Quad Troubleshooting

I actually still haven’t fixed my toothpick quad yet. Originally I wasn’t in any hurry to get it replaced and I was hoping to try that antenna fix as well, but I haven’t made the time to do it. Between the holidays and wrapping up a lot of work tasks before going on my end of the year vacation, I really didn’t have the motivation to sit down at my hobby table and take it apart even though once I did I’d probably have it all done in under an hour. But for now I wanted to talk about the most frustrating part of the hobby for me, and that’s when things just stop working or at least start having problems.

About two months months into flying my HX100 toothpick daily for about 30 minutes using six batteries, I suddenly started having an issue with my video signal going to static and then cutting out when I’d take off. Doing a visual inspection didn’t show anything. I tried taking off a few more times and then just holding the quad and moving it around by hand and noticed that any kind of vibration would cause it to go out again. It sucks when a flight session is cut short by a technical problem like this, but that’s one advantage of being able to fly at home so easily, at least I hadn’t had to drive somewhere or hike out to a remote spot only to have to leave early.

So I took the quad to my hobby table to open it up. The last time I had a problem with it the answer was pretty obvious as the receiver antenna literally fell of when I took the canopy off. Which was nice because I immediately knew what the problem was and just had to order a replacement. This time unfortunately there was no such obvious sign of what was wrong. The VTX antenna didn’t look loose at all, it was securely soldered to the board. All of the solder connections for the wires connecting the VTX to the flight controller looked solid. The wiring harness looked okay, there was some damage to it that I had noticed and fixed with electrical tape a few weeks prior when I replaced the carbon fiber frame, but there was no new damage. I tried wiggling the wires when the battery was plugged in and didn’t see any issues in my goggles from the VTX signal.

There’s another difficulty when troubleshooting problems from the bench. VTX’s general a lot of heat as in they can burn you as well as just fry themselves if left on for too long on a high power setting. This isn’t normally an issue since the expectation that they’re on a quad flying through the air so there’s a lot of cooling from air flow. When inside on a table though that’s not the case. So every time I tested it out even when I had it cranked down to 25 mW which is the lowest setting, I had a limited window if I didn’t want to ruin the VTX.

So at this point I was unsure what to do. There was nothing obviously wrong with it that I could try to fix with solder or tape. I’ve learned that this is the point where I have to start swapping components, so I ordered a replacement VTX. They’re not super expensive at $15 from online vendors like RaceDayQuads or Amazon, but still not something I wanted to be replacing often.

While I waited I decided to try to cut out the damaged sections of the wiring harness that connected the VTX to the FC and solder the wires together. Which unfortunately didn’t make any difference but it was at least some good soldering practice. It also confirmed that it wasn’t the wiring. That left either the antenna or the board which amounted to the same thing since they were soldered together.

I even ended up cutting away the heatshrink protecting the antenna and didn’t see any damage to the wire itself. So my guess at this stage was something on the board itself had gone bad. Maybe a surface mounted component was loose or some component was damaged internally.

Thankfully when the new VTX showed up in the mail a few days later, I had no problems getting the new wiring harness soldered to the flight controller and getting the quad back in good working order. Or at least I didn’t think I had any problems until I noticed that I couldn’t adjust the VTX band and channel using my radio. It wasn’t enough to keep me from flying thankfully, but it is annoying knowing that the quad wasn’t in 100% working order.

It’s actually a problem I still haven’t fixed. I even have another VTX and a replacement flight controller as well, since the issue might be on either end, and given the FC had quite a few hours of flight time on it, it’s probably that end where the issues is. It’s what happens when I know I can just fly something instead of being forced to take it apart an troubleshoot it again. I think that’s part of the reason why I’ve put off fixing the motor, since I have to take it apart enough to do that, that I might as well work on fixing the VTX issue as well.

Crashes and Quad Repair

In quad versus pole, the pole always wins.

It was decent weather over the weekend for Indiana in December, meaning that it wasn’t completely overcast, windy, and miserable. It was still cold, somewhere in the mid 30’s, but I didn’t want to pass up no wind and a little bit of sun for getting some outside flying in. I charged up half a dozen 2S batteries for my toothpick quad, and a couple of batteries for my boys’ RC cars, and we headed over to their elementary school which is only five minutes away.

I got the boys’ cars setup and they went off to do donuts and ramp off of the playground equipment, while I fired up my radio and goggles and put the first battery in.

