Microplanes and Nanoplanes

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After my post on cheap electric free-flight planes, several readers suggested that we try the Air Hogs Aero Ace R/C foam microbiplane, which at $30 is about as cheap as a functional R/C plane can get. It’s also got a thriving mod scene, which is a good sign. (Indeed, it’s quite popular with the Google engineers, and the security guards there are always having to go on the roof and retrieve misdirected planes).

I was skeptical, because the main appeal of the non-R/C free-flight planes for younger kids was that they’re not controllable–you just trim and launch and the rest is up to the wind gods, which introduces a certain fun surprise element while removing some of the guilt when thing go wrong. I was worried that introducing the fiddly control aspects of an R/C plane was too much for the younger kids. But we decided to give it a shot for the sake of a GeekDad post, at least.

The readers were right: on the right field and the right day, the Aero Ace is a blast. It’s got two motors but other than that no moving parts. All steering is done with motor speed, faster and slower for up and down, and relative speed between the two motors for right and left. The consequence of this is that the plane is light and simple, and zips around with plenty of power
(something that had been a problem in the earlier generation of Air Hogs foamies).

But the motor-only control also means that you can only steer under power, which means no controlled gliding. It’s also pretty hard to control under even the best circumstances, so you need a clear field at least as big as baseball diamond to avoid ending in trees. Wind, as always, is a killer for such tiny planes. Anything more than 5-6 MPH means that you probably won’t be able to fight your way upwind, which is no fun. Unfortunately, we don’t get days with that little wind very often, so that will limit the time we can fly the
Aero Ace.

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There is a solution, however, and that’s to go even smaller, so you can fly indoors. AirHogs has just released an amazing nanoplane, the Aerosoar Hornet II, which seems to have reached the Planck limit of tiny foamies. It’s similar in concept to the $300 Carbon Butterfly (and at 3.52 grams about 0.08 grams lighter, although it’s got less power, shorter battery life and no landing gear), but rather than shipping in a custom aluminum briefcase, it comes in a cardboard box and every part is made as cheap and unbreakable as possible. The foam surfaces can be bent almost double without breaking, and even the few dings we’ve given it were easily fixed with foam-safe superglue. And it, too, has a mod scene.

The Aerosoar has a single geared pusher prop, driven by the same tiny electric motors that run AirHogs’ cool microhelicopters. A micro coil in the tail flips a rudder either full right or full left, depending on the direction of the current going through it; with no current the rudder tends to return to the neutral position. Like the microhelicopers, it’s controlled by an infrared transmitter, which also serves as the charger. Its minuscule battery charges up in about 40 seconds, as opposed to 20 minutes for the helicopters. Flight times are equally short; about 40 seconds, as opposed to a few minutes for the helis.

As for the flying, well, at this size it’s a miracle that it stays in the air at all, given the marginal power and all-or-nothing steering. But with a bit of practice you can get it to do nice slow circles around a living room. That lends a sense of accomplishment, at least, although whether it counts as enough fun to justify the price may depend on the kid. I think it’s worth getting just to marvel at what it took to make a plane so small and to expand a kid’s sense of what a plane can be. If they don’t get an education in aerodynamics, they’ll at least learn a lesson about Chinese manufacturing abilities. The road to nanobots starts here!

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