You may have noticed that we enjoy our quadcopters here at Gizmag, from the GPS-equipped Phantom 2 Vision to the palm-sized 1SQ V-cam. Recently though, we had a chance to try out a somewhat unusual style of quad in the form of the tiny Proto X from Estes. It may not have a laundry list of features under its belt, but the Proto X does hold the distinction of being the smallest quadcopter we've ever reviewed ... by a huge margin.

What's in the box

The Proto X costs US$39.99 and comes ready to fly with its own controller right out of the box.

Inside the package, you'll find:

  • the Proto X quadcopter
  • 2.4 Ghz radio transmitter
  • USB charging cable
  • four replacement rotor blades
  • instructions

The only necessary components missing from the box are two AAA batteries, which are needed for the transmitter. However, fitting them into the controller and charging the quadcopter via USB are the only steps needed before the Proto X is prepared to take off.

A pocket-sized UAV

I really can't stress enough how incredibly tiny this quadcopter is. It's actually a little startling to pick it up for the first time, because it isn't much bigger than some insects you might find in your backyard.

Estes claims it's one of the lightest quadcopters in the world with a weight of 0.4 oz (11.3 g). Measuring from the tip of the rotor blades, each of its four sides is approximately 2.5 in (6.4 cm) long. Even the frame by itself is just 1.8 in (4.5 cm) on each side, giving it almost the exact same footprint as a typical saltine cracker.

The included radio transmitter is built to match, measuring a little over 3.5 in (8.9 cm) wide and 2.5 in (6.4 cm) wide, making it look vaguely like a shrunken video game controller. Even put together, the copter and transmitter are compact enough to fit inside a regular pants pocket.

Piloting a bug

Due to its size, flying the Proto X feels like guiding a large bug, right down to the faint buzzing noise it makes. If it weren't for the LEDs that light up when it's switched on, it would be difficult to keep track of it at a distance. My haphazard attempts to take photos of it in flight with an ordinary digital camera made me sympathize with anyone who's tried to record a UFO.

Once you get used to following it though, it flies about the same as a full-sized model. The controls are straightforward – left stick for altitude and rotation, right stick for direction, plus a couple buttons to adjust the trim – and an internal gyroscope keeps it flat while in the air. Hovering in place takes a bit of practice though, since the slightest breeze will knock it off course and the bundled transmitter can be difficult to use (more on that later). I've spent a couple hours flying it and still have trouble keeping it perfectly still in mid-air, though it's not too hard to guide it in the basic direction I want it to go.

The box and instructions say it's intended for indoor use, so that's where I flew it most, but I did take it outside once just to see how it would handle. After a gust of wind blew it far away after it had barely lifted a few feet off the ground though, I understood why the manufacturer had made that call. It might fare better on a nicer day, but in my area, this isn't exactly the time of year to find out.

On a full charge, the Proto X can remain aloft for approximately 10 - 15 minutes. When it's about to run out of power, the LEDs near each rotor will begin to flash rapidly, at which point it has about a minute left of flight time before it slowly floats to the ground and stops. To maintain the quadcopter's balance, its 3.7 V 100 mAh LiPo battery is secured inside the plastic body, so unfortunately you can't extend that flight time by swapping batteries. Once the battery is drained, it takes about 30 minutes to completely recharge it.

Made for small hands

The main hindrance when piloting the Proto X though is the controller itself. Holding the transmitter feels like holding a child's toy, especially if you have larger hands. There's really no comfortable way to grip both thumbsticks at once without folding the rest of your fingers awkwardly out of the way. I understand the designers probably didn't want to ship a regular-sized transmitter with the nano copter, but even just a couple extra inches in width could have made the controls much less cramped.

The trim buttons are also located in spots that are difficult to reach when controlling the quadcopter simultaneously. Adjusting the trim usually involves landing, pushing the button for the desired direction, taking off again to see if it worked, and repeating until it seems to be hovering correctly. The controller also doesn't have trim buttons for the copter's rotation, just for the direction it flies, which could have been useful at times.

Tough little bug

Because of its size, I thought it might need to be treated delicately when I first pulled it out of the box, but the tiny Proto X quad seems to be just as durable as its larger brethren. Crashing at full speed into walls, dropping straight onto a hardwood floor from as high as the ceiling, and even ricocheting between a chair's legs did nothing to faze it. The worst damage it suffered was when a rotor blade popped off during a crash, which was easy enough to retrieve and put back in place.

At one point when it was hovering in place, my dog actually leaped up and snatched it right out of the air. He released it almost immediately, and I made sure to get him out of the room before flying it from then on, but the quadcopter still came out of it without even a scratch. I doubt it would survive being stepped on or dropped off a building, but it's still nice to know it can survive a few mishaps during regular use.

Overall impressions

Aside from its novelty size, there aren't too many standout qualities to speak of on the Proto X. It doesn't have a camera, it can't perform any fancy tricks, and it's not really designed to be reprogrammed or customized. That said, for the price, it is a simple and dependable quadcopter that's easy enough for beginners to pick up. If you're looking for an R/C quadrotor with a myriad of features, then the Proto X is not going to cut it. However, if you're just looking for a tiny quad that you can fly around your living room or office for fun, then it should fit the bill perfectly.

Since Estes is a subsidiary of Hobbico, the Proto X quadcopter is available right now from its retailer, Tower Hobbies, if you want to try it out for yourself.