Mark Houlahan
Tech Editor, Mustang Monthly
June 9, 2015

You’ve probably seen them in use at shows like the Carlisle Ford Nationals, during conventions, and even music concerts. Maybe you saw one being flown at the local park. No matter where you saw your first quadrotor, or “drone” being flown you most likely thought it was an expensive “toy” being used by some video crew or production company. True, a lot of what you see in movies today is shot via camera drones, but those are high-tech units costing tens of thousands of dollars carrying equally expensive camera equipment. Thanks to technology seemingly getting smaller and cheaper every few months you can now own your own personal camera drone for a lot less. How much less you ask? Many camera platform drones sell for around $1,000 and some start at right around $400 if you want to utilize your own GoPro or similar action camera.

Horizon Hobby, a giant in the radio control hobby, offers several brands, each with a camera platform available. One of its most popular offerings is from Blade and it is called the 350QX3. The 350QX3 is offered in several model configurations but the model we went for is the 350QX3 AP, PN BLH8160. (The AP stands for Aerial Photography.) The AP version features its own 1080p HD camera mounted to a three-axis stabilizing gimbal for extremely steady imagery. The CGO2 camera shoots video via a camera app (both iOS and Android are supported and there’s a phone mount on the transmitter) and can snap beautiful 16 MP still images as well. We picked up a 350QX3 AP in May of 2015. Priced at $799, it is a whole heck of a lot of technology for not that much money and will suit our needs quite well.

Out of the box, the Blade 350QX3 AP includes everything you need to get in the air and start shooting video or taking pictures, which includes a Lithium-Polymer (Li-Po) chemistry battery, battery charger with both AC and DC power connectivity, transmitter with AA batteries, CGO2 HD camera with gimbal and 8GB micro-SD card pre-installed, the quadrotor itself (fully assembled), an extra set of rotors, and full instructions.
The CGO2 camera simply locks into place on its mount on the underside of the nose of the 350QX3. Directly behind the mount is the electrical connection that powers the camera and the gimbal and is easy to reach and connect. The camera comes ready to use with micro-SD card included and a slip-on cover to secure the gimbal during transport/storage.

The first thing we noticed after getting the quad home and tearing into the box is that the unit has a relatively small footprint, making it easier to fly, carry, and store. The included transmitter is light but we recommend a neck strap to aid in flying (takes the weight off of the arms from holding the transmitter). The battery provided is supposed to be good for up to 15 minutes of flying, so one of the first purchases we plan to make is an additional battery or two. The battery charger is a nice inclusion for first time fliers and can be used as a DC charging system or with AC current and the included adapter. Extra props are included, as we’re told that’s the most fragile part and will break on impact with a tree, pole, and so on, so it’s nice to have spares right out of the box.

In this digital age we all live in it isn’t uncommon to skip the owner’s manual and go right to the Internet for advice. We must caution that there is a lot of great detail in the manual on flying the quad, programming, testing the onboard sensors, and more. That said, it is true, there is a ton of information online and we strongly urge owners to check out the instructional videos produced by Horizon Hobby and found on its website and on YouTube. Use a large, open area to practice your flights in and start out “low and slow” with your flying. We didn’t go above 20 feet or so the first few flights just getting comfortable with flying. We didn’t bother using the camera either until well into our practice flying (several weeks at least). Like any hobby, the more you fly/practice the better you will get.

Owning a quadrotor like the Blade 350QX3 AP requires responsibility and should be flown with great care. You, as the pilot, are responsible for its flight envelope and the surrounding areas. We recommend not flying over property (cars, houses) and certainly not anywhere near a person. To shoot some great video of your event you don’t need to be right over the show field; staying out at the perimeter of the show field means flying safe and not upsetting anyone. Always ask permission from the event organizers to shoot video/fly and be sure to check out www.knowbeforeyoufly.org to learn all about flying your quad responsibly and what your flight limitations are as an end user. We also recommend becoming a member of the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). As a member of the AMA you receive liability, theft, and medical insurance coverage for $58 a year. Knowing that the Mustang Club of America’s liability insurance will not cover damage should your quad hit a car or other property at an MCA National or Regional event, it’s cheap insurance to allow you to fly without worry. Learn more at www.modelaircraft.org.

The micro-SD card is accessed from the underside of the camera body and must be removed to transfer your video or images to your computer.
The included charger is designed to charge the Li-Po battery via an A/C outlet with the included adapter, or can be charged via DC current in the field (many connect their charger to their car battery). Flight times average about 15 minutes, so you might want to pick up a few extra batteries.
The included DX4 transmitter is a five-channel radio and features spring-loaded control sticks for easy flying. Shown here is the channel five switch, which controls the built in flight modes (Smart, AP, and Return to Home). The black push-button is the kill switch for the motors.
The opposite side of the transmitter is where you’ll find the gimbal control toggle. Using this toggle allows you to control the camera mid-flight for 5 seconds at a time while the GPS and other sensors maintain the quad’s flight position.
The provided battery is a snug fit into the quad, so be gentle when inserting the battery. Fully seat the battery, secure it with the Velcro strap, connect the power leads, and reattach the battery door. You’re ready for flight!
The built-in sensors and GPS allow the Blade 350QX3 to almost fly itself. Turning the transmitter on first and off last is standard R/C practice and you would do the same here for a quadrotor. Once turned on the 350QX3 will let you know once it has a GPS signal lock by displaying a solid green LED light.
Likewise, after powering up, the CGO2 camera takes a little time to get its bearings and power up its internal Wi-Fi network. Once the red LED in the camera body turns solid green, as it has here, you’re ready to connect to the camera’s network to record video and use the camera as a “first person view” while flying.
Start the motors and you’re almost ready to fly. We highly encourage your first few flights (at the least) in Smart mode. In Smart mode you have stick relativity, meaning no matter which direction the nose of the quad is facing it will always respond to your controls (it’ll go left when you push the stick left, and so on).
Up, up, and away! Our first month of flying was strictly held in our large back yard or a local park, free of obstructions. You want to be able to fly like it is second nature before you start taking aerial imagery of your favorite car cruises and events!


Steady Grip Option

Available separately, the Yuneec Steady Grip from Horizon Hobby (PN YUNCGOSTG100) allows users to detach the CGO2 HD video camera from the 350QX3 AP and use it at ground level for shooting handheld video. This is perfect for crowd shots, details of individual cars, and more. Best of all the three-axis gimbal’s power is retained for super-steady imagery no matter if you’re walking, running, or riding in a golf cart. We’ll be using the Steady Grip a lot where using the 350QX3 AP isn’t feasible or allowed.

4K Video Solution

Just as we were going to press with our Blade 350QX3 AP story, Horizon Hobby announced its newest camera platform quadrotor—the Blade Chroma. The Chroma features similar electronics and camera features, but utilizes a larger battery for up to 30-minute flight times and comes with a transmitter that features a touch screen display built right in (versus having to use your smart phone). The Chroma was designed from the ground up for aerial photography and includes two additional flight modes the 350QX3 does not: Tracking and Follow Me. Tracking allows the camera to track wherever the transmitter goes, keeping the camera pointed at it, while Follow Me allows you to concentrate on panning and tilting the camera for that perfect shot and the quad flies along on its own at a distance and altitude you set. Of course the Chroma features Smart mode, AP mode, and Return to Home modes just like the 350QX3 as well. The Chroma is available in several models, with and without a camera, but the top-of-the-line Chroma with CGO3 4K HD camera and the new ST10+ transmitter/ground station will currently set you back $1,299 and is available now via pre-order on the Horizon Hobby website.