Building a Low-Power, High-Performance Ryzen Homelab Server to Host Virtual Machines

| Comments

Two years ago, I decided to build a power-sipping homelab server to host a handful of Linux KVM virtual machines. I am in Texas, and my home office faces south. It is on the second floor, and it sure seems like this room gets less ventilation than all the other rooms—when the rest of the house is cool and comfortable in July and August, I’m often a few degrees warmer than I’d prefer.

Virt-manager

My hope was to add as few watts of heating to my office as possible while still providing more than enough compute power to meet my needs. I have been extremely pleased with the AMD 5350 CPU I used in that build. My Kill-A-Watt meter says that little server uses 34 watts with four or five virtual machines idling away—9 watts of that is used by the hard drives! It can barely reach 50 watts under full load.

That little AMD 5350 server is only high-performance when measured against the tasks I require of it. It more than meets my needs, but the components I used to build it are no longer being manufactured. I’ve also been looking for an excuse to use and AMD Ryzen processor. Upgrading my KVM homelab machine seemed like a good excuse to make use of a Ryzen CPU, and testing out a Ryzen CPU seemed like a good excuse for an upgrade!

The parts list

I lucked out. All of the boring components from my previous build are still available at Amazon. I had to buy a new processor, motherboard, and memory. The case, power supply, hard drives, and solid-state drives are all still available, so I reused them.

This is one of the easiest upgrades I’ve done in a long time. I swapped out the old motherboard, dropped the new one in place, and it booted right up. No fuss, no muss!

New Parts For My Homelab Upgrade

The last time I built a KVM homelab server, I included two parts lists. The parts I actually used, and a more budget-friendly list. I’m going to do the same thing again this year, but I’m going to add a third parts list that maximized performance!

My parts list

Total Cost: $1025

Budget-friendly alternative parts list

Less memory, no solid state drives.

Total Cost: $717

My parts list

More cores, more memory, more storage. The 1800X does not come with a heat sink and fan.

Total Cost: $1932

Note: My build used the Corsair CX 430 power supply, but its price has gone way up and it seems to be in short supply now. I’ve listed the Corsair CX 450 in my parts list instead. I don’t expect this to be problematic!

Build it your way!

I’m excited about this build. You can drop the SSDs and scale the CPU back to a Ryzen 1200, and you’ll still end up with an fast virtual machine host that won’t break the bank. If that’s not what you need, you can fill up all the SATA ports and quadruple the RAM. It will cost you nearly $2,000—more if you spec out larger disks. You’ll have one hell of a machine!

In all honesty, the Ryzen 1200 parts list would have suited me just fine. The big Ryzen 1800X parts list is complete overkill for my use case. Settling somewhere in the middle was the best fit for me.

Random Photo of Rascal The Cat

Do you need to keep a whole mess of virtual machines running most of the time? You probably want to upgrade the RAM. Even if you’re running a lot of virtual machines, they may be spending most of their time idling, so the Ryzen 3 1200 processor might work just fine—spend your money on RAM instead of CPU!

Maybe you only run a handful of virtual machines like me, but maybe yours work a lot harder. You can upgrade the CPU instead!

Built it your way. If you want to copy my exact build, that’s just fine, but I intend for this to be more of a baseline. It should be easy to scale the parts up or down to fit your workload.

tl;dr: Performance and power consumption

As always, I am going to write at length about my goals, my decision process, and the results. I also know that you probably don’t want to read any of that. These are the important statistics.

  • Geekbench 3 Scores: 4,309 single-core, 23,651 multicore
  • Idle power consumption: 56 watts (50 watts with no VMs)
  • Max power consumption: 120 watts (mostly under 100 watts)
  • SSD mirror performance: 588 MB/s read, 298 MB/s write, 14,500 IOPS
  • HDD mirror performance: 398 MB/s read, 143 MB/s write, 550 IOPS (old test, sorry!)
  • lvmcache performance: 300 MB/s read, 130 MB/s write, 878 IOPS

  • P3 Kill-A-Watt at Amazon

Why only 16 GB of RAM?!

This server is designed to fit my needs, and my needs are rather humble. The last time I built a low-power KVM host, I bought as much RAM as I could, and I advocated that everyone should do the same—you can never have too much RAM! That little mini-ITX motherboard would only support 16 GB of RAM. That was more than I needed, and it wasn’t possible to go overboard.

This new machine’s motherboard supports up to 64 GB of RAM, and I’m not even making good use of my old server’s 16 GB of RAM. My KVM host server has only three important jobs. Each of those tasks has a dedicated virtual machine. I have a simple NAS VM, an Octoprint VM to manage my 3D printer’s jobs, and an OpenHAB VM that manages my home automation. All of these tasks could be handled by a single Raspberry Pi, and even allocating 1 GB of RAM to each of these virtual machines is overkill. That leaves me plenty of RAM for other tasks.

I also included a pair of solid-state drives in my build. If you’re on a tight budget and you need more RAM to run more virtual machines, I would skip the SSDs. I wanted to experiment with dm-cache and lvmcache, and I needed solid-state drives for that experiment.

RAM is inexpensive, but it is also extremely easy to upgrade. I have two empty DIMM slots, so it will be easy to add another 32 GB of RAM at some point in the future.

Why did you choose the Ryzen 5 1600?

I’ve been patient. I’ve been waiting for the Ryzen 3 processors to be released. I’m confident that even the Ryzen 3 1200 would meet my needs, but I was hoping they’d be more power efficient than their faster siblings.

The Ryzen 3 1200 has the same 65 watt TDP as all the Ryzen CPUs up to and including the Ryzen 7 1700. I know that TDP is just an upper thermal limit, but my research says that the Ryzen 3 1200 is only a few watts more frugal at idle than most of this bigger brothers.

Cool Ryzen Motherboard Photo

As soon as I learned that, I found myself on the slippery slope aiming directly towards the Ryzen 5 1600. None of the Ryzen 3 processors have hyperthreading. The Ryzen 5 1400 is the first CPU with hyperthreading, and it was my biggest jump in cost—$55 more!

Like the 1200, the Ryzen 1400 only has 8 MB of L3 cache. You can spend $25 more to double that cache and increase the clock speed by another 10% with the Ryzen 5 1500X. That seemed like a good deal. More cache almost always gives a good bump in performance.

I couldn’t stop there. Another $20 would get me two more cores. This is a virtual machine host, so more cores are what I want.

You can definitely keep going, but I decided to stop there. Michael Lynch used an 8-core Ryzen 7 1700 in his homelab server build. That’s an inexpensive and tempting upgrade over my Ryzen 5 1600, but going past the 1600 moves the TDP from 65 watts to 95 watts. One of my hopes is to keep my power consumption and heat generation down, so I didn’t want to push it that far. I didn’t want to pay the additional cost just to generate more heat—the 1600 is already overkill for my own purposes!

Why the Antec One case?

When I built the previous server, I looked at a handful of small cases for mini-ITX motherboards. I decided not to go that route, because I like having a roomy case. You never know when you might want to fill up those six hard drive bays! All the extra room makes cable management easy, too.

I ended up using the Antec One ATX case. It looked so empty at the time with the AMD 5350’s mini-ITX motherboard only occupying a small fraction of the space. Even so, I was pleased with my choice at the time. Now that I’m stuffing a full size ATX motherboard in there, I’ve realized that I saved myself even more trouble by using a full size ATX case!

The Antec One is currently my favorite ATX case. It is inexpensive and well made. The tool-less 3.5” drive bays are mounted transversely, so you don’t have to worry about bumping into other components when removing or inserting drives. If you’ve ever tried to wiggle a hard drive past a video card or RAID controller, you’ll really appreciate this!

Power supplies are boring!

Generally speaking, larger power supplies tend to be less efficient when operating at a small percentage of their maximum capacity. There are also different levels of “80 Plus” certification that define how efficient a power supply is while operating at different percentages of its maximum load.

The difference in power consumption between the lowest and highest “80 Plus” certifications is between 10 and 14 percent depending on load. I’m reusing the power supply from my previous build, and the components in that build didn’t consume much power, so I didn’t think it was worth investing in a more efficient power supply. That extra 10 percent efficiency will only save about three watts. That would have been only one kWh every two weeks.

I ended up buying the Corsair CX430 power supply. It is a good value, reasonably quiet, and it still provides more than enough power for my new, fast Ryzen 5 1600X. I could fill my Antec One case full of hard drives, and I still wouldn’t use half of the Corsair CX430’s maximum capacity.

Socket AM4 motherboards are also boring

In my opinion, socket AM4 motherboards are quite boring. For my purposes, though, most of them are comparable and rather inexpensive!

The most common motherboards for Ryzen CPUs have four DIMM slots and six SATA ports. There are some with eight or even ten SATA ports, but I’m not building a NAS, so six will be more than enough.

Repeat of the Cool Motherboard Photo

Some Ryzen boards have only two DIMM slots, but all the four-slot motherboards I was considering were less then $100. In fact, I would have paid more for a motherboard that could hold more RAM. Four slots is the limit, though.

I chose the Asus Prime B350-Plus motherboard. It supports up to 64 GB of RAM, has six SATA ports, and has more PCIe and PCI slots than I will ever need. Asus rarely lets me down, and this motherboard has all the features I need at a good price.

The extra SATA ports will come in handy. The AMD 5350 motherboard only had four SATA ports. I had planned on adding an inexpensive PCIe SATA card when I eventually run out of storage. Last year, I filled my only available PCIe slot with an Infiniband card. Having a 20-gigabit network connection is awesome, but that blocked my storage upgrade path!

Wait a minute! Why do I need a video card?!

Almost every Ryzen motherboard I looked at has HDMI, DVI, and VGA ports—including my Asus B350. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any with on-board video. Those video ports are for the upcoming AMD APU chips. I’m excited that AMD is using the same socket for both their processors with integrated graphics and also for their high end models. I’m disappointed that I had to buy a discrete video card.

I have some old, low-end video cards somewhere in my closet. I almost used one of those instead, but I wanted to make sure my build could be easily replicated.

I used an Nvidia GT 710 PCIe card. They only cost around $30, and they have a TDP of only 15 watts. I don’t imagine mine is consuming anywhere near 15 watts—I’m not even booting into a GUI! I’m certain it is contributing at least a few watts to my total power consumption, but I have no good way to measure it.

What about power consumption?

The Ryzen 1600 has more performance in a single core than all four of my old AMD 5350’s cores combined, and with all six cores active the 1600 is well over five times faster! I knew going into this that the Ryzen wouldn’t be as power-friendly as the 5350, but just how much worse is it?

When I boot my KVM host, the virtual machines do not spin up automatically. The disks that hold the virtual machine disk images are encrypted, so I have to ssh in to unlock those disks on the rare occasions when the server reboots. If you’re not building a server to host virtual machines, I imagine this is the idle power consumption number you’re most interested in.

Ryzen Machine Idling At 56 Watts

At this point, the idle Ryzen machine sits at almost exactly 50 watts. Be sure to upgrade to a recent kernel! My 4.11 kernel uses nearly 10 more watts than my 4.12 kernel! With any luck, this will continue to improve.

Once my virtual machines are all booted, my Ryzen 1600 homelab server bounces between 56 and 59 watts on the Kill-A-Watt meter.

That’s more than a 20 watt increase over my old AMD 5350 server. In fact, the old AMD 5350 server couldn’t even use this much electricity no matter how hard I pushed it.

It sounds like a huge increase in power consumption when I say it has increased by 64%, but it is only as much power as a couple of 100-watt LED bulbs, so it really isn’t too bad.

Power consumption under load has gone up quite a bit, too. If I run some benchmarks to keep all the cores active on the Ryzen 1600, power consumption usually bounces around somewhere in the 90 watt range with spikes up to 120 watts.

As far as homelab virtual machine hosts go, I’m quite pleased. My friend Brian built an awesome homelab server using a pair of used 8-core Xeon processors from eBay. His server is about 20% faster than mine, but it also has a pair of processors each with a 115w TDP—his server idles at 85 watts!

What’s this about a 16-core Xeon server?!

My friend Brian built a rather beefy homelab server last year. I am pretty sure I was the one that convinced him to build it. It is a really mean machine. For some reason, a lot of servers used to ship with a single Intel e5-2670 Xeon processor, and it was common to immediately remove that single CPU and replace it with a pair of faster processors.

That means the e5-2670 is easy to find on eBay, and they usually cost around $100 each. You just pop a pair of those chips into a $200 to $300 server-grade motherboard, and you’re all set. This was a tremendous value 12 months ago. It is still a good value if you need more than 64 GB of RAM or you’re one of those folks that feels like you need to have ECC RAM at home.

When I’m getting paid for my work, my servers are always equipped with ECC RAM. It is an easy decision to make when you’re spending someone else’s money, and you don’t want some sort of hardware problem waking you up in the middle of the night. I have yet to have a stick of RAM fail after successfully passing a few runs of memtest86, so plain old RAM will do just fine at home.

Benchmarks

I already had a pretty good idea of how the benchmarks would go long before I ordered any of the new hardware. The solid-state drives and hard disks have been chugging along for more than two years, and I tested those quite thoroughly when they arrived. My disks are encrypted, so there was a small chance that the faster CPU would be better at keeping up with that, but it isn’t the case.

I always scour through Geekbench CPU benchmarks before choosing a CPU, and my own tests landed right where I expected them. I’m including Geekbench 3 instead of Geekbench 4 results in this blog post, because that’s what I used to test the original server three years ago.

Geekbench 3 Results for the Ryzen 5 1600

The old AMD 5350 was a snail compared to the Ryzen 1600. The laptop-grade AMD 5350 managed 1,249 for the single-core score and 4,037 for the multi-core. The Ryzen 1600 just blows those numbers out of the water with a score of 4,309 for single core and 23,651 multi-core.

A single Ryzen 5 1600 core is faster than all four 5350 cores combined, and the Ryzen is nearly six times faster overall. I’d say this is a solid improvement and well worth the extra 20 watts of power consumption!

Most of the disk benchmarks ran a little more slowly this time. I’m not testing fresh disks this time, and the server is running and doing its job. My virtual machines don’t push the I/O subsystem hard, but you’d be surprised how much a small amount of disk activity can throw off a benchmark.

I was able to test the solid-state drives, but I don’t have easy, direct access to the spinning hard disks anymore. They’re sitting behind an SSD cache now!

