Radio Control Rockets?

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Well-Known Member
Aug 20, 2003
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Hi all,

Apologies for the length of this post, but I know some of you enjoy a little bed time reading!

A lament and a promise of good things to come.

by Paul Lavin, Deepsky Rocket Shop
Dave Edmonds, Edmonds Aerospace

Been down to the "model shop" lately? Radio control (R/C), a hobby virus, is endemic. It infects hobbies and hobbyists and is rampant throughout the infrastructure of the UK hobby distribution and publication chain. In any of the few remaining real model hobby (i.e. not toy or craft) shops, you have to push your way past R/C boats, R/C cars, R/C helicopters and R/C airplanes to get to the puny rocket section in the back, if there is one at all. Stroll along the hobby section shelves at WH Smiths. What do you see on the rack? A nice selection of R/C magazines. Nowhere a copy of Extreme Rocketry or TRA's HPR...

How come rocketeers aren't at the top of the heap? After all, we are the future of model aviation, aren't we? The UK model flying hobby is mostly "organised" by the British Model Flyers Association (BMFA). BMFA could also stand for the British Model Fogey's Association - there's a lot of grey hair in BMFA meetings and the club newsletter is graced with obituaries for lifetime modellers who are now buzzing around heaven with their lovingly scaled Spads and Spitfires. Some of those members flew the same models for 50 years before they were interred. Bless 'em.

While the BMFA rank and file's depth of experience and knowledge is considerable, along with hardening arteries come hardening of the ways. There has been little support (and NO enthusiasm) in the BMFA for rocketry, even rocket gliders/boost gliders that are kin to the association's usual flying machines.

Out of BMFA's notional 35,000 membership about one per cent are rocketeers belonging to one BMFA-affiliated club or another. What do the other 34,650-odd do? Fly model airplanes! Some are free flight gliders pilots (tho' rather few of them still survive indifferent leadership and flying area challenges). Some fly helicopters or little jets (not many of them either due to danger, expense and technical challenges). Most fly buzzy R/C model airplanes. And for every flyer that has paid their dues to the Fogey's ***'n. there are many more that just go down to the park or common or a local farm to make holes in the air with their propellor driven R/C planes.

If you compare model aviation in 1955 with model aviation in 1975, 1995 and then 2005, and you'll understand the blinding speed with which the R/C epidemic has spread. Model cars and boats succumbed just as quickly. Today, it's virtually impossible to imagine any of these hobbies as they were before R/C transmitters, receivers, servo, autopilots, and so on. Tomorrow, the same may be true of model rocketry. The day will come when it will be hard to recall a time when rocketeers cast their labors of love (and expensive instrumentation and motor cases and ...) free to drift as they might on parachutes... into the pond, tall trees, beyond the far hills, etc.

What awesome immune system has protected model rocketry this long from infection? For a long time it was the size, weight and cost of radio systems. Pioneers flew radio-controlled rocket- and boost gliders as long ago as the sixties and seventies, but were forced either to lash together delicate custom receivers and actuators or to pay a premium for specialized "micro" equipment. No mass market there!

Those days have passed, thanks in part to the loss of R/C flying fields across the country and the resulting rise of the backyard flier with ultra light weight electric craft. Anyone can now purchase micro (and pico) equipment for half the cost of the "standard" equipment of a few years ago. Deepsky has a R/C receiver with a gyro that weighs less than an Estes 13mm mini motor. The remaining obstacles to the R/Cification of rocketry is mostly psychology... and leadership.

Even those psychological barriers may be coming down. Britain gained its first world champion at the most recent World Space Modelling Championship in Poland and our first medal finish since 1972. Mike Francies, a CDT teacher from Ormskirk, beat the world's best in FAI class S8E/P... a competiton for precision flown E impulse R/C rocket gliders.

Surprisingly, Mike isn't much into rockets. It's just that an E motor is the best way to get his carbon fibre confections waaaaay up in the air. He's a pretty darn good pilot, too, and can fly with the best under pressure.

Deepsky is now the exclusive resale agent for copies of that gold medal-winning rocket glider. It looks expensive but it really doesn't cost any more than a Level 2 HPR rocket with electronics and single use motor for one (uncontrolled) flight. Besides, there is no better rocket glider in the world!

