Getting Started with Quadcopters

Of course I’ve been interested in multirotor aircraft like quadcopters. I am a geek after all! All the things I read about were about advanced hobbyist or professional models, and the price was prohibitive. Then I went to the Northern Virginia Mini Maker Faire, and there were drones everywhere! There was a shop that was selling nano-quads, for $40, and NovaLabs had organized a flying contest using a Syma X5 4 Channel 2.4GHz RC Explorers Quad Copter that can be had for less than $40 on Amazon.

When I got home I ordered the X5C version which has a high def camera and comes in under $50.

It comes with a battery (you might want to buy extras), transmitter, a charger, extra blades, prop guards and even a micro-sd card for the camera. You’ll need to add AA batteries for the transmitter.

I’m really glad I dipped my toes this way, as I’ve learned a lot, and there IS a lot to learn! I’ve tried to fly RC planes in the past, and found it just too hard and frustrating. While I did crash the X5C (a lot!) it’s pretty unbreakable, and comes with lots of spare parts. Since hovering is the general idea, it’s usually not that far away (though you can fly it pretty far away from you!)

How does it work?

It’s also easier to fly because the onboard computer and IMU (Inertial Management Unit, a fancy name for Gyroscopes and Accelerometers) keep the unit level in flight. Here’s a little video to demonstrate this:


Getting started, it is a good idea to use the prop guards especially if you are flying indoors. This aircraft is extremely light, so flying it outdoors is really difficult if there is more than light wind, though once you get the hang of it you can fly it in a breeze.

There’s also a button that lets you make it do flips! Be careful not to do it too near the ground or any bystanders, and it works better with the camera removed.


The camera is for capturing pictures and video, and you do not get to see it in real time (that’s called FPV or First Person Viewing, and is a lot more expensive!) You have to remove the micro-sd card and load it on your computer (they even include a USB micro-sd reader!)

The video is pretty good, though in flight, it’s got a lot of vibration. Here’s a sample:

I’m going to experiment with unscrewing the camera and affixing it with foam mounting tape to see if the vibrations can be reduced.

The camera is also easily removed, if you want more flight time or to do more acrobatics.

What it isn’t

This quad doesn’t fly itself. My neighbor  (Check out his awesome youtube channel on Card Tricks, The Card Cave ) Has a $1500 DJI Phantom 3 Pro. You can tell it to auto take off, return to home, and if you set it to hover somewhere, it stays there, even if the wind is blowing (there are limits, but it’s pretty amazing.) These kinds of copters are enabled with GPS and magnetometers (digital compass) so they can stick to a heading or position, and be programmed to move between them. The video is on a brushless motor gimble that keeps the video rock solid, even when the quad is being buffeted.  You can set these fancy copters into “Acro” mode and fly it just like the Syma X5C, but frankly I’d be scared to.

What it is good for

  • Learning to fly. I’m interested in FPV racing and the principles are the same.
  • Learning how to fix a quad copter (cheaply). Every part of this quad is available (either through amazon or one of the chines sites like My son crashed it hard, and it bent the propeller shaft. I ordered a new motor mount for about $2, and I was back in business.

I’m even thinking about getting a full set of spare parts (less the camera and body) and trying to scratch build a quad from them. Stay tuned.