The write performance of the Samsung 850 EVO SSDs dropped from 298 MB/s to 209 MB/s, while read speeds held steady at 606 MB/s—that’s just about 15 MB/s faster read speeds than three years ago. This makes perfect sense to me. A blank SSD usually has better write performance than a full SSD, and lvmcache has filled up the SSDs now.

The overall write speeds are down, but raw disk throughput isn’t the only reason to use a solid-state drive. Going from the hundreds of IOPS you get out of a spinning disk to the tens of thousands of IOPS you get out of a solid-state drive is a drastic improvement!

I did benchmark my lvmcache setup. The results of the benchmarks are disappointing. The results are worse than my old benchmarks of the hard disks with no SSD cache at all.

How did you configure your disks? What is lvmcache?

Lvmcache is built on top of dm-cache. It allows you to use solid-state drives as a persistent read/write cache on top of your slower hard drives. It is akin to ZFS’s ZIL and L2ARC, except that lvmcache uses a single cache for both read and write caching.

My KVM server is set up with a pair of 4 TB 7200 RPM disks in a RAID 10. I know from the comments on the previous homelab server blog post that you’re quite likely to be wondering how you can have two disks in a RAID 10. Linux’s MD layer allows you to put any number of disks into a RAID 10 configuration—even odd numbers of disks!

In practice, my two disk RAID 10 is just a mirror. The only significant difference is that the RAID device’s header claims that it is a RAID 10 array and not a RAID 1.

The advantage of using RAID 10 comes with future growth. I can add disks to the RAID 10 one at a time, and no matter how many disks I add, I will always have exactly two copies of each block. Adding disks to a Linux MD RAID 1 array will only increase your redundancy.

My RAID 10 array is encrypted, and this is where all my virtual machine disk images are stored.

Samsung 850 EVO

I also have a mirrored pair of 250 GB Samsung 850 EVO solid-state drives. I have a 32 GB partition on each SSD. These two partitions are combined into a RAID 1 array—it is easier to boot off RAID 1! This 32 GB volume is where my base operating system lives, and it is not encrypted.

The remainder of each solid-state disk is mirrored as well, and that space is dedicated to use as the caching layer for my lvmcache.

My adventures with lvmcache probably deserve their own follow up blog post. Lvmcache doesn’t benchmark well, but that isn’t surprising. Lvmcache is meant to be a long-lived cache. It doesn’t speed up short term operations. It speeds up disk access that happens on a regular basis over time.

The conclusion

I’m extremely pleased with this upgrade. The new Ryzen processors are an excellent value, and their power consumption is quite reasonable. I’m excited about the wide range of performance options that will fit into this build, too. You can spend $100 less than I did and get yourself a Ryzen 1200—that would have been more than enough horsepower for my purposes, but faster is more fun, right?

There’s also room to grow in the other direction—the Ryzen 1800X is 50% faster than my Ryzen 1600, and there will be even more processors available for this socket in the future. I’m hoping the chips with integrated graphics will be a good upgrade.

The Assembled Ryzen 1600 Server

Benchmarking this build has gotten me even more interested in upgrading my aging desktop. This Ryzen 1600 is significantly faster than the overclocked FX-8350 in my workstation. I built it in 2013, so this shouldn’t be a surprise. I’m planning on using the same motherboard in my desktop, but I expect to use either a Ryzen 1600X or 1800X instead.

I am going to miss the old AMD 5350 server. It did its job well, and I’m certain it could have served me well for another couple of years. I’m glad I upgraded, though, because the old machine was out of SATA ports. I’d hate to be forced into a major upgrade just because I ran out of disk space, and my new photography hobby has me accumulating RAW files at an alarming rate. Adding another disk to my server is inevitable, and it will be a piece of cake now!

Do you have a server at home dedicated to hosting virtual machines? Are you using Linux and KVM? Leave a comment and let me know what you’re doing. I’d love to hear about it!

Three Months Flying The Holybro Shuriken X1 FPV Racing Drone

| Comments

Earlier today, I was walking out into the middle of a big, empty field with my friend Brian. We were on our way to collect my Shuriken X1. I had to disarm in the middle of my flight. Our friend Alex was flying his DJI Spark drone, and the Spark signal always interferes with our 5.8 GHz FPV equipment. The static wasn’t too bad right up until that sudden moment when I could barely see where I was flying—the safest thing to do was disarm.

Holybro Shuriken X1

We got to the X1, and there wasn’t any damage at all, and that’s precisely what we expected. The only surprise was that the props were all still straight! I’m a huge fan of the Racekraft 5040 props—they fly great, and they’re tough to break!

On the walk back to our seats, Brian and I were talking about how often we crash our Shuriken X1 drones. I’ve run into trees, dropped into the grass from 200 feet in the air, and I’ve crashed hard into pavement on more than one occasion. Just a few days ago, I punched the throttle at the wrong point in an attempted power loop and ended up accelerating straight into the ground.

I was telling Brian that I needed to write about how durable this drone is, because I’m always so confident that it will survive a crash.

We must have jinxed it!

I plugged my battery back in, sat down, and proceeded to fly the remainder of that battery. Shortly into the flight, I attempted to pull an s-turn over a rather small tree. I did a terrible job.

I made it over the tree, but I didn’t manage to fit well under the tree. I smashed into the concrete next to the tree quite hard. The only damage I saw was the deformed battery.

Shuriken X1 Broken Arm

I took the drone back to my seat, and I was spinning the props to check if they were bent. One of the props felt loose. Then I thought the motor was loose.

Nope. The arm was broken! This is the first time I’ve broken anything more than a propeller on my Shuriken X1!

Arms for the Shuriken X1 are cheap!

I ordered a pair of arms from Gearbest for $16. That’s a lot less than I expected to have to pay, and the arms are really easy to replace. I was able to borrow an arm from a friend and replace it in the field. Three screws hold the arm to the frame and four screws keep the motor in place. It was easily a ten-minute repair.

The Shuriken X1 has been amazing

The Shuriken X1 is fast, and it handles great. It has always been there when I needed it, even though I’ve been so tough on it.

It has so much more power than I need. Often-times there are other people at the field already flying. I can put my goggles on, do a quick punch out, and I’ll hear voices saying things like, “Did you see how fast that is?!”

There are a lot of fast racing drones on the market now, but I never run into someone flying a drone that makes my Shuriken X1 look slow.

That YouTube video is pretty tame. I’ve been running goggles that don’t have a DVR lately, so I haven’t been capturing much footage. That was recorded using Brian’s Fat Shark goggles and I was using my Runcam Eagle 2. It was getting quite dark out, and the sun was already below the horizon.

I was practicing power loops. I never get them right. I usually end up in outer space or I don’t end up hardly going backwards all. I do crash at the end of the video. I accidentally punched the throttle while the Shuriken X1 was still upside down, and I hit the ground hard. I bent two of the Racekraft 5051 props I was testing, but I was able to fix them!

Some newer drones are tempting

My friend David recently started flying an Armattan Chameleon. It is a beautiful piece of hardware, and it looks and sounds so smooth when it is flying. If I didn’t already have a Shuriken X1 strapped to my bag, I’d already be shopping for a drone like the Chameleon.

I regularly check out Gearbest to see if any new drones have landed in their store. There are two that I find interesting.

The BFight 210 looks like an awesome 5” racing drone if you’re on a limited budget. I don’t recognize the manufacturer of its 2205 motors, and I doubt they produce as much power as the 2305 Tmotor F40 motors on my X1, but that might not matter. According to the specs, the BFight 210 weighs about 100 grams less than my X1—it is probably a screamer!

The ASUAV F200 looks even more impressive than the BFight 210. It costs $60 or $70 more and doesn’t come with a receiver, but it uses the same motors as my Shuriken X1. The ASUAV F200 also manages to weigh in at about 100 grams less than my X1. This thing has to feel ridiculously fast!

I am not a racer

We set up drone gates on occasion, but I am certainly not flying to become a drone racer. I’ve been practicing stunts and proximity flying, so I’m probably more of a freestyle pilot.

It seems that most freestyle pilots prefer drones with a little more weight. Heavier quads tend to be smoother, and they’re more likely to survive a crash. I know I crash a lot.

I’m certain it would be fun to fly the ASUAV F200 or the BFight 210, but I bet they don’t feel as nice in the air as my Shuriken X1, and I’m certain that the Armattan Chameleon feels even better.

Would I still buy the Shuriken X1?

Absolutely. If my Shuriken X1 fell out of the sky and landed in a lake, I’d head straight home and order another one.

The Holybro Shuriken X1 Attached To My Bag

It has served me amazingly well so far. It is fast. Really fast. Probably too fast. It is also extremely durable. It took a lot of crashes into trees, asphalt, and concrete to finally crack on me.

What’s next?

I’ve been working on an upgrade for my PH145. The PH145 is a little heavy for 3” propellers, but it was a fantastic machine to aid me in my quest to learn how to fly FPV. My plan was to buy an inexpensive carbon fiber frame with enough room for 4” propellers. I thought it would be nice if I could rebuild the first quadcopter I designed using almost all the original parts.

The PH145++ or the PH150. I can't decide!

It didn’t work out that way. The pin headers on the old NAZE32 were long and in the way, so I replaced the flight controller. I thought I burned out an ESC, so I replaced the 30 amp 4-in-1 ESC board with a set of 20 amp ESCs. That’s when I learned that I didn’t burn out an ESC—I smoked a motor!

So I upgraded to 1806 motors. The only parts left from the PH145 are six aluminum screws, the camera, VTX, and the battery strap. It did inherit the DSMX receiver from my Shuriken 180 Pro, though.

I wanted to keep as much of my first FPV drone in the air as I could, and I did a bad job of it. It is finally assembled, and it is ready for tuning and testing. I’ll let you know how it works out!

Do you have a Shuriken X1 or a similar racing drone? Do you have a Chameleon, BFight 210, or ASUAV F200? Leave a comment and let me know what you think. I’d love to hear about your drone!

Acer Aspire VX15 Gaming Laptop and Linux

| Comments

I usually put a lot of thought into my choice of laptop. This was especially important when I traveled a lot and didn’t own a desktop computer. This time, though, I was in need of a gaming laptop and I was in a rush to get it ordered and delivered. My requirements were simple: a quad core i7 CPU, an Nvidia GPU, a solid-state drive, a 1080p display, and plenty of RAM. I didn’t pay attention to much else.

In my haste, I chose the Acer Aspire VX15—aka the Acer Aspire VX5-591G-75RM. I imagine you can find a better value for your money, but not by a whole lot. These are the important specifications.

  • Intel Core i7-7700HQ processor
  • Nvidia 1050 Ti GPU with 4 GB VRAM
  • 16 GB DDR4 RAM
  • 256 GB NVMe SSD
  • 15.6” 1920x1080 IPS display
  • HDMI port
  • Combo mic/headphone jack
  • SD Card slot
  • 1 USB-C, 2 USB 3.0, 1 USB 2.0 ports
  • Gigabit Ethernet port
  • 802.11ac (Qualcomm Atheros QXA6174)

There’s also room inside for a 2.5” hard drive. I picked up this adapter on eBay, and I installed one of my spare 1 TB laptop hard drives.

The hardware is rather good. The specs compare quite favorably to the new MacBook Pro. The MacBook Pro is thinner, lighter, and has a nicer display. My Acer Aspire VX15 has a faster GPU with twice the VRAM, standard USB ports, and can be upgraded past 16 GB of RAM—most of the important specs are identical, but at less than half the price of the MacBook Pro!

Can you run Linux on this thing?!

Yes, you can. You just have to disable secure boot in the BIOS, boot up your favorite Linux distro’s installer, and you should be good to go. I installed Xubuntu 17.04 on mine. I managed to accidentally installed the legacy boot loader instead of UEFI. I briefly considered reinstalling, but it was quicker and easier to just enable legacy boot in the BIOS.

Everything worked out of the box. I shouldn’t be surprised about this, except that the last time I installed Linux on a laptop, it was my Chuwi Hi12 tablet with its weird Intel Atom Z8350 system-on-chip. I’ve always had good luck with laptops that use the mainstream Intel chipsets.

The Atheros 802.11ac Wi-Fi device works perfectly. The on-board Realtek Gigabit Ethernet device works just fine. Suspend to RAM works every time. I haven’t tried to hibernate—I don’t usually set up a swap partition on SSDs.

I’m running the latest version of the proprietary Nvidia driver from the PPA. All the games I expected to play run great.

What about Nvidia Optimus?

As soon as I got my environment configured the way I like it, I installed Intel’s powertop. Powertop is a fantastic utility that keeps track of how much power your laptop is using, and it helps you figure out where all that power is going.

With the display set to a reasonable brightness level, my Acer laptop hovers right around 12 watts of power consumption while idling when using the Nvidia GPU. I used the nvidia-settings program to switch from the Nvidia GPU to the integrated Intel GPU, and I ran the same test. When using the Intel GPU, the idle power consumption drops a little below 9 watts.

There’s a program called Bumblebee that allows you to use the Nvidia GPU for games while using the Intel GPU for everything else. That sounds like it allows you to experience the best of both worlds, but it looked like a real pain in the neck to get configured properly. I didn’t think it would be worth the effort just to save 3 watts at idle.

Then I realized that 12 watts is 30% more than 9 watts—that’s the difference between 4 hours and 5 hours of battery life! I thought about using nvidia-settings to switch to the Nvidia GPU whenever I wanted to play a game, but logging out and back in just to play a game sounded like a terrible idea.

Fortunately, getting Bumblebee working was easier than I expected. I just had to switch my default to the Intel GPU, install the package, and reboot. All I have to do now is preface a command with the optirun wrapper, and the program will make use of the Nvidia GPU. This lets me pick and choose which games in my Steam library use the Nvidia GPU—most of them don’t even need it!

There’s definitely a performance impact, but I haven’t measured it. Programs running on the Nvidia GPU will be limited to 60 frames per second as well. It is a reasonable compromise, and it lets me play Team Fortress 2 without going through the tedious process of logging out of my computer.

Suspend and resume works fine for me whether using the Intel GPU, the Nvidia GPU, or both GPUs at the same time!

The Acer Aspire VX15 isn’t all that great

This is a fantastic laptop wrapped up in a mediocre shell. It is thick enough to have room for an optical drive, but that isn’t an option—not that I’d have use for such a thing these days!

The laptop has a 15.6” screen with the biggest bezel you’ve ever seen. It certainly has enough room for a 17” screen, and they should have squeezed one in. The laptop probably wouldn’t be any larger, and I would have paid a few bucks extra.