What radio control that does exist in British rocketry today is mainly, like Mike's, found in international competition and, again thanks to Mike's talent and determination, Britain is on the map. No thanks to the BMFA though who were dead set against sending a British team to the World Championships last year. This year they politically manouvered their poodles to squash the efforts of a junior team to attend the European Championships in 2005. Way to go, Fogeys! Teach those kids a lesson!

Thankfully, competition is NOT the only way a model rocketeer can enjoy radio control. Even though designing and building and flying world-beating models is highly specialised, there's plenty of scope for amateurs. And that's how we will raise up a generation of British champions who may someday follow Mike's footsteps to the podium, with BMFA's benediction or not.

Should a rocketeer take up propeller-driven model airplanes or tow-launched gliders before even attempting radio control in model rocketry? It's not surprising that few even make the attempt, let alone successfully run, this gauntlet. Who gives a toss about buzzy propellers when you can have Newton Seconds roaring out the back!

Those flying buzz saws are dangerous, too! They should be banned on safety grounds! Every year or so some luckless person gets hit by one of those flying death machines and the insurance company ups their premiums. Rockets, statistically and practically, are far far safer!

So where do you start? Within model rocketry, radio control has remained the province of the small dedicated cadre of master international competitors and the few guys that cross over from the model airplane world. If model airplanes are dangerous and a bit frumpy, and competition flying is a closed shop, there must be some way in.

Sport rocketry can not, however, fend off the R/C epidemic forever even if there are roadblocks. The R/C light will come out from under that bushel pretty darn soon now. As with any other class of model, radio controlled vehicles that aren't intended to compete with the best in the world do not have to be complex, challenging, sensitive and intimidating.

The "weight penalty" associated with today's radio technology is so small that basic designs and ordinary materials like wood and paper can provide more than adequate performance for enjoyable flying. In the next few years simple models like this will begin gain popularity. Maybe R/C Rogalo recovery devices so that you can fly your bird back to the launch site? Walks in the country are nice but missing the all the trees, ponds, roadways and fences could be a very good R/C rocket recovery trick! Any rocketeer that has seen Mike return his glider to his hand after a six minute flight is just jaw-droppingly envious.

Radio control technology is such that equipment could be added to many basic models without a noticeable weight penalty. Such models could use ordinary materials like wood and paper and could be easily lifted by black powder rocket motors. These models can be designed to reduce the requirements for pilot skill if they, like all other rocket-launched models, do not require guidance during the rocket boost.

Wanna buy a rocket with wings? Not many do! Deepsky has been amazed at the relative sales volume for 3FNC rockets versus winged things. The rocketing community have not exactly been helped along by some of Estes earlier R/C and boost glider rocket offerings. Expense, marginal performance and a tendency to crash in the hands of the novice flier has put many people off. If you want to get started there is no better place to begin than an Edmonds Deltie B - simple, fast to build, easy to trim and flies like it was born in the air.

Big boost gliders like VMX-2 and VMX-12 (and soon the VMX-3), other assorted Edmonds Aerospace balsa confections, the new Estes ScissorWing re-release and the new Eagle boost glider give hope that rocket motors and wings won't always be quite as separate as they are now... and once you have wings, R/C becomes a natural progression.

R/C rockets are not confined to the Estes Black Powder motor end of the scale. There are several projects underway by Tripoli HPR flyers that use glide return for their vehicles. A UK HPR flier has been doodling away on a steerable parachute system. Long walks in the country won't impinge on prepping for the next blast off.

Edmonds Aerospace Arcie II is a prototype for a new generation of R/C model rocket. Arcie II is cheap, easy to build and easy to fly and will be successful if it is followed by other similar commercial products and hobbyists' personal designs in the coming years... step forward Orbital Engineering's VMX-3 Valiant. I'm quite sure that, as in every other hobby that has been touched by radio control, hobbyists that sample radio control will find themselves unable to give it up.

The delayed arrival of the R/C VMX-3 Valiant was occasioned by the need to refine the model to the point where it is both easy to build and to fly considering its performance potential. The wait has been frustrating. But the improvements have been worth it... the perfected VMX-3 R/C is nearly with us. Capable of single or dual channel control, the VMX-3 will be out in the spring.

