Flying Outside

We had an unusually warm day in February and I seized the opportunity to start flying outside. I briefly tried the back yard but decided it was a bad idea because the tree line there seemed tailor made to snag my drone, and I was scared of getting it stuck high enough I wouldn’t be able to get to it. There were also some low spots in the yard that really held onto water and I really didn’t want to crash into one of those and ruin the quad. The front yard was much better to start out in with less trees. I could use the road, the sidewalks, and fly in the neighbors yards with less chance of bothering anyone.

As much as I’d been looking forward to it, I wasn’t prepared for having to start over again with my comfort level. Beyond the fear of getting stuck somewhere, moving outside posed a whole new set of challenges for me to keep in mind, and I felt like I had when I first started.

My Acrobee only weighs 30 grams with the battery, so I couldn’t fly if there was very much wind. Although I did find that as long as the wind was consistent I could fly in stronger winds than if it was gusting a lot. I could compensate in cases where the wind was consistent, at least up to a certain point.

Once I got comfortable, flying outside really ramped up my excitement in the hobby. After being stuck inside for months, it was a real thrill to be able to get some speed and altitude and try some tricks.

One surprise with flying outside was I reminded that cold weather makes plastic brittle. The whoop frame that I’d been flying for a couple of months started to crack after a few crashes. Initially I tried some super glue, which is my default adhesive for fixing things. It didn’t work well for frame repairs though. It’s too brittle. Repaired spots just broke again after the next impact. Next I tried E6000 adhesive. I’d like to say I did a bunch of research and settled on it, but the truth is I found it in a drawer in the kitchen and decided to try it. E6000 turned out to be perfect for what I needed. It stuck well to the plastic frame and dried to a rubbery consistency so it absorbed impacts pretty well. As a bonus it was easy to clean off of my fingers afterwards.

Despite my best efforts, I did eventually crash into water.

Around Easter time while flying at my Uncle’s house I ended up glancing off a tree branch and crashing into a tiny stream at the back of their property. I could see water at the bottom of the camera lens, so I yanked off my goggles and ran back to get it out of the water and unplug the battery. I was a little panicked but not too badly since the video feed was still active after it hit the water. I figured since it was still transmitting that it should be fine once it dried out.

Once we got home, I decided before I’d plug it back in again I should clean it to make sure that no mineral deposits had been left behind after the water evaporated, which I figured might cause a short. Unfortunately all I had in the house was regular isopropyl alcohol intended for first aid use, which wasn’t pure enough for cleaning electronics. For that I needed 99.9% pure alcohol. So I had to order some and had to wait a few days before I could test to see if the quad was still working or not. Once it came, I took the quad apart and cleaned the flight board top and bottom as well as the back of the camera. I then let them set for an hour to air dry before plugging in a fresh battery to see if it worked. Everything came back up and seemed to be working the same as they had before their water landing. So I got lucky.

I haven’t had any more water accidents since then, and hopefully I don’t, but it was nice to know that I could recover from one. I just don’t want to test my luck on that again.

Repairs and Race Gates

Once I got to the stage where I was flying more than crashing, I started thinking about the next steps which in my mind was getting outside to fly and flying something bigger than a tiny whoop. That left me with two options buy a bigger quad or build one, and I really wanted to build one after going the easier route for the whoop. This meant I needed to get some practice soldering. Preferably on something cheaper than a $10 motor or a $40+ four-in-one ESC board. Which is when I ran across the idea of making a balance charging connector for 1S batteries.

Now you can buy one of these pretty cheaply, I got one from Amazon for less than $9. But that doesn’t get me practice with soldering or using heat shrink and is just not as fun. So I used this forum post I ran across the make one instead. It’s hard to compare the prices since the wire I bought was $7 on it’s own but I barely used any in making this. But the experience in using the soldering iron and the heat gun was well worth it to me.

Most of the soldering done, before the heatshrink was applied.

Basically the batteries are wired in series so that the charge just see’s a single 4S battery in this case. The charge and discharge goes through the XT60 that I soldered on after this picture was taken, while the balance lead has the tree-like wiring to connect the individual batteries together as cells. This allows me to charge 4 1S batteries at the same time, as long as they are all identical type and very close to the same voltage. Which is why I was making a 4S one. I’d already bought a 6S one from Amazon but it meant I couldn’t use it unless I’d flown 6 packs, which some nights I didn’t do.

After that my next foray into soldering wasn’t an optional project. I dropped my radio and snapped of a switch. Not just any switch either but the switch that I’d mapped for arming the quad. Now I did just remap that function to a different switch, but it messed with my muscle memory so it wasn’t going to be a long term solution. So I ordered a new 2 position switch which ran about $5.