That said, I’m perfectly happy with the screen being 1080p. I do want to be able to play games on this, and it takes quite a bit more GPU to play games on a screen with the resolution of a MacBook Pro. The 15.6” screen on the Aspire VX15 has DPI of 141. That’s high enough unless you want to hunch over and get really close to the screen—like I do when I abuse the high-density screen on my tiny 12” Chuwi tablet!

I’ve had the bottom cover off my Aspire to install the extra hard drive, and I can tell you that there’s a lot of air in there. Acer could have made this a thinner laptop. I don’t really mind the laptop being so much thicker than something like a MacBook Pro. Even if it was thinner, I would still need a large bag to carry it.

It would have been nice to save some weight, but I don’t carry the laptop all that far. I’d rather have an extra $1,300 in my pocket than upgrade to a MacBook Pro.

Having a USB-C port is nice. Having DisplayPort or Thunderbolt ports would have been better. The Aspirve VX15 only has a single video output, and it is an HDMI port. These definitely aren’t deal-breakers for me, but it precludes using the Acer Aspire VX15 as a desktop replacement—I can’t work without two big monitors!

It is a big upgrade for me!

The 7th-generation Core i7 processor is nearly three times faster than the 1st-generation Core i7 in my aging laptop. It is nearly as fast overall as the CPU in my five-year-old desktop computer, and the i7-7700HQ’s single-core performance makes it a better gaming CPU!

The Aspire VX15’s Nvidia 1050 Ti is light years ahead of the Nvidia 230M GPU in my ancient HP DV8T laptop. In fact, the 1050 Ti is has nearly half the power of the Nvidia GTX 970 in my desktop computer.

Conclusion

If you’re looking for a Kaby Lake Core i7 laptop with a dedicated GPU that’s well supported by Linux, the Acer VX15 should be a good fit for you. If you’re willing to pay more, I’m sure you can find a Linux-friendly laptop that’s lighter or more well made. However, it won’t be easy to find a faster gaming laptop for a much better price.

My Favorite Budget FPV Headset

| Comments

I’d love to be able to point you to the best budget-conscious FPV goggles instead of my favorite set, but I just can’t. There are just too many options available, and there’s no way I could try them all.

Even if I could try every set of goggles, there’s no way I could use each pair often enough to be aware of their hidden pitfalls. There are plenty of YouTube channels that review goggles, and those reviews almost always miss the long-term details. I utterly destroyed a drone because the diversity system in the original version of the Eachine VR D2 can get confused and freeze up. It only happened to me once every few weeks—that might be 30 or 40 batteries. If you fly with these goggles for a few days, you probably won’t experience the issue.

Should I really buy cheap goggles?

Almost everyone in the hobby will tell you to invest in a good set of goggles. They’re not wrong, but you won’t know what style you like if you’re just starting out. The FPV racers seem to love their Fat Shark goggles, but I worry that I’ll be disappointed with their extremely limited field of view—usually 30 to 40 degrees.

FuriBee VR01 FPV Headset

One of my friends loves the huge screen in his giant headset. I don’t know which headset he uses, but I believe it has a 7” screen much like these Skyzone goggles at Amazon. They probably have a field of view up around 120 degrees. When I use his goggles, I tend to fly much slower, and I have a lot of trouble seeing the ground when I land. The field of view is so large than I can barely seem to angle my eyes low enough to see the ground!

I started with the cheapest goggles I could find on Amazon—the Eachine EV800 headset. They’re a fine set of goggles. I was pleased with the 82-degree field of view, but I wanted to try something with better reception. I quickly learned that you can buy goggles with a diversity setup. Those goggles have two video receivers and two antennas. In addition to the standard omnidirectional antenna, these goggles also have a directional antenna. In my experience, the directional antenna has no trouble getting a clear signal at over 1,000’.

Which budget FPV goggles should I buy?

I’m trying to buy a set of AOMWAY Commander FPV goggles, but they’ve been out of stock everywhere for weeks. They’re Fat-Shark-style goggles with a good diversity setup for a very reasonable price. The $350 price tag may be reasonable for what you get, but they’re certainly not entry-level goggles.

I had been flying with these scary Eachine VR D2 (sans pro!) goggles, and I didn’t want to wait for the AOMWAY Commander goggles to become available. I found a cheap, interesting FPV headset at Gearbest—the FuriBee VR01 headset.

The FuriBee VR01 headset has both an omnidirectional cloverleaf antenna and a directional patch antenna, but the documentation says it doesn’t use a true diversity setup. If it isn’t using diversity, how does it work? Does it work as well as the true but flaky diversity in my Eachine VR D2 headset?

An FPV headset with two antennas for $55 sounded too good to be true. I told my friends at Gearbest that I was interested in trying out their FuriBee VR01 headset, and they were nice enough to send them to me free of charge.

I’m going to tell you about my favorite headset, but I don’t want to leave you with just one option. I’m also going to tell you about the other budget-friendly headsets I’ve tried

FuriBee VR01 FPV Headset

If you ignore the major flaw in my original Eachine VR D2 headset, the FuriBee VR01 headset might be the worst headset I’ve used. I noticed quite a few problems before even flying with them for the first time. There’s nowhere to stow your battery, the screen isn’t great, and the face padding is quite awful and it leaks light on the sides.

Sounds terrible, doesn’t it? In practice, none of these problems are all that bad. I’ve been flying with the FuriBee headset for two or three weeks, and I like them quite a lot. The screen is definitely a downgrade compared to my Eachine VR D2 headset—the resolution is obviously lower, but I stopped noticing after the first week.

The light leaking in on the sides isn’t bad, and it could probably be fixed with some extra padding. The light only hits the periphery of the display, and it is barely noticeable unless the sun is directly behind me.

I used a battery strap to stow a 3S LiPo behind my head, and I used some zip ties to route the power cable. One of my favorite features of the FuriBee VR01 headset is how many options I have for powering the thing.

The documentation recommends 2S or 3S LiPo batteries, but it also claims it can handle the voltage of a 4S battery. Gearbest claims it can run for 8 hours on a 2200 mAh 3S battery. I have some 1300 mAh 3S batteries that are old enough that they can’t nearly reach their max capacity, and the headset can run for at least three hours without a battery swap. I’m sure it can go longer, but I’d rather not run out of charge while flying!

FuriBee VR01 Headset Battery Mod

The FuriBee VR01 headset power cable connects to a 2-pin JST connector commonly found on 2S LiPo batteries. The only batteries I have with that connector are tiny 350 mAh packs for my KingKong 90GT micro drone, and I know they won’t power the headset for long.

I had some spare female XT60 adapters that came with each of my Venom 4S LiPo batteries. Using that, a couple of Dupont jumper wires, and a few minutes with the soldering iron, I was able to create an adapter that allows me to plug any of my 3S or 4S LiPo batteries into the VR01 headset.

This should be safe, because the headset can take up to a 23-volt input. It would be nice if something like this could be included in the box with the FuriBee VR01 headset!

Does the fake diversity work?

The fake diversity definitely works. I went to my favorite wide-open field, and I flew my Shuriken X1 roughly 1,000 feet away with its VTX transmitter set to 200 mw. I’m certain I could fly farther, but that’s where the trees start, and I don’t want to hunt for my drone if something goes wrong out there.

At 1,000 feet, the video feed is quite clear. When I turn my head to the side, the picture degrades quite a bit as the signal gets picked up by the directional antenna. I’ve tested a few other scenarios, but this was all the proof I needed to determine that both antennas were doing something.

Unfortunately, the FuriBee VR01 headset doesn’t have a built-in DVR, so I can’t show you what it looks like.

Wouldn’t it be better to have true diversity?

I’m excited that you can get two antennas onto a headset at this price point. I enjoy having the long range of the directional antenna, even if that extra range only extends in one direction. Also, if you have obstacles in a particular direction that usually interfere with your video signal, you can point your directional antenna that way to help alleviate the problem.

I’m even more excited that you can get an inexpensive headset with two antennas, and you don’t have to worry about a poorly designed diversity system ruining your day.

Eachine VR D2 Pro FPV Headset

I’ve had two sets of the original version of the Eachine VR D2 headsets—not the pro! These were about $125 from Amazon. The first set burned out. I plugged the battery in to start flying, the screen was dark, and I soon began to smell the magic smoke. I sent those back to Amazon and ordered another set.

The second set didn’t fail, but it did freeze up on me at an inopportune moment. Both sets have frozen up on me a few times, but that second set caused me to crash my Shuriken 180 Pro face first into the pavement from a fairly high altitude. I sent that set back to Amazon as well. A headset that locks up randomly during flight is definitely defective!

The new Eachine VR D2 Pro headset has supposedly eliminated this issue. The Pro version is a very nice-looking headset, and it can be ordered directly from China for around $75—assuming you’re willing to wait several weeks for your headset to arrive! It is comfortable to wear, has a nice display, and it includes a built-in DVR.

It also has a nice on-screen display that shows the signal strength of each antenna, your battery voltage, and your current channel. These goggles are a really good value for the price.

I’ve been burned, though, and I’m worried that the VR D2 Pro will still have those random lockups. A friend of mine has a set. I’ve tried them out, and I really like them. I’ll be sure to update this post to let everyone know whether or not he has any problems with his!

Eachine EV800 Headset

The Eachine EV800 was my first headset. I still have it—a friend of mine has been borrowing it for the last month or so. It works fine, and it has never caused me any problems. I used them for a few months, then I loaned them to my friend Tommy. He’s been using them ever since with no problems.

Eachine EV800 FPV Goggles

The EV800 is a solid headset. It is reasonably priced, and it is available from Amazon with Prime shipping—that’s a bonus. They cost as much as the Eachine VR D2 Pro headset, but the EV800 doesn’t have diversity or a DVR.

If you’re willing to tolerate a bit of static, the range on the EV800 goggles is quite good. I used to fly 700’ away or more, and I didn’t mind the static at the time. Having a directional antenna has spoiled me. I don’t want to see that static.

My conclusion

I highly recommend the FuriBee VR01 headset from Gearbest. It is a decent headset with a function, diversity-like setup, and you can get a pair for under $60. You probably won’t have to wait long, either, because they’re usually stocked in Gearbest’s US warehouse!

They’re a great way to dip your toe into the waters of FPV. I was very impatient before my VR01 goggles arrived, and I thought I would be racing to order a set of $350 AOMWAY Commander goggles—they’re still out of stock! After flying with the FuriBee VR01 headset for a week or two, I am in absolutely no hurry to upgrade. These are fine, and they will tide me over for quite a while!

Do you have an inexpensive FPV headset? Do you have a FuriBee VR01? Let me know what you think of it in the comments below!

KingKong 90GT Upgrades

| Comments

I’ve been flying my KingKong 90GT for more than two months. It is a fantastic little quadcopter—it truly is bananas to fly! I have crashed often enough that I’ve damaged my video transmitter antenna—if you follow the advice in my previous blog, you should be able to avoid this! I’m also running low on propellers. These issues seemed like a good excuse for some upgrades!

KingKong90GT with 2435 props

I made two minor upgrades, and I am thrilled with the results! Flight times are up 30%, thrust is up almost 50%, video transmission range is probably tripled, and my KingKong 90GT feels more stable than ever.

Removing the prop guards and increasing the thrust have made my KingKong 90GT much less safe for indoor use, but I don’t mind one bit. It is just too much fun outdoors now!

Upgrading the VTX

We broke the tip off my KingKong 90GT’s VTX antenna in the first week. If you read my previous blog post about the 90GT, you have probably already avoided this problem by strengthening the antenna with some simple heat shrink tubing.

My repairs were never ideal, and I’m pretty sure my solder work has come loose. I could have taken everything apart or soldered a new antenna on, but instead I shopped for higher power VTX units.

The stock video transmitter operates at 25mw. In all honesty, this is good enough most of the time. It doesn’t cost much more to upgrade to a 200mw transmitter, though, and I figured more range is better!

I also wanted to upgrade from the stock dipole antenna to a polarized cloverleaf antenna. It is my understanding that you lose 3 dbi when you have a dipole on one end and a polarized cloverleaf on the other. Cloverleaf antennas get better reception than dipole antennas, and I already have a cloverleaf on my goggles. I think it is a good idea to match both ends with the better antenna!

I was hoping to find a small, high-power VTX that I could wire in to the stock camera. I like the stock camera’s placement, and I wanted to keep the KingKong 90GT looking sleek. Unfortunately, all the VTX units I found that operate at anything over 50mw come with a camera built in. I supposed I could take out my soldering iron and remove the camera from one of these units, but it is much easier to just strap the new camera on top of the KingKong 90GT.

I settled on the Wolfwhoop 25mw/50mw/200mw switchable VTX unit. It weighs about 6 grams, it has a cloverleaf antenna, and I had no trouble fashioning a 3D printed mount to attach it to the roof of the KingKong 90GT.

The performance of the new VTX

I ran my first test flight at 50mw. Everything looked great. The camera is probably an upgrade over the stock 90GT camera, but it isn’t a huge upgrade. It has been a while since I flew the stock VTX with a good antenna, so it is tough to say if the 50mw is a proper upgrade. My gut says it is.

When I cranked it all the way to 200mw, I expected a noticeable drop in battery life. I was pleasantly surprised that I was able to stay in the air just about as long as I expected. At 200mw, the KingKong 90GT had no trouble flying out about 950’ away in an open field.

I’m sure I could have gone farther, but that’s where the trees start. That’s also much farther than I want to walk to hunt for a lost drone. The KingKong 90GT is tiny, so it is difficult to spot even in freshly cut grass!

Unfortunately, the FPV goggles I’m currently using do not have a DVR. I’ll have someone record footage soon!

How did you mount the VTX?

I designed a 3D printed bracket to swap in place of the carbon fiber plate on top of the KingKong 90GT. I’m using my original prototype part for now. I designed it before the camera module arrived, and it doesn’t fit perfectly.

The VTX unit has a seven segment LED, and I didn’t account for how much thicker that makes the right side of the module. I corrected the issue with my prototype by cutting a big notch out of the corner.

I have some ideas to improve the mount, and it should be easier to implement those ideas now that the camera is in my hands! Just in case anyone needs it before I’ve completed my design, I uploaded my prototype camera mount to Thingiverse.

I’m disappointed that I had to move the camera to the top of the drone. The 90GT looks a lot more sleek with the camera in the factory location. The props are barely visible in the video feed now, so I can’t complain too much!

