You may have seen drone racing on ESPN – it is awesome. If you have seen a skilled racer or freestyle acro pilot in person then you really know just how fast these drones can fly. The speed that they dart through and around obstacles is thrilling. The reflexes and timing that the pilots have seem almost unnatural.
The good news is that drone racing is not out of reach for you. If you want to experience the adrenaline of being in the cockpit of one of those quads then you need to know where to start. You came to the right place. We will walk you through 4 steps that you should follow. If you’ve already picked out your quad then you’ll need to read this article.
Phase 1: Your First Drone. Surprise! It’s not a racing drone.
Phase 2: Add a Camera. After mastering the controls it’s time to fly FPV
Phase 3: Brushless Motors and Acro. Learning how to fly in “acro” mode with a spunky drone is the next step.
Phase 4: More Power. We’ve got a great option for your first real racer.
Drone racing can be an intimidating sport. There is a lot of strange jargon that you may not understand. You can learn more about that here, but let’s start with the basics. You’ll need a drone.
Phase 1: Your First Drone
No, your first drone will not be the supercharged racer that you saw on TV. You want a sub $30 quad to learn the basic drone controls before you dive into the sometimes complex art of building and tuning a real racing drone. There are two excellent options we’d recommend, and both are affordable, durable and fun.
1. Eachine E011. This is the latest “Tiny Whoop” out of China and it is by far the best available because of its flight time, durable frame, and powerful 7-millimeter diameter motors, not to mention you can pick one up for about $20. Click here to pick one up.
2. Hubsan X4. The Hubsan X4 series has been around forever. These drones are a favorite of beginner pilots and will set you back about $30. Click here to pick one up.
Both of these little quads are fun, faster than most toy drones, and durable. The bigger they are the harder they fall, which means these small, lightweight guys can take some abuse. You’ll want to pick up some extra props and batteries to extend your flight time. The E011 is great for flying indoors and in close quarters. The Hubsan X4 might do a little better outdoors in light wind. Either drone is a good place to start.
Phase 2: Add a Camera
Once you’ve figured out the basics of flying your quad, you’ll want to learn how to fly FPV (first person view). When flying FPV you are now locked into the cockpit of your quad. You see what it sees. When it crashes you crash. It is like a real life video game. The good news is that you can build from the little drones you already have for this phase. To modify your first drone you’ll need two things.
1. FPV Camera with a Transmitter. These inexpensive cameras can run off of the same 3.7 volt battery that powers your drone. Pick one up here.
2. FPV Goggles. There are inexpensive goggles available and they are the best way to experience FPV. Check out the VR D2.
There are countless options available for cameras, this is one we can recommend. We go into detail on which goggles are best here, but we’d recommend the Eachine VR D2 as your first set of goggles. There are better ones and even cheaper ones, but the VR D2 goggles are a good place to start. By avoiding the cheapest set you will avoid needing to upgrade later when you get a longer range drone. If you really want to start with a primo set of goggles then get a pair of Fat Sharks.
You’ll have to solder the camera to your X4 or E011. We recommend using a connector instead of soldering directly to the drone’s board. This way, if you damage your camera you can more easily replace it. DIY and soldering may sound intimidating, but with a little practice, it isn’t too bad. YouTube is there to help if you have questions.
There are other options available if DIY isn’t your thing. Pick up an Eachine QX90c quadcopter. It’s a cut above the E011 and X4 and already has the FPV camera. Once you have learned to fly FPV then you are ready for Phase 3. Learn more about the QX90c.
If you are new to DIY we recommend you pick up these essentials for this project.
Phase 3: Brushless Motors and Acro
Now you can zip your little quad around the house with goggles on and pester your housepets. That means you are ready for the next step, brushless motors. Brushless motors are more powerful and efficient than the little brushed motors found in the E011, X4 and QX90. They also won’t burn out like brushed motors sometimes do. The power of a brushless motor is addicting. Once you go brushless, you won’t go back. There are a few good brushless quads out there that we like. The KingKong 90GT is a good choice, but we really like the DYS Elf. It has a compact design and is ready-to-fly. It comes with its own transmitter, so you won’t have to worry about binding it (which can sometimes be a huge pain.) Pick up an Elf here.
Up until now you’ve been flying your quads in what’s called “angle” mode. The pros fly in what is called “rate” or “acro” mode. You’ll need a drone like the Elf to be able to do both. Rate mode allows for more freedom and maneuverability of the quad. Angle mode limits the tilt and pitch of the quad, while rate mode gives you access to the full range of the drone’s capabilities. It will take some practice to pick it up, but it’s worth the effort. After you’ve got a taste of acro and you can do a trick or two you’ll want something with more power…
Phase 4: More Power
The micro brushless quads are fun, but they aren’t the real thing. If you’ve come this far you will no doubt want more. A real racer is a thrill like no other. We haven’t discussed CleanFlight, BetaFlight, or tuning yet, but you can tune both the Elf and QX90 and start learning how the settings affect drone performance. No amount of tuning will compare to a full 250 racer running on a 4S battery.
If you are not comfortable building your own racer there is one good option we’ve come across that can still give you the real racer experience. Paul from DronesGator has a great build tutorial. Check that out here.
The DYS XDR220 is a ready-made racer. Force1 has even put together an all-in-one FPV package with goggles, remote transmitter and balance charger to go along with the XDR220. This thing is FAST. We even took it to local drone racer Francis Dominise to evaluate it. He was impressed by how well it flew. You will have to do some setup and tuning, but now that you are in Phase 4 it is something you’ll have to learn how to do anyway. You can learn more about how to do that here.
Once you’ve mastered the XDR220, your next option is to start building. The options are unlimited and you can customize your quad to meet your needs. The sky’s the limit.
Whether you plan on entering a local competition or not, flying FPV is an experience unlike any other. If you are still a little hazy on flying FPV check out this article by the guys over at Propwashed. They’ve done a solid job of covering the nuts and bolts about how to go about getting started. Good luck and happy flying.
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