size, the look and feel is close enough that transitioning to a larger transmitter should be a non-issue.

The Ares Spidex is the largest of the models tested and the only one that includes a reasonably-sized transmitter.

I thought that the quad was relatively easy to fly in the 20% setting. The only issue I had was that determining the quad’s orientation was sometimes difficult. The outside areas are all black except for the front props, which are orange or green. So there isn’t much to go by color-wise. The six LED lights which are meant to provide further cues for orientation are somewhat buried within the airframe and often obscured. Even when the lights are visible, there isn’t much contrast between the orange lights in front and the red lights in the rear.

The Spidex’s 180mAh LiPo battery is removable. Additional batteries are $8. With one or two spare batteries, you could log additional flight time while a battery is charging. My flight times were very consistently a few seconds shy of 6 minutes.

Blade Pico QX

The Pico QX is the smallest of the extensive line of quads from Blade and also the smallest of the units I tested here. Unlike many of the other Blade quads, the Pico QX cannot be linked to a full-size Spektrum transmitter. So you’re limited to the included unit…which like the quad itself, is rather tiny. This is one that I modified with a foam base and aluminum joysticks.

The tiny transmitters that come with many small multi-rotors will not prepare you for the look and feel of standard transmitters. The simple modifications shown here mitigate the differences.

Like the Spidex, the Pico QX is relatively easy to fly when the control sensitivity is set to low. The little ship responds well, but not too abruptly. That’s what you want in a beginner-oriented ship. In contrast to what the manual says, my experience suggests that “low” is the default sensitivity setting and that it is indicated with a solid light on the transmitter.

Despite its diminutive size, I thought that in-flight orientation was no problem. The blue lights in the front and red lights in the rear are easy to see and distinguish. There is also a pair of flashing green lights that illuminate the front of the body. I would prefer that they didn’t flash, but the additional color is an effective visual aid either way.

Blade’s Pico QX is tiny, but it is easy to see and fly.

The only strange thing I noted with the Pico QX is that its stability seems to degrade as the battery drains. Near the end of a flight, which averages around 4 minutes, the quad will sometimes oscillate back and forth rather than remain perfectly level. It still responds to controls, there is just less precision while hovering.

Estes Proto-Z

While most manufacturers are busy trying to cram more features into their quads, the Proto-Z stands out by virtue of its simplicity. There is only one sensitivity setting. This quad doesn’t even have trims to adjust its flight attitude. Although the transmitter reflects the standard shape and does not use thumb pads, I still think that it is too small to be practical. This is another setup that I modified with a foam base and aluminum joysticks.

The Proto-Z offers a mode where the quad responds to control inputs from a pilot-centric perspective, regardless of the actual orientation of the quad. Ignore it. The main reason for training with a mini-quad is so that you will not have to depend on such crutches to be a competent pilot.

Simplicity is what makes the Estes Proto-Z stand out from the other multi-rotors in this review. It’s a great first quad.

I was a little worried about the Proto-Z’s lack of trim capability and whether it would actually hover in place. Now with numerous flights logged, I can say that it hasn’t been an issue at all. Not only does the Proto-Z hover well, but it translates very well too. Of the quads I tested, I felt that this was the easiest to fly by a considerable margin. The controls are very sedate, so it’s difficult to get into a situation where you’re “chasing” the quad rather than commanding it.

It’s not something that I ever considered before, but I couldn’t help but notice that the Proto-Z is exceptionally quiet compared to all the other mini-quads I’ve flown. Many have a harsh, piercing buzz. But this one seems to hum a non-irritating note. That could be a factor if you share your flying space with people or pets who don’t appreciate the sound of mechanized insects.

Overall, I was really impressed with the Proto-Z as a quad for first-timers. It flys really easily and doesn’t have much fluff that may only confuse new pilots. It also gets good flight times, with jaunts averaging nearly 6 minutes. Its $30 price tag puts it among the most affordable ships in the lineup as well. Although I didn’t intend to make recommendations as part of this overview, the Proto-Z stands out as a superb first quad.