Ditching the prop guards

I took the prop guards off last week. That dropped the weight of the drone to 50 grams from 58 grams. That’s about a 15% savings in weight, and it seemed to make the 90GT feel more nimble and agile. I didn’t get to test this weight reduction as much as I’d have liked to, because my VTX antenna was quite broken. I only had a chance to fly two batteries without the prop guards, and I was disappointed that I didn’t see improved flight times.

However, this experiment did get me wondering if I could fit larger propellers on this frame.

Upgrading to larger propellers

I cheated. I moved the motors out past the frame, and I am now only able to use two screws to mount the motors. This gave me quite a bit of extra space between the props and the frame. How much more propeller could I fit?

I started searching, and I decided to try a set of 4-blade 2435 props. They’re about 25% longer than the 1935 props that come with the KingKong 90GT, and they have an extra blade. If they worked, I was expecting to see quite a bit more thrust!

I wasn’t disappointed. The larger props just barely fit, and they generate quite a bit more thrust than the stock props. According to my blackbox data, the stock props generate 2.3G of thrust in a punch out. The 2435 props hit a massive 3.6G in a punch out—almost a 50% increase in thrust!

This would be exciting news on its own, but I’m also seeing much longer flight times. With the stock props, I’ve been getting a little over three minutes of flight time out of my 350 mAh 2S batteries. With the weight reduction and larger props, I’m getting an extra 60 to 90 seconds in the air. I would switch to the bigger props just for the longer battery life!

I want to say that the bigger props make it as fast as my Holybro Shuriken X1, but that would be a lie. I will say that I’m confident that my KingKong 90GT could probably almost keep up with my Shuriken X1 through the tight trees at Breckinridge Park. If I go much faster than that with the X1, I have a lot of trouble maintaining control!

How do you fit bigger props on the KingKong 90GT?!

All you have to do is move the motors. The 90GT only comes with eight screws and washers that fit the prop guards—that’s only two screws per motor! I moved the motors slightly outside the frame. Only the outer two screw holes line up now. This is one of those instances where a picture is worth a thousand words.

KingKong 90GT Motors

This moves the motors out by about ¼”, and the upgraded props are about ½” larger. This makes for an almost perfect fit!

Conclusion

The other day, I handed the controls of my KingKong 90GT to my friend Brian. He flies his KingKong 90GT every time we go to the park, and he’s been listening to me talking about my upgrades all week. He’s not terribly articulate while he’s flying—not many of us are! He muttered things like, “This is awesome!” and, “It feels so smooth!”

This was the first time I had seen my upgraded KingKong 90GT flying fast without my head in the FPV goggles. I watch Brian fly his all the time, and it was obvious how much faster he was going with the upgraded drone!

I’d say the VTX upgrade is optional. It is worthwhile if you want to get a little more range, but I was happy enough with the 25mw VTX until I broke my antenna. That said, having 1,000’ of range is a nice bonus!

I’ve said before that I feel the KingKong 90GT already has the has just the right balance of cost, performance, and durability. The KingKong 90GT is already bananas from the factory. There are faster brushless micro drones out there, but they usually cost quite a bit more—enough that I’d prefer to buy another 5” racer!

Without the prop guards in place, you’ll lose the ability to comfortably fly indoors. That said, I still highly recommend the propeller upgrade. My KingKong 90GT feels like a brand new drone now. It is effectively a free upgrade—especially if you’re already running low on propellers! The prop upgrade makes the 90GT a more direct competitor to ARFUN 90 or the ridiculously powerful micro drones like the Airblade Creampuff.

Do you fly a KingKong 90GT? What do you think of it? Have you upgraded yours? Leave a comment below. I’d love to hear your opinion!

Holybro Shuriken X1 FPV Racing Drone

| Comments

The Holybro Shuriken X1 is the fastest drone I’ve ever seen. The first racing drone I saw flying was my friend Alex’s Blade Vortex 250. The Vortex is an amazing piece of hardware—fast, smooth, and extremely well made. The Vortex 250 is a much better drone than my old Shuriken 180 Pro—it better be with its $500 price tag!

Holybro Shuriken X1

At about the same time I bought my Shuriken 180 Pro, my friend Brian bought a Shuriken X1. I chose the 180 Pro because its price was close to that of my own PH145 quadcopter build, but it was still a big performance upgrade. I quickly learned that he made the better choice! At the time, Brian and I were lucky to be able to fly a drone in FPV without crashing.

We’ve come a long way in the few months since then, but our friend Alex has been flying drones for five years, so we let him try both of our drones shortly after they arrived. Alex ordered a Shuriken X1 less than a week after that test flight. I think that speaks volumes for the quality and performance of the X1, and that definitely encouraged me to buy one for myself!

I’ve heard him tell people that his Shuriken X1 feels a lot like his Vortex 250, but it is twice as fast. I’m sure there’s some hyperbole in his statement, but it isn’t far from the truth.

I’m still learning to fly. I’m much more proficient than I was even a month ago, but I’m not yet able to push the much slower Shuriken 180 Pro to its limits, so I haven’t been in a hurry to upgrade to a faster drone. My Shuriken 180 Pro was involved in a major crash—the crash probably deserves its own blog post. Having one less drone in my hangar was a problem, but since it was the fastest drone in my hangar made this an emergency! I ordered a Shuriken X1 from Gearbest as soon as I got home that night, and it arrived a few days later.

The hardware

Before I start telling you my opinions, let’s start with the specifications.

  • Heavy-duty carbon 200mm fiber frame
  • T-Motor F40 2305 2600kv motors
  • 30A ESCs
  • F3 Flight Controller
  • FPV camera with a Sony CCD sensor
  • 200/600 mW switchable VTX
  • MWOSD on-screen display
  • Available with a DSMX, FrSky, Futaba, or Flysky receiver

The T-Motor F40 motors are amazing. They’re big, fast, and relatively lightweight. They’re also expensive compared to other motors. If you shop around, you can get an entire set of generic four 2205 motors for $25. A set of T-Motor F40 2306 motors will set you back more than $100!

Are you ready for my first opinion? I believe this enough reason on its own to buy the Shuriken X1.

There are plenty of drones available today with an F4 flight controller, but I’m not disappointed to see the older F3 flight controller on the Shuriken X1. I’m not going to notice the difference in flight, and I doubt you will, either. I wouldn’t even notice if you swapped in the ancient F1 flight controller from my PH145. The difference between a 1 KHz, 2 KHz, or 4 KHz PID loop seems like the difference between a 2,000, 4,000, or 8,000 DPI mouse—it is nice to have more, but the returns quickly diminish.

My only real disappointment is the ESCs. The early Shuriken X1 drones shipped with modern BLHELI_S ESCs. With those ESCs, you can use the DSHOT protocol. If you can run DSHOT, you don’t have to calibrate your ESCs. That isn’t a huge win, but it is something I’d prefer not to have to do ever again!

In the above video of my maiden flight of my Shuriken X1, I attempted to use Multishot to communicate with the ESCs. It was terrible, and I was almost too embarrassed to post this video! You can hear all sorts of oscillations when I do a quick roll, and sometimes it was executing two or three rolls when it should have only done one. Don’t bother trying to run Multishot on these ESCs.

Those original ESCs were problematic. They resulted in a wobble when the Shuriken X1 would yaw. Holybro fixed this issue by using a different 30A ESC. The new ESCs are an older design, and they don’t support BLHELI_S or DSHOT. For fun, I tried flashing them with a newer firmware to support Multishot, but they weren’t happy about that at all! I flashed the ESCs back to stock and switched back to OneShot125.

It flies nice and smooth with Oneshot125, so I’m quite happy!

Why did I buy the Holybro Shuriken X1?

I don’t like to be a follower. Two of my friends already own this drone, so I wanted to try something different. I’ve been quietly researching racing drones with 5” propellers ever since I started getting proficient with the Shuriken 180 Pro. I didn’t have a lot of luck finding anything better than the Shuriken X1.

I was planning on buying a Furibee Fuuton 200. It compares quite favorably to the Shuriken X1, but it costs almost $100 less. It wasn’t the price that piqued my interest, though—it was the weight. The Furibee Fuuton 200 weighs about 80 grams less than the Shuriken X1. The Fuuton’s smaller ESCs and motors won’t have the same punch as the Shuriken X1, but the lighter weight would make it quite maneuverable, and it should still be quite fast!

Holybro Shuriken X1 Box

If I still had a working Shuriken 180 Pro, I probably would have bought a Furibee Fuuton in a month or two. Demolishing the Shuriken 180 Pro meant that I needed a new drone as soon as possible, and I wanted something that I knew I would enjoy. The Shuriken X1 was a known quantity, and that made it a safe bet.

The Shuriken X1 is sturdy, flies smooth, is extremely nimble, and its acceleration is just unbelievable. It is a well-made and well-equipped quadcopter with a sensible design, and you can get it for less than $300.

The Shuriken X1 sounds nice, but it looks too fast for me!

In my opinion, nobody should own just one drone. Things go wrong all the time, and you will break your drone. While you’re learning to fly, you’ll break things even more often. The parts you are most likely to break cost less than $20 or $30. The cost isn’t a big deal. It really sucks when you’re out flying with your friends and burn out an ESC or bend a motor half-way through your first battery.

I started with a slower quadcopter—my PH145. I’m glad I had a less powerful yet extremely agile little quadcopter to start my journey. Things would have been even easier for me to learn how to fly in FPV if I had a KingKong 90GT like Brian when I started to learn to FPV.

Even though the PH145 is much more powerful than the tiny KingKong 90GT, I started to outgrow that after a month or two, then I started flying my Shuriken 180 Pro. I was just starting to outgrow the 180 Pro when I accidentally destroyed it—it wasn’t easy to destroy, either! When my 180 Pro was out of commission, and I was waiting for my Shuriken X1 to arrive, I flew my PH145 for a few days. It is slower than what I’ve become accustomed to, but it was way more fun than just standing around watching my friends fly!

Holybro Shuriken X1

Sometimes you’re flying somewhere that a fast, loud, scary drone like the Shuriken X1 would be inappropriate. In those times, I’m happy that I have my KingKong 90GT in my bag. The 90GT is quiet and very unobtrusive! The KingKong 90GT is also a fantastic way to safely learn how to fly in FPV.

I’ve chatted with people on Twitter and in the real world. Some people are happy to buy more drones. Others are trying to get as much drone as they can for their money, and they don’t want to invest in two or three different drones.

This is quite a conundrum, and it has gotten me thinking a lot. I can’t recommend a Shuriken X1 to someone that’s never flown a quadcopter before, but if I tell them to buy a weaker drone with 3” or 4” propellers, they might outgrow it in two or three months. Most of the better drones with 3” or 4” propellers are priced near $200, and the drones with the 3” propellers will require an investment in smaller batteries—batteries that won’t power a fast drone like the Shuriken X1. It doesn’t cost much more to close that gap to buy the Shuriken X1!

My old Shuriken 180 Pro has 2205 2750 KV motors and 4” propellers. The Shuriken X1 has bigger motors, but they have a KV rating that’s nearly as high, and the X1 weighs about 10 grams less than the 180 Pro. This made me wonder just how the Shuriken X1 would fly with a set of my 4” propellers.

The answer surprised me. The Shuriken X1 flies great with 4” props! It is still fast, but it is much harder to accidentally end up in outer space with a quick movement of the throttle. It felt like it needed a little PID tuning, but that shouldn’t be a problem.

So far, I have only tried my 4” 4-blade DAL props. I expect it to fly just fine with 2-blade DAL props, and I plan to try them soon. I’ll expand on this once I’ve gathered more data.

How does it fly?

It feels amazing to me! I’m still flying it gently. I keep expecting some weird gremlin to sneak out and mess with me, but that hasn’t been the case yet. I’m not surprised everything is going so smoothly, but the Shuriken X1 is so much more powerful that any other drone I’ve flown—this makes me worry even more!

I shouldn’t be worried. I’m pretty sure I giggle every time I do a punch out. Especially when I’m running the Lumenier Butter Cutter props and a 1300 mAh 90C graphene battery. Holy potatoes! This thing gains altitude at a frightening rate!

Flips and rolls with the X1 are quicker and sharper than in my old Shuriken 180 Pro. This makes sense—the 180 Pro weighs more than the X1, but it is significantly less powerful. I’m pretty good at rolls, but I’m unpracticed at front and back flips. I have yet to crash during a flip, even when I mess up spectacularly. The X1 has so much power that I have no trouble saving myself before impact.

I’ve been flying quadcopters for almost four months so far, and I’ve been practicing FPV for less time than that. It was only three weeks ago that I was having trouble clearing our 3’ drone gates with my Shuriken 180 Pro, and I was quite nervous on every approach.

The first time I took the X1 out, I was hitting our pool noodle gates like a pro. In fact, I was hitting them faster than I was with my old drone. The Shuriken X1 flies smooth and handles great.

How’s the FPV equipment?

I’m very pleased with the FPV setup on the Shuriken X1. It looks like it uses the same Sony CCD camera as my Shuriken 180 Pro. They’re the best camera I have on any of my drones. This camera was a bit too wide on the 180 Pro, so I swapped it for one of my other cameras—sometimes the propellers would bump into it! There’s plenty of room for this camera on the X1.

The video feed is always steady and clean, even after banging up the props. The VTX module can be switched between 200 mW or 600 mW, just like the VTX units on all my mini drones. I’ve flown at least 1,000 feet away so far with no sign of the video dropping out.

The video above shows a comparison between my low-cost action cam and the on-board VTX transmission. I recorded the broadcast with the DVR in my Eachine VR D2 FPV goggles with diversity. I believe we were all running at 200 mW.

The Shuriken X1 comes equipped with an MWOSD on-screen display. This is my first drone with an OSD, and I don’t understand how I managed before. Seeing how many amps I’m pulling during a punch out is fun. Being able to see how many mAh I’ve consumed is a must-have for me now!

The ability to tune my PID and rate settings without pulling out my laptop is super convenient! The stock PID settings that ship with the Shuriken X1 feel pretty good—better than I’d be capable of tuning in myself! Before my first flight, I matched up the rates with my other three drones. This was a little too responsive for me on the X1, but I was able to tweak the rates immediately. It was awesome!

Propellers

The stock propellers work just fine, but I am a fan of the indestructible DAL props. I stocked up on two-blade and three-blade DAL props. I usually run the two-blade props. They’re more efficient, so I get to stay in the air longer, and they generate more thrust than I need!