It was a little rough getting started. I’m going to blame it on adjusting to the cold. I don’t wear gloves when I fly. I’ve tried it a couple of times and it just messes with my muscle memory too much, even with a thin pair. I had a couple of near misses with trees and playground equipment at first, but by the end of the first battery I was feeling pretty good.

Flying at the school is nice for a couple of reasons. There’s the obvious one that it’s a bigger space with a nice large parking lot so I can keep the throttle more open and really get some speed up as I fly around. There’s also a lot more stuff to play with too. There’s light poles, trees, and playground equipment to fly around and over and through. So it makes it a lot more fun to do proximity flying than what I can do when I go down to the field near my home to fly where I do more loops, flips, and rolls since there aren’t many obstacles.

The second battery started out much better than the first as I was getting familiarized with the space. I made a couple of passes through the playground. I played around with following Thing One’s RC truck as he drove around a couple of trees, and then I took off to make a big looping pass through the playground. I misjudged my line through the obstacles though and pinged of a metal pole. It was a hard hit too as it was enough to cause the flight controller to reboot. I wasn’t worried though, I’ve had hard crashes before with my HX100 and it’s rarely had a problem.

Once the FC came back up, I armed it and tried to take off, but the quad just spun a bit and wouldn’t take off. I disarmed again and took off my goggles and put my radio down to head over. I figured there was some mulch from the playground stuck in a motor or maybe on of the receiver antennas got twisted and was blocking a prop. Both of those things have happened before in a crash, which usually takes a couple of seconds to fix and then I’m back in the air again. This time it was a bit more severe.

This is actually the second time I’ve broken a motor. The last time was in October, so I’m averaging one motor every two months. The October break was some a head-on crash into a heavy tree branch that broke the front right motor. Somehow this time I broke the right rear one. I can’t tell from the video playback, but I must have yawed a little as I hit the pole. It was a pretty hard hit too. I noticed when I got home and inspected the damage that I bent the motor bell and damaged some of the magnets.

I’m not sure if it was just a hard hit against a metal pole, or if the cold had anything to do with it. I feel like I’ve had some equally hard crashes flying my yard, but those collisions usually involve tree branches or wooden fences and not heavy duty playground equipment.

So that put an early end to my flying for the day. It was cold enough out though that my boys didn’t last much longer than that anyway, so I probably wouldn’t have gotten more than another battery in anyway. Just now I have to replace the motor.

It’s not hard to do since I’m using plugs and not direct soldering the motors to the flight controller, it just requires more disassembly than I want to do. I do have to take the canopy off and take the flight controller out because of the tight space that the motor wires and plug run through. I think the last time I did it, it took me a bit more than 20 minutes to do. At least I already have the parts, since these 1103 motors come in sets of four instead of being sold individually, and they’re interchangeable so I don’t need a specific motor at each position.

To be honest, I need to take it apart and do some work on it anyway. The antenna has had a couple of prop strikes on it, and I need to either switch back to some shorter tri-blade props that can’t reach the antenna, or make a change to the canopy so that the antenna stays above the props. I have an idea to drill a small hole through the back of the canopy a few millimeters above where the antenna currently sits so I can feed the antenna out at an angle. That way the canopy itself will keep the antenna from getting down into where the props can hit it.

Building a Quad – Frame Change

After my first real flights ended with a broken battery lead and a fried flight controller and messed up video transmitter, I decided that since I was going to have to take everything apart anyway, I might as well change the frame I was using. While I liked the Phreak it really wasn’t suited well to having a four high stack, and rather than getting taller standoffs and screws to raise the top plate I decided to switch to an Acrobrat.

An Acrobrat is a 3″ frame designed with three mounting positions and a top-mounted battery, where the Phreak only had one mounting position and a bottom-mounted battery. That meant I could separate out the boards in the flight stack and have the camera and HD board up front, the flight controller and ESC in the middle, and the VTX and receiver in the back. Having the battery on top also meant I wouldn’t be landing on it.

Since I was moving to a new frame, I also got a new set of 3d printed accessories from Brain3d. They had a nice kit that included arm guards, front bumpers, and a nice rear mount to handle both the VTX and receiver antennas.

Of course switching the frames meant taking everything off of the original and moving it over to the new one. But more than that, I had to lengthen the motor wires since the Acrobrat’s layout had a wider length from where the motors mounted to the ESC on the center stack. Fortunately I had saved all of the wire I’d originally trimmed, so it wasn’t too difficult to solder and heat shrink extensions on and retrim and solder back onto the ESC. I also decided to add a capacitor to the build to help smooth out any electrical noise, and taped it down to one of the arms.

With that done I was back to the original repairs I would have needed anyway. I soldered the wiring harnesses back up to the new flight controller board and reseated it on top of the ESC. Then I got the camera and VTX both hooked back up and mounted. The receiver I ended up loosely zip tying to the VTX, which I’m not sure was a good idea even with the Kapton tape to keep them electrically isolated but I haven’t tried changing that around yet.

While it didn’t take me as long as the original build it was still a few hours worth of work to move all of the electronics over to the new frame. I have to say that it was worth it though. It was much easier to fit everything in the Acrobrat than it was the Phreak, which just wasn’t designed to have that extra board in it for HD capture from the FPV camera.

Battery leads securely zip tied to the side-plate of the frame.

It took me a while to get to this point, but I’m pretty happy with the second iteration of my 3″ quad build. I have to put a 60% throttle cut on it in order to fly it around my yard, but that power is nice to have when I go to my in-laws farm or take it to a nearby park.

Building a Quad – First Flights and a Mistake

Can you spot the problem?

Having finished building my first quadcopter, I took it outside for a hover test and maiden flight.

For the hover test, I basically treated it like a live grenade. Setting the quad up on the driveway, gingerly plugging in the battery, and then sprinting away. Which is comical looking back on it now, but at the time I really had no idea what to expect. Before then I had already done motor tests without the props on, but something about having three inch spinning plastic blades had me erring on the side of caution. I armed the quad and throttled up until the quad lifted off of the ground and then I held it there for a few seconds before setting it back down. It didn’t flip out or anything, so it was time to actually fly it.

With my goggles on, I rearmed the quad and took it for a short maiden flight around my front yard. It was exhilarating but terrifying as well. At the time I just assumed it was because I was going from a small quad with brushed motors to a bigger one with brushless motors, and that I would get used to it after a period of adjustment. Regardless the maiden flight was good, although I didn’t really get a chance to push the motors much. I had wrapped up my build late and was pushing sunset as it was. I didn’t think it would be smart to take risks with a brand new quad especially when I wasn’t comfortable yet with the new size and additional power.

That weekend, we had a trip up to my in-laws farm for the weekend, which excited me since I’d have the chance to fly someplace where I wouldn’t have to worry about space or people or traffic. Although I did realize shortly after take off that I hadn’t paid attention to where the overhead power lines were, so I had to land and take my goggles off briefly to look around and map out what areas I wanted to stay away from. I had six batteries charged that I was looking forward to using.

The first flight went pretty well, and I was enjoying really getting to go full throttle with it. I was still pretty terrified of crashing it before I’d really gotten a chance to enjoy it much, so I was playing it safe and not trying out any rolls or flips or dives. But it was still a lot of fun to race over the fields and along the fences.

The second flight was great too. I was starting to relax a bit more, although not enough to start trying any tricks. It was really enough of a learning experience to adjust to the bigger weight and different type of motors, than to worry about doing any fancy flying.

Sadly there wasn’t a third flight.

I don’t know if it was the way I unplugged the battery after the second flight, or if it was a bad solder joint that was weakened by the vibrations during flight. But the red wire on the battery lead had come loose from positive battery pad and I didn’t realize it until I plugged the third battery in and I heard a popping noise. At first I didn’t realize what had happened so I unplugged the battery and plugged it back in again. Which is when I noticed that the red wire was loose from the pad, and quickly yanked the batter again.

I hadn’t release any magic smoke, and there was no visible damage to any of the electronics. I figured the electronics were fine and I would only needed to resolder the lead back onto the pad in order to have the quad working again. Of course it turned out to be a bit more of a struggle than that.

Once I got home, I resoldered the wire and plugged in the quad, but nothing happened. I then tried plugging it into USB and still couldn’t get any life from the flight controller. Despite there being no visible damage to the flight controller there was a short in the board somewhere. It turned out that while the ESC board was fine both the flight controller and the VTX were shot and had to be replaced. It was a $60 reminder about something I’d forgotten to do when building the quad, zip tie my battery leads.

In all of the buld videos I’ve seen the person doing the build always zip ties the leads to the frame after getting them soldered. This is incase the battery gets ejected in a crash that it won’t rip the pads right off the the board. Or in my case so that the joint isn’t getting pulled on. Even if it had been a bad solder join, had I zip tied the wires in place then it wouldn’t been moving around and possibly not even ruined any of the electronics.

Going back and looking at pictures from the original build, I actually think the ground wire joint looks worse than the positive does. The other thing I should have done better here was solder the wires at an angle so they were coming out along an arm without any sharp bending.