Infrared micro helicopters
In the run-up to Christmas 2006, infrared micro helicopters (IR) appeared on the scene and took the radio control hobby by storm; the helicopters were the 'must have' toy of the year!
As a kid, for me, the idea of having a tiny model helicopter that you could fly around the bedroom - and more importantly afford to buy - was unimaginable. Model helicopters were big, very expensive and very hard to fly.
Well, maybe the big ones still are, but the last few years have seen model helicopters get smaller and cheaper as electronic technology has advanced. This has led to a massive increase in model helicopter sales in general, as more and more people get into this truly exhilarating sector of the rc flying hobby.
The late-2006 influx of infrared micro helicopters was a serious page in the history books of the model helicopter hobby story!
The photo below shows one such infrared helicopter, a semi-scale 'Jet Ranger' style, sat on a CD...
Infrared micro helicopters are a great product of the recent and ongoing technological revolution, they vary around the $50 mark which makes them very affordable. They're also very robust little things, meaning that you don't end up paying out on spare parts every week!
Many shops incorrectly label the infrared micro helicopters as 'RC', which is a bit misleading. They are controlled by a 2-stick transmitter, as radio control helis are, but the signal is infrared ('IR'), not radio.
Infrared is a band of the electromagnetic spectrum found just before the wavelengths of visible light ('infra' means 'below'). So infrared wavelengths are invisible to the human eye, but they do have many uses. Infrared cameras, for example, detect heat patterns given off by objects and can enhance nighttime vision. More commonly, television and stereo remote controls use infrared signals and this is the same kind of signal that the helicopter receives from the controller.
The electronics used in these micro helicopters are, unsurprisingly, tiny. The remote sensor is connected to a central circuit board that hosts the speed control of the main and tail motors. A penny-sized lithium polymer cell provides the power, typically giving flight times of around 6 - 8 minutes after a 15 minute charge from the transmitter.
A balanced flybar stabilises the helicopter in flight while a tiny tail rotor gives yaw control.
Above: top left, inside the fuselage. Top right, the transmitter with infrared bulb on top and charging cable exposed.
Bottom left, the rotor/flybar coupling assembly and bottom right, the tiny tail motor & rotor
But just how controllable are infrared micro helicopters?...
Well, the torque of the main motor puts the helicopter into a natural right turn. Left turns are a bit hit-and-miss and generally speaking the helicopter will only spin around its own axis instead of making a smooth left circle, as it does to the right. But with practice, these infrared micro helicopters can be made to go roughly where you want them to.
Altitude is controlled by the speed of the main motor and hence the varying amounts of lift created at different blade speeds, and like the left yaw control it isn't completely accurate.
There is a trimming function on the transmitter, left and right buttons that when pressed repeatedly change the directional (yaw) characteristics of the helicopter. The trim often changes during each flight, particularly as the motor battery power reduces towards the end, effecting the torque that the main motor creates.
The rather poor quality video below gives you a vague idea of what to expect from these infrared micro helicopters...
The bottom line is that these tiny infrared micro helicopters are a lot of fun for not a lot of money!
There are several different varieties available - the Silverlit Picoo Z, now re-marketed as the Havoc Heli, is the original while many on the market are outright (and illegal) rip offs of the Picoo Z.
Of course, IR helicopters are nothing like a proper rc helicopter but you can fly them in a controlled fashion around your living room - and that's a good thing to be able to do for around $50!