The 16cm tall i-Sobot holds the Guiness world record as the smallest production robot. It’s a great fun little toy – a marvel of electronic engineering, and certainly the most agile robot I’ve played with, but at $490 is rather expensive. You’d have to be a dedicated robot collector to have an i-Sobot as a toy.
Radio control cars have come a long way since I built my first Tamiya kitset. Now they come completely ready to run out of the box, and in all sorts of flavours: rock crawlers, off roaders, and now drift cars. With special tyres, these drift-spec Tamiyas will be fishtailing and skidding like the professional drifers you see on TV. Personally, I can’t understand the appeal, but I’m told drifting is all the rage.
The Blade MCX is a tiny marvel. Small enough to land in the palm of your hand, yet completely maneourvable. The MCX is the most stable helicopter I’ve flown. It’s not going to set speed records, but you could have hours of fun landing on upturned cups, and running make-believe rescue missions between the coffee table and sideboard.
In the two years since I reviewed the ESky Lama, the magical electronic pixies in South East Asia have been hard at work. They’ve sprinkled their pixie dust all over the coaxial helicopter design, and come up with the positively puny Blade MCX.
Despite the similarity in size, don’t confuse this helicopter with the pathetic Picoo-Z and various ripoffs thereof. The MCX is completely controllable in 3 axes, and perfectly capable of flying down a house hallway, or landing on an upturned cup. It’s powered by a tiny lithium battery, and comes with a handy recharging base. All for NZ$179.
As is the trend in radio control, the MCX works on a digital 2.4GHz Spektrum system. This does away with the dedicated frequency crystals of yore, in exchange for a unique digital key in each transmitter. You simply “bind” the receiver and transmitter (like a Bluetooth device), and fly. The downside of these “bind and fly” kits is that they assume you already have a Spektrum compatible controller. Unfortunately even a cheap Spektrum controller will set you back upwards of NZ$200, so you’ll need to be comitted to flying to make that sort of investment. Having said that, the guys at RC Banditmay be able to sort you out with an MCX kit including controller for under $300.
With radio control helicopters, the general rule of thumb is the smaller the helicopter, the harder it is to fly. Somehow, the manufacturers of the MCX have reversed this trend. The tiny heli is incredibly stable, and most definitely easier to fly than the Lama. As long as you can perceive direction in 3 dimensions (which I imagine most humans can), you’ll be fine to fly the MCX. Things do tend to come a little unstuck when the helicopter is facing towards you (controls are reversed), but if you keep it tail-in, you’ll be fine.
Coaxial helis like the MCX work without a tail rotor, instead using counter-rotating main blades on the same axis. They are inherently more stable than a regular helicopter, but at the cost of manoeuvrability. You won’t be setting any speed records with the MCX, and you certainly won’t be flying it outdoors in any breeze whatsoever. The MCX is small enough to be upset by the draft from a heat pump on low power.
Wait! What madness is this? I appear to be complaining that this palm-sized helicopter only flies around in my lounge. When I was a boy I would dream of such a thing. And here it is now, sitting in my hand. Truly wonderful.
There was a time when local, quality retailers like Airsail and RC Bandit were the only way to get hold of interesting radio control doohickeys. You still have that option, and if you’re looking for full-on RC gear, you’d be silly not to buy local.
But when you can hit up sites like BudgetGadgets.com and get hold of dinky little R/C subs and boats for all of US$15, why wouldn’t you? If you have a slightly more professional requirement, you can step up to somewhere like UnitedHobbies.com (but again, you won’t get the support and expertise that you’ll get locally).
The first time I bought stuff from one of these Chinese sites, I felt like I was buying a lottery ticket. I was anticipating that gear would never show up, and if it did, it would break down after one use. Since that first purchase (I think it was from DealExtreme.com), I’ve nabbed about seven or eight shipments from different cheap and cheerful Chinese websites with great results.
I’ve been disappointed only once. In that case it was a broken part on a NZ$50 R/C car from ToyEast.com (no link love for those guys!), that was no longer manufactured.
In all other cases, including a free sample from BudgetGadgets.com (full disclosure!), the shipping has been fast (around one week in most cases), arrived in good condition, and worked better than could be expected for such a tiny amount of money. Each time, with cars, boats, and helicopters, I’ve been expecting to be disappointed by performance, but have been pleasantly surprised. In one case I scared myself silly with a cat-sized RC helicopter that I could barely control. I sold it for a profit on Trademe.
Take that wee submarine from BudgetGadgets as an an example of the cheap fun you can have in a warm bath (get your mind out of the gutter!). It charges in about a minute, then you can pootle around in the bath for a good 4 or 5 minutes. It uses differential control (like a tank) to move and steer. My 5 year old can drive it, and he’ll happily drive and recharge it until he exhausts the AA batteries in the charger. Far more fun than should be legal for about NZ$25!
I’ve got a couple of little cars and a teeny helicopter on my desk at work, and so should any self-respecting geek. What are you waiting for? The guys at BudgetGadgets have even offered to discount 5% if you use the code BM5OFF5 when you check out.
Full disclosure: I hate hidden affiliate marketing. I don’t get anything if you use that code, it’s just a discount code.
Today on TVNZ Breakfast we witnessed a horrific helicopter crash. Video to follow later today, but Paul Henry’s flying skills were to blame, not the Dauphin Helicopter from the great guys at RCBandit.co.nz! You can also grab the RC forklift from them too – they don’t have it currently listed, but just give them a call or pop into the shop at 2 Harris Rd, Ellerslie and ask in person.
Again I’ll say that the helicopter kit comes with a simulator so you can practise your flying BEFORE you crash the chopper. If Paul hadn’t hit the studio lights he would have been fine. Also, the smoking was caused because Paul left the throttle open on the controller after he crashed. If he had cut the throttle, the chopper would have lived to fly again another day.
If you want something more sedate than the chopper, I can highly recommend the RC forklift. It’s incredibly easy to use, and perfect for stealing your colleague’s computer mouse at work.