This wasn’t actually the first time I’d opened up the radio. When I first got it the left stick which is for throttle and yaw control had a ratchet on it. Which mean that the throttle didn’t move smoothly bit had little stops built into it. I believe this is helpful for RC planes, but it’s not good for quads, so I had already been inside to radio to change it. That time wasn’t too intimidating since I was just adjusting some screws, whereas now I was planning to do some soldering, so I was a bit more worried about screwing something up.

There’s a lot in these devices, but it really wasn’t that bad once I took a little time to look at it. I had to unscrew the old switch from the housing, then remove the heat shrink, and desolder three wires from it. None of which was too bad. The hard part was figuring out the orientation of the new switch since I didn’t think to take pictures of the old one before I removed it. I eventually noticed that the housing and the switch had matching grooves, so that clued me in enough to solder the wires back onto the new switch and put everything back in place correctly. I think the whole operation took me an hour to do, but I’m sure it would’ve taken half that time had I paid more attention to the original wiring and part orientation.

Besides learning to solder and repairing my gear, I also made some race gates. I’d gotten three orange plastic ones for my birthday and they made flying in the house a lot more fun, but I wanted a few more and didn’t want to spend $30 or more on another set. Instead I got an idea from another local pilot who made some gates using poster board and copper pipe fittings.

I made a trip to the local craft supply store for a few sheets of poster board and a couple rolls of duct tape. I already had some scrap 2×4’s and a bunch of dowel rods as well as a hot glue gun. I used the original gates I had gotten as a template for the inside dimension and then I cut six two inch strips of poster board, so I could have double pieces at the top an bottom. The thickness matched up pretty well with the smallest sized dowel that I had, so I was able to make a fork with dowels and scrap wood for the gate to slot into.

Then it was a matter of cutting pieces for the stand’s base, adding some rubber feet so they wouldn’t slide, and cutting some larger diameter dowels for the height I wanted the gate to be. I added duct tape one all four sides at the center line to help find the center of the gate when flying.

I made four of them and had enough supplies for a couple more still. They work great and I got a lot of compliments on them from the guy who’s gates I’d gotten the original idea from.

Here’s a flight from late February where I’m using both the homemade and bought gates in the house. I really got these are the right time as I’d started to get pretty tired of flying inside by this stage. I was really itching for nicer weather to get here so I could start flying outside.

One Month Later

About midway through January my whoop started to failsafe intermittently. That means it would randomly lose connection to my transmitter and as a safety precaution shut off and drop to the ground. This is a safety feature, which isn’t as important for whoops like I’m flying as it is for large quads with say 5″ propellers on them, but even some ones like this can be scary if they were to start whizzing around out of control.

I tried taking it apart and seeing if there was anything obviously damaged but didn’t have any luck. So my next stop was to open a support ticket with NewBeeDrone. They got in touch with me the following day and after submitting some photos they asked me to send it back so they could confirm it was defective and then shipped me a replacement a few days later. The whole process was very painless and pretty speedy.

It also helped that I had a backup quad that I had been waiting to start flying. During the run up to the Christmas season, NewBeeDrone was offering a discount on pre-orders for their replacement to the BeeBrain V2 called the BeeBrain Lite. I felt a little bad placing an order when I already knew I had a V2 coming for Christmas, but only bad enough to leave it in the box until I needed it.

The Lite had a faster processor in the flight controller, integrated video transmitter (VTX) so there was no secondary board, and had LEDs. I also really liked the new canopy that it came with over the V2 version.

I improved a lot during my month between flying my original V2 and my Lite. My normal routine on a week night was to get all of the batteries charged, I’d bought more and was up to a dozen 1S 300mAh LiHV so I could fly for about thirty minutes using all of them, and then once everyone was in bed and I had the house to myself I’d turn on all of the lights on the main floor and go.

I got used to flying with acro mode so the quad wouldn’t automatically level out when I released the sticks. While not super important for what I was doing yet, it was helping me develop better habits with the sticks for when I started trying to do flips and rolls.

I also got much better at planning ahead so I was following a line that I had mapped out through the house. This made my flights smoother, although still restricted by the small space so there were some places where I was basically forced to stop and spin around. But I definitely got a lot of practice flying close to walls and furniture. I actually found it interesting to try to get as low as possible. Something about flying into the kitchen just off the floor and and seeing these huge cabinets come up on either side was quite fun and messed with my sense of scale a little bit. This practice also really helped me with throttle control since I couldn’t afford to lost any altitude on a turn which I was doing a lot when I first started flying.

