We Are About to Order OoberLights Prototypes!

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I first posted about this in May. We’ve been working on this for nearly six months. How can that be possible? To me, it feels like we just started talking about the idea a few weeks ago!

Life has been getting in the way. We’ve gone through some redesigns, but things are looking good now. I was handed a copy of all the work today. In theory, I could send this off to have a handful of OoberLights boards manufactured right now. In practice, I’m going to stick these in front of a few eyeballs to make sure everything is really ready to go.

What are OoberLights?

Is one board an OoberLight? Is one board an OoberLight board? Or should it always be plural, because there are lots of lights on the board? Maybe each ring is an OoberLight, and the board with two rings should be referred to as OoberLights? This is something we’ll have to figure out.

I’ve already written about where the idea came from, but I figure I may as well talk about it again. A long time ago, I learned of the existence of dekatrons. I’m pretty sure I saw one or two LED dekatron imitations on hacakday.com. At around the same time, I had also learned of something called charlieplexing.

With this newfound knowledge, I thought it might be fun to wire up a ring of red LEDs to replace the indicator LEDs on my IBM Model M keyboard. At the time, I didn’t even own a 3D printer. I had no idea how I could ever make something like that look nice, so it never came to fruition.

I chatted with a friend about doing a PCB. I was thinking we’d do one ring of WS2812 RGB LEDs with the intention of putting one or two of these rings into a 5.25” drive bay on my virtual machine server. In that form factor, I believe we would have been able to make a circle of about a dozen LEDs.

Then we thought about doing concentric rings. The 5mm LEDs are pretty big, so the smaller ring isn’t all that circular looking. Then something awesome happened. 2mm WS2812 LEDs started shipping!

If you count the single LED in the center as a ring, we are now able to fit four concentric rings within the height of a 5.25” optical drive bay. There are now 24 LEDs in the outer ring, and a total of 90 LEDs in the pair of rings on the board!

What do you do with something like this?

When the OoberLights were less uber, my ideas were pretty simple. You could send a pixel spinning around the ring at varying speeds to indicate network throughput. You could have pixels spinning in opposing directions to indicate the direction of network traffic. You could light up LEDs like a progress bar to indicate disk usage or CPU load.

Then the OoberLights got a whole lot more uber! We should be able to draw hands like a clock. We will be able to pulse the concentric rings like a raindrop on water. We can have each concentric ring displaying different information. I’d like to be able to have several of these animations running at the same time. The possibilities have gotten quite large!

What if I don’t have 5.25” drive bays? Can I put this on my desk?

The OoberLights board receives 5-volt power via a micro=USB port. We are using an ESP8266 microcontroller to control the LEDs. You will be able to communicate with the Ooberlights using either the USB cable or WiFi.

Ooberlights Front

If you want to use your OoberLights as a status display on your NAS server, you will probably communicate with it via USB. If you don’t want to put your OoberLights display near a computer, that will be fine. We want to make sure you can still access all the functionality via WiFi as well.

I want OoberLights on my desk!

We have some concerns

I have been using the word “we” a lot. Sometimes I have concerns. Sometimes our hardware designer has concerns. Sometimes we share those concerns to varying degrees. Let’s focus a bit on the concerns our designer has had over the course of the Ooberlights project so far.

He isn’t a professional electronics guy. He’s a software guy. This is an interesting learning experience for him, but he will tell you he’s not an expert. As far as I’m concerned, he’s doing a fantastic job, but that doesn’t mean I know that he knows what he’s doing!

Ooberlights Jumpers

When the initial layout was done, he had a pretty serious concern. What if he goofed, and one of the power supply components was set up incorrectly? What if we’re accidentally sending 5 volts to the LEDs that require 3 volts? We might plug the first board in, and immediately burn out every WS2812 LED. There were a few similar concerns.

How we thought we might address those concerns

Our designer wanted to break each piece of the project down into its own prototype board. A few power supply boards, and ESP8266 board, and a handful of LED ring boards.

Smaller boards cost less to manufacture. This way, we could connect things up one at a time while keeping an eye on things with a multimeter.

How we’re really going to address those concerns

We are back to a single board, and it is almost identical to what should be the final production PCB. Instead of breaking the Ooberlights PCB into physically separate pieces, our designer is cutting around a dozen traces on the board.

At the cut points, he’s leaving solder pads. I will be able to bridge those gaps with solder to test more and more of the board. I can plug the USB cable in and verify that the voltage regulator is regulating correctly. If it is, I can connect that up to the ESP8266 and verify that it powers up correctly.

One step at a time.

Assuming everything checks out, this means that our prototype boards will be completely compatible with the production run. That’s exciting!

The Ooberlights hardware specifications

Here’s what I can tell you about the Ooberlights so far:

  • The hardware and software will be open-source
  • 2-layer PCB
  • 229 surface mount components
  • 90 WS2812 LEDs
  • ESP8266 micro controller with 4MB flash and WiFi
  • USB-to-serial interface
  • 5 volt power input

I don’t know how he managed to get us down to a 2-layer PCB, but he did it. This may not be impressive to you, but it is impressive to me. I think it is neat, because this is potentially something I could mill on my CNC. I could never place 229 tiny surface-mount components, but I could mill the PCB!

We haven’t released any source code

We’re not trying to be secretive. In fact, I believe that being more open is better. No one has asked to see the source code, and we haven’t had a lot of discussion about exactly which license to use.

If someone else wanted to get involved, I’m sure we could settle on a license pretty quickly. I figure there’s no reason to work on something that we don’t desperately need at this point. We’ll have a license in place before we start sending prototypes out for testing and review.

I’ve been open-sourcing my quadcopter frame designs. I don’t like to push changes to the public repo on Gitlab.com until I have a chance to test the physical parts. Sometimes changes sit in my private repository for a month or two. Compiling code is fast. [Cutting carbon fiber on the CNC][cf] can be slow!

I’m taking a similar attitude here. I don’t want anyone paying to have a completely untested PCB made. I would feel terrible if it didn’t work!

We haven’t written any software

The hardware is nice. The hardware is fun. The hardware is completely useless without software, and we don’t have any software written.

If there’s zero software, the audience for our hardware is tiny. It will only be the people that want to write their own animations using the ESP8266 SDK or the Arduino IDE.

If the Ooberlights hardware is running just enough software that it can accept some simple commands, then our audience expands quite a bit. Any system admin can figure out how to send commands over a serial port to make the Ooberlights blink or spin when needed.

If we can integrate the Ooberlights with iftt.com, then our audience becomes huge. Anyone can start counting likes on Facebook or Instagram, flashing the lights when there’s a retweet on Twitter, or use their Ooberlights to keep track of subscribers on YouTube.

What’s next?

I have to sit down with a friend of mine that is an actual professional electronics guy. He’s offered to take a look at our design to make sure there aren’t any glaringly obvious mistakes.

Once that works, it is my job to order some prototypes. For me, ordering prototypes is the scariest part!

How much will Ooberlights cost?

I have a pretty good idea, but I’m afraid to tell you! I’ve never had a PCB manufactured before. We’re going to need to have drive bay enclosures made, and I’ve really only considered how much they’ll cost me to manufacture myself in the garage.

The cost of the populated circuit boards go down as the quantities go up. Even at relatively low quantities, the prices are quite reasonable.

What if the enclosures cost more than I think? What if we have to change the design? What if something goes wrong?

Ooberlights Back

If I suggest a price today, and things change, people will point back to this post and yell, “But you said it would cost half as much!” and I don’t want to worry about that. I have enough things to worry about!

At the highest price I can imagine us charging, I’d buy one for my virtual machine server at home. At the price point I’m hoping we can hit, I’d buy one for each of my computers and one for my desk. I’m really hoping we can reach the lower price point. I imagine we’ll land somewhere in between.

Conclusion

The next time I write about the Ooberlights, I expect to have a prototype in my possession. That will be so much more exciting! Showing off screenshots of the rendered PCB is fun, but that doesn’t really go far towards explaining what these Ooberlights are for!

Am I saying Ooberlights enough? Are you excited about Ooberlights? I am aware that there’s only so much excitement I could ever manage to drum up with diagrams and descriptions. Any real excitement won’t get here until there are videos and gifs, right?

If you think we’re on the right track here, leave a comment, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with us about Ooberlights. I said Ooberlights again!

I’m Getting Excited About 4-Inch Quads Again

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At first, I was excited about trying out 4” props. A few years ago, I experimented with 5.5” and 6” props on my 5” quads. On all but my most underpowered 5” quad, these larger props added several minutes of cruising flight time.

Not only that, but the larger props have a very different feel. You lose a bit of top speed, but you gain a bunch of low-end grunt. If you’re pulling out of a 200’ dive with 6” props, the quad just feels like it stops dead in its tracks when you add some throttle.

Kestrel with 4x2.5x3 HQ props

I was hoping that scaling a 3” freestyle quad up to 4” props would lead to some of the same improvements. Could I build an HD freestyle quad that is capable of long-range flights and still fit everything in under 250 grams?

When I started testing, the most efficient 4” props available were the HQ 4x4.3x3 and HQ 4x3x3. On my 4” Kestrel with 1606 3300 kv motors, neither of these props led to the efficiency gains I was hoping to see. I prefer the flight characteristics of these 4” props for freestyle, but not by a large enough margin that I would encourage anyone else to build a light 4” freestyle quad.

WARNING: I don’t have much data yet!

I have a few problems. I have a dozen 450 mAh and 650 mAh 4S batteries for my Kestrels. They’re all in rough shape. I tend to be mean to micro quad batteries. I accidentally bring them in at 3.3 volts or less more often than I would care to admit. I charge a bunch of them, but don’t get around to flying them, so they’re always dying a slow death, because they’re not at storage voltage.

This means I don’t currently have any batteries that make it easy to compare directly with data in my old blog posts. I have a post that says my 4” can cruise for more than 5 minutes, and the 3” can manage 5 minutes of aggressive freestyle. I rarely get a 4-minute flight out of the 3” these days, because the batteries are old.

3” Kestrel on 4S

One day when I was doing GPS speed runs on the 4” with the new Avan props, I borrowed a fresh 550 mAh RaceDayQuads battery from my friend Tanner. On my 650 mAh pack, my top speed was 76 MPH. With Tanner’s 550 mAh pack, I hit 86 MPH on my first try. That was when I knew for certain that my batteries were getting tired.