I can’t buy a powerful quadcopter without seeing just how hard I can push it. I also ordered a set of Lumenier Butter Cutter 5045. They don’t seem to be much less efficient than the two-blade DAL props—I hover at right around 9.5 to 10.5 amps with either prop. The Butter Cutters feel more responsive, and the Shuriken X1 just feels like a rocket when you punch the throttle!

The Butter Cutters are fun, but it really doesn’t matter what props you run. The Shuriken X1 is lightning fast no matter what!

Batteries

You’re going to want to stock up on some high-quality batteries for your Shuriken X1. I have a stack of GARTT 1500 mAh 4S batteries that I bought for my PH145 build. The PH145 flew fine with them, but they were on the heavy side for that drone. They also work great on my Shuriken 180 Pro.

Unfortunately for me, they’re only rated at 50C. I haven’t had any problem breaking 80 amps on the Shuriken X1. That’s right around 50C, but I’ve heard of people puffing fresh battery packs when pushing a Shuriken X1 to its limits. I’ve been expecting to upgrade to a Shuriken X1 for a while, so I’ve been slowly buying better battery packs for the last month or so.

I have a pair of 75C Venom 1300 mAh 4S LiPos. I’ve been using Venom’s 850 mAh 4S in my PH145 for a while, and I’m very pleased with their batteries. One of my 850 mAh packs was problematic from the start, and it ended up going bad on me. Venom’s warranty is great, and it was no trouble getting them to send me a replacement. That was reason enough alone to encourage me to buy more batteries from Venom.

I also have an Infinity 90C 1300 mAh racing graphene battery. I already own the 70C version of this battery, but I ruptured a cell in a crash, and I never got to test it on a fast drone. They say that graphene batteries can maintain a higher voltage when you max out your throttle, and I want to put that to the test. I haven’t collected enough data yet, but the Infinity 90C graphene battery feels great so far!

When I ordered the pair of Venom 1300 mAh from Amazon a couple weeks ago, I also ordered three Infinity 70C 1300 mAh packs from Banggood. I was able to get three of those batteries for the price of two Venom batteries, but they haven’t arrived yet. That slow shipping from China is a killer, but if these perform as well as the Venom, they will be a fantastic value!

I’ll update this section when I know more. Here’s the tl;dr: use good batteries with a high C-rating!

The DSMX receiver antenna is too short

It looks like the Shuriken X1 uses the same DSMX receiver module as my 180 Pro. It doesn’t have diversity antennas, and the antenna it ships with is rather short—short enough that it doesn’t extend as high as my knock-off GoPro action cam.

Shuriken X1 with an Action Camera

I had my cheap, inexpensive action cam mounted on my first flight. I stayed high on that test flight, and everything was fine. I left it on for my second flight, and I kept the drone close to the ground. I flew way out into the field, and then I circled around to come back. As soon as the camera got between my Spektrum transmitter and the drone’s antenna, I fell right out of the sky.

This isn’t a problem with the Taranis FrSky compatible Shuriken X1 drones. They have a pair of diversity antennas, and they’re tall enough to extend above a camera.

This is an easy problem to solve for just a few bucks, and I need to solve it, because action cam footage looks so much nicer than recording in the DVR!

Quality-control issues

Including my own, we’ve seen four Shuriken X1 drones so far. Other than my complaint about the antenna, mine has been fine. We’ve had problems with others, though.

  • Brian’s X1 burned an ESC on one of the first few batteries
  • Alex’s first X1 burned an ESC in a similar timeframe
  • Alex’s second X1 (he lost the first) arrived with a missing camera mount screw
  • Brian’s burned out a second ESC after a few months

I believe they were able to get replacement ESCs free of charge and relatively quickly. The drone with the missing screw arrived a few days ago, and we had parts on hand to replace it.

These are minor issues, and they’re easy to correct. In fact, they’re the sort of issues that you’ll eventually encounter anyway.

These kind of quality control issues seem to be common to all drones that are manufactured and sold by companies in China. I suppose we’re getting what we paid for. I’d be much more disappointed if I saw an ESC fail on the first flight of a $500 Blade Vortex 250.

In my opinion, the risk is quite minimal, and if you’re going to fly your drone and crash as often as I do, then you’re going to have to learn how to replace an ESC or motor anyway.

Is the Shuriken X1 really bind-n-fly?

I’m not sure. The experiences other people have had on the Internet leads me to believe that you can bind your controller and immediately take to the air. I didn’t attempt this at all.

As soon as mine arrived, I installed the latest version of Betaflight and wiped out all the stock settings. Then I proceeded to configure the X1 to match my other drones. I did copy the stock PID values, but I wanted the rate and expo settings to feel right. I also wanted my arm, horizon, and air mode switches to be set up the way I’m used to.

They say that Holybro’s racing drones are some of the quickest and easiest to get flying with, but I don’t buy drones that run Betaflight expecting them to be ready to go out of the box. I also don’t like the idea of buying drones that don’t run Betaflight!

Conclusion

If my budget were limited, and I could only own one drone, it would most definitely be the Shuriken X1. If it was too powerful for me to handle, I could always put 4” props on until I practiced enough to handle all the power.

Even with an unlimited budget, I can’t name a mini racing quad I would spend more money on—I would still want a Shuriken X1 in my collection. I tried my best to shop for something faster. Comparable drones exist, but nothing that I could get excited about.

The Holybro Shuriken X1 has massive acceleration, flies smooth, and has no trouble surviving a crash. With a price tag lower than $300, it is an amazing value!

Do you own a Shuriken X1? What do you think of it? Do you own something faster or better? Tell us about it in the comments below!

The KingKong 90GT Micro Drone Is Bananas

| Comments

I’ve been flying quadcopters for quite a few months now, and I’ve been practicing flying in first-person view for almost two months now. I can’t fly my PH145 or Shuriken 180 Pro racing drones at home—they’re both too big and too fast, so I started shopping around for an FPV micro drone. I hoped to find something similar to my Blade Nano QX, but this time I wanted it to have a camera.

The Blade Nano QX Alongside The KingKong 90GT

It didn’t take long before I learned that there are now brushless micro drones. Some are even smaller than the Blade Nano QX! The first one that caught my eye was the Jumper X73S. It uses inexpensive 1S LiPo batteries, is smaller than the Blade Nano, and it ships assembled and ready to bind to your controller and FPV goggles for less than $100.

The Jumper X73S also happens to be a piece of junk. My friend Brian has been flying quadcopters line-of-sight longer than I have, and he wants to start flying FPV. He ordered the Jumper almost immediately after I informed him of its existence. The props on the Jumper are press fit, and they just won’t stay on. He never got a good flight out of the Jumper, and the handful of prop-related crashes he had broke a VTX power wire and caused one of the motors to stop spinning.

I didn’t want to buy the same micro FPV drone as Brian, so I did some more research. I ended up ordering a KingKong 90GT from Gearbest, and I did so before Brian’s Jumper even arrived. I unintentionally dodged a bullet there!

The KingKong 90GT is a fantastic little drone, and everything about the design is an improvement compared to Brian’s Jumper X73S. As soon as I let Brian fly my KingKong 90GT, he went home and ordered his own!

The Specs

  • Carbon fiber frame
  • 1103 7800KV motors
  • 3A ESCs (with DSHOT!)
  • F3 Flight Controller with BetaFlight (with a 4KHz PID loop!?)
  • 350 mAh 2S LiPo (4 minutes of flight time)
  • 800TVL 150 degree CMOS Camera
  • 25mw VTX, 16 channel
  • DSM2 or FrySky receivers available

Why not buy a cheaper drone with brushed motors?

Brushless motors are both more powerful and more durable than brushed motors. Brushed motors have a lifespan somewhere between five and twenty hours of flight time. It sounds like a lot of time, but I’ve replaced quite a few motors on my Blade Nano.

Brushed motors last a long time. On this tiny drone, I expect them to last forever. I doubt very much that I can crash hard enough to bend them!

The KingKong 90GT is bananas

The KingKong 90GT is so much fun. It is light enough that I can safely fly it around indoors, but it still has more than enough power to fly outside in heavy winds. The first day I took it out to a park, we were experiencing 20 MPH winds—you can easily see how windy it is in the video below! It took quite a bit of tilt to maintain position against that wind, and I didn’t expect to be able to fly well at all—the Blade Nano QX wouldn’t have been able to hold position in that wind.

To my surprise, I just had to tilt a bit more and hit the gas and I was flying directly into that wind with quite a bit of speed! I don’t yet have the skill to do much more than fly around in circles in heavy wind, but I was excited to be able to do even that. The wind was strong enough that I had to lean into it when I was standing up, and I am far from a lightweight!

A few days later, I turned up the RC rates so the 90GT would match the responsiveness of my PH145 and Shuriken 180 Pro quadcopters, and we took it out to Oak Point Park in Plano. I had no trouble doing rolls and flips. It performs them quickly, and it feels crisp—it is quite an acrobatic little drone!

I did some punch outs and captured some blackbox data that day. The KingKong 90GT peaks at about 2.65g, but quickly peters out to about 1.6g by the end of the punch out. It may not match the 3.2g of the PH145 or the 4.2g of my Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro, but it doesn’t have to. It has more than enough power for its size, and it’s so much fun to fly!

Which batteries should I get? How long does it fly?

Even while constantly fighting those strong winds that first day at the park, it still managed to fly for almost exactly four minutes on the stock 350mAh battery. I bought four more similar 350mAh 2S batteries, and they all last four minutes on just about every flight I take.

I have a 450mAh 2S battery that keeps the 90GT in the air for just over five minutes. I also bought a 1000mAh 2S battery. I just had to try it, because it cost less than the 450mAh, but it is just too heavy for the KingKong 90GT. I can get off the ground, but it takes a lot of throttle just to hover.

My KingKong 90GT is Called Donkey Kong Jr.

If I could find a good deal on 450mAh batteries, that’s what I’d prefer to run. At Amazon, I can get a two-pack of 350mAh batteries for the same price as a single 450mAh. I may have to change batteries more often, but that’s a lot more flight time for the money, and the drone feels zippier with the lighter battery!

If you’re already involved in the hobby, you already know you’ll be disappointed with just a single battery. Each battery will only keep you in the air for four minutes, and it will take 30 to 60 minutes to recharge. That’s just too long to wait between flights, and I usually go through four or five batteries every time I go to the park.

But I already have a racing drone!

It doesn’t matter if you already have a nice racing drone. The KingKong 90GT is small, quiet, an unobtrusive. You can get away with flying a micro drone in places where you’d be a nuisance with a loud, fast, dangerous racing quadcopter.

I was flying my Holybro Shuriken at a park recently. There’s a secluded, tree-filled spot that I enjoy flying in. It is far enough out of the way that I’m usually alone, and I don’t bother anyone. After flying two batteries, several people showed up and started tying hammocks to the trees!

The KingKong 90GT Next To The PH145

If I didn’t have the KingKong 90GT with me, I’d have had to find another spot to fly or be an annoyance for these folks.

I spent my last twenty minutes at the park flying the 90GT, and I had a great time!

I’m new to quadcopters, and I don’t have a transmitter!

The transmitter is the controller you hold in your hands when flying a quadcopter. We refer to it as a transmitter so as not to confuse it with the flight controller board on the aircraft. The transmitters talks to a small receiver board located on the quadcopter.

The KingKong 90GT is available with a Spektrum compatible DSM2 receiver, a Taranis Frysky receiver, or no receiver at all—you’ll have to supply your own in that case. If you don’t have a receiver, you’re probably looking for advice on what to buy.

I use a Spektrum DX6 transmitter. It is a fantastic piece of hardware, and I have no trouble flying all my drones using this transmitter. It is user friendly, but it is expensive for a 6-channel transmitter. I almost upgraded to a Taranis X9D transmitter like my friend Brian, but I wasn’t excited about the idea of buying two or three replacement receivers and wiring them in to all my quadcopters!

If I could do things over again, I would definitely start with a Taranis X9D Plus or Taranis Q X7. They’re better transmitters, they have 16 channels, and they cost less than my Spektrum DX6. You should definitely read what my friend Brian said about his upgrade to a Taranix X9D Plus.

You can save even more money with a Flysky transmitter. I had a chance to use one last week, and it felt just fine. Unfortunately, the KingKong 90GT isn’t available with a preinstalled FlySky receiver module.

The prop guards

The prop guards are great. They let you bang into the ceiling and gently bump into walls without falling out of the sky. They’re quite sturdy, and I don’t expect to ever break them.

KingKong 90GT On My Desk

The prop guards are not installed from the factory. They’re easy to install, but I think it is worth repeating what is already stated on the bag that contains the prop guards. Be careful installing the prop guards. The screws are too long and require washers. If you fail to use the washers, you might damage the windings inside the motors.

The motors are constructed using a lightweight metal. Don’t “gorilla tighten” your screws—they just need to be snug!

The stock propellers are fragile!

The stock polycarbonate props are fragile. This is a problem with just about every quadcopter I’ve owned. The only exception is the Blade Nano QX, but it only weighs 15 grams—the KingKong 90GT weighs almost four times as much!

If you’re crashing indoors, you’re going to be breaking propellers. I’ve flown outside quite a bit, and the props almost always survive a crash into the grass.

I bought two sets of Furious FPV 4-blade props. They’re definitely sturdier than the polycarbonate props that ship with the 90GT, but they’re still quite easy to break when you crash indoors. I lost about 15 to 20 seconds of flight time when I put these props on.

The 4-blade props provide a small bonus. If you only break one blade, they can easily be converted to makeshift 2-blade props! This is handy, but the drone feels pretty weak with 2-blade props.

I also tried some 6-blade polycarbonate props. They seem to be available with Prime shipping more often than their 3-blade counterparts, but they dropped my flight time by 30 seconds. I’d prefer not to use them.

I managed to break the VTX antenna

Brian and I were flying at a park, and we managed to rip the end of the video transmitter’s antenna. It was a pain to repair, so I went overboard with heat-shrink tubing and wrapped up the antenna really well.

I know what the first thing Brian is going to do when his KingKong 90GT arrives. He’s going to cover the tip of the end of the antenna with heat-shrink tubing! I recommend that you do the same.

The FPV camera angle

The camera isn’t meant to be adjustable, and it is mounted pointing directly forward from the factory. This is fantastic if you’re flying around indoors or are new to FPV, but it will limit your top speed when you’re flying around outside.

The camera is just glued in place using a bit of superglue. I was able to wiggle it a bit to break it free, and I used some hot glue to reattach the camera with about a 20-degree tilt. This moves the prop guards out from the center of the frame, and it makes it more fun to fly the KingKong 90GT outdoors.

If you mostly fly indoors, I would recommend leaving the camera where it is.

The verdict

If you’re thinking about picking up a KingKong 90GT, you should stop thinking and start buying. I am having a ton of fun with this sturdy little drone! It works well indoors and outdoors, and it can be flown in situations where a big, loud racing drone would be inappropriate.

You get a lot of drone for your money. It costs more than a simple Blade Nano QX, and you can spend a little less on a Tiny Whoop or QX90 with an FPV camera, but you’re getting a lot more quadcopter for your money with the KingKong 90GT.

A small update

Not long after publishing this, I was pointed at a handful of other brushless micro drones. They all look like a ton of fun, and most of them are both more powerful and more expensive than the KingKong 90GT. Drones like the ARFUN 90, the Blade Torrent 110, and the Airblade Creampuff.

The ARFUN 90 only costs a bit more than my 90GT, and it should offer a little more thrust and it has an OSD—it is a tempting little drone for just a bit more cash! The Airblade Creampuff looks completely bananas, and I’ve heard of people building it with relatively huge 1105 motors!

I would very much enjoy flying the Airblade Creampuff, but I don’t think it would fit well in my hanger. I like the KingKong 90GT is powerful enough to control outdoors when it is windy, but it is still reasonable to fly it around indoors. If it were much more powerful, it might not be as much fun indoors.

If it isn’t fun to fly indoors, then I may as well fly one of my larger drones outdoors. My larger drones didn’t cost much more than the Creampuff, but they’re much faster—I just can’t fly those big drones in the house!

One more update

I managed to break my 90GT’s VTX antenna again. I used it as an excuse to upgrade to a more powerful VTX. I also figured out how to install larger propellers. If you think the KingKong 90GT is a little tame, you can easily upgrade the props for 30% more thrust!

My First Month Learning To Fly A Quadcopter In FPV

| Comments

I might be exaggerating a bit. The first time I got out to a park and recorded some first-person view video was just about a month ago. I’m certain that I put on the goggles before then, but I didn’t have enough room to fly for more than twenty seconds at a time without crashing until I got out to the park.

This is the footage from my final flight on my first real day of FPV flying at Samuell Garland Park in Dallas. The video signal isn’t great in this video—I snapped a leaf off my PH145 drone’s antenna in a rather spectacular crash earlier in the day. Thank goodness the PH145 usually bounces back from a crash!

I managed to make a few laps around that paved circle, but they weren’t fast or smooth. I did manage to successfully land at least once with the goggles on, but not in this video. At least I didn’t crash hard!

How much have I been practicing?

I started this journey slowly. At first, I was only getting out once a week, but that increased to two or three times a week by the end of the month.

I usually get 80% of the way through at least three batteries every time I fly. I often break each battery up into three flights or more—I need the practice landing!

Many of the days I’ve gone out to the park have been windy. That’s just the way it is here in Plano, TX.

Line of sight vs. first-person view

I’ve been practicing line-of-sight flying for a few months. I started out with my Blade Nano QX, and I flew the PH145 quite a bit before ever putting the FPV goggles on. I believe that practice was crucial to my success with FPV, but it was also a difficult transition to make.

When I’m flying line of sight, I tend to keep the quadcopter pointed away from myself. That was just about the full extent of my practice with the yaw controls. I mostly steered the drone with the pitch and roll stick.

You almost always fly forward in FPV. That means you use a lot less pitch and roll for steering, and a whole lot more yaw. This transition was difficult for me. It is easier to fly FPV if you’re always moving forward, and I’m finally getting used to this—I seem to spend a lot of time hovering in place when flying line of sight!

My friend Alex kindly pointed out another important piece of information. When I was flying line of sight, I was exclusively flying in a self-leveling mode—usually Betaflight’s horizon mode. When flying FPV, it is easier to fly in either rate or air mode. Air mode is similar to rate mode, except it will spin the motors up to pitch and roll even when the throttle is off.

I’m much more comfortable flying FPV in air mode. It is a bit like using cruise control. You pitch the quadcopter forward a bit, and you’ll naturally maintain some forward momentum. Then you mostly just have to yaw to steer. You do have to make some adjustments to your roll when you steer, but Betaflight’s FPV camera angle compensation does some of that for me.

From simple circles to drone gates

On that first day at Samuell Garland Park, I was so proud of myself for being able to circle around the perimeter of the park a few times. I was even more excited when I could manage to land! This is most of what my practice involved for two weeks.

I also started trying to fly closer to the ground, but it is difficult to gauge just how well you’re controlling your craft when all you have to look at is a big, grassy field. While flying at Oak Point Park, I discovered that there was a tree within range of my PH145’s underpowered 25mw VTX—things are much better since I upgraded to a 200mw VTX!

You’re probably asking yourself why I was surprised to find a tree at a place called Oak Point Park. There are hundreds of trees at Oak Point Park. Most of them are quite close together. This is a lone tree not far from the parking lot, and it is well groomed and easy to fly under.

That’s some video of me flying at the park on a windy day. This is about three weeks into my FPV practice.

Circling the tree and flying back towards myself is much more interesting than circling around in the sky while doing the occasional flip. It is a long walk out to that tree when I crash, and using myself as a target isn’t the safest course of action.

I read about people building gates out of things like PVC pipe and pool noodles. I didn’t know if I could fly well enough to make it through a gate, but I knew I could at least use them as checkpoints to race past.

I made eight drone gates—we affectionately refer to them as “drone holes.” We had them out at the park a few days after I discovered the tree. To my surprise, I am often able to fit the PH145 through the holes! The wind was blowing towards the parking lot again, and the wind was strong.

I was told my drone holes are too small!

We met a guy at the park that day who is involved with the local drone-racing group. My drone gates are about three feet across and maybe three feet high. He says these are too difficult, and that their group uses drone gates with a five-foot diameter.

I’m lazy. I want our drone holes to be light and easy to haul around. I’m enjoying trying to hit the smaller gates. I’m hopeful that practicing on the small gates will make the big ones easier to hit!

The PH145 vs. the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro

My friends at Gearbest were nice enough to send me a racing drone to test. I chose the Shuriken 180 Pro, because the price is comparable to my DIY PH145 drone—the Shuriken is probably a little cheaper! Not only is it cheaper, but it arrives at your door fully assembled and ready to go.

The Shuriken 180 Pro is quite a bit faster than the PH145—it pulls 3.8G compared to the PH145’s 3.2G! It is an excellent value for the money, and it’s quite fast, but not so fast that I can’t handle it.

I simply can’t handle it as well as the PH145. That’s partly due to the extra thrust, but also because I just don’t fly it as often. I’m not likely to hit any gates with the Holybro Shuriken—yet! I’m sure I’ll be graduating to the faster speeds soon enough.

I may not be able to hit drone gates yet, but I can sure rip around in the air with the Shuriken 180 Pro! I’ve been trying to fly it with the camera tilted all the way up to 45 degrees. This makes it scream through the air at high speeds, but I’m not yet skilled enough to slow down. When you tilt the drone backwards to air brake, you can’t see the ground anymore, so you can’t tell how fast you’re going!

Trees and other obstacles

Going into my fourth week of FPV practice, I ended up trying something a little different. We went to a different park with more trees, and we only brought one drone gate out to the picnic tables with us. This felt like a totally different experience, and it was a ton of fun. I performed way better than I expected!

Having plenty of objects near the ground makes it easier for you to judge exactly how your quadcopter is moving. When I’m up in the sky, I have a hard time figuring out how fast I’m going, or if I’m drifting a little to the side.

With all those trees, I was expecting I’d be crashing a lot. To my surprise, this wasn’t the case at all! I did bump the drone gate once or twice, and I did miscalculate a turn and bumped into a tree once, but I burned through at least three batteries without any major incidents.

Going back to Samuell Garland Park

There’s probably a bit of hyperbole involved when I talk about “my first month” of FPV flying. I know I made some bumbling test flights at home the day the goggles arrived, but I’m mostly ignoring those extremely short flights. I’m also pretty certain that I got a few decent FPV flights in before my first trip to Samuell Garland Park, but that probably only adds a week to my practice time.

So I’ve probably been practicing for a little more than five weeks. That might be more than a month, but it doesn’t make for a good blog title!

The video I captured at my one-month-anniversary trip to Samuell Garland Park isn’t as impressive my flying through the trees a few days ago, but it provides an excellent picture of just how far I’ve come in my first month.

In the video of my first visit, the most exciting thing I was able to do was circle around the control line ring, and it was anything but a smooth journey. I can now do that much more smoothly and at high throttle. I can also fly close to the ground, pass through 3’ drone gates, weave through trees, and fly through the covered seating areas at the park.

What’s next?

I am delighted with my progress so far! Four or five weeks ago, any flight longer than a minute was slightly stressful and often ended in a crash. Now I can stay in the air until my battery dies, unless I’m trying to pull off something that pushes the limits of my abilities.

That’s the only way to learn, though—pushing your abilities to their limits. There was only so much I could learn high up in the safety of the open sky. I now have the skill and confidence to fly near the ground and around obstacles. I can really see how well I’m doing, and it is easier to tell how controlled my maneuvers are.

The PH145

Every day I push myself to go a little faster, and that’s what I’m going to continue to do. My PH145 is a fun, little quadcopter. I’m much less comfortable with the Shuriken 180 Pro. It is a little too powerful for me, but I know I’ll be able to handle it if I just practice a little more. I have a stack of batteries for the Shuriken now, so I plan on practicing more!

Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro - A Fast and Durable FPV Quadcopter

| Comments

UPDATE: There’s lots of information about the Shuriken 180 Pro in this blog post. I’ve since upgraded to a Shuriken X1. If you haven’t already bought the 180 Pro, I highly recommend you skip it and go straight to the Shuriken X1.

If you are a regular follower of my antics, then you know that I’ve been working on designing the PH145 drone’s 3D-printed frame. I’m both surprised and elated by just how well the PH145 has turned out. While I was designing the PH145 and pricing out the parts, I was also keeping an eye on the competition.

As the cost of the PH145 started to solidify, I started shopping around to see just how much drone you could buy for the same price. I don’t expect all my readers to be the do-it-yourself types, so I wanted some that would be ready to fly right out of the box.

The Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro

I told my friends at Gearbest.com that I was interested in one of their FPV racing drones, and they were nice enough to send me a Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro!

tl;dr summary

I love this Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro. It is fast—definitely faster than the PH145. It is also durable. I’ve already crashed it a few times, and the props survived some rather hard hits in the grass. The Shuriken’s exposed props are easily broken in a gentle crash on asphalt or concrete—that’s why I like the enclosed props on the PH145.

The Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro Fits Well Enough In My Drone Case

I don’t think I can break this frame in a crash, and props are cheap. If you’re thinking about buying the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro, it is time to stop thinking. It is sturdy and a ton of fun, so go buy one already!

UPDATE: I did break the Shuriken 180 Pro in a crash!

I said that the Shuriken 180 Pro is a sturdy basher, and I stand by that statement. I have crashed into pavement, and I have smashed camera first into trees at high speeds. It took quite a crash to cause serious damage to the Shuriken 180 Pro.

It landed on its face from what seemed to be a fairly high altitude. It must have hit way harder than I’ve ever crashed before. We didn’t get to see the crash. It came down in an empty parking area. The aluminum camera mounts were bent, the plastic camera holder was shattered, the two front motors were bent, and the impact pushed the battery forward and dislodged the VTX antenna from the circuit board. When I plugged the battery back in, sparks and magic smoke came out.

I was able to salvage the camera, two motors, and four 30 amp ESCs.

After the crash, I went straight home and ordered a Holybro Shuriken X1. I wasn’t quite ready for a quadcopter with that much power, but it only took me a few weeks to get used to it.

Knowing what I know now, I wouldn’t bother with the Shuriken 180 Pro. It is inferior in almost every way to the Shuriken X1.

Shuriken 180 vs Shuriken 180 Pro

UPDATE: The Shuriken 180 has been discontinued.

I am sometimes a little slow on the uptake. I didn’t even realize there were two different Shuriken 180 drones. I was looking at the specs of the older Shuriken 180, and I’m pretty sure I thought it had the price tag of the Shuriken 180 Pro!

The older Shuriken 180 is almost a direct competitor to my own PH145 drone. The Shuriken 180 has bigger motors and props than the PH145, while the PH145 weighs a bit less and is a lot safer in a crash. The Shuriken 180 costs about $175 shipped. That’s a little cheaper than my PH145, and the Shuriken arrives at your door fully assembled!

I’m sure the Shuriken 180 is a great quadcopter, but I don’t own one, so I don’t have first hand experience with it. I do have a Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro sitting here on my desk. The Pro version costs about $40 to $60 more, but you do get a lot more quadcopter for your money.

The Pro version has a better camera, and the 1806 2700KV motors have been upgraded to 2205 2750KV motors.

Like I said, the cheaper model looks like a great drone, and it would be a ton of fun to fly it. If you’re new to racing drones or FPV, and you want to save a few bucks, I’m sure you’ll have a blast with the base model Shuriken 180. I recommend that you spend the extra $40 and upgrade to the Shuriken 180 Pro.

Why not the Shuriken X1?

The Holybro Shuriken X1 looks like it is out of my league! I think it weighs a bit less than my Shuriken 180 Pro, but it has bigger motors and 5” propellers.

The Shuriken 180 Pro is small and dense, and it has two plates sandwiched together. All the wiring and electronics are hiding between those plates.

The Shuriken X1 is built on an open carbon fiber plate, and the wiring and ESCs are just strapped to the top of the frame. There is nothing wrong with this—all our home built drones look just like this. We do this to save weight and cost.

It looks like the Shuriken X1 is a rocket compared to the Shuriken 180 Pro, but I think the Shuriken 180 Pro will be able to take more of a beating. The Shuriken X1 doesn’t cost much more than the Shuriken 180 Pro, and speed is so much fun, but I know it will lead to more crashes.

My friend Brian’s Shuriken X1 just arrived a few days ago. I’ve seen it fly once, and it is absolutely bananas. I’m already afraid to recommend the Shuriken 180 Pro as a starter drone—it flies smooth, but the power is a lot to handle. The Shuriken X1 has a ridiculous amount of thrust. Brian seems more than a little worried about learning how to FPV with it!

UPDATE: I know I have interjected this information twice already, but I think it is important to mention it again. The Shuriken X1 is ridiculously fast, very sturdy, and a huge upgrade over the Shuriken 180 Pro.

I was flying in just five minutes!

It was so easy to get this thing airborne. There were only two things that slowed me down, and they were both my fault. The DHL delivery guy knocked on my door while I was in the middle of pulling a double shot of espresso. I rushed to sign for the package so I could stop the espresso machine before the pull ran too long.

Charing My Batteries After Flying The Shuriken 180 Pro

It was definitely a longer shot than I prefer, but it made an acceptable latte, and I was determined to finish that latte before I went outside to test out the Shuriken 180 Pro! While I was drinking, I created a new profile on my Spektrum DX6 controller. It took me longer than I’d like to admit to find the bind button on the drone, but once I found it, I was paired up in seconds.

I also wanted to switch the video transmitter to 600mw. The jumpers are tough to remove, but I had it switched before my latte was gone!

I strapped in one of my 1500mAh 4S batteries, plugged in my Eachine EV800 goggles and DVR, and went outside. I was able to zip around the parking lot with ease. There’s not enough room out there for me to fly FPV.

The first flight

The Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro arrives with Betaflight installed on its flight controller. I’m not certain, but the PID settings looked like they were set to the defaults. Even so, it felt pretty good out of the box.

It was obviously faster than my PH145 quadcopter, but it is just as easy to control. I was quite relieved that the Shuriken wasn’t a Ferrari to my PH145’s Honda Civic. It feels more like comparing a base model Corvette to a Corvette ZR-1.

I don’t have the tools to measure thrust, but I can measure weight and can make educated guesses based on data gathered from the Internet. According to the blackbox data, my 240g PH145 drone can pull about 3.2g of acceleration on the Z-axis. The heavier Shuriken 180 Pro hits numbers just over 3.8g with the “indestructible” tri-blade DAL 3045 bullnose props that I’m currently running. I need to test with the stock 4-blade 4040 props—I bet they pull a little harder!

I don’t remember what I did wrong, but I don’t have DVR video of the first few minutes of flight. This is the video of the second half of my first battery.

I’m an absolute beginner, but as far as I can tell, the PID settings feel pretty good out of the box. The yaw rate felt really low to me. It didn’t take long to fire up the Betaflight Configurator to adjust the rates. I bumped the yaw rate to 1.15 and the roll/pitch rate to 1.3. This is just my personal preference.

The FPV camera—my only complaint!

The FPV camera actually works really well. It has a CCD sensor, and it is a big upgrade over the CMOS camera I used on my PH145. The transmitter can be toggled between 25mw and 600mw. The extra broadcasting power is awesome!

I easily get too far away at the park with my PH145 drone, and I have to turn around quickly before the signal completely disappears. The 600mw transmitter lets me get all the way to the edges of the park. This is an upgrade I will be making on the PH145!

My only complaint is that the camera angle isn’t adjustable enough. It is hanging on a swivel, but there is absolutely no room to operate the swivel. At first, I thought I would be stuck at the default 45 degree angle. This is fine if you know what you’re doing, but I’m not yet skilled enough to FPV at the speeds this angle encourages!

Lowering the camera angle on the Shuriken 180 Pro

You can adjust the angle by moving the camera to a different set of mounting holes. That will give you about a 15 degree angle. It also moves the camera out past the front of the frame.

The aluminum standoffs need to be just a few millimeters longer. That would allow for easy camera angle adjustments.

My first FPV flight with the Shuriken 180 Pro

I am impatient. There were 20 mph winds and a 40% chance of rain here in Plano, TX on the afternoon the Shuriken 180 Pro arrived at my door. I didn’t care. I had to go out to the park and try out the new drone!

The wind was fierce. It was blowing straight towards the parking lot, and I had to tilt the drone about 20 degrees into the wind to maintain a hover. I decided to try flying FPV anyway!

This thing is fast! I took to the air, and I accelerated away from myself for a few seconds. When I turned around, I could see myself in the camera, but I was so tiny! I cruised around in the air for a bit, then I decided to head back. When your camera is at a 45 degree angle and you level off, you can’t see much of the ground at all.

Everything worked out fine, except for the fact that I’m terrible at flying FPV. I flew out into the field, turned around, and flew back. Then the wind wanted to take me out over the parking lot, and that’s a place I didn’t want to be.

I was able to come back out over the field, and I wanted to land, but I didn’t know how high up I was. The drone fell much farther than I expected—it seemed to fall for quite a few seconds after I cut the throttle.

Shuriken 180 Pro Minor Prop Damage

It didn’t take any serious damage. Just a few chips in the props.

This thing is sturdy

This is definitely not a drone built purely for racing. They probably could have made it a lot lighter, and it still would have been a sturdy enough craft.

This little drone with its 4” propellers weighs just as much as the Shuriken X1, and the X1 has room for 5” propellers! I imagine that extra weight provides the structure that makes the Shuriken 180 Pro more capable of surviving a hard crash. I’m sure we’ll find out, because I am a terrible pilot!

Batteries and flight time

I tried out all my 4S batteries, because that’s the sort of thing I tend to do. I’ve only been flying the Shuriken 180 Pro for a few days, so I don’t have a ton of data yet.

I’m seeing five to six minutes of flight time on both my 1500mAh 4S LiPo and 1300mAh 4S graphene LiPo.

My PH145’s favorite battery is the 850mAh Venom 4S LiPo. While the lightweight PH145 sees six minutes of flight time with the 850mAh, the heavier and higher-power Shuriken only sees 3.5 minutes. The beginning of that flight is fun—the Shuriken does feel zippier with that 12 percent weight reduction, but the little battery feels quite drained and weak for the last minute or so.

The Shuriken 180 Pro Weighs 471g With An 850mAh 4S Battery

The 850mAh Venom 4S LiPo batteries are a lot of fun—the Shuriken 180 Pro only weighs 471g when flying with one! I already have five of them for my PH145, so I’ll also be flying them in the Shuriken. I don’t recommend that you buy any, though. They cost just as much as a 1300mAh or 1500mAh 4S LiPo, but the 850mAh only provide about 2 minutes of good, fast flight time.

You may want to relocate the FPV antenna

The antenna is stiff, and it is the tallest part of the Shuriken 180 Pro. That means it is going to be under a lot of stress when you crash. The SMA antenna connector is soldered right onto the Shuriken’s circuit board. That single, large circuit board isn’t just for the video transmitter. The flight controller is part of the same board, so if you break that antenna connector, you may have to replace the entire board.

I’ve already ordered some short SMA antenna extensions from Amazon. They’re inexpensive, and I think it is wise to protect that connector—I do crash an awful lot!

Propellers

The Shuriken comes with two sets of 4-blade 4040 propellers. I know I crash all the time, so these aren’t going to last long.

I ordered a set of supposedly indestructible DAL 3-blade 4045 bull nose propellers. My research says they can generate 900 grams of thrust on 2205 2750KV motors. Most other 4” 3-blade props generate 650 grams to 750 grams of thrust. We’ll have to see how that compares to the stock 4-blade props!

Even if they don’t generate as much lift, at least they might be indestructible! I am most assuredly in need of some indestructible props. I had to replace three props after my first crash on asphalt. It was more like a hard landing than a crash.

Broken Props from Crashing the Shuriken 180 Pro

I smack the PH145’s prop guards into concrete and asphalt all the time, and it rarely damages a prop. I recommend flying the Shuriken 180 Pro in areas where you’re more likely to crash into grass!

The 600mw FPV transmitter is a huge upgrade

This is an upgrade I will be making to the PH145. Its transmitter is only 25mw, and it doesn’t take much distance before the picture in the goggles starts getting snowy and scary. In TheLab.ms parking lot, I can’t even get 20 parking spaces away before I nearly lose video. It’ll go much farther at 25mw at the park, but still not nearly as far as I’d like.

You can see how quickly my signal degrades in TheLab.ms parking lot in this FPV recording of my PH145.

The 600mw transmitter in the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro is a huge upgrade. I can make it all the way across the parking lot at TheLab.ms, and I accidentally flew farther away on my first trip at the park than I could ever fly with the 25mw transmitter!

The verdict

I love the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro. I’m glad my friends at Gearbest decided to send me one, because I don’t think I would have been smart enough to buy something like this on my own! It is fast, agile, and a ton of fun. I know I’ll be flying it all the time.

Half the fun of the PH145 has been designing and building the quadcopter, and I have enjoyed finding and correcting its shortcomings. If you don’t enjoy building things, and you just want to get up in the air, the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro would be an excellent choice. If you’re anything like me, you’ll crash a lot, so stock up on propellers!

If you’ve never flown a quadcopter, you should start with something like the Blade Nano QX or the KingKong 90GT. The Nano is a very inexpensive way to get started—it is how I got started! We’ve since discovered the tiny KingKong 90GT brushless FPV drone. It costs a bit more, but it can still be flown outside on windy days. It isn’t nearly as beginner friendly as the Blade Nano, but it will take you much farther on your FPV journey!

My 3D Printed Quadcopter - The PH145 Drone

| Comments

My journey into the world of quadcopters started in December when my friends participated in a quadcopter build weekend at TheLab.ms makerspace. I watched, and I helped them build 450mm drones, but I didn’t build my own quadcopter—I felt like I had too many other unfinished projects going on at the time.

My friend Brian must have gotten sick of me not participating, because he gave me a Spektrum DX6 transmitter for Christmas. I immediately ordered a Blade Nano QX micro drone to practice with, and I had it for less than a week before I started upgrading it. I was crashing a lot, and as soon as the frame started getting roughed up, I started designing a parametric brushed motor quadcopter frame.

I knew I didn’t want something as large as a 450mm drone, and being able to fly around inside the house has been a great way to practice. I wanted to build something small, fast, and nimble. Something I could fly around the house, but still take out to the park to fly with my friends. Something that could survive a crash.

The first drone I found in my research was the RS90 quadcopter at Thingiverse. It seems to fit all criteria: It is small, nimble, and durable. Then I discovered the DJ105 drone. It’s only a little bigger, uses bigger motors and propellers, and generates a lot more thrust than the RS90. It is also a simpler design—flat parts are easy to 3D-print!

The DJ105 requires low-profile motors and fancy, more costly 2.5” propellers from RotorX. This drives up the cost of the drone and limits your choice of parts. Scaling the quadcopter up to allow for taller motors and 3” props brings the cost down a little, and it opens up a wider selection of suitable motors and propellers.

tl;dr How did I do?

I managed to design a parametric quadcopter model. It can be easily scaled from 2.5” propellers and a 105mm wingspan all the way up to at least 5” propellers and a 230mm wingspan. I’m not sure how practical the sandwich-style design is at larger sizes, but I’d definitely like to try printing a frame that can accommodate 4” propellers!

PH230 vs PH170 vs PH145

The PH145 drone weighs in at 234 grams with the camera, and its all-up-weight is 411 grams with my 1500mAh 4S LiPo battery. I don’t have the equipment to measure top speed and acceleration. All I can say is that it is fast! I enjoy punching the throttle for a couple seconds and watching it quickly ascend into the sky—it sounds like an angry swarm of bees!

My friend Alex has a rather fancy-looking FPV racing drone—a Blade Vortex 250 with 5” props, and he runs a 1300mAh 4S LiPo. His racing drone is much faster than the PH145. My 3” props are probably my biggest limiting factor. I have an 850mAh 4S LiPo en route, and that will give me a 20% weight reduction. I can hardly wait to see what that feels like with the smaller battery!

My Venom 850mAh 4S LiPo battery is amazing. It can keep my little drone in the air for nearly six minutes of spirited flying, and the weight reduction compared to the 1300mAh or 1500mAh 4S batteries makes the drone feel so much more nimble and quick! The 850mAh 4S is by far my favorite. As soon as I finished running the battery down for the first time, I ran inside and immediately ordered a four pack!

The PH145 At Breckenridge Park

The PH145 frame is durable. I’ve managed to crack two of the prop guards on the original prototype frame. One crack is at the exact point of a design flaw in the model—I’ve since repaired it in OpenSCAD. The other break is near the center of a prop guard. I changed the model and made all the guards 50% thicker. It took high speed-crashes into asphalt to break the prototype frame. I won’t be surprised if the new nylon frame is effectively indestructible—only time will tell!

UPDATE: I finally crashed hard enough to break the nylon frame! It snapped right at two adjacent zip tie slots on the top frame. I knew these would be weak points, but I thought they were far enough inside the frame that it wouldn’t matter. I was wrong. The bottom also broke in the same area. It cracked at one of the thickest points right next to a screw. I assume this area was under more stress due to the two broken points directly above.

It still flies fine, so I’m not in a hurry to print a new frame. I’ve eliminated the zip tie slots, and I have made several other minor improvements to the model. I’m sure I’ll be printing a new frame in a few weeks.

The PH145 3D Printed Brushless FPV Quadcopter

I’ve only been flying the newer, stronger frame for a couple of days. I don’t crash as often as I did even a week ago, but I’ve hit the ground pretty hard a couple of times. The new frame shows no signs of breaking yet, but I am popping the heads off nylon screws much more easily now, since there is less flex in the frame.

I completely missed one of my goals. I won’t be flying the PH145 indoors. It is heavy enough to do real damage to furniture, televisions, and our cats. It also generates way too much wind and noise! Other than that, I’m elated with how this design and build turned out!

The full parts list is near the bottom of this blog post.

UPDATE: I’ve learned how to read the blackbox flight recorder data. I need to do more science, but I’ve been scanning the logs. The PH145 manages 3.1g to 3.2g of acceleration on the Z-axis with the Gemfan 4-blade props. I need to order another set of RotorX RX3040 props to test!

Motors and props

I’m going to start by saying that I have no idea what I’m doing. This is the first drone I’ve ever built, so some of my assumptions may end up being wildly inaccurate. That said, the parts I chose are working well together.

Since I’m using 3” props, I need a motor that can spin fast. That means I need to use a motor with a high KV rating. I was hoping to use 2205 or 2206 brushless motors, but they’re only available at around 2300KV.

I decided to use the DYS BX1306 4000KV motors. They’re available everywhere and reasonably priced. My only complaint is the bullet shaped prop nuts. They’re long enough to extend past my frame. I’ve ordered a simple set of prop nuts, but they haven’t arrived yet. I’m still landing and taking off bullet-shaped motor nuts!

