Powered paper planes

PowerUp sell a range of modules for converting paper planes into radio-controlled flying machines, including the Dart and the X FPV. We first tried out the simpler of the two, the Dart.

You get a module attached to a rod, with a motor and propeller on the other end. This way, the electronics and small LiPo battery are mounted on the front of the aircraft, while the propeller and motor are on the back – a configuration that balances the weight and protects the delicate rotor if (when) you crash. You also get a set of wheels, a rod to stiffen the plane, and a spare rotor. As well as the plane hardware, you get an instruction pamphlet, and four A5 printouts for paper planes (all the same model). Charge the plane, fold the paper, and you’re ready to fly.

The plane connects to a phone app (available free for Android and iOS) via Bluetooth. There’s a slider for thrust, and you can turn by leaning the phone side to side. The steering is pretty tricky in an all-or-nothing kind of way.
You’ll need quite a big open space to fly the plane (we discovered this after having to retrieve it from a neighbour’s garden). It’s not that fast, but as it can’t slow down, slight issues with steering get out-of-hand quickly.

PowerUp recommend a grassy field at least 150 metres in diameter. For most people this will mean going to the local park, which isn’t a bad idea, but only if it’s quiet enough to not risk hitting other people. This isn’t a quadcopter that’s easily stopped on landing. Once it’s launched, it’s going to keep moving forward, and at first you’ll probably have difficulty controlling it. Fortunately, the Dart is quite light so you’re unlikely to injure someone, but that’s no excuse to risk hitting members of the public. Bear in mind that any dogs in the area are likely to seek out and attack low-flying planes.
As the main body of the plane is just folded paper, you can put your aeronautical ambitions to the test, and design your own planes. There’s even a website where you can upload and share your designs with other users, and occasional contests to put your designs through their paces.

The PowerUp Dart is for tiny planes, but it has a big brother, the PowerUp X FPV. This has two motors, a much bigger chassis and includes (as the name suggests) a first-person viewpoint camera. This sits atop the unit, pointing forward, and enables you to stream footage, giving you the view a pilot would have. Add a micro SD card, and you can record video or images from your flight.

We did have a few teething problems with the X FPV. Firstly, we found that the battery wouldn’t charge, but this turned out to be the battery not being fully inserted. It clicks in place once without being fully in; it needs to click twice (and the battery be level with the back of the PCB), before it will work.


The second problem we had was connecting to the app. This is done via WiFi (rather than Bluetooth as in the Dart). This failed to work for several attempts, before suddenly connecting and alerting us to the need to update the firmware on the craft. Once this was done, we were able to connect straight away again.

First-person flying

The X FPV is much bigger and heavier than the Dart, and will really annoy anyone you hit, and possibly injure them, so you really do need a secluded open space. Both the Dart and the X FPV take some time to learn to control. First, you’ll probably find that the craft struggle to fly at all, and this means it needs a few tweaks to the ailerons. Bending these up helps counteract the weight in the craft’s nose, but bending them too far up causes a lot of drag. You’ll probably need a bit of trial and error to get this right. Despite some hard crashes, we didn’t damage either of the planes, and even the paper hull was able to withstand several heavy crashes.

Once these are adjusted, it’s a case of mastering the controls. Throttle and left and right turning give you quite a good level of control (though not as much as you’d get on a craft with more degrees of freedom, such as controllable elevators and ailerons).

Ultimately, the test of something like this is: does it make you smile? For us, the answer is yes. They’re great fun to make, hack, and fly. There’s the childhood glee of seeing a paper aeroplane buzzing away, and then the interest in seeing how different designs fly, and of course, the pleasure of controlling a flying machine.

The biggest disadvantage to these flying machines is the amount of open space you need. City dwellers should think about whether they can fly them safely before taking the plunge. With that in mind, the PowerUp series is an easy and fun way to get into building model aircraft. It gives you the chance to try out different designs, without having to worry about the electronics setup. You might find that you want to move into custom-designed hardware in time, or you might continue to enjoy the simplicity of the PowerUp. Whichever route you end up going down, this is a great way to start. Now, get out and take to the skies…

PowerUp From $39 poweruptoys.com


An easy and fun way to create flying machines.


More features from HackSpace magazine