Not only that, but the long-range flight testing takes time. I have to fly at about 15 MPH for nearly 20 minutes for those tests. Then I have to charge the 3250 mAh pack at about 1C. Even if I wanted to run tests back to back, I’ll be waiting an hour for the battery to charge, then I have to fly for 20 minutes again.

That said, I’m excited. I want to tell you what I’ve learned so far, and I want to tell you where I think this is going.

There are some new props

Emax has come out with three new props since I last wrote about 4” props: the Avan 4x2.8x3, the Avan 4x2.4x3, and the Avan 3.5x2.8x3. I’ve logged a good bit of flight time on the Avan 4x2.4x3 on my 1606 quad, and I like them a lot. They make the quad feel more like a 5” than any 3” prop I’ve tried, they’re pretty efficient, and they handle propwash a lot better than the HQ props.

I have a set of the Avan 3.5” props on there now. I’ve only flown one pack, but they’re promising. I’m hopeful that 3.5” is a sweet spot between 3” and 4” props. Before these were available, I cut down a set of HQ 4x3x3 props to about 3.5”. The 3.5” Avan props are definitely better than my homemade bullnose 3.5” props.

NOTE: In this snippet with the 4x2.5x2 props on 4S, there’s definitely more propwash than on 3x3x3 props. However, I like the way the quad feels. I’m going to be experimenting more.

I’m even more excited about HQ’s new 4x2.5x2 T-mount prop. It is a thin, gentle prop designed for light motors. Since it is a T-mount prop, I can only use it on my lighter 3” Kestrel with 1306 4000 kv motors. This is exciting because that is my lighter build by somewhere around 40 grams. It is disappointing because I have no way to directly compare this biblade prop to the other 4” props.

Zoe FPV may have solved my long-range problem

I am excited about the idea of my Kestrel freestyle quads being capable of long-range flight. I haven’t quite figured out what I would personally do with my long-range setup, but I’m tickled by the idea of having a $250 HD build that I can send two miles away. I’m even more excited about that build if it is also an awesome little freestyle quad.

My hopes of the 4” props increasing my flight time by 3 or 4 minutes didn’t pan out. If you’re cruising in the 15 to 20 MPH range, that would be an extra mile of range.

Then I saw Zoe FPV talking about her 2S 3250 mAh Lithium Ion pack from Outcast Droneworks. She has a 2” build that has managed to hover for 26 minutes with this pack. Lithium ion has more energy density than our usual lithium polymer batteries, but they can’t deliver as much amps. Her pack can deliver up to 40 amps, and that should be more than enough for my purposes.

Will all my hardware power up with only a 2S pack? Will my 3” Kestrel even be able to get off the ground? Will it still fit in under 250 grams?!

Tests with the Outcast Droneworks pack have been quite successful!

As soon as the battery arrived, I plugged it into one of my Kestrels. The VTX was transmitting, the Caddx Turtle was recording HD video, and I was able to do a test hover. Not only that, but my 3” Kestrel comes in at 248 grams with the 2S pack!

I also managed to fit the HQ 4x2.5x2 props onto my 3” Kestrel frame, but only just barely. Some of the props were rubbing the frame, but I was able to rotate the arms ever so slightly out of place to buy myself a fraction of a millimeter of clearance for each prop.

My 3” Kestrel does not yet have a GPS module, so I’m not doing good science here. I got the feel for about how fast 15 to 20 MPH would feel using the GPS on my 4” Kestrel. I’m probably flying in the right ballpark, at least.

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This is the last 30 seconds or so of my 19 minute test flight of my 3" Kestrel with HQ 4x2.5x2 props shoehorned on while using @outcastdroneworks 3250 mAh 2S pack. I don't have GPS on this build, but I do have GPS on the other Kestrel, so I did a sort of calibration run to get the feel for 15 to 20 mph cruising. This was 19 minutes of cruising. No hovering or any nonsense like that! With this 2S pack the build comes in at 248 grams. It has a Caddx Turtle, Crossfire, and a 1,000 mW VTX on 1306 4000 kv motors. The last 3 minutes of the flight were spent cruising circles around the dry parking lot, because I didn't know what voltage things would stop working at, and I didn't want to fall into a puddle. I chose to land when I started seeing less than 3v per cell. For the next test flight, I swapped on a set of HQ 3x2.5x3 props. On that pack, I started dropping under 3v at 16 minutes. I pushed it another 30 seconds, and quickly got to the point where I didn't have enough thrust at 90% throttle to hover. For this quad, 3v per cell is the end of the pack, for sure! #fpv #fpvracer #drone #drones #droneracing #droneracer #fpvdrones #fpvrace #multirotor #quadcopter #fpvfreestyle

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I was amazed by my first test flight. I managed to cruise around our local abandoned golf course for 19 minutes! Math says that may have been enough time to cover nearly 5 miles. I’m going to need to add a GPS module to this little guy to verify this.

The tiny 5-volt GPS module from Banggood only weighs about 6 grams with the full wiring harness, and it seems to work great. Installing it will push me up to at least 254 grams. That’s fine for testing, but a bummer if 250 grams is your legal limit. I could definitely save 4 grams by using a different VTX and antenna, so I’m not too worried.

This was a boring flight. I started by making big, slow trips around the nearby fairways. I wasn’t sure what I’d see in the OSD when the battery started getting low. There were a lot of wet spots out there, so when the voltage got down under 3.3 volts per cell, I started making short laps around the dry parking lot instead.

When I started the trip, it took nearly 50% throttle to maintain my cruising speed. Once it was down under 3.3 volts, I had to increase to around 60% throttle. I landed when my readings started to drop below 6 volts.

After landing, the battery recovered to 3.5 volts per cell, so it should be in quite good shape still. These lithium-ion packs can be safely discharged below 3.3 volts per cell.

NINETEEN MINUTES!

This is more than I ever hoped for. I did another test with HQ 3x2.5x3 props. On that flight, I was dipping just under 6 volts right at the 16-minute mark. I was forced to land 30 seconds later. I didn’t quite make it back to home base, because at this point it was requiring more than 80% throttle just to stay in the air.

I made a good call when I stopped at nineteen minutes on that first flight.

I started a test flight on my 1606 Kestrel, but I didn’t get to finish it. I crashed into a railing at around six minutes. Then the dopey pilot managed to trip and faceplant into a short concrete wall. Maybe I’ll post some video of that!

That test got cut short when I crashed into a railing that popped up out of nowhere, but I don’t think it was going to make it to even 16 minutes. This was on the Avan 3.5x2.8x3 props.

Can you see the bobbling in the HD video?

I haven’t attempted tuning anything as of yet. The bobbling is big enough that I can plainly see it in the goggles while flying. I figured I should fly 3” and 4” props on the 1306 motors with the 2S battery for a comparison before I started messing around with things.

My Kestrel quads are tuned for 4S. Flying in that 13.5 to 16.8 volt range provides a lot more power to the motors than the 6 to 8 volt range I’m seeing on the Outcast Droneworks battery battery.

I’m confident that bumping up the PID values will make an improvement, but I am a little worried that I won’t ever see perfectly smooth video out of this setup. Tuning is the next step, though, so we’ll find out soon enough!

I’m sorry, but I had to do a little tuning

As soon as I finished typing that last paragraph, I knew I had to go straight outside and attempt to tune that bobble out of my Kestrel. I popped the Outcast Droneworks pack on the charger, pushed 500 mAh into it, and went outside. I didn’t want a full battery, but I didn’t want to tune on a dead pack, either.

I bumped up P and D on pitch and roll a few times. I bumped up my d_min quite a bit. I have a feeling d_min is the real answer here. I believe I increased all these numbers twice. By the third time, I couldn’t see the bobble in my goggles at all!

I did this tuning on the HQ 3x2.5x3 props, because that’s what I was flying last. The HD footage isn’t quite smooth, but it is getting close. This is where the tuning process gets difficult, though. To get any farther, I need to pull footage off the SD card every time I change settings, and I may even need to pull blackbox logs. That’s a lot more work than just peering through the goggles and pushing values higher in the OSD!

At least progress has been made, and it was made quickly. Next time I fly, I’ll push those numbers by another 30% or so. Maybe I’ll luck out!

What is the goal here?!

First and foremost, my Kestrels are freestyle quads. I wanted a freestyle frame with the Acrobrat’s suspension, but the Acrobrat just isn’t for me. I didn’t want to carry as much weight in the frame, and I wanted individual, replaceable, configurable arms. An extra ten grams of battery is worth more to me than ten grams of carbon, assuming I can still keep things sturdy enough that I’m not breaking an arm every week!

With the Kestrel, I wanted to design a frame that would allow me to build a 3” or 4” freestyle quad with long arms for extra stability, and I wanted to get as close to 250 grams as I could without going over. My 1306 Kestrel is 223 grams with a 650 mAh 4S, and my 1606 Kestrel is 273 grams with the same battery.

Both of my Kestrels have TBS Crossfire receivers and 800 or 1,000 mW VTX modules. One of them has a tiny GPS module, and I have a spare GPS module that’s ready to be installed on the 1306 Kestrel.

It seems like these two quads are just begging to fly long range.

Jack of all trades, master of one

Maybe. I enjoy flying freestyle with both my Kestrels, but I am never pleased with the HD footage from the Caddx Turtle. I’m also disappointed that the FPV feed is so much worse than my Runcam Eagle. Upgrading to a Runcam Hybrid would improve the HD situation a little, and nearly match the Runcam Eagle’s FPV feed.

Let’s just assume that the HD video situation will fix itself over time, either by upgrading to a Runcam Hybrid, or upgrading to whatever comes out 6 months from now. I’m quite pleased with how these quads fly, and next year, I might even be happy enough with the video they record.

My Kestrels are both excellent little freestyle quads. They record HD video. The parts cost about $250. That’s less than most GoPro cameras, and I think that’s neat. What else can they do?

As long as you can tolerate Caddx Turtle footage, my own Kestrel builds are good HD freestyle quads. I could use them in a race in a pinch. It is starting to look like they’ll be useful long-range quads, too.