First Flight

First Flight

After watching NewBeeDrone’s build tutorial video about a dozen times leading up to Christmas, I figured I was covered for putting it together. The kit was pretty easy with no soldering, just a few screws and plugs. It turned out to be a bit harder than I expected though, because of the tiny tiny tiny screws.

I thought I was set for tools, since all I needed was a #000 Phillips screwdriver, but my set wasn’t magnetized which I didn’t realize was something I would want until it was too late. Getting these tiny screws in with only two hands difficult to do. Later on when I looked into getting some magnetized screwdrivers, I found that websites and packaging at hardware stores are very bad about say whether or not they’re magnetized. Which was frustrating until I happened across a magnetizer at Home Depot for $4 and now my existing screwdrivers are fine.

After assembling the Acrobee, I needed to bind it. The kit uses a BeeBrain V2 (now replace by the BeeBrain Lite), which is an all-in-one flight controller, ESC, and receiver. Binding is the process of pairing the receiver on the quad with the transmitter in my radio. Getting the radio into bind mode is easy, just go into the menu on the Taranis and set bind mode. For the receiver though, it involved pressing a tiny button about the size of the screws I’d already struggled with while plugging in a battery at the same time. I eventually discovered a trick for this. I used USB instead of a battery since the BeeBrain powered the receiver off of USB, and it was easier to plug USB into the quad, press the bind button using a screw driver, and then plugging in the USB to the computer one handed.

Once the quad and my radio were talking to one another, I had to get the quad plugged into my computer so I could get it flashed to the latest firmware and configured. This is where Betaflight comes in.

Betaflight is the firmware that runs on the flight controller (FC). The flight controller is the hardware that converts the inputs transmitted from the radio into commands to the electronic speed controllers (ESCs) for the four motors. So when I tell the quad to roll right, the FC determines which motors need to speed up and which need to slow down. It also handles the on-screen display (OSD) which shows things like battery voltage and received signal strength indicator (RSSI) in the FPV goggles.

Of course I couldn’t just plug the quad into the computer USB and have it recognized right away. I need to find some drivers online but that didn’t work either, which is when I went online and found a Bardwell video that walked me through fixing my problem. Just a quick aside, Joshua Bardwell’s YouTube channel and his FPV Know-It-All site have been great for getting into flying FPV quads. Especially for learning Betaflight and troubleshooting issues. Once I finally had Betaflight installed and able to connect to my new Acrobee, the rest of the configuration wasn’t to far off from the NewBeeDrone Betaflight setup video that I’d already watched a few times.

All told, it took me until late in the afternoon on Christmas Day but I eventually got everything put together, configured, and was ready to fly. I was feeling pretty confident. I practiced a bit in a simulator called Liftoff and figured I’d be able to take off and hover no problem. Just the same as with the toy quad I’d started out with.

Maybe it was because the simulator I’d practiced in had me flying outdoors and was simulating a larger quad with 5″ propeller, instead of nano-sized quad with 30mm props, or maybe it’s just a simulator vs real world thing, but I struggled a lot for the first couple of hours to even take off an hover let along zip around the house like I’d imagined.

When I’d give it enough throttle to take off, it would shoot up, and then I’d back of and it would plummet to the floor. I tried a lot of different things that day in adjusting the configuration in Betaflight and doing a lot more research, but I’m not really sure that did much to improve things. I think it just came down to getting enough practice in. Eventually I had enough stick time in that by that evening I was able to get around the house.

Watching that video to put together for this post was a little painful for me. I see so many mistakes now that I didn’t realize at the time. The virtual current meter which is displaying the milliamp hours (mAh) used is totally wrong, and I’ve since gotten used to knowing when to land based on the voltage instead. Flying the battery down to 3.2 volts instead of 3.5 which hurts the lifespan of the battery. Using angle mode (the STAB on the OSD) instead of acro or rate mode. For whoop racers angle mode is actually pretty common, but as someone who was planning to get into larger quads once Sprint came around and do more freestyle flying, it’s a good way to get into some bad habits. Angle mode will level the quad once a stick is released, and doesn’t allow for doing tricks like flips and rolls.

Beyond the software stuff, I really notice now how little planning I’m doing. There’s no line that I’m following as I go around the house, which exacerbates my roughness on the controls and issues with keeping altitude on a turn.

I’ve since realized that I went about this all the hard way, but I really didn’t have much choice given the timing. Starting out indoors is much more difficult than learning to fly outside because there’s more space to make corrections. But given I was learning to fly in the dead of winter when there was quite a bit of snow on the ground, I didn’t have a lot of other options, and I certainly didn’t want to wait for better weather.