R/C gear is finding its way into other rocket developments. Deepsky has a R/C managed ejection module that can rescue your plummeting rocket if the flight computer has ignored the obvious. Paul is working on a L3 project that will incorporate an autopilot borrowed from R/C planes to help maintain stability/orientation of the Mother Of All Tetrahedrons (MOAT) at low airspeeds at the start and end of its flight. Other experimentalists have pinched the gyros from R/C helicopters for their work with active stabilisation concepts like James MacFarlane's famous Gyroc.

Rocket folk will continue flying everything the hobby has to offer, but in the future some won't quite be able to remember what it was like before they were capable of controlling the models sailing above their heads. No pill's gonna cure their ills... the answer is a joystick.

If you want to get started, Deepsky has Edmonds Aerospace Arcie IIs right now and will have the Orbital Engineering VMX-3 shortly. There is a very limited edition of the World Championship Rocket Glider available, too, for connoisseurs or collectors. Deepsky will be adding other R/C gear and vehicles as they arrive and the demand customers warrants.

Fly 'em high!

The team at Deepsky

Fly 'em high!
Thanks for your post. Hope to see the VMX-3 available in the States soon, too.
Hybrid motors and R/C boost gliders are both areas I want to explore. How difficult are R/C boost gliders to control? I understand that powered R/C is not something you just jump into, so is there much difference?
chilly: well it depends.... earlier RC RG/BG(the AT Phoenix, the VectorAero Cuda,etc) required "piloting" during boost......The edmonds ARcie doesn't....Its my understanding that a 2 channel version of the Arcie is somewhere on the horizon.... I don't think the Orbital VMX series require any piloting on boost either....I don't know about the Estes gliders if they require any piloting during boost but they don't look like it..

see the yahoo groups rocketboostgliders and contestroc for much more detailed info by those in the know...
Piloting through the boost sounds like a real challenge. I'd love it. Have to crawl before I walk though...
Speaking of using glide return, I have seen video of George Gassaway's Space Shuttle launching, and he has an orbiter that seperates from the stack and then is a radio controlled glider, pretty neat stuff.

RC aeronautics are pretty difficult to pick up on. the first RC helicopter you buy with at least 4 channels will be quite a challenge to get to hover. airplanes arent so forgiving either. i'd imagine its also rather difficult in the RC rocketry scene, but i have never flown an RC boost glider. i have flown many RC helicopters(i own a few) and several high performance RC airplanes, and let me tell you, they were NOT easy.
The Edmonds Arcie II is really a fool-proof way to get started with RC BG's. Single channel (ailerons only), hands off boost. You don't even have to control it during flight if you don't want to, but where's the fun in that? Rob Edmonds is supposed to be giving a series of talks on the future of R/C at NOVAAR meetings soon. Be interesting to hear what he has to say (if I can make it).
I don't think most flyers would have too much trouble with r/c in RC/BG to be honest.

R/C helicopters are a different ball game altogether...and most people in modelling of one sort or another will have heard stories of people taking years to learn to fly the things with any degree of proficiency. It must be said that a lot of these stories are true!

R/C in aircraft is a lot easier to master though, even with 4 or more channels on the go. My father in law got a hankering for one of these, and bought a 4 channel model suitable to learn with. He had a few hours with the tx plugged into the pc using a sim program, and then went for the real deal. Yeah, he had a couple of dodgy take offs and landings (mostly landings!) to begin with...but after he'd been out with the thing three or four times he was quite proficient with it. He found it helpful flying with the local aeromodelling club, as they always had someone on hand who could take over the controls if necessary...but the bottom line is that he managed to get to grips with flying the model in a pretty short space of time.

All the best,

Originally posted by Chilly
Piloting through the boost sounds like a real challenge. I'd love it. Have to crawl before I walk though...

Piloting through a boost seems to me to be a whole lot of work and expense for not much result. How long is a boost, after all?

Don't get me wrong, I'm 110% in favor of controlled flight. I'd love to be able to "drive" a rocket. But the time factor involved makes at least semi-automated control for boosts much more likely to produce beneficial results. For most boosts there's probably not enough time to recover from any mistake.