As the largest distributor of radio-controlled models in the US, Hobbico has produced its fair share of innovative, small-sized vehicles over the past few decades. So when we learned the company recently released a new quadcopter that features a self-stabilization system and on-board camera, we were only too happy to take it for a spin. After spending some time with the Heli-Max 1SQ V-Cam quadcopter, we've gained both a new-found respect for aerial photographers, as well as a new toy that's eaten up hours of free time.

What's in the box?

The ready-to-fly (RTF) model of the 1SQ V-Cam costs US$129.99, and comes with everything you need to get it into the air, including a radio transmitter already programmed and linked to the quadrotor straight out of the box. The company also offers a transmitter-ready (Tx-R) version for $99.99 though, which leaves out the transmitter for anyone who wants to use their own.

Once I'd opened the box, I found:

  • The 1SQ V-Cam quadcopter with digital camera
  • A 6-channel 2.4GHz SLT radio transmitter
  • Four AA batteries
  • One 250mAH LiPo battery
  • A USB LiPo battery charger
  • A 2 GB Micro SD card
  • A USB Micro SD card reader
  • Four extra rotor blades
  • A small screwdriver
  • An instruction manual

Hobbico also included an extra LiPo battery, which isn't normally part of the package, but I'd recommend getting one (more on that later).

The quadcopter itself fit nicely in the palm of my hand, measuring just 14.5 x 14.3 cm (5.70 x 5.62 in). The frame and blades are all made of lightweight plastic, giving it an overall weight of just 32.9 g (1.2 oz) without the battery, so it feels like almost nothing when picked up. Aside from some general aesthetics, the thin plastic fuselage (if you can call it that) offers some modest protection for the main wires and circuitry at the center, but more importantly it gives you a clear indication of which side is the front of the V-Cam. It's all pretty basic as far as looks go.

Getting started

When I saw a screwdriver included in the box, I expected a more complicated setup, but it turned out to be as easy as charging the batteries and fitting them into the right places. The transmitter uses the four AA batteries, while the LiPo battery just slides into a compartment on the V-Cam's underside, which holds it in place. After connecting the battery cable and turning on the radