A GUIDE TO FPV & DRONE RACING
If you want to learn how to get started in FPV and Drone Racing, you're in the right place. Getting started with FPV and Drone Racing can be intimidating, but we've designed this page to teach you the basic things you need to know.
WHAT IS FPV?
You've probably played a video game where you fly an aircraft through a virtual environment. What if, instead of flying a virtual aircraft, you could be flying a real aircraft through a real environment? That's FPV.
TWO TYPES OF FPV
Drone racing is easy to understand. Pilots race their drones around a course, and the first one to pass the finish line wins. The course is laid out using "gates", which are rectangular or circular obstacles that the pilots must pass through, "flags", which are vertical obstacles that the pilot must pass between or to one side of, and "hurdles", which are horizontal obstacles that the pilot just pass over. Drone racing usually appeals to people who are more competitive, and who like going fast. Many drone racers transition from other disciplines such as motorcycle or kart racing. Drone racing is cheaper and safer than other racing disciplines, while being just as exciting.
Freestyle FPV is about personal expression and impressive tricks. Think about a skateboarder tearing up a half-pipe or a dancer moving to the music. Remember when Tony Hawk hit the first 900° ever at the X-Games? That's Freestyle. Freestyle is about moving through and revealing an environment in a novel and entertaining way, while doing awesome, physics-defying tricks. Freestyle usually appeals to people who are bored by the repetitiveness and predictability of a race course. Freestyle can be enjoyed by a solo pilot, in nearly any environment.
What We Fly
WHAT IS A QUADCOPTER / MULTIROTOR?
A multirotor is an aircraft that flies not by air traveling over wings, but by propellers pushing air down and back. The most common multirotor is a Quadcopter, which has four motors. By adjusting the thrust between the motors, the multirotor can tilt itself and move through space.
What makes a multirotor so awesome is how versatile its movement is. It can hover in place. It can move sideways. It can move up and down and backwards. You can be moving one direction and looking another direction, spinning and whirring and doing whatever kind of crazy tricks you want. Airplanes? They fly forward. All the time. And if they stop, they fall out of the sky. BOOOOORING.
PARTS OF A MULTIROTOR
The frame is what holds all the other parts together. It's typically made from carbon fiber plate, although sometimes it includes metal or plastic parts. The frame determines the shape and weight distribution of the quad. The frame should be durable, so that the quad can be crashed again and again. It should protect the electronics from damage. It should be easy to maintain, giving easy access to the electronics and making repairs of broken parts fast and simple.
The size of a quadcopter frame is measured either in millimeters, measured diagonally between the motors (known as the wheelbase). Alternatively, the frame may be referred to based on the size of propeller it's designed to use. So you might hear a frame descred as, "A five-inch frame," meaning it is sized for 5" props, or, "A 220mm frame," meaning it has 220mm wheelbase.
Frames designed for racing are typically as light as possible. They pack the electronics in tightly and may be difficult to build for beginners. Frames designed for freestyle are typically heavier and more durable. They may be roomier and easier to build. A freestyle frame will always be designed to carry a GoPro or other High-Definition camera.
Never call them propellers. They're props. They spin around and make air go down/back and make the quadcopter fly. Thanks, conservation of momentum and Newton's Second Law!
The Size of a prop refers to its diameter. Five-inch props are by far the most common for racing and freestyle FPV. Six-inch and Seven-inch props are more common when long range and endurance is required. Quads using 3" or even smaller props are used when flying in tighter environments and indoors.
The Pitch of a prop refers to the angle of its blade. Props with steeper pitch are referred to as "more aggressive". More aggressive props are usually favored by racers, while less aggressive props give smoother (but slower) flight to freestyle pilots.
The motors make the props go around. On a quadcopter, there are four of them (but you probably figured that out already). Mini quad motors are of a type called Brushless DC. They consist of a Stator, which has wire wound around it. Electrical current flows through the wire Windings and interacts with magnets on the Rotor, which causes the Rotor to spin.
Mini quad motors are characterized by the height and width of their stator. A 2306 motor will have a stator 23mm in width and 6mm tall. Larger props tend to use larger motors. The most common sizes in use today are 2306 and 2207, although many other sizes are used, especially on props larger or smaller than 5".
Motor kv is the other main characteristic. This does not stand for "kilovolt"! Kv determines how fast the motor will attempt to spin when current flows through it. A 2300kv motor will attempt to spin at 2300 rpm for every 1 volt applied to it. Higher kv motors will try to spin faster, and therefore will draw more current and make more thrust, all else being equal. But if the kv of a motor is too high, too much current will be pulled and the battery will not be able to keep up.
If you're not sure what motor to start with, for a 5" prop, get a 2306 or 2207 sized motor, of about 2400 kv.
In order to make a brushless DC motor spin, you have to send current through its windings with very precise timing. The Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) is the component in charge of this. Without an ESC, the motor wouldn't spin.
Each motor on a quad needs its own ESC. One ESC can't drive multiple motors. ESCs can be either individual, or they can be combined into a single component, in which they are referred to as a 4-in-1 ESC. 4-in-1 ESCs simplify builds because there are fewer wire connections to make, but they are damaged, you have to replace all four, which is much more expensive than individual ESCs. That being said, most builders today are using 4-in-1 ESCs and durability and reliability is generally acceptable.
ESCs are rated based on the maximum amps that they can provide to the motor. If you exceed an ESC's amp rating, the ESC may melt or light on fire. A 25-amp ESC is sufficient for almost all 5" builds. Upgrading to a 30 or 35 amp ESC can give a bit more protection from voltage spikes. Larger ESCs are seldom necessary because the batteries used in mini quads are not capable of sending more current than this.
THE FLIGHT CONTROLLER
The flight controller (abbreviated FC) is a tiny computer that translates pilot commands into motor outputs that make the quad fly. The FC has sensors, such as a gyro and accelerometer, that tell it what the quad is doing in the air. It uses a computer algorithm called a PID Loop to figure out how to adjust the motors to make the quad do what the pilot is telling it to.
Just like your home computer might run Windows or it might run MacOS, flight controllers have different software they can run. Examples include Betaflight, ButterFlight, FlightOne, and KISS. Betaflight is the most popular firmware today. Each of the different firmwares have advantages and disadvantages--for example, FlightOne is particularly easy for beginners to set up.
Not all flight controllers can run all firmwares. This can get a little confusing for beginners! If you have a certain firmware in mind that you want to try, make sure you buy a flight controller that is compatible with it. Most flight controllers can run Betaflight or Butterflight. FlightOne and KISS usually run only on specific flight controllers that are designed for them.
THE CONTROLLER AND RECEIVER
The controller, also known as the transmitter, is the thing the pilot holds in their hands, with the joysticks and the switches, that the pilot uses to control the quad. The receiver lives on the quad and picks up the radio signals out of the air, and translates them into commands that the FC can interpret.
Different brands of transmitter and receiver include Spektrum, FrSky (pronounced "free-sky"), Futaba, and FlySky. You cannot mix-and-match receivers and transmitters. A FrSky transmitter won't work with a Spektrum receiver, for example.
Receivers used in FPV most often use 2.4 GHz radio frequencies. Long range systems like Crossfire and OpenLRS use other frequencies, such as 900 MHz, or 400 MHz.
THE FPV CAMERA AND HD CAMERA (GOPRO)
Without a camera, you couldn't fly FPV. An FPV quad will include a tiny, lightweight "FPV camera" which captures the image that is seen by the pilot. Because this image must be transmitted wirelessly, it is usually standard-definition. Like old TV... before DVDs.... remember that?
Pilots who want to capture high-quality images of their flight use a high-definition (HD) camera like a GoPro. The GoPro records HD video on an SD card without transmitting it over the air. The pilot flies using the standard-definition (SD) feed from the FPV camera. Racing pilots seldom carry a GoPro because its additional weight slows them down.
THE VIDEO TRANSMITTER
The Video Transmitter (vTX) sends the video signal from the FPV camera to the pilot. It's basically a tiny television station on the quad. Most common video transmitters use 5.8 GHz frequencies. The range of a 5.8 GHz vTX might be a few hundred meters up to a few tens of kilometers, depending on the power of the vTX and the antennas used.
Pilots watch the image from the quad using goggles worn on the face, or, less frequently, a screen mounted on a tripod. The goggles have a receiver that picks up the video signal from the vTX and translate it to screens.
PUTTING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now that you've had an introduction to all the parts and pieces you'll need to start flying FPV drones, it's time to start putting them together. There are different paths with different starting points depending on what your goal is in FPV. Here's a few examples of the different types of FPV pilot.
- Casual - Not concerned with being a pro racing pilot or making YouTube videos. Just doing it for the fun of it.
- Racer - Wants to get fast and compete against other racers. Spends a lot of time practicing and repairing drones.
- Freestyler - Wants to capture smooth HD footage for editing into videos. Would rather come up with a new trick than set a lap record.
If you want to be a racer, the best first step for you is to start on a simulator. There are several good simulators for various, affordable prices that are invaluable for learning how to fly. The drones you'll be flying for racing are very fast and potentially dangerous. It's worth taking the time to hone your skills and get an understanding how the controls work on a simulator. Once you have the basics down, you should build your own drone and learn how to repair it.
BUILDING YOUR FIRST DRONE
With no prior knowledge, it can be a daunting task to take all the parts and assemble them together into a flying machine. Luckily, there is a vast library of videos that can guide you through the process. What you will find is that while there are many options for components, there will be similarities that span across all of them and fundamental techniques that apply to all types of builds.
Get started building a drone by watching some of these videos.