Revell Hexagon

I’ve used the term “quad” rather loosely throughout this article. I really should be more careful. One of these multi-rotors, the Revell Hexagon, is not a quad at all, but a hex. Having six motors instead of the usual four, doesn’t provide any better performance in this application, but it sure does bump up the cool factor a few notches.

The transmitter included with the Hexagon is yet another of the too-small variety. It is the final radio that received a foam base and aluminum joysticks. The Hexagon falls into the middle of the pack in terms of flight ease. Thanks to the LEDs on the end of each arm, I think that this bird has the best visual cues for determining orientation. Several lights are visible from any given perspective, so I am always sure which way the Hexagon is pointed.

The Revell Hexagon is a cool little ship. It’s louder than the others, but it flys well and is easy to see.

Like the Proto-Z, this multi-rotor is also noteworthy for its sound. The Hexagon, however, is particularly loud. I presume it’s a simple factor of having 50% more props cutting into the air. This sound level is relative, of course. It’s not like you’ll need ear protection. But it would certainly annoy someone trying to hear a TV in the same room.

The LEDs flash to warn you that the battery is getting low and it’s time to land. The warning is pretty conservative. I found that I could usually get an additional 30 to 45 seconds of flight once the lights began flashing. Not that you want to get in the habit of pushing the battery to full depletion. Nor should you rush in for a landing at the first blink. I found that I could usually get 4 minutes of flight from each charge.

Syma X11

All of the previous multi-rotors listed here are available at local hobby shops. If you choose one of them, I would urge you to purchase locally. From what I have seen, the Syma X11 is only available from online retailers. In fact, I purchased this review unit from Amazon.

The X11 includes a gamepad-like transmitter with thumb rests. I thought that the housing was large enough, so I didn’t create a foam base for it. I did, however replace the thumbs rests with aluminum tubing (.25″ OD vs .125″ OD on the others). I noticed that the left gimbal of the controller has a lot of play. It’s annoying, but not a major factor.

The Syma X11 uses geared motors and a large-capacity battery to attain the longest flight time among the tested quads. It also includes a spare battery for even more flight time.

This is the only reviewed unit that uses gear-reduction drives on the motors. Gearing typically allows the multi-rotor to use larger, more efficient props. The X11 props are indeed noticeably larger than all others. Perhaps that’s why this quad has the longest flight times (6′ 30″), or maybe it’s because it also has the highest capacity battery (200mAh). Speaking of the battery, it is removable. My set included a spare, so there is opportunity for a lot of flight time.

The control response of the X11 falls right on the mean. It is not particularly easy or difficult to fly. The only issue I had is that the prop guard obscures the LED lights in some orientations. While the guard is easily removable, I think that new flyers will want to keep it in place until they have developed the rudimentary skills to actively avoid stationary objects.

If the Hexagon’s low-battery warning is overly conservative, then the X11’s is borderline pointless. Within a second or two of the first LED blink, the X11 automatically reduces power to the motors to force a landing. So make sure that you’re not flying over the fish tank near the end of your flights!

Invest Wisely

Purchasing a small multi-rotor is one of the best investments that you can make to ensure your success with larger models.

Purchasing a small multi-rotor is one of the best investments that you can make to ensure your success with larger models. There’s no substitute for stick time, which these models are able to provide with low cost, low risk, and few limitations. While you may need to modify the transmitter to make the most of your training, I think that you’ll find the effort worthwhile.

Yes, there are differences among the multi-rotors tested here. And yes, I have a preference. Yet I think that they all have the necessary features to get a rookie pilot over those first awkward hurdles. In an upcoming article, I will look at a selection of multi-rotors in the $50-$100 price range. While they are also good training tools, they generally need to be flown outdoors.

Terry spent 15 years as an engineer at the Johnson Space Center. He is now a freelance writer living in Lubbock, Texas. Visit his website at TerryDunn.org and follow Terry on Twitter: @weirdflight

SOURCE:http://www.tested.com/tech/549615-how-get-hobby-rc-5-multi-rotor-models-under-50/

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