Drone racing is one of the most exciting sports to spring up in recent years. It doesn't seem to make much of an arena spectacle for an audience yet, but the video highlights are wild, and it's an awesome sport to participate in. Up until recently, it's been a bit of a geek's game, but ready-to-fly racing quadcopters are set to open things up to a whole new generation of pilots that don't have any interest in building their own aircraft. And this one's a doozy: Walkera's F210 3D arrives fully assembled, and it's crazy fast, super responsive, easy and fun to fly. It's also built like a brick ... outhouse, so it's ready to take all kinds of crash abuse. We've had one on deck for a week and Loz is starting to feel like he might get hooked on this thing.
Drone racing is an up and coming sport, and it's frickin' spectacular to watch. Unfortunately, it's still pretty much a boffin's game – most racers, even recreational ones, are building their own aircraft and spending far more time on the workbench than they do in the air. That's a fun part of the hobby if you're into it, but not everyone's got the passion, the skills or the time to build their own rig.
Some of us – probably lots of us – we just wanna fly, and we're happy to pay extra for something that's ready to go out of the box. That's who Walkera is targeting with its line of pre-assembled racing drones – including this little fella, the F210 3D.
A little history
I've flown Walkera gear before. After meeting some of the local quad racing guys (and the sport's first world champion) while filming our drone racing piece last year, I thought I'd dip my toe in the water and pick up a Walkera Runner 250R with a pair of FPV (first person view) goggles and a controller. The whole kit cost me a little over a thousand Aussie dollars at the time, and if I'm honest, the experience nearly turned me off racers altogether.
I found the Runner hard to fly; much quicker than anything I'd flown before, but poorly balanced, a little sluggish to respond, and hard to control. I felt like I was just a crap pilot, but the drone wasn't helping. If you went to less than 6 percent throttle, the rotors would stop mid-air and occasionally go into a "flip of death" – a common thing for the Runner according to the forums. Not cool. You could stop that from happening by trimming the throttle to about 6 percent, but then it wouldn't land properly, bouncing around all over the place.
And when it crashed, some of its poor design choices became visible. The plastic legs twisted, putting pressure directly onto circuit boards. The thin carbon structure cracked. The antennas were only designed to bend one way, and that wasn't always the way you dropped it. The GPS broke almost immediately (I should never have bothered getting GPS on a racer anyway) and any slight impact would send the battery flying out the back, or break the battery retainer at the front and send an express LiPo into the back of the camera. Again, not cool.
The Runner didn't fly that great, and it didn't crash that great, and after just a few hours in the air I more or less felt like racing quads were not for me. Walkera's first racing drone in a box was a great idea, but the execution left a lot to be desired.
Enter the F210 3D
When Gearbest offered us a demo of the new model F210 3D, I was a little apprehensive, but keen to check it out. And I'm glad I did; the F210 and the Runner feel like chalk and cheese.
Here's a few differences that are immediately apparent:
It's smaller, at 210 mm diagonally between the props instead of 250. At 370 grams, it's a little lighter than the 250R as well.
The carbon fiber body is thicker and tougher looking all over; some bits are up to 5 mm thick, and all the breakable bits look structurally isolated from the circuit boards this time. The antennas bend both ways, the transmitter blob is on a flexible mount that'll bend rather than break when it hits something, the battery's held into its cradle much better and can't fall out or fly forward and smash the camera, and the motors have chunky plastic guards. In short, it looks much better prepared to sprint headfirst into trees, walls and obstacles, and I don't care how good a pilot you are, your racing quad is going to do plenty of that.
The battery is a 4S instead of a 3S, feeding similar motors, which means they'll be capable of higher top speeds. Yikes, the Runner 250R feels wildly quick to start with for somebody like me who's used to DJI Phantoms and softer training drones like the Syma X5.
Like the Runner, the F210 is built to be as modular as possible. Stuff breaks when you're flying these things, and Walkera's intention is to make it as simple as possible to replace an arm, or a motor, or an ESC. All those jobs can easily be done with the included hex keys, with plug-in connections added so there's no no soldering to do.
The F210 is pretty much as close as it gets to ready to fly straight out of the box. Heck, you don't even need to wind your first set of props on, because the box is nicely kitted out with foam cutouts so you can carry your whole kit around with you, and it travels with the props on.
You do, however, need to do some stuffing about to bind the controller to the drone if you're using your own controller. In my case that was the Walkera Devolution DEVO-7 that came with the Runner, and here Walkera's manual support completely let me down. I followed the steps; the F210 just sat there beeping sadly at me, and it took me several hours of googling to find the solution. Here it is, because it's nowhere in the manual:
Binding the Walkera F210 to a DEVO-7 controller
Step 1: Flip the F210 over, you'll see a boat-shaped removable panel underneath. The circular hole in the middle, closest to the front - that gives you access to the reset switch.
Step 2: With the battery disconnected, stick a pin in that reset hole, press the button (you'll feel it click) and hold it in while you connect the battery terminal to turn it on. Hold that sucker down for about 5 more seconds, then release it, and the red light should start to flash quickly.
Step 3: Turn the drone off.
Step 4: Turn on your DEVO-7, go into the model menu and create a new profile for the F210. Turn off Fixed ID, that's important. Then turn the controller off.
Step 5: Turn the drone and the controller on at the same time.
