Getting Started with FPV Drone Racing
So you want to race
AWESOME! As far as hobbies go there are fewer things more rewarding than FPV Drone Racing. Not only is it fast and exciting, but the skills you learn in the process of building and repairing your drone are applicable in every day life.
BUT… and it is a big but (heh heh…), you need to know ahead of time:
- There is nothing easy about this hobby
- You WILL crash. A lot.
- You WILL break things. A lot of things.
- There are no “cheap” or “easy” race drones – anything that claims to be is not for racing.
Okay, now that that is out of the way, don’t let any of that stop you!
Flying drones is difficult, sure, but it gets easier with practice just like anything else. It helps to fly with someone who is already a good pilot, as they can help you along the way. Yes you will crash and break things along the way, but you’ll also learn how to fix them! This is why I make the last point though – there are no “cheap” or “easy” drones out there.
You can purchase an RTF (Ready-To-Fly) drone for around $50 at WalMart, but that is a toy. You can get a better RTF online for around $300 and it may fly pretty well, but chances are the electronics and components are proprietary and therefore expensive. Your best bet (if you want inexpensive) is to buy a kit or do a little homework and order parts individually and build it yourself. Don’t worry, it sounds harder than it is.
What You Need
A typical FPV drone setup consists of the following parts:
- Radio Transmitter (TX) – The “controller”. This is what you use to tell the drone what to do.
- Receiver (RX) – Mounted on the drone, it receives the commands from the transmitter.
- Frame – the body of the drone, usually made of carbon fiber
- Flight Controller – this is the “brain” of the drone. It runs the software that makes the whole thing fly.
- Motors – Brushless electric motors that spin at a high rate of speed.
- Propellers – Create lift by spinning on the motors.
- ESC (Electronic Speed Controller) – Receives commands from the Flight Controller and controls the speed of the motor accordingly.
- Power Distribution Board (PDB) – Splits out the battery power to all of the ESCs. Most will also have 5v and 12v converters to power the flight controller, receiver, video equipment, etc.
- FPV Camera – a relatively low-resolution, low-latency camera
- Video Transmitter (VTX) – Transmits the FPV camera image to the pilot on a set band and channel. Comes in many sizes and shapes, and with different channel compatibility.
- Video Receiver – Receives the signal from the Video Transmitter. Comes in many sizes and shapes, and with different channel compatibility. Connects to, or is often a part of, the Video Display.
- Video Display – Either an LCD screen or FPV goggles. Many have a Video Receiver built-in, though it may have limited channel compatibility.
- Battery – Typically a LiPO battery. Relatively small and light with a high power output.
- Battery Charger – required to recharge your LiPo batteries.
- On Screen Display (OSD – optional) – Creates an overlay of flight information on the FPV video feed. Helpful for displaying flight time, battery life remaining, etc.
- Trackmate Transponder (for lap timing at our races – optional for beginner) – The TrackMate Transponder is a small IR diode that is used to identify your drone as it passes the timing gate. This does not affect your drone in any way and is not a requirement to build a drone, nor is it a requirement for beginner pilots at our races.
One thing you will NOT usually find on a racing drone is GPS, or any “return to home” features. Those are best reserved for casual drones, or those used for aerial imagery.
Let’s break this down with a bit more detail…
Your Radio Transmitter is what you use to control the drone. It will also determine what radio protocol you use to control it. Popular choices are the FRSKY Taranis Q X7, or the Spektrum DX6. The Taranis uses the popular FRSKY protocol and can only be used with FRSKY compatible receivers, and the DX6 uses the DSMX protocol and can only be used with DSMX compatible receivers. They each have their own benefits so it is best to learn a bit about them both, maybe talk to a few pilots, and decide which is right for you.
The frame is the body of the drone, and there are a TON of choices out there. They are usually identified with a number, such as 250, 210, 180, etc. This is their measurement diagonally from motor to motor, which dictates its class. As a rule, smaller drones have less build space and therefore can be more difficult to assemble with all of the components. Some frames are super strong, some are easier to build for a first-timer, and some look awesome but will fall apart with the slightest bump. For the most part you want something made of carbon fiber, and as little plastic as possible. A typical inexpensive but solid starting point would be something like the ZMR250 or 210. Your first drone should be able to support 5″ propellers at a minimum.
The PDB you choose is often trivial. You simply need a way to take the power from the battery and send it to the ESCs, and power the flight controller. The flight controller usually runs off of 5V, but your battery will be putting out a lot more power than that, so it is best to use a PDB that will convert power to 5v and 12v as well. Most PDBs available will have this ability, but it is best to be sure.
Your flight controller is the brain of the drone, and can range in price from $15 to, well, a lot of money. Different flight controllers support different firmware, which is the software that makes it work. Every pilot will have their preferred firmware and flight controller, and it is mostly subjective, but if you are going to splurge then this may be an area to do so. The base-level flight controllers are a Naze32 or a CC3D. These flight controllers are mostly outdated and will not run many of the current firmware options. At a minimum you should look for something based around an F3 processor, or an F4 if you want to splurge.
Motors, Propellers & ESCs
I’m lumping these together because they go hand in hand (in hand). The ESC gets its command from the Flight Controller and tells the motor how fast to spin. The motor spins the propeller to generate lift. This causes the motor to draw power in Amps from the ESC, which draws its power from the PDB, which in turn is drawing it from the battery. Motors and ESCs will both only be able to handle so many Amps without generating too much heat and burning up. Most motor manufacturers will publish test results of their motor using different propellers at different power levels and how much thrust they will generate.
Motors are identified by their size and speed. The first two digits of the first number is the motor stator diameter, while the second two digits are the stator height. Motor speed is rated in KV, or rotations per Volt. As an example you may see a motor that lists itself as “2204 2300KV”. In that example the motor has a stator diameter of 22mm, a stator height of 4mm, and rotates 2300 times per Volt applied. Sometimes there are additional measurements, but they are not as important to a new pilot.
Choosing the right motor and prop combination can be a challenge, so it may be best to consult with an experienced builder to assist you. Once you have chosen a motor and prop combination, you can choose an ESC that will support the Amp draw required. In most cases you will be fine starting with a 2204 2300kv motor, 5040 props, and 30A ESCs.
Camera & Video Transmitter
FPV is analog. Some of the first FPV cameras were re-purposed security cams, and not much has changed since then. They are small, lightweight, handle different lighting well, and don’t require a lot of power. They’re not HD quality, but they are low-latency and that is what matters. Prices vary wildly, but as a rule of thumb I’d stay in the $30 range. The RunCam Swift is a good option, or any of the HS1177 models.
As for the transmitter, you want to get something with 40 channels. the 5.8gHz band is used for FPV video, and different manufacturers broke up that bandwidth into 8 channels in their own way, so none of them work with the other easily. Later Raceband was created which simply seperated the band into 8 equally spaced channels. A 40 channel VTX will be compatible with all of the standard bands as well as Raceband.
A VTX will be rated for power in milliwatts (mW). More power does not necessarily mean a better signal, and too much power will be a problem for other pilots as the signal will drown out other feeds. As a rule, a pilot’s VTX should be rated for no more than 250mW. Some VTXs have switchable power and can run at different power levels, such as the TBS Unify Pro V2 or TBS Unify Pro HV Race.
Video Receivers & Displays
Goggles or screen? That’s up to you. FPV Goggles create a much more immersive flight experience and can clear away distractions, but can be troublesome for those with glasses or who are particularly prone to motion sickness. An LCD screen allows you to still be able to look up at your aircraft, but can be harder to see in the sunlight and make you more prone to distractions. Ultimately the choice is yours.
As far as brand, Fat Shark makes the most popular goggles and have been around the longest, but they are not the only option. Pilots who wear glasses may prefer the larger HeadPlay goggles. Budget-minded pilots can find a good start with the Quanum brand goggles available from HobbyKing.com.
LCD Screens are manufactured by several companies. The most important thing to look for in an FPV Display is that it will not “Blue Screen” when it loses video. Your FPV feed will glitch in and out during flight, so you want a display that will show you the snow and other glitches instead of going to a blue screen. Bad video is always better than no video!
WV Rotorsports recommends the BrainFPV RE1 flight controller and mPB combo. The RE1 can run several firmware options, and it has an integrated OSD as well as a transponder for the race timing system we use.
The mPB is a custom power distribution board that when used will allow you to monitor your voltage and current draw on your FPV display, filters power for your FPV electronics, and will also let you change settings without the need of a computer. The bundle runs around $100, but when purchasing similar items separately ($25 flight controller, $40 transponder, $20 OSD, $20 PDB, $10 current sensor, $5 LC Filter) you save around $20-$25, not to mention you simplify the build process exponentially as there are less things to connect! They are designed and manufactured in the USA, and it is one of the most powerful flight controllers available – it’s why we asked them to sponsor us!
Frames, Motors, and ESCs will vary from build to build, though we recommend ESCs that are rated for at least 5-10 Amps higher than your motor’s maximum draw, and are capable of running the popular BLHELI firmware. A good choice would be something like the DYS XS30A.
A good pair of goggles can make a big difference. Either the FatShark AttitudeV3 or Dominator goggles are great choices that will last and will not need to be upgraded any time in the near future.
As with any hobby, getting into FPV Drone Racing is an investment and should be treated as such. Sure you can go out and buy a $50 guitar and play rock music, but in most cases it’ll never sound as good as a well-tuned American Fender Strat. You could drive a 2003 Hyundai Accent in Daytona, but you’ll never win a race. You get out of it what you put in, and that includes both practice as well as hardware.
Be prepared to spend around $1,200 in up front costs to get started, with yearly costs of around $100-$300 in maintenance and repairs. Those are high estimates, but are realistic. If you choose the right hardware in the beginning, then a lot of your big purchases (radio, goggles, battery charger) will be a one-time investment.
Of course, one drone will never be enough… but that’s another problem 🙂