Review: PowerUp FPV drone looks good, on paper
In a world of remote-controlled toys, PowerUp stands out by reinvigorating the oft-forgotten pastime of folding and flying paper airplanes. Back in 2013, the company released its third-generation paper airplane conversion kit, which offered direct control via mobile devices in addition to longer flight times. Its latest, the PowerUp FPV, looks to double-down on the experience with the addition of dual propellers and an integrated video camera. We've recently spent time in the FPV's cockpit (beta version) to see how far these wings could spread.
The PowerUp FPV comes with everything a pilot would need, plus a little extra. In addition to the flying module, rechargeable battery, micro USB cable, carbon fiber cross rod (stabilizer bar), papers for folding planes, and spare parts, the FPV includes a nicely-built Google Cardboard viewer with elastic velcro strap and microfiber cloth. Those who become adept at flight and handling can choose to go for the true hands-free, first-person experience with the viewer. The strap feels a little tight for adult-sized heads – if you wear glasses, you'll definitely want to keep them off – but given the short period of flight time before having to recharge, it doesn't get a chance to become too uncomfortable.
The flying module's frame feels lightweight, sturdy, yet flexible. It's all one piece, so the only assembly involved with the PowerUp FPV is folding the paper planes. Moving parts to be careful with are the propellers and top-mounted camera, which manually rotates only 180 degrees in a clockwise motion (so you can aim it backwards).
The rear of the module's main body houses slots for the battery, microSD card (not included) for storing video recordings, and a USB port for recharging. The PowerUp FPV uses the same battery as Parrot does for its mini drones – it's worth noting that one needs to plug the USB cable in first, before inserting the battery, in order to charge.
Those experienced with constructing and tossing paper planes should have no problem getting the PowerUp FPV Invader template design folded in record time. But if you're new to the hobby, the company provides links to video tutorials on its website. The key points to remember are: precise creases, slightly-raised elevator tabs, and the fact that the plane must fly well enough on its own in order to succeed with the flying module. When everything is set, plastic clips on the bottom and back of the module hold the plane in place, and the cross bar attaches to help keep the wings from bending up. Then the rest is left up to the mobile app and open space to fly.
PowerUp FPV app (Android, beta)
We were given early access to the beta version of the PowerUp FPV app, which offers most of the features that would be intended for the final release. The app provides information for battery life and Wi-Fi signal strength in addition to flight controls and commands. Throttle (flight speed and altitude) and roll (banking/turning direction) are operated by sticky sliders on the left and right of the screen, respectively. While the throttle stays put upon release, the roll control recenters to zero as soon as you let go.
As long as the PowerUp FPV has a microSD card inserted, buttons at the bottom of the screen let you take still photos and stop/start the recording of video during flight (recording is supposed to start automatically in the final version of the app). There is also button that enables/disables a buzzer on the flight module, which makes finding a downed plane easier. And the most important one of all – launch – readies the plane so that it fires up the propellers as soon as it senses forward motion from being tossed.
Behind the overlay of controls on the screen is a live, cockpit view through the flying module's top-mounted camera. The video feed refreshes quickly enough, but not quite so that you're seeing everything happen exactly in real-time. It's modestly smooth, although it often stutters for a second or two before catching up.
But for such a tiny thing, the camera is surprisingly good and more than suitable for outdoor, daytime flights. A little bit of shade or too much direct sunlight leads to a reduction in color (a murky purpling) or starker contrast, which only matters if overall photo/video quality does. Otherwise, expect to be able to capture some fantastically fun shots while flying above people's heads.
PowerUp plans to have more features available in the retail/production version of the FPV mobile app, including settings, adjustments, and personalization options. Otherwise, the beta version was mostly enough to get a soaring, hands-on feel of a propeller-powered paper airplane. The one notable feature we really wanted to have working with the beta version was "Abort," which is supposed to automatically send the PowerUp FPV into a controlled downward spiral for a proper landing.
Flight & control performance
Make sure you have plenty of room (the recommended open flying space should be 200+ ft in diameter) and expect to learn through some crashing at the beginning. Both the flying module and paper airplane hold up well, even against some seriously abrupt landings –read directly into a tree.
The replaceable front nose of the PowerUp FPV absorbs the brunt of most hits, and the plane itself ends up pushed back instead of suffering a crumpled tip. And all you need to do is snug it back together again so it's ready for another toss. The included paper templates can see a lot of action (unless you're accidentally clipping wings on objects) before you'd have to fold a new one: grass landings, street landings, dirt landings, stuck in trees, striking obstacles, etc.