PH145 Quadcopter

There are other 1306 4000KV motors available at Amazon, like the Crazepony EMAX RS1306 motors, and they ship with shorter nuts. I bet they’d work just as well.

So far, I’ve tried two-blade and four-blade 3030 bullnose props. The two-blade props have been a disappointment. They make the PH145 feel completely gutless when paired with either my 1500mAh or 1300mAh 4S batteries, and they didn’t even provide an increase in flight time. I plan to try some three-blade props. I’ve read some amazing things about the RotorX RX3030T props—I have a set on the way right now!

My set of RotorX RX3030T propellers have arrived, and they are amazing! I went outside to test them, and I was in the air for 9:45 with my 1500mAh 4S LiPo. That’s more time than I’ve ever been in the air on a single charge! While I was out there, I also tried one of my 1300mAh 3S LiPo batteries. It was in the air more than a full minute longer than I’ve ever seen from one of these 3S batteries.

The RX3030T props don’t just keep the PH145 in the air a little longer. They feel like they have at least as much thrust as the cheap 4-blade bullnose props, and they sound a lot quieter, too! As soon as I came back in the house, I ordered two more sets.

Forget all the other propellers. Just get the RotorX RX3040T props. They may cost twice as much, but they’re definitely worth it!

UPDATE: The RotorX RX3040T props perform better than any other prop I’ve tried, but I’ve broken a lot of them. I’ve been running a set of Gemfan 4-blade 3035 props for a couple of weeks. I like them nearly as much as the RotorX props, but the Gemfan props are much less fragile. I managed to break nearly two full sets of RotorX props in a week, but it has taken me two or three weeks to break my first Gemfan. I doubt they’re as sturdy as DAL props, but they’re also not as heavy!

Should I use a 4-in-1 ESC?

You can most definitely save a few dollars if you use four separate ESCs, but I like how easy it was to fit the 4-in-1 ESC unit into my design. It is the same size and uses the same mounting holes as the Naze32, and I didn’t have to figure out where to fit four separate boards. This alone is worth the extra cost of a 4-in-1 unit.

The 4-in-1 ESC board I’m using claims to have four 30-amp units on a single board, but I’m dubious of this claim. It is working just fine so far, though, so I can’t complain!

The biggest potential downside will be having to spend $60 to replace four ESCs if I ever fry one. It would be easier and cheaper to replace a single ESC. If I ever blow out an ESC, I will revisit this situation.

Naze32 and Cleanflight vs Betaflight

The Naze32 flight controller seemed like the way to go. They’re inexpensive, and they work quite well. I had no idea what I was doing, and ended up ordering an older revision 5 board. The revision 6 boards are available for about the same price, and it looks like they have a more convenient pin layout. The revision 5 board is working just fine, but don’t make my mistake—just buy a revision 6 board!

Afro Naze 32 Revison 5

I ran the Cleanflight firmware for my first week of flying. Cleanflight had me up and running with a stable quadcopter, but the default PID settings were sluggish and unresponsive. I tweaked the PID settings over the course of a few days, but I never managed to get things feeling great.

Betaflight was much better out of the box—better than I ever managed to get out of Cleanflight. My advice is to skip Cleanflight.

3D-printing with Taulman 910 nylon filament

The Taulman 910 nylon is the most amazing filament I’ve ever printed with, but at the same time, it is one of the least friendly materials for 3D printing. The parts it produces are nothing short of amazing. They’re extremely flexible and amazingly sturdy.

Taulman 910 is so flexible that I was worried my drone wouldn’t be rigid enough, but once you screw the two pieces of the frame together with the nylon spacers, it becomes quite solid.

I say the Taulman 910 is unfriendly, but it is actually quite easy to print. It sticks just fine to a 40C heated glass bed with a coat of Elmer’s glue stick applied. The only problem is that it oozes like crazy. I had to scale up all my screw holes, and there’s always a ton of nylon whiskers to clean up after the print.

Printing With Nylon Filament is Messy

You can print Taulman 910 at temperatures as low as 260C, but you get better layer adhesion at 275C. The higher temperatures don’t help with the ooze.

In the end, it is worth the trouble. A drone frame 3D-printed with Taulman 910 filament can take a beating, and it just bounces back for more!

FPV camera and goggles

I know so little about FPV cameras and goggles. The first thing I did was add just about the cheapest FPV camera, transmitter, and goggles to my Amazon cart. Then I thought it would be nice to have an on-screen display with battery information, so I removed the camera and goggles from my cart and started shopping for fancier stuff.

I quickly realized that I had no idea how any of this stuff worked, so I added the cheapest goggles and camera I could find back into my cart. I’m using an Eachine 700TVL camera and transmitter combo along with Eachine EV800 goggles. They work just fine, but I’m terrible at flying FPV so far. I’m going to need lots of practice!

PH145 Camera Mount

The camera, transmitter, and goggles are less expensive than I would have guessed. Everything I needed to start flying FPV only cost me an extra $110 or so. For some reason, I thought it would cost a lot more!

The Eachine camera is available with 110- and 170-degree lenses. I opted for the 110-degree lens, because that is close enough to what I use in first-person-shooter games. It still has enough of a fish-eye effect to be disorienting to me, but I think I’ll be able to learn to adjust.

There is one caveat when using this Eachine camera and transmitter. It comes with a connector that plugs into a 3S LiPo battery’s balance plug. That won’t work with my 4S batteries, so I cut that connector off and wired it directly into the 5-volt BEC. I prefer this solution anyway, because it leaves me with fewer cables to plug in when I attach a battery.

The camera, transmitter, and antenna added about 30 grams to my drone. Flight times with my 1300mAh and 1500mAh 4S batteries each dropped by about 30 seconds when I mounted these parts to the drone. The camera’s power consumption is quite low, so I’m attributing the lower flight times more to the 8% increase in weight.

I already modified my Eachine EV800 goggles to add an inexpensive little DVR device! I added an Eachine ProDVR. I included my first test recording a little ways above this paragraph. It is some gentle flying right outside my apartment—I didn’t want to scare the neighbors too much!

Eachine EV800 FPV Goggles Modified With a DVR

Adding the DVR definitely isn’t a plug-and-play operation, but if you’ve ever used a soldering iron, it should be a piece of cake for you. You only have to solder three wires to a set of rather large pads. I was already reassembling the goggles in less than five minutes.

You can solder a few more wires and add a switch if you’d like to have access to the DVR’s on-screen display, but I didn’t bother with that. I just plugged the DVR into the AV input to format the microSD card and configure the device. I don’t expect to ever use the OSD again.

Choosing a battery

When I ordered the parts to build the first PH145 quadcopter, I ordered a CrazePony 1300mAh graphene 4S LiPo battery. It was good for about 8 or 9 minutes of gentle but spirited flight time. I was happy with the performance, so I ordered a pair of cheaper 1500mAh 4S LiPo batteries. They’re working quite well, too. They’re a bit heavier, but they cost less and provide more flight time.

I’m currently waiting for a Venom 50C 850mAh 4S LiPo battery to arrive. There’s also a 75C version of the Venom 850mAh battery, but I don’t think my drone can consume power that quickly! I have a feeling that this will be the optimal battery for the PH145. The lighter weight should make the PH145 accelerate better, and I’m hoping for flight times near 6 minutes. I’ll update this post as soon as the new battery arrives!

I have tried a handful of 3S LiPo batteries. I borrowed a 2200mAh 3S battery from my friend Brian. He uses it to power his 450mm drone with 10” props. I also bought four used 1300mAh 3S batteries from another friend.

Assortment of LiPo Batteries

The 2200 mAh 3S battery works, but it is a little too heavy—it weighs more than either of my 4S batteries!. It flies for about 9 minutes, and it is much easier for my inexperienced hands to control compared to the 4S batteries.

The 1300 mAh 3S batteries are great—especially with the two-blade props. The weight savings compared to the 2200mAh battery makes a difference you can easily feel.

The 1500mAh 4S batteries are my favorite so far, but I’m using the 1300mAh 3S batteries every time I fly FPV—the PH145 is just too fast and responsive for me to control in FPV with the 4S batteries!

If you’re new to flying, you should definitely have some 3S batteries on hand. Something in the 1300mAh range is probably ideal. If you already know what you’re doing, just go straight to the 4S LiPo batteries!

Nylon vs steel vs aluminum screws

The sandwich of the PH145’s two 3D-printed nylon plates are held together by 25mm nylon spacers and 10mm m3 nylon screws. When I crash hard, I often pop the head off one or more nylon screws. I crash a lot. When using the thinner prototype frame one day, I went through almost a dozen full batteries, and I crashed enough times to loose seven screws. The PH145 flies fine with lots of missing screws, but it doesn’t take a crash nearly as well!

The current version of the frame with thicker prop guards puts a lot more stress on the nylon screws when I crash. I broke six or seven nylon screws and lost a spacer the first day I flew the new frame. I crashed a few times that day, but I’ve crashed much harder before!

PH145 Drone with Nylon Spacers

I have plenty of black steel m3 screws here, but I don’t want to use them. Replacing the 30 nylon 10mm screws with steel 8mm screws will increase the weight of my quadcopter by about 17 grams. That’s a 4% increase in weight when I’m running the 1500mAh battery, and all that weight would be at the edges.

UPDATE: I got tired of replacing broken nylon screws. I ordered a set of supposedly aluminum screws, and I started using steel pan head m3 screws from an assortment I had on hand. The steel screws won’t break. That means I moved the weak spot, and I’ve been waiting for something new to break. This finally stressed the zip tie holes on the top frame, and one pair of holes finally broke.

The aluminum screw I ordered were actually just expensive steel screws. They weighed just as much as my cheap screws. I’m waiting for another set of aluminum screws to arrive.

If you want your drone to look snazzy, there are all sorts of brightly colored aluminum screws you can choose from. I’m boring, though, and I prefer the plain black screws.

Transport your drone in style

I stopped by my local Harbor Freight and picked up a foam-filled, faux-aluminum carrying case. The foam is perforated, so it’s easy to cut out a square that perfectly fits your drone and transmitter.

PH145 and Spektrum DX6 Tranmitter in Their Case

Just in case you don’t have a Harbor Freight in your neighborhood, I found what looks like an identical case at Amazon. It claims to be an inch longer and wider, but it has the exact same tool holder in the lid.

Enough with all the stupid words! Where’s the parts list?

You’ll have to 3D-print the frame using Taulman 910 nylon filament. I’m working on the logistics of selling the frames myself in my Tindie store, but nylon leaves a pretty messy print, and I’m not sure about how I feel about selling something that requires so much cleanup.

I’m also running this FPV camera and transmitter:

These are other batteries I’ve tried so far:

The 1300mAh 3S batteries I’m using is a different brand. They are Zippy 1300mAh batteries. I bought them from a friend, and he used up a healthy percentage of their life already—my charger can’t put much more than 1000mAh into them.

I am NOT suggesting that you buy 3S batteries! If you already have some, you can definitely use them to operate my quadcopter. This quadcopter runs much better on 4S batteries, and the smaller 850mAh size battery is ideal.

UPDATE: The Venom 850mAh 4S is DEFINITELY the battery to buy. Mine just arrived. I ran outside to try it out as soon as it was finished charging, and it is awesome! The drone felt so nimble and quick—it weighs in at 347 grams! I can’t wait to see that number again when I replace the steel screws with aluminum!

I was in the air for 5:49 of rather spirited flying just outside the house. I’ve only just learned how to do flips, so I was doing quite a few of those. I zipped back and forth in a straight line quite a bit—that’s all I have room for out there. I need to take it back out to Samuell Garland Park to really open it up. I can’t wait to see how fast it is now!

Should I build or buy a drone?

As far as I’m concerned, building a drone is the way to go. It is always good to understand how things work. If you build your own drone, and something goes wrong in the field, you’ll already know how to fix it.

I build the PH145 from scratch, because there isn’t anything quite like it on the market. At this point, I’m quite confident that the PH145 frame will survive any crash I can put it through—I’ve hit concrete quite hard on several occasions so far.

There are plenty of quadcopter frames on the market to choose from. Most of them are quite inexpensive. When my friend Brian crashes his 450mm drone, he usually breaks one of the arms. A set of four arms costs only $12. He’s managed to also break a motor once, and that cost him another $10. Do-it-yourself drones tend to be inexpensive and easy to repair.

Me and My PH145 Drone at Breckenridge Park

That said, my friends at Gearbest.com have sent me an FPV racing drone that I feel is good competition for the PH145. It is the Holybro Shuriken 180 Pro. It isn’t a kit. It arrives at your door fully assembled. Just attach the antenna, pop in a battery, bind it to your existing controller, and you’ll be in the air in no time!

You’re probably looking at the Shuriken 180 Pro and thinking that it looks absolutely nothing like the PH145. The Shuriken has bigger, exposed propellers, more powerful motors, and a carbon fiber frame. You’re absolutely correct—this is much different than the PH145!

I chose the Shuriken, because it is fast, and the price is comparable to the PH145. It is exactly the sort of thing I might have bought if I didn’t design the PH145.

I’ve been flying the Shuriken 180 Pro from Gearbest for a few days. It is a fantastic quadcopter—fast, maneuverable, and very sturdy! It is a significantly more powerful than my PH145. The open props on the Shuriken survived some pretty hard crashes into the grass, but it doesn’t fare as well on asphalt. I had a very minor crash in the parking lot at TheLab.ms, and I had to replace three propellers.

I hit that same parking lot at full speed with the PH145 all the time, and it is rare that I break a prop when doing so. That said, the Shuriken 180 Pro is a good bit faster than the PH145, costs about the same, and is fully assembled and ready to go out of the box. You can read my review of the Shuriken 180 Pro for more details.

I’ve been learning to fly FPV with both the PH145 and the Shuriken 180 Pro. I can manage flying the Shuriken, but I do a much better job with the PH145. If I didn’t have the PH145, I’m sure I’d be more comfortable with the Shuriken. I’m just not good at handling the extra thrust yet.

What’s next for the PH145?!

I have some minor upgrades on the way. Things like a lighter battery, better propellers, and aluminum screws. The PH145 is already faster than a novice like me can handle. I still can’t wait to see how fast it will be after these upgrades, even if I’m only capable of flying it fast in a straight line!

In the near future, I plan to continue to learn to fly my quadcopter. So far, I’m doing a bad job learning how to fly in first-person view. Learning is going to be a lot of fun, and the best part is that I’ll be crashing a lot. I think the latest iteration of the PH145 frame is close to bulletproof, but I look forward to trying to prove myself wrong!