I can leave my awesome, giant ThinkTank backpack at home. I can pack my Kestrel, Taranis, Fat Shark HDO2 goggles, a 19-minute long-range battery, enough 4S batteries to fly freestyle for an hour, and a chair into my small AmazonBasics DSLR backpack. This comes in at around 10 pounds, and that’s a lot less less than half the weight of my fully loaded big bag!

There’s room in my Kestrel frame to use a battery strap to mount a GoPro. Both my builds fly well enough while carrying a GoPro, and I even managed to hover with the 2S pack and GoPro. I don’t currently have any sort of prop guards, but I’m absolutely certain that my Kestrel builds would do a fine job doing the duties of a Cinewhoop.

Zoe and I are working on very different things

Zoe’s MicroHawk is a tiny quad running 2” props. It is built with autonomy in mind, and I believe her build comes in at around 180 grams with the 3250 mAh 2S pack. That’s about 70 grams lighter than my current long range setup! She’s managed a 26-minute hover test, and 20 minutes of cruising.

I guess we’re attacking a similar problem here, but from different directions. I’m absolutely certain her autonomous, long-range MicroHawk build that carries a Raspberry Pi can fly freestyle. That said, I’m willing to bet that my Kestrels will capture cleaner, smoother HD freestyle footage than Zoe’s MicroHawk. Not only that, my comparatively beefy Kestrels are made to take quite a beating!

The reverse is also true. Sure, I can shoehorn a set of 4” biblade props onto my Kestrel and throw an Outcast Droneworks 3250 mAh 2S pack on there. Sure, it’ll manage to cruise for 19 minutes, but that’s a total accident. I’m lucky that this worked out at all!

Everything on my Kestrel is scaled for 4S freestyle. The motors and props are both scaled to be driven by a 16-volt LiPo battery. It is severely underpowered when using a 7-volt lithium-ion battery.. I can probably take it on a cruise up and back down the side of a mountain, but I shouldn’t be doing powerloops and S-turns on the way up. My Kestrel on 2S feels like an overgrown whoop. It can manage to do a powerloop, but is it a good idea?!

Conclusion

I’m excited again. Since I’m always unhappy with the Turtle’s HD footage, my Kestrels have spent more time in my bag than in the air. I really only fly them just to make sure they still fly. I have a good reason to be flying, testing, and tuning my Kestrels again! Woo!

What’s next? I think it is time to try out Betaflight’s RPM filter on the blheli_s ESCs on my Diatone Mamba stacks. I don’t know if it will clear out the last of the vibrations, but it is something I’ve wanted to try on my Kestrels anyway. If that doesn’t work, maybe it will be time to do some blackbox logging and manual filter tuning!

I know I stated that I’m rarely happy with my Turtle footage, but I was just looking for flight snippets to include in this blog, and I realized that I rarely even post short flight snippets to Twitter or Instagram. Just about the only recent footage I’ve posted is the 2S testing. I’m going to have to correct that!

You’ll probably notice that I rarely post YouTube videos with Kestrel HD footage. Scaling the footage down to Instagram or Twitter covers up a lot of what I don’t like about the footage!

What do you think? Are you wanting to do some long-range flying, but you’re living somewhere with a 250-gram weight restriction? Are you building a customized long-range setup, or are you trying to squeeze long-range flights out of a freestyle build like me? Do you think I’m on the right track with these HQ 4x2.5x2 props and the Outcast Droneworks 3250 mAh battery? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

I Added a Baratza Encore to Our Kitchen

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I’ve been using my Baratza Preciso for nearly six years. I’ve had a few problems with it. Nothing major, though. There are plastic parts inside Baratza’s grinders that are designed to give way in the event that a rock or an unroasted coffee bean makes its way into the burrs. It is better to smash a $5 piece of plastic than destroy a pair of $80 burrs or wreck your motor.

My wife has been drinking tea for the better part of a year, but she’s starting to use her Aeropress again. We often run into a situation where I accidentally have an extra day’s worth of bean in the hopper of the Preciso, so moving the grinder up to the Aeropress setting is either wasteful or a pain.

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Delicious.

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We decided that the simplest thing to do would be to buy another grinder for the kitchen. The first option that popped into my mind was the Baratza Virtuoso. The Virtuoso is nearly identical to my Preciso. It just lacks the micro adjustment wheel.

We opted to save $100 and go with the Baratza Encore.

I didn’t expect to be so impressed with the Encore

Like most grinders, the Encore ships without the hopper installed. The upper burr is left out as well. I was surprised that the upper burr looked identical to the burr in my Preciso!

When we ordered the Encore, I didn’t really care about the specs. I knew it would do a reasonable job at grinding for Aeropress, French press, and pour over. That’s all it needs to do. We already have a grinder for the Rancilio Silvia.

Then I saw that burr, and I got curious. The lower burr is machined differently than the Virtuoso/Preciso lower burr, but it is compatible. You can upgrade the Encore burr to match my Preciso.

Our Baratza Encore In Its New Home

I suppose this is a reasonable option if you don’t want to spend $250 on a Virtuoso. You can get comparable grind quality out of an upgraded Encore, but you’ll save money on the cheaper casing and smaller motor of the Encore. I don’t have a good reason to test this, but it sure sounds like it might be a good value for someone!

Is the Baratza Encore right for you?

If you want to make delicious coffee, you need a burr grinder. If you’re on an extremely tight budget, you might be well served by a manual burr grinder like the Hario Mini Mill or Hario Skerton.

The Baratza Encore is one of the most budget-friendly electric grinders with proper conical burrs. That said, it still costs $100 more than a manual grinder.

Unless you’re making espresso, the Encore will likely serve you quite well. If you have more room in your budget, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to pay more for a Baratza Virtuoso. It was quite obvious that the Encore grinds more slowly than my Baratza Preciso. Maybe the extra speed and small improvement in grind quality is worth the extra $100 to you!

Conclusion

We’ve only had the Encore for a few days, so I can’t tell you much yet about the longevity of the machine. That said, I expect it to hold up as well as my Baratza Preciso has held up over the last six years.

Are you shopping for an entry-level burr grinder? Are you using a Baratza Encore? What do you think of it? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

Thoughts on the DJI Digital FPV System

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Not too long ago, DJI released a new digital video-transmission system for FPV miniquad pilots. I’ve been keeping an eye on it. I’ve been watching videos. I’ve been listening to what people say. I’ve been trying to figure out if this is a system that I’m going to want to buy into.

I am not going to be buying into DJI’s ecosystem at this time. DJI’s new system has a lot going for it, especially if you’re a brand new pilot and haven’t already invested in analog gear.

I’m going to do my best to explain why DJI’s FPV system isn’t for me. I’m going to start with problems that are easy to measure, then work my way towards the less concrete things.

The DJI FPV Air Unit is too big

The Air Unit is the box of electronics and the FPV camera that sit on your miniquad. It is just too big, and in some cases, much too heavy.

It won’t fit nicely into any of my existing freestyle frames. To be honest, this is a minor complaint. I’m cutting my own frames now anyway. Correcting this problem would just involve cutting new bottom and top plates for two or three of my quads.

If you’re not me, you might have to buy new frames. You’ll probably be spending $50 to $100 per frame, right?

The Air Unit weighs about 45 grams. That extra 20 to 30 grams or so compared to my existing VTX and camera won’t be a big deal on my 5” freestyle miniquads, but what about my 3” and 4” sub-250 gram Kestrel builds? My camera and VTX combination on my micros is already lighter than what I use on my 5” rigs, so the Air Unit might add even more weight.

The current size and weight of the Air Unit make it unusable for my 3” and 4” builds.

I fully expect DJI to miniaturize this hardware. When they do, I will have to revisit this topic!

Even if they do miniaturize the Air Unit, we’re not going to see it on whoops or toothpicks any time soon. This brings me to my next problem.

I don’t want to carry two sets of goggles

My ThinkTank backpack is huge, but it is already more than full. I’d have to rearrange everything just to fit the larger DJI goggles in place of my Fat Shark goggles. I definitely don’t want to have to find a way to squeeze both sets of goggles in there!

My goal is to fit everything I need for a day out flying in my bag, so it is already packed pretty tight!

Can’t you plug an analog receiver into the DJI goggles?

Yes. Sort of. There is a way to make this happen, but you have to modify the goggles a bit. I think this will be a fantastic option for people that buy into DJI’s system. You can fly your nice, big, expensive quads with your digital link. Then you can still fly a TinyHawk around the house with an analog receiver.

So far, I haven’t heard any good things about using the analog input on the DJI goggles. Maybe this will get better with a firmware update, but it sounds like for the time being, using the DJI goggles to fly an analog quad isn’t a great experience.

My TinyHawks

The weird analog feed to the DJI goggles might be good enough for playing around with a TinyHawk around the house, but I don’t want to use it with my HD micro freestyle builds.

Don’t you want HD video, Pat?!

My impression so far is that DJI’s HD video feed isn’t a straight-up upgrade over what I have today. Some things are greatly improved. Other aspects, not so much.

It is absolutely amazing that you can get eight pilots in the air at once, and they all have amazing video feeds. When you have good signal, the picture is clear.

I have some concerns about the dynamic range and the speed of the DJI camera’s transition from light to dark.

NOTE: That’s my GoPro HERO5 Session going around the track!

My Runcam Eagle Micro sometimes looks like I’m flying in an oversaturated cartoon landscape, but I can usually see my friend walking in the shade under dense trees. When I’m flying through a parking garage, I can see shapes in the sun outside instead of just blown-out highlights.

Maybe I’m worried over nothing. Maybe if I could fit the DJI Air Unit on my 3” builds, I would ignore this concern completely!

What about the DJI system’s range?

I can’t make up my mind here. We’ve seen Le Drib fly his DJI system inside a building where his analog setup was barely working. We also hear about it randomly dropping out when analog would be fine.

In other words, DJI’s range and overall performance isn’t a straight-up upgrade over what I’m already flying. Sure, it has plenty of improvements, but I still keep seeing the drawbacks. In some situations, the DJI gear outperforms my analog gear. In some situations, my analog gear can do better. In most situations, the only thing I’m giving up is the more detailed HD image.

Price isn’t the problem

I absolutely adore my TBS Crossfire. Knowing that my control link is absolutely rock solid makes me so much more confident. If you’re a new pilot, though, and you’re planning to use DJI’s control link, then the DJI system’s price compares quite favorably to analog.

The DJI FPV Experience Combo costs about $1,000 and comes with goggles, a controller, and enough Air Units and antennas for two quads.

An old shot of my ThinkTank backpack

If you add up Fat Shark HDO goggles ($500), a RapidFire module ($160), a Taranis Q X7 ($105), a Crossfire Micro TX module ($70), two Crossfire Nano RX modules ($35 x 2), and a pair of RaceDayQuads VTX modules ($25 x 2), you’ll end up at $955.

As you build more quads, the analog pricing starts to look better, but not by a ridiculous margin. However, that top of the line analog system I listed isn’t the only option. You can spend half as much on the goggles and video receiver, and you can completely skip the Crossfire stuff. That wouldn’t be as fair a comparison, though.

One important thing to note here is that you can buy into our old analog video system on a budget. Sure, top-of-the-line analog hardware is comparable in price to the DJI FPV system. The goggles I run cost $200 less than the Fat Shark HDO goggles. I’d bet you could get a pretty nice analog setup for half the price, and entry-level hardware can be had for 10% of the price of the DJI setup.

If they cost the same, why buy into analog today?

Your friends are already flying analog. When I went to a MultiGP race for the first time last month, every single pilot was flying analog. These were all people I hadn’t met before, and I could tune in to any of their video feeds to spectate.

When I go flying with my friends, I can tune in to their flights, and they can tune in to mine. They can give me pointers. I can praise them when I see them pull off a neat maneuver. We can all hoot and holler when we see a spectacular crash!

My Falcon Freestyle quad

I’d hate to be the one person in the group using DJI goggles, especially if I’m new to the hobby. If your quad is doing something funny when you yaw 180 degrees, I might need to see it happen through the goggles to help you out. Maybe it doesn’t happen when I fly your quad because the problem is something the pilot is doing.

This alone is enough reason for me to still recommend analog today. For me, FPV is about community. I’d hate to be the one guy out there doing it alone!

DJI FPV goggles aren’t compatible with DJI’s photography drones

What?! This surprised me quite a bit when the system was released. If you told me that I can carry one set of goggles and use it with my FPV miniquads AND a Mavic 2, it would be amazing. I’d go right out and buy a Mavic!

The FPV goggles aren’t compatible. They’re two very different video protocols. Isn’t that a bummer?

Maybe DJI’s products will converge in a few years!

What about Fat Shark Byte Frost?!

I had high hopes for Byte Frost. The video transmitter board is just a standard 30x30 board that will fit right in your stack. I can even fit that in my 3” Kestrel, and it isn’t nearly as heavy as the DJI Air Unit!

Unfortunately, Byte Frost just doesn’t look like it can compete with DJI. In Joshua Bardwell’s test, Byte Frost’s range with directional patch antennas was worse than DJI’s range with omni antennas.

Byte Frost seems to only support four quads at a time, while we’ve all seen DJI’s system allow 8 pilots to fly simultaneously.

That said, it is my understanding that Byte Frost has low, consistent latency. When your signal gets weak, the DJI system’s latency increases and the quality drops. When the Byte Frost signal gets weak, it seems to start dropping bits of the picture, but the latency stays low.

Even though it has a couple significant advantages over the DJI FPV system, I don’t believe things look good for Byte Frost at this point.

Conclusion

Maybe you don’t care about having to carry two sets of goggles. Maybe your entire fleet can carry a DJI Air Unit. Maybe the DJI FPV system is a good fit for you.

It just isn’t a good fit for me, and I bet that’s true for most of you folks, too. Electronics always get smaller and cheaper. I have hopes that the next revision of DJI’s FPV system will be a better fit for more of my fleet, and the revision after that will likely be even better! It doesn’t have to fit on my whoops. If DJI can cover my 3”, 5”, and larger quads, I would feel comfortable leaving my Fat Sharks at home!

What do you think? Are you excited about DJI’s digital video quality? Do you want to fly with a feed that looks more like a GoPro? Or do you think that the community of spectators is still more important? Let me know what you think in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

Betaflight 4.1 and the RPM Filter

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I’ve been procrastinating for a long time. All my 5” freestyle quads and even my 4” micro Kestrel have the hardware to support Betaflight’s RPM filter. All you need is an F4 flight controller and, until recently, blheli_32 ESCs. Using the RPM filter with Betaflight 4.0 requires a bit of extra tinkering, but it didn’t seem like I big deal.

The trouble was that my quads were all flying great. I worked hard tuning Betaflight 4.0. I wanted to reduce propwash oscillation as much as I could, and I think I did a pretty good job. I turned off as many filters as I could. I loosened up the remaining filters a bit to improve latency. Then I pushed my D-term as far as I could.

I thought it was flying great. When we flew with Alex Vanover, I asked him to fly my quad, and he didn’t seem to think it needed much tuning. If I thought it was flying great, and the fastest drone racing pilot in the world thought it was flying well, why would I mess with it?

I messed with it

Mark Spatz at UAV Tech posted a video about the settings you should start with if you want to try flying Betaflight 4.1 with the RPM filter. Everything is straight forward now. When I set it up, I had to download test firmware for my ESCs, but bidirectional Dshot support is currently in the official blheli_32 release, so you won’t have to worry about that.

I’m flying an iFlight TwinG F7 flight controller. It has two identical gyros, but one of those gyros is rotated 90 degrees. Betaflight reads both gyros and takes the average of those readings. This buys you a few decibels of noise filtering with no increase in latency. Betaflight 4.0 could not perform this sensor fusion while using the RPM filter. Betaflight 4.1 can!

I updated one of my quads to Betaflight 4.1. I set up the RPM filter according to Mark Spatz’s instructions. I set up my rates, but I left the PID settings alone. Then I took my quad to the golf course.

I can’t believe that it flies better!

We’re running out of improvements at this point. When I upgraded from Cleanflight to Betaflight, it was like a quantum leap forward. You’d say things like, “Holy potatoes! I can’t believe it stops smoothly after a snap roll!”

Then I upgraded from Betaflight 3.3 on an Kakute F4 to Butterflight on a Helio Spring. The difference wasn’t as dramatic, but I will say this is the first time I had a quad that could handle propwash well.

Upgrading from the defunct Helio board to my dual-gyro F7 flight controller and Betaflight 4.0 was a nice upgrade. Tuning became a little easier and propwash handling improved. There are also a lot of nice quality of life updates, too.

NOTE: If you have a Helio Spring, you should check out EmuFlight. They’re doing a good job resurrecting Butterflight and the Helio’s IMU-F. Don’t let your old hardware go to waste!

Our quads are already flying amazingly well—nearly perfectly. Can it really get much better?

Yes. Betaflight 4.1 with the RPM filter flies noticeably better, but it is the sort of improvement that you’re only going to notice when you’re pushing things to the edge of what Betaflight 4.0 can handle.

You can always fly around propwash oscillations. When I flew that first pack with the RPM filter, I did my very best to do the opposite. I tried to bring out as much propwash as I could!

I did the move where you fly forward, cut the throttle, then do a 180 degree turn. Then I’d blip the throttle pretty hard and go back the other way. My 4.0 tune did well at this, and so did the RPM filter. No surprises there.

NOTE: I don’t have great before-and-after comparison of my well tuned quad. I tested on my backup quad, which was much closer to running stock Betaflight 4.0 settings. That’s my backup quad in the Tweet above.

Then I started popping up over trees to do some power loops and S-turns. This is the time when I’m most likely to be bummed out about propwash in my GoPro footage. You know when you don’t quite line up the move like you should, and you just can’t hit the throttle until the very last moment. I did my best to simulate those moments.

I’d line up my exit under the tree, fall with zero throttle until the last possible moment, then I’d punch the throttle harder than I should. I’ve practiced doing this smoothly for so long that it is difficult to do it poorly on purpose, but when I did, I couldn’t see any oscillations in my goggles, and it sounded smooth to my ears.

You could see some oscillation in the GoPro footage, but it is extremely brief.

My settings

This is the part where I’d usually just paste in a dump from the Betaflight command line. I don’t want to do that this time. I think it is important to understand a little about what you’re changing.

There are plenty of videos showing you what to do. If that’s the way you prefer to ingest your knowledge, you should check out UAV Tech’s RPM filter guide or [Joshua Bardwell’s RPM filter setup guide][wdrpm]. These are the places where I got my information!

Betaflight 4.1 RPM Filter

On the configuration tab in the Betaflight Configurator, you need to enable bidirectional Dshot. On my F7 flight controller, I’m running a 4K/4K PID loop. You can probably get away with an 8K/8K PID loop, and I’m going to experiment with this, but for now, you should play it safe.

NOTE: I forgot to mention motor poles. If you’re flying 2306, 2205, 2206, or 2207 motors, then the default of 14 is most likely correct. You can check the specs of your motor on the manufacturer’s or vendor’s website, or you can count the magnets. If you’re setting this up on a micro, 14 is likely to be incorrect!

I’ve learned that at if you have bidirectonal Dshot enabled in Betaflight, and your ESC firmware doesn’t support it, then Betaflight will refuse to communicate with your ESCs. At least it shouldn’t go bananas on you if you fail to correctly upgrade your ESC firmware!

Betaflight 4.1 RPM Filter

You’ll need to be running blheli_32 version 32.7 or newer. You should also be able to use the JESC firmware on blheli_s ESCs, but I haven’t tested this.

Betaflight defaults to using three layers of RPM filtering. I believe that gives you a total of 12 notch filters. One for each motor at three different resonance frequencies. I was happy with how my quad flew with one level of RPM filters, but Joshua Bardwell talked me into trying the default of three.

You should set the width of your dynamic filter to 0. With the default of 8, you will be running a pair of dynamic filters that are 4% or 8% above and below the target frequency. We don’t need that with the RPM filter. When you set this to zero, you will remove one of those dynamic filters and decrease your latency.

I’m running my dynamic notch filter with a Q-factor of 250. Joshua Bardwell recommended starting at 200. The higher the number, the narrower the filter, and the lower the latency. I’m unsure how I got up to 250, but it is working fine for me, so I’m sticking to it.

Betaflight RPM Filter Filtering Settings

NOTE: I didn’t adjust any of the checkbox or numbers in the boxes above the RPM filter and below the sliders. These adjust themselves as you move the sliders up and down!

You should lower the dynamic filter’s minimum frequency to 90 hz.

The rest of my filter tuning consisted solely of moving the two sliders farther and farther to the right. I’d move then two or three clicks, go outside, and fly around for a minute. If my motors were still cool, I’d move the sliders again.

I have both sliders maxed out, and my motors barely get warm.

Who should upgrade?

If your quad is flying just fine, and you’re not complaining about propwash oscillation, you should probably just keep doing whatever it is that you’re doing. It is difficult to get better at flying if you keep changing your setup. If you’re happy, just keep flying.

What if your quad doesn’t fly so well? Do you have weird twitches and vibrations? Maybe you just have a failing component that just has to be replaced, and no amount of software will be able to make it fly right. Then again, maybe Betaflight 4.1 and the RPM filter will help out your problematic quad.

Or maybe you’ve been running Betaflight 3.4 or 3.5 for a long, long time. You’ve been hearing good things about Betaflight 4.0, but you just weren’t ready to put in the effort to upgrade your flight controllers. I’d say now is the time to upgrade, especially if you’re going to be able to use the RPM filter with your hardware.

Conclusion

I’ve been thinking about upgrading to a prerelease of Betaflight 4.1 for months. I wish I did it sooner. There’s not much excuse to wait now, because as I was writing this blog post, Betaflight 4.1 was officially released!

What do you think? Am I going to have to buy the JESC firmware for my Kestrels? Have you been running the RPM filter for a while? Were you using it with Betaflight 4.0, and did your quad’s flight characteristics improve even more when you upgraded to Betaflight 4.1? Do you also think it is time for everyone to start upgrading? Let me know in the comments, or stop by [the Butter, What?! Discord server][bwd] to chat with me about it!

What I’ve Learned About 4-Inch Miniquads

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When I started designing my Kestrel, I knew that I would have to experiment with 4” propellers. 4” props don’t get a lot of love, and that has been a problem. Lots of people fly 3” or 5” props, so there’s a huge selection of props. Since nobody flies 4”, there are only three or four props worth trying, and none are a great fit for what I’m hoping to accomplish.

What was I hoping to see?

I remember the first time I tried 6” props on my 5” quad. It had some fairly powerful 2600 kv T-Motor F40 Pro V2 motors. I figured it wasn’t going to work out well. Larger props need to spin slower, and those high-kv motors had me a little worried.

I quickly learned that it wasn’t a real problem. If my memory serves, I was getting roughly 30% longer flight times compared to 5” props. This was true whether I was doing slow, cruising, long-range-style flights, or punchy freestyle flying.

My 3-inch Kestrel

When flying 6”, you will see a lower top speed compared to 5”, but you’ll gain a ton of grab in the air. If you’re falling out of a long dive, the 6” props can just catch you like nobody’s business.

Math and pi tell us that a 4” prop has a disc area that is 77% larger than a 3” prop, while a 6” prop only has 44% more surface area than a 5”. It is a bigger difference, but I was hoping to see the same sort of changes: longer flight times, more bite on the bottom end of the throttle, and lower top speeds.

Can we build a sub-250-gram 4” freestyle quad with an HD camera? Will flight times be long enough for some long-range flights? Will it feel more like a 5” freestyle quad?

My testing with 6” had me concerned

A bunch of us own an old Bind-N-Fly miniquad from Aurora RC called the BFight 210. We all loved it. I got my first one free as a review unit. I immediately bought another for my nephew. Several friends also bought them. It was always going on sale for $120 or less, and we all bought them during sales. It was a tremendous value.

It wasn’t a speed demon, and it felt terrible if you tried carrying a GoPro. I believe it had 2205 2300 kv motors. New pilots were regularly seeing 9-minute flight times. My record on a long-range style cruise was over 11 minutes. How amazing would the BFight 210 be with 6” props?!

BFight 210

It was terrible. The 2204 motors just didn’t have the power to handle such a big prop. It felt terrible, and flight times didn’t improve. In hindsight, this isn’t surprising. At the time, it was a bummer.

4” props on a 270-gram Kestrel

I missed the 250-gram mark with my 4” Kestrel build, but I know I could bring it down and save a few dollars doing it. I used the beefy Aikon AK32PIN 20x20 blheli32 4-in-1 ESC, and I used a big 1,000 mW VTX. If I switched to a Diatone Mamba F4 20x20 stack, a 200 mW VTX, and maybe pulled back from a 650 mAh to 550 mAh 4S battery, I’d save $40 and easily shave 20 grams off the build.

My 4-inch Kestrel Build

There are tons of 4” props available, but most of them are for airplanes, and many of the rest are ancient, inefficient bullnose propellers. The best props I’ve found to pair with my little EMAX 1606 2800 kv motors so far are the HQ 4x3x3. I’m aware of the new EMAX Avan Scimitar 4x2.4x3 props. I plan to throw a few into my cart the next time I’m ordering miniquad supplies!

UPDATE: I did order some EMAX 4x2.4x3 props!

I have to say that overall, I am mostly pleased with the way my 4” Kestrel build flies. It feels more like a 5” freestyle quad than any 3” I’ve flown. I feel more confident coming out of sketchy split-S maneuvers or power loops that just weren’t lined up well.

That was the good news

Propwash handling is terrible with this combination. Mark Spatz has an excellent video explaining why gentle props on powerful motors make it much easier for your Betaflight to fight propwash, but I can’t seem to figure out exactly which video that is! I have relatively big, heavy props on relatively tiny motors.

Sure, I can fly around this propwash, but I always forget that I need to. I try to fly it like it is my 5”, and that doesn’t work out.

I’m also not seeing any real gain in efficiency. My 220-gram 3” Kestrel with 1306 motors usually manages 4 or 5 minutes of the sort of freestyle flying that I tend to do. The 4” rarely makes it past 4 minutes.

When I’ve purposely taken slow, boring flights with the 3” Kestrel, I’ve pushed past 8 minutes of flight time. I’ve never managed more than 6 minutes with the 4” Kestrel.

That said, I’m willing to give up that extra minute of flight time. My 4” Kestrel feels much more like a 5” freestyle quad than my 3” build!

The Caddx Turtle is just awful

The first obvious problem with the Turtle or Split is that the HD video and FPV video settings are tied together. There’s only one sensor on that camera. That means ISO and shutter speed are shared, and the settings that make the HD feed look reasonable make for a poor flying experience.

The field of view on the Turtle is tiny compared to a GoPro with SuperView. That’s always a disappointment.

NOTE: I’m sorry. I rarely upload Caddx Turtle video, because I just dislike it so much. The video I embedded here looks kind of hokey, I think. Maybe I need to start uploading my vlogs in 60 fps when flying with the Turtle?

The Turtle produces serviceable HD footage when you’re flying slow and just cruising. Once I start doing quick, snappy moves, I’m disappointed with the video. I just can’t get enough motion blur into the image, even with an ND filter. It just looks like a slideshow. I don’t like it.

These cameras are getting better every few months. The Caddx Tarsier and the Runcam Split Hybrid both look like a huge steps in the right direction.

What can we do if 4” props are too heavy?

I’d really like to try a biblade version of the HQ 4x3x3. I even emailed HQ to ask if they had anything like that. The response was confusing, so I’m going to assume this won’t be an option.

I decided to take matters into my own hands. I dropped my heavy vise onto the bed of my Shapeoko CNC machine, and I clamped in one of my old 2306 motors. I positioned the router about 1.75” away from the center of the motor, and I manually cut down some of my HQ 4x4.3x3 and HQ 4x3x3 props.

This worked surprisingly well!

I don’t have a lot of data on 3.5” props

I’ve flown two batteries so far. They weren’t even fresh batteries. They’ve been sitting in my bag at full charge for the better part of a month. They fly just fine, but I don’t feel comfortable comparing efficiency to what I used to see on freshly charged batteries.

These cut-down props are now bullnose props. Bullnose props should be significantly less efficient than a properly designed 3.5” prop. We don’t have any of those to compare with, though. A 3.5” prop has 36% more disc area than a 3” prop, so this is much closer to the upgrade from 5” to 6” props.

I can tell you that the huge propwash problem is almost completely gone. Like with any quad, if I try my hardest, I can definitely coax some propwash oscillation out of the 3.5” bullnose props. I know for sure that I hit some accidental propwash at least once, but it wasn’t as bad, and it would have been easy to avoid.

I’m going to have to do some back-to-back testing. I need freshly charged batteries. I need to fly some 3”, 3.5”, and 4” props. I need to fly more than one battery on each prop, too.

In any case, I’m pretty excited.

Shaky video on my 4” Kestrel

I’ve been cutting Kestrel frames for my friends, and I don’t really enjoy spending a ton of time in the garage cutting carbon fiber; it is too hot out there!

That means my two Kestrels are built using my oldest parts. Most of the magic on the Kestrel happens where the bottom plate meets the rubber suspension. I have to size that tab just right. Too small, and it just wobbles around. Too large, and the suspension doesn’t absorb vibration. This has been tweaked a bit on almost every bottom plate I’ve cut.

On top of that, I’ve also redesigned the bottom plate to make it more rigid. Of course, my two Kestrels use old bottom plates. My tabs aren’t quite the right size, and my bottom plate is much less rigid.

I noticed that my 4” Kestrel’s fuselage can be twisted quite easily. I figured my less-rigid bottom plate was weakening in all my crashes, and it probably is, but I also learned that the McMaster-Carr grommets get soft and deformed over time. I swapped some new grommets in, and that helped a lot.

The Business End of the Kestrel Frame

It is still looser than I would like.

Here’s the bummer. I swapped out the grommets and swapped from 4” to 3.5” props at the same time. Did the stiffer grommets correct the problem? Are my 3.5” props just a little unbalanced? They have to be a little out of balance, right?

I’m due to cut myself some up to date bottom plates. I’m just not looking forward to disassembling the entire Kestrel to replace one plate!

9 months flying HD micro freestyle quads

In many parts of the world, there’s a 250-gram weight limit on model aircraft. I’m not too worried about this today, but it sure seems like the same sort of rule will be coming here, too. I think it is prudent to be testing the waters.

I also love the idea of having a hold-my-beer quad. When I’m flying my 3” Kestrel, I can record HD footage, and everything in the air costs around $250. That’s including the battery. That’s somewhere between the cost of a GoPro HERO5 Session and a HERO7 Black.

Sure, the quality isn’t nearly as good as a GoPro, but I also won’t feel as bad when my Kestrel gets stuck on a roof or sinks to the bottom of the ocean.

That seems to be the only time I would really want to fly one of my 3” or 4” micros. My 5” Falcon freestyle quad flies better, records better footage, and I’m rarely worried about the possibility of losing the whole thing.

On the other end of the spectrum, if the spot that I’m flying isn’t a good fit for my 5” freestyle miniquad, I’m probably not going to fly a 3” either. There’s a much better chance that I’ll be monkeying around with my minuscule EMAX TinyHawk Freestyle if there’s likely to be people or delicate property nearby.

I keep saying that things are constantly improving. By the time the United States has a 250-gram weight limit, maybe the successor to the Caddx Tarsier will be as good as my GoPro Session. I’m sure Betaflight will continue to improve. Motor and prop selection for micros will only get better.

Until that time, my 3” and 4” Kestrels will be relegated to occasional flying.

Is the rubber suspension required? Is it even helpful?

This is the real question. I decided to use the Acrobrat-style suspension on the Kestrel, because it sounds like an excellent idea. Does it really help?

My honest answer has to be that I have absolutely no idea! Maybe there should be a 3” and 4” version of my open-source Falcon frame? That would be a good way to test the effectiveness of the suspension.

The Kestrel's Suspension

I hope that the suspension is helpful. Maybe a fresh build with brand new props doesn’t need the rubber bushings at all, but what happens when you bump a tree? Will the bushings save your footage?

If the bushings would save my footage after some slight prop damage, they’d be worth the additional hassle!

Hardware problems in my 3” and 4” Kestrels

I broke my 3” Kestrel a long time ago. I got stuck in a tree, and had to use turtle mode quite a lot to wiggle it loose. It was stuck quite well, then it fell down a few branches, and got stuck again, and then a third time. When it finally hit the ground, the Caddx Turtle was dead. It wasn’t dead when I started my attempt to recover the poor thing.

It hasn’t flown quite right ever since. It’ll fly OK if I add a ton of filtering, so I haven’t made the effort to fix it. The new revision of the Diatone stack is only $38, but I didn’t really want to take everything apart and resolder every connection!

Last week, an ESC on my 4” Kestrel failed. This is both a surprise and a bummer. I chose a relatively expensive and heavy ESC board for that build. I figured that an ESC that folks are using in 5” racing builds with 2207 motors ought to be bulletproof on my tiny 1606 motors. It wasn’t.

The smart, frugal thing to do would be to replace the ESC board with the little Diatone ESC. I’m not going to do that.

I ordered a pair of Diatone Mamba stacks, and I’m going solder them into both my Kestrels next week. Sure, the Diatone F4 flight controller is a downgrade from the F7 board that is currently in the 4” Kestrel, but I like the idea of them running the same inexpensive hardware.

I’d like to be able to point to either of them and say that you could build either for around $250 or less!

I’ll use this repair opportunity as an excuse to cut new bottom plates for my Kestrels. I have the oldest prototype plates in mine, and they have extra material cut out to make them lighter. That also makes them quite a bit softer. It is time to bring my own builds up to match everyone else’s!

Conclusion

I’ve used quite a lot of words just to explain that I’m excited about trying 3.5” props. That’s really all I’m here to say today. I’m excited about 3.5” props, but I don’t have much solid data to give you at this point. I’ll fly some more over the next week or two, and we’ll see what I find out!

What do you think? Have you tried 3.5” props? Are you flying 3” or 4” props? Do you think splitting the difference is interesting? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

Slow USB Flash Drives Are All Right As Long As They Are Cheap

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I’ve been doing my best to post quality deals over at Butter, What?!, and several of those deals have been extremely cheap USB flash drives and microSD cards made by Silicon Power. After posting those deals, I noticed that a few of the folks over at /r/buildapcsales are really upset about Silicon Power’s USB flash drives.

As stated on their listing on Amazon, these flash drives have a USB 3 interface. However, the product listing also states that the drives only manage read speeds of 70 megabytes per second and write speeds of a measly 5 megabytes per second.

Presumably, this is because Silicon Power is using old, cheap flash chips. I ordered a pair of the 64 GB drives for $9.99. My tests showed 40 megabytes per second on reads and 19 megabytes per second on writes. That is a good bit faster than USB 2, so these drives are benefiting from the USB 3 interface. They just aren’t benefiting all that much.

Slow drives are just fine, especially when they’re cheap!

When I was young, we used to trade 5.25” floppy disks with our friends. They might bring a save game over to our house, or I might send them home with a copy of the game I just bought. The polite thing to do is bring your own floppies, right?

That didn’t always work out. I was often scrounging around the house for an old, dilapidated floppy disk that could be sacrificed. You didn’t want to waste one of your good disks on an inconsiderate friend!

Skip ahead 10 or 15 years, and we’d be talking about CD-R discs instead of floppies. Skip another 10 years to today, and we’re talking about USB flash drives.

If I discover that I need to send you home with two seasons of a TV show that you just can’t stream from anywhere, I’m going to throw it on a USB flash drive.

You don’t have a USB flash drive with you?! That’s just fine. I’m going to throw it on one of my slow $5 drives. If you forget to return the drive, it is no big deal.

What else do we use flash drives for?

I use mine for small, occasional backups. Sure, most of my backups are stored in the cloud, but there are a few things that I like to keep on hand locally. Specifically, I store a backup of my Bitwarden password vault, my ssh keys, and my GnuPG keys on a flash drive. Slow is fine for this, because the data is so tiny.

Every once in a while, I need to create a bootable USB flash drive. Most of those times, I’m only copying about 700 megabytes onto the flash drive. Even on a slow drive, that will only take a minute or two.

What would I use a fast, expensive USB flash drive for?

I’m struggling to come up with a use case. I don’t even own any fast flash drives. The arrival of Dropbox and similar services probably put the last nails in the USB flash drives’ coffin for me. Why run around with data in your pocket? All my data magically shows up on every computer I own automatically.

Maybe you haven’t caught up to the rest of us. Maybe you’re still manually copying files around and running them from one place to another. I’d rather see you get on board with the convenience and simplicity of file sync than see you buying lots of fast USB flash drives!

The Silicon Power 128 GB USB flash drive made me sad

They aren’t the only manufacturer that I should be picking on. I’ve posted a deal on a slow Kingston drive in the past, too. However, there’s a Silicon Power flash drive that I really want to pick on, though.

Their 128 GB USB 3 flash drive was on sale for $9.99 with free Prime shipping. That’s about as good of a deal as the 2-pack of 64 GB drives from the week before. I almost posted it on Butter, What?!

I couldn’t find anything in the product description about actual transfer rates. There’s a bunch of talk about the huge speeds of the USB 3.0 bus. They might even be implying that their drive is going to make good use of those speeds. There’s no mentions of tested, real-world transfer rates.

There are plenty of customer reviews talking about how slow these drives are.

This is disappointing. I’m happy to buy something that is slow, as long as you tell me about it up front, and the price is right.

In this case, the price is right, but the advertising is deceptive. I don’t like that.

Conclusion

I’m going to keep posting these sorts of USB flash drive sales to Butter, What?!, but only if the product descriptions are honest. I can’t keep buying them, though. I believe I’ve bought every flash and microSD deal I’ve posted so far. I’ll probably buy one more pair of cheap USB flash drives, then I’ll have to stop for a while. My collection is getting too big!

What do you think? Do you agree with me that cheap, slow flash drives are a good value? Do you prefer faster drives? What are you doing with them? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!

I Competed In My First Drone Race!

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We have an active and awesome MultiGP chapter here in Dallas, and their field is just a 25-minute drive from my house. I’ve been invited out to their races before, but I never managed to make it out. I know from the days when I used to occasionally take my car out to the local drag strips that organized racing isn’t really my cup of tea.

A few weeks ago, Brian and I drove across town to go flying with Alex Vanover. He convinced us that we should go out to Carrollton for some drone racing. I went out that Friday to spectate, and I decided I should give it a try, so I signed up to race the next week.

Even just spectating was fun

I got to see some fast racing quads, and I had the opportunity to meet some cool people. We told some folks about our favorite, secluded flying spot here in our neighborhood, and we had three or four new friends show up for some freestyle flying with us the next day. That was awesome!

The fine folks at Dallas Drone Racing had a couple of televisions set up along with a projector. The screens were all showing a grid of FPV feeds, so even if you don’t have your own equipment, you can still see what the pilots are seeing.

I brought my Fat Shark goggles. They gave me a better view of the action, but they definitely weren’t required.

I’ve always avoided racing, because I dislike all the organization that is required. You’re always waiting for your turn. Everyone flies in a certain order. When your next turn comes up, you had better be ready; you can’t just let someone go ahead of you and just take the next spot.

Half of the participants were just there to have some fun flying and hang out with their friends. They’re doing exactly what my friends and I do when we fly at a park, except they get called up to run a few laps every once in a while. It’s not that much different than what I’m already doing!

Racing isn’t quite like I expected!

In the past, my friends and I have set up children’s soccer goals with the nets cut out and used them as drone racing gates. They’re not much higher than your waist, and not all that much wider than they are tall. The MultiGP gates are huge. I bet you could drive a Miata through them.

My brain didn’t want to understand the scale of the track. Compared to the places where we usually fly freestyle, the entire track was tiny. Something about the length of the track combined with these big, honking gates just doesn’t compute for me.

I broke my first quad before finishing a lap!

There’s more than a little hyperbole in that statement, and it was totally my fault due to lack of testing. A few days before the race, I broke the Immortal T antenna on my favorite quad’s Crossfire Nano module; that poor thing has taken such a beating over the last 15 months!

When I got home that day, I replaced the antenna. I put the quad in one corner of the house, and I wandered around the house with my radio. I had perfect signal all throughout the house, so I figured I’d be in good shape. I figured wrong.

I bumped one of the inflatable gates during my first lap, and I fell out of the sky. I tried to use turtle mode to flip back over, but I just couldn’t arm the quad. I noticed that my link quality was reading 7. The antenna wasn’t the only problem with that Crossfire Nano!

No big deal. I had two more quads in my bag. It was just a bummer that I missed out on my first three practice laps.

I need way more practice

I knew my fingers were shaky the entire time. I didn’t think they were shaking as much as the first time I flew down in our little creek near the house, but listening to my GoPro footage makes me think otherwise. I wonder how many times I’d have to go out racing before that will stop?!

Speaking of GoPros, I’m pretty sure I was the only goofus flying a heavy freestyle quad with smooth, gentle freestyle props, and carrying a GoPro. I was also the only pilot with GPS. The best I managed was 57 MPH on the long straight through the finish line. I’m curious how fast the really fast pilots were going!

The gates are big, and once I got used to the scale of the track, they weren’t too hard to hit. The problem I had was with puzzling out which gate to aim for next. There were two parts of the track that I miscalculated almost every time.

At one of the two-story gates, you were supposed to go through the top part, S-turn and reverse through the bottom, then do about a 180-degree turn to the right to line up for the next gate. My eye liked to catch one of the inflatable flags, and I would accidentally aim for that flag instead of the gate.

I had a similar problem at one of the other double-decker gates. By the time I realized my mistake, I’d be way out of line for hitting the next gate. That isn’t so bad, because I could still manage to make it through the right gate. The problem is that the weird line I was on would leave me going in mostly the wrong angle when coming out of that next gate.

I did better and worse than I expected

That first night when I went out to spectate, I formulated some opinions. It looked like those big gates would be easy to fly through, and I anticipated that I would be able to compete with 1/3 to ½ of the pilots that I saw flying that night.

The gates were easy to hit, though I did bump into more than my fair share. The race I competed in was the final race of the Mission Food series, and I get the feeling that things were a little more competitive than the race I spectated. I think the course was a little meaner, too.

I had several laps around 45 or 46 seconds, and my best lap was just over 42 seconds. I had some laps at just over 60 seconds even when I crashed and had to flip back over. The lap timer failed to call out my times pretty often, too.

I even did better than I thought!

I was going to tell you that I failed to string together three of those 45-second laps into a single race, but I’ve learned that that isn’t even true!

On my final race, the robot that announces lap times read out 1:36 for my first lap. I remember thinking that this sounded awfully high, but I just pushed ahead. I crashed on my last lap, and I bent a prop badly enough that I couldn’t take off.

As it so happens, that lap reading was incorrect. According to my GoPro footage, I did complete three laps at 0:48, 0:45, and 0:42. I crashed on my fourth lap. That’s the lap I wasn’t supposed to be taking!

I’m much more proud of this run than I thought I was!

Just because I was finished doesn’t mean everyone else was done!

I got knocked out rather quickly. I believe I got to squeeze in three practice runs that should have been about three laps each. When I moved on to the heat I was actually competing in, I didn’t really fly any differently. As far as I was concerned, I was still practicing!

There was plenty of racing to watch after I got knocked out of the competition, and it seemed like every race was over faster than the one before.

Would I do it again?

Sure! I don’t think I’d want to race every week, but it’d definitely be fun to do on occasion. Drone racing is something I should get better at. I’m certain that if I were a better racer, then I would also be a better freestyle pilot.

I’d definitely be willing to go out to spectate more often. There are a lot interesting and friendly people at the local drone races. It is fun to see what sort of quads they’re flying, what sort of hardware they choose, and just generally see what they’re all up to!

Conclusion

If you’re flying FPV, you should find your local MultiGP chapter and stop by to see what they’re up to! I had a lot of fun, they’re a great community, and there’s a lot to learn from them, especially if you’re new to the hobby!

Are you already participating in drone races? How do you think I did on my first time out? Are you an FPV pilot somewhere in the vicinity of Dallas, TX? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it. Rarely a week goes by that we don’t organize a small flying meet-up in Discord. Maybe you’d want to join us?!

Spending an Afternoon Flying with Alex Vanover

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We had an awesome and extremely interesting experience this week. Brian and I got to spend an afternoon flying miniquads with one of the fastest FPV drone racing pilots in the world.

How this came about was rather curious. It was my birthday a few months ago, and I can only imagine that I’m quite difficult to shop for. I’m one of those terrible people that immediately buys just about everything I really want.

My Falcon Frame

We already knew that Alex Vanover lived somewhere nearby. Brian’s wife, Julia, noticed that he had an hourly rate listed somewhere on the Internet. I guess that you could pay Alex to work on your broken miniquads. For all we know, he posted this information a few years ago and completely forgot about it.

Julia told him that we didn’t need anyone to work on our quads. She just wanted to know if she could hire him to fly with us. I have absolutely no idea how that conversation went, but a couple of months later, Brian and I found ourselves in the car driving out to a small airstrip on the other side of the metroplex to meet up with Alex Vanover.

Meeting Alex Vanover

The Dallas/Fort Worth metro area is rather large. Brian and I left Plano at around 2:00 p.m., and we headed west. About 30 minutes into our journey, we were nearly driving through our old neighborhood in Irving, where we lived nearly 20 years ago. About ten minutes later, and it felt like we were leaving civilization.

After another 15 minutes passed, we were making our way slowly through the roadways surrounding a small airstrip. Google Maps had us off course by one street. We could see Alex just off in the distance. He was carrying a big racing flag out to the end of the field; we could see he was in the middle of setting up his practice track.

Vanover is an interesting guy. He’s 19. He’s an amazing freestyle pilot. He lives in a hangar at an airport. We were standing next to the field where he put in most of his huge number of hours of practice that made him into one of the fastest drone racing pilots in the world. How cool is that?!

We introduced ourselves, and Alex asked what sort of flying we wanted to do. We quickly decided to drive to a nearby park for some freestyle flying.

I have to wonder what Alex was expecting

I’ve seen videos of drone racing. I’ve seen what the DRL tracks look like. I’ve never actually attended an actual drone race.

I assumed Alex would be expecting us to be hardcore drone racing fans. At worst, I figured he’d expect us to act like my mother would when she ran into the local TV weatherman. You wouldn’t have wanted to be that weatherman!

Later, I gathered that he expected us to have quads that flew poorly. It sounds like that’s fairly common, and I bet it is more likely to be the case when someone is actively looking for help.

I’m not good at PID or filter tuning. If I have a machine that is flying all sorts of wrong, the best I can do is take guesses to try to get it flying better. I do understand the settings well enough that I can take a quad that is flying OK and make it fly a little better, though.

What did we actually do?!

The three of us sat at a picnic table, we took turns flying, and we talked a lot. This is pretty much what I do every time I go flying with friends. Why should it be any different when hanging out with a professional?

The first thing Alex took up with his 5” racing build. He flew it using one of my brand new 1,000 mAh 6S packs. He told me that he’d feel bad if he smoked my brand new battery, but I told him to do his worst. I got these oddly shaped batteries on sale for $18 each last week. Killing one wouldn’t be a big loss, right?!

Watching ridiculously fast racing footage on YouTube is one thing. Seeing a professional racing pilot blast around under the trees at full throttle less than 10 feet away from you is a very different experience! If I were smart, I would have at least gotten DVR footage of that run. Unfortunately, I’m not that smart.

He discharged my battery in less than 2 minutes, and it was a ton of fun to watch. The difference between my casual flying and the flying of a pilot that runs through 100 batteries a day while practicing is nothing short of astonishing.

I think I flew three batteries. I’m pretty sure Brian only flew one, but it was the most impressive contiguous five minutes of flying I’ve ever seen him do. Alex put a few batteries through a DRL Racer 4, and he put one battery through my Falcon build.

That last part had to be my favorite. Watching a skilled freestyle pilot do things that I simply can’t do using my own machine was awesome. Not only was he flying the quad that I fly every day, but Alex was flying a frame that I designed.

Alex had nice things to say about my quad, my frame, and my tune. I even have some of the kind words on video! I wouldn’t feel right publishing any of that video. It is just the tail end of flight footage on the GoPro. I don’t know that either of us realized any of the words would have wound up on a recording.

I don’t want the world to get the mistaken impression that my open-source frame is awesome just because Vanover said nice things to me about it, especially when neither of us realized he was still on camera.

That said, it was nice to hear praise from a professional.

I need to fly with better pilots more often

This is the most important lesson I learned while flying with Alex Vanover. He didn’t explicitly give me this advice. He’s only seen me fly one afternoon. For all he knows, that’s exactly the way I fly every day.

It isn’t. I know I pushed myself a little harder. Sure, I did the same boring thing I do every time I fly at a new park. I spent most of my time doing split-S maneuvers over all the trees. It is an easy, safe move.

Who am I kidding? I do the same thing at the abandoned golf course where I fly every single week!

There was a particular cluster of trees Alex showed us while he was flying the DRL Racer 4. There’s a rather large and mostly vertical gap in the center of the cluster. I explored the gap, then I did a tall power loop over those trees. I wasn’t lined up, so I aborted.

Vanover said, “Ah! It looked like you were going to go for the gap!”

I don’t think I have the skill to have lined up the gap from that angle, but I did go right back in and try again. I would have taken another pass at it even if Alex hadn’t egged me on. I lined up the power loop again, dropped down through the gap, and I smashed directly into the base of the largest tree trunk on my way out!

It was no big deal. My battery got ejected, I broke the hub of an Ethix S4 prop, and broke the tip of another prop. I replaced the props, loaded a fresh battery, and I tried again. That attempt went much more smoothly.

I was definitely more aggressive than I would normally be at a brand new park, but I was also being cautious. I like the title of this blog post. Can you imagine if I had to use the title Spending an Afternoon Getting My Quad Out of A Tree With Alex Vanover?

I would say Brian was similarly encouraged. You should check out his flight video, too.

You should book a flying session with Alex Vanover!

We asked if he’d like to do this sort of thing more often. We probably asked twice. If this was just a weird, one-time thing, I might not have even written about it.

Alex said that he would like to do this sort of thing again. I also know his schedule can be hectic. I don’t know exactly what he charges. This was a birthday present, so I’m not supposed to ask that sort of thing. I have a rough idea, though, and I don’t believe he charged us enough.

The most comparable event I can think of is Kwad Camp. I know how much Kwad Camp costs. Sure, Kwad Camp is a much longer event, and there are more pilots to talk to, but you’re also competing with more than a dozen other people for their time.

More importantly, those pilots aren’t Alex Vanover. Sure, the guys at Kwad Camp are great pilots, and they all seem like good people. They’re not racing on television. They’re not one of the fastest pilots in the world.

I have nothing but flight footage

I brought my Osmo Pocket, but I didn’t use it at all. I wanted to have a good time. I didn’t want to use the afternoon as a vlogging experience. Alex didn’t really sign up to be some sort of guest on my YouTube channel, and I wouldn’t even have wanted to ask him to.

I have no pictures, no videos, and no selfies.

I just wanted to have fun. Just like I do every time I go out flying with friends. We spent more time chatting than flying. Just like when I go flying with my friends.

After the flying session

After we were packed up and heading to the car, we invited Alex to grab some dinner with us. Brian and I had to eat on the way home anyway, and it would have been rude not to extend an invitation. I figured there was a 50/50 chance that he would decline the invitation.

On one hand, we probably already used up more time than he had been paid for. On the other hand, everyone has to eat.

There really wasn’t a lot of food close to the park. We wound up stopping at Wendy’s. I heard a rumor that you can get a Frosty there!

What do you do at dinner? You exchange stories. Brian and I mostly had stories that you probably wouldn’t care about, especially if you’re here to read about drone stuff. The only thing relevant to this blog that the two of us talked about were the quadcopter build classes we hosted at Plano’s Makerspace.

Alex had fun and relevant experiences to share with us. We learned more about Rotor Riot’s trip to Croatia. We got some behind-the-scenes information about how Alex lost his quad and GoPro while flying at the Game of Thrones castle. We got to hear some interesting stories about DRL. Now that I’ve met a DRL pilot, I’m going to have to tune in to see what it is all about!

Alex invited us out to come check out the Mission Foods drone race in Carrollton tomorrow night. I plan to attend, but I’m worried that it is going to get rained out!

Wrapping up the day

We took the ten-minute drive back to Alex’s hangar. On the way back, we chatted about the weather; it seemed like quite a mild day for Texas sitting in our spot in the shade. We talked about growing up in Texas, what it is like living out of the way at an airport, train derailments, and our almost complete lack of abandoned buildings to fly at around Dallas.

While driving past the runway, I pointed while wondering why the end of the roof straight off somebody’s porch was sitting next to the runway. Alex was kind enough to explain to me that the tetrahedron was a wind indicator.

We drove past Vanover’s practice track and pulled into his driveway. We had three identical ThinkTank backpacks in the car, so we had to make sure Alex didn’t take the wrong one; I’m not sure which one of us would be more disappointed if that happened!

I fished out one of my prop tools to leave behind with him, we exchanged pleasantries, and before I knew it, Brian and I were driving away.

Conclusion

Alex is an interesting guy. I would say that he’s almost exactly what I expected. He’s friendly, knowledgeable, and polite. He’s very excited about what he’s doing, and that’s always fun to see. He’s had some awesome experiences, and he’s only at the very beginning of his journey.

If you’re thinking about hiring Alex to fly with you, to help you with your miniquad hardware, or to have him help you become a better pilot, I would highly encourage you to do so!

My Thoughts on Open-Source Hardware

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I happened to watch Thomas Sanladerer’s video about designing a replacement part for his MPCNC build. I can’t stop thinking about it.

This situation is fascinating to me. A lot of the discussion floating around the Internet about this seems to involve the motives of one or both parties. That’s interesting, too, but I want to steer clear of that side of things.

I have my own open-source hardware designs. I’ve thought about having some of them manufactured. I’ve put a bit of thought into the licensing, and what that licensing protects me from and allows end users to do. I’ve also put some thought into the viability of marketing my potential products.

Your copyright and license protect your design, but not your hardware

If you’re Apple or Ferrari, this isn’t quite the truth. They have huge budgets and top-notch legal teams.

You, me, Thomas Sanladerer, and Ryan at V1 Engineering don’t have this luxury. I doubt any of us could afford to fight in court over these minor details. For us, the copyright protects our designs but not the hardware.

If I feel that the shape of the fuselage of my Kestrel is an important part of my marketing, I had better have filed for a trademark. If you decide to cut something similar, I won’t have the power to stop you.

Even if you are cutting the carbon fiber using my open-source CAD files, I don’t believe I would be able to stop you from selling what you have manufactured. I don’t believe that the copyright of my CAD files could be applied to the product that’s been cut by your CNC machine.

You don’t need our CAD files to copy our designs

With my quadcopter frames, all you need to do is buy one frame and drop the physical parts onto a flatbed scanner. You don’t need my design files at all.

My 3-inch Kestrel

Even if you did need to redesign the parts manually, that isn’t a gargantuan task. If Thomas Sanladerer can create a parametric part that is compatible with the MPCNC in a few hours, then maybe the design isn’t really all that valuable.

We aren’t entitled to profits

I would love to have my breadboard vise manufactured. It is a 5-hour 3D-printing job, so to sell them, I have to charge quite a lot for 25 cents worth of plastic. You shouldn’t buy one from me. You should print your own!

I’m excited about my 5” freestyle miniquad frame, but I don’t think I’ll try to have it manufactured. Sure, it is precisely the frame that I want to fly, but it just uses my favorite ideas from a bunch of existing frames. You should just buy one of those.

I think my 3” Kestrel frame is unique enough, but I don’t think the market is big enough to justify the effort and investment of acquiring inventory. I’ve seen how big the third largest FPV quadcopter store in America is, and it isn’t big at all. Micro quads are currently a niche within a niche, and I’ve heard a bit about the volume of electronics being sold for custom 3” builds, and it seems to be quite low.

Even if I had locked up all this intellectual property of mine as tightly as I could, I don’t think I’d be making any serious money with any of this stuff.

You aren’t entitled to our designs

I think everyone is already aware of this, but I still think it is important to bring it up.

When I started my journey into the world of CNC, I quickly learned how much different the CNC community is compared to the 3D printing community. Open-source is everywhere in the 3D printing world; most of the best slicers, models, and 3D printer designs are open-source.

Open source CAM software for CNC machines is light-years behind open source slicers. When you search for beginner CNC projects, half the search results are people asking how to make money with their machine. The landscape is just so very different!

Low-cost alternative suppliers may help you make money

Twenty years ago, everyone was stealing copies of Microsoft Office and Windows. Microsoft had no interest in stopping you. Every home user of Office was another advocate for the use of Office at the workplace, and businesses did pay. It was only in recent history that Microsoft really started clamping down on this sort of piracy.

The Arduino is another example. You can buy a genuine Arduino Uno for $22 plus shipping. You can buy a more advanced Arduino Leonardo clone with free 2-day shipping from Amazon for $9.99. You can order similar boards straight from China for half that price.

There are plenty of people willing to pay the extra $12 to $15 to support the original. The people that buy the clones for $5 to $10 are still helping to grow the size of the Arduino ecosystem. Everyone wins.

Would Arduino be making more money if they didn’t open-source their design and software, and if they kept the cloning at bay? The number of projects using an Arduino would be smaller, for sure. Maybe they’d be doing OK, but I doubt it.

Would you rather take 100% of the profits from a small project, or 20% of the profits from a huge project?

Open-source hardware can reassure your customers

I’m just a guy cutting carbon fiber in his garage. If I do decide to have my Kestrel frames manufactured for me, and you decide to fly my frame, how do you know replacement parts will be available a year from now? My product may be a flop, and I can never have a second batch produced. Maybe I’ll go bankrupt. Maybe I’ll get hit by a bus. Anything can happen.

I want my customers to know that they can produce their own replacement parts if need be. If I go bankrupt, maybe another company will step in to fill the void. Maybe my customers could have a friend cut some carbon fiber for them. Maybe they’ll order parts from CNC Madness using my CAD files.

The Arduino enjoys a similar advantage.

What about the MPCNC?

I like the MPCNC project, but it isn’t for me. If V1 Engineering had an account at Patreon, I would subscribe without hesitation, but I have no interest in buying their product or building this machine.

The kit looks tempting at only $275. The recommended spindles are much smaller than what I run on my Shapeoko. The two recommendations are priced at either $53 or $109 at Amazon. You’ll need to source $12 worth of conduit, and you’ll need to run about $30 worth of filament through your 3D printer.

V1 Engineering sells the 3D-printed parts for $135, and I think that’s a great value. The time and effort to print your own parts isn’t inconsequential, not to mention the potential reprinting of failed parts. I would definitely spend the extra $100 or so to have that work done for me.

That’s under $550 for a machine that is roughly comparable in size to a $1,680 Shapeoko XL. I’d even be willing to bet that the MPCNC could handle almost every cutting job I’ve attempted on my Shapeoko XXL.

That said, the MPCNC won’t begin to approach the rigidity or power of my Shapeoko XXL. They’re different machines for different jobs at different price points.

MPCNC STL file licensing

The STL files for the MPCNC are licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. As with many open-source licenses, this means that any changes you make to these STL files must also be released under the same license. You’re also not allowed to profit from the sale of those STL files.

Whether you’re allowed to sell the parts you print using the STL files could probably be argued either way. I don’t really want to touch on that part of the discussion.

What I do find interesting is that this license cuts both ways. If anyone published an improvement to the MPCNC STL files, and V1 Engineering wants to integrate those changes, then V1 Engineering has to follow the license as well. V1 Engineering doesn’t own the copyright to those new changes, so they can’t sell those changes, either. They’d have to obtain permission from the copyright holder of those new changes.

I don’t know how this is being handled today, but I could see this creating a schism at some point in the future.

Conclusion

I hope I wasn’t too hard or too easy on either Ryan at V1 Engineering or Thomas Sanladerer. I wanted to explain the research I’ve done and the thoughts I’ve had regarding open-source hardware over the four years since I published my breadboard vise to Thingiverse.

What do you think? Do you prefer to use open source hardware? Have you published any of your open hardware projects to the world? Do you have a project I should know about? Let me know in the comments, or stop by the Butter, What?! Discord server to chat with me about it!