Through all the playtime and testing we performed, the Power Up FPV's built-in sensors consistently cut the engines upon landing/impact in order to preserve the integrity of the propellers. Versus some palm-sized quadcopters, such as the Aerix Drones Vidius VR, it's kind of nice not having to chase down projected parts every other landing or "landing." While the PowerUp FPV propellers have collected some nicks over several flight hours, it hasn't been to the point of impairment and/or requiring replacement (yet).
When it comes to launching the PowerUp FPV into the air, the toss really counts. Similar to throwing a dart, you'll need to maintain a straight, smooth, and steady hand. Otherwise, the plane can wobble/dip and nose into the ground well before being able to gain enough altitude to fly. But once up in the air, the PowerUp FPV isn't too hard to manage, so long as you're paying attention to where your fingers are on the controls. Thankfully, the built-in sensors seem to work well to automatically compensate from being nudged by breezes. Although it makes for a far bumpier experience, it's preferred over having the plane veer into a sharp dive.
Despite the overall toughness and smarts of the PowerUp FPV, we have mixed emotions concerning the flight control, part of which can likely be attributed to this being the beta version of the app. We're hoping that the final version will work out all the details. The throttle is responsive and manageable without having to look at the smartphone. The PowerUp FPV flies fast enough, needing only minor adjustments to keep it at the desired altitude. However, the same can't quite be said about the plane's ability to roll (banking/direction).
Once a thumb slides too far off the area designed for roll control, the roll direction snaps back to the center. This leads to having to look down at the smartphone carefully in order to maintain a turn – you pretty much have to hold that position in order for the PowerUp FPV to circle above. Otherwise, the plane will end up flying in a straight line until it's out of communication range, leading to the inevitable gliding descent and subsequent crash. And if you're flying outside under bright enough sun, you can expect to have some difficulty seeing your washed-out smartphone screen. This also makes it tough for those attempting to fly by watching the streaming video feed.
When the PowerUp FPV turns, it's more smooth and gentle than sharp or maneuverable. This means that the best places to fly will be ones completely devoid of any trees, since obstacle avoidance can be an issue due to the limitations/responsiveness of the available controls. And if you do choose to fly over or around trees, remember that all it takes is one gust of wind to blow the PowerUp FPV slightly off course and into a loft of branches. Good luck if it gets stuck high up, as the unit is too lightweight to make it down without some significant assistance.
Our experience with VR flying through the included Google Cardboard viewer was very short-lived. Although the screen is brighter and easier to view this way – versus having it washed out by sunlight – the combination of stuttering video and rough flight felt immediately headache-inducing. But from what we could tell, the head-movement controls were surprisingly effective. Sadly, not all of us are effectively equipped or accustomed to this kind of first-person virtual flying.
Although the PowerUp FPV paper airplane drone has some really fun elements, it won't be for everyone. The instructions to fold the plane are easy to follow, and both the flying module and mobile app are straightforward to use. The built-in camera exceeds expectation by taking some fantastic daytime shots. Battery charging time versus effective flight time feels fair for the device's size and motors involved. And the PowerUp FPV has some serious durability going for it too, frame, nose, propellers, and all. You're far more likely to lose a unit than have it break.
But it's the limitations versus the price that may end up giving many people some pause. We do expect that the retail launch will have a fully-functional app that addresses all the quirks and shortcomings of the beta version. However, it doesn't change the fact that one needs a significant amount of open space to fly, preferably devoid of any tall trees. The PowerUp FPV isn't something you can enjoy in your backyard or at a small playground, like so many compact quadcopters. And with only a mobile device for flight control, users are at the mercy of sunlight versus maximum screen brightness.
Ultimately, the PowerUp FPV seems more like a curious novelty than not, despite successfully combining paper airplanes, a video camera for live feeds, and smartphone/tablet control. Beginners may want to do more than maintain sweeping circles high overhead, especially when a more precise landing can't be guaranteed. Advanced users may view the PowerUp FPV simply as an overpriced toy, given its US$200 purchase price. For that amount, you could get two Aerix Vidius VR drone units, complete with VR goggles, built-in cameras, smartphone/tablet connectivity, and a separate handheld controllers.
Product page: PowerUp FPV