Initial flight impressions
Wow. Night and day. The F210 is noticeably quicker than the Runner250, which in itself would be a recipe for disaster, but it also feels a lot more stable and quicker to respond to inputs.
Its chunky, nuggety shape seems to catch the wind less outdoors, leading to less drift when you're flying slowly. I know this because a lot of my flying is done slowly.
Where the Runner sapped my confidence, the F210 slowly builds it. The same throttle on the same controller feels smoother, more manageable, and more immediate. It's easier to keep a stable hover. Even though the turn rate is higher and the F210 tilts over a lot further on the right stick, it's so much more responsive to stick inputs that I'm immediately comfortable with much higher speeds. It makes me feel like a better pilot, and that's all I could hope for from one of these things.
Video transmission to my FPV goggles (Walkera's own Goggle2 system) isn't going to set the world on fire. Resolution is low – the camera is an analogue job that does 700 TVL, or roughly equivalent to a non-high-def TV. The Goggle2 system doesn't help, with a display resolution of 640x480 per eye.
Still, that's about what you get these days. There's digital HD transmitters available, and HD goggles as well, but they're prohibitively expensive at the moment. This standard def view works pretty well. For example, if I'm flying around on a football field, I can see pretty quickly if somebody starts walking their dog into the area. That's important, because these things drive dogs absolutely bonkers. And to complain about this resolution is to ignore the fact that right now, this is what the pro racers work with too.
The feeling of first person view flight in a set of goggles is absolutely transformative. You really feel like it's you that's up there swooping and carving through the air. My stomach lurches when the drone drops and I feel a little dizzy when we spin, but the world opens up beneath us as we rise, and the rush of speed is exhilarating as we flash from one side of the open oval to the other. You quickly start to get a sense of your momentum in three dimensions. It's glorious, it feels as free and magnificent as flight should.
I'm not sure how useful I find the on-screen display. The battery voltage and flight time are handy – a low battery beeper is useful if you're flying alone, but no good at all if you're flying in a room full of other quads. I feel like it should give you a battery percentage instead of a voltage, anyway, most people who don't want to go soldering drones together don't know what a voltage readout means. The rest of the stuff on the OSD – the artificial horizon, the pitch and roll angles, and some other voltage figure that seems to be irrelevant to anything – those are just distracting.
One thing conspicuously missing from the F210 is anywhere to stick an action camera. If you want to record your flights in HD, you're going to have to buy an aftermarket F210 camera mount or build it yourself.
Advanced flight modes
I'm far from an expert pilot. I'm very comfortable with big, slow, smooth camera drones, but these zippy little racers feel like a whole different ball game. The F210 offers a whole bunch of different flight modes I've been too timid to touch yet. I've been flying it in 2D stabilized mode, which snaps back to horizontal when you let go of the pitch/roll stick and limits your maximum tilt, but doesn't maintain altitude in a hover or stay in one place like a GPS-stabilized drone. The max tilt in this beginner mode lets you go harder than the Sport or advanced modes on most things I've flown.
There's an intermediate mode that's "partially stabilized," allowing you to lean the thing over as far as you like, to the point that it'll actually flip over. I'll give it a go soon. After that, there's 2D advanced mode, where there's no stabilization at all, so it won't snap back to level when you let go of the right stick. Everything needs to be managed manually. I've flown simulators in this mode. From what I can tell, trying it in real life at this point would be bad for the lawn.
There's then another two 3D modes that let you effectively run the throttle forwards or backwards. That's the one you'll need if you want to hover upside down, or accelerate toward the muddy Earth when gravity's not getting the job done quick enough. 3D flight requires a different set of props that work both ways, as well as a ton more skill than I've got at this juncture. Put it this way: if you want to cause me a lot of tears, sneak up and flick the switch to 3D full manual mode when I'm not looking. It won't be easy, the labels on the DEVO7's mode switches tell you pretty much nothing about what they do.
My overall impression is that the F210 is absolutely equipped to scale with your abilities, as well as inspiring confidence at the early steps. My plan is to put in some time getting to know this thing, explore some of the more advanced flight modes, get some skills together and go play with my local drone racing crew.
I don't know what sort of reception I'll get turning up with something I didn't build myself, though having met the guys, I'm pretty sure it'll be fine. I'm also pretty sure the F210 will be up to the job. Put it this way, it won't be the gear that's slowing me down.
I think this is a brilliant little quad. The idea of a racing drone straight out of the box makes this growing sport hugely accessible to a wider range of people, and I'm sure we'll be seeing a ton more in the coming months and years. It's not super pricey, unless you compare it to buying components and making one up yourself; you're up for just under US$300 for the quad itself – that's on discount at Gearbest. It's only an extra US$30 or so to pick up the DEVO7 controller as well in a bundle, and it does the job, even if it does feel a bit cheap and destructible. For goggles, you're up for around US$160 for Walkera's chunky Goggle4 setup, which will do the job. If you've got something better, go ahead and use that.
That and a few extra batteries and props is everything you need to get going in drone racing in a very competent, fast and tough little aircraft, without touching a soldering iron, for less than US$600. That's awesome. It suffers a little for its awful manuals, low-grade video signal and lack of video recording abilities, but it's an fantastic little beast to fly and a brilliant start to FPV flying. I can see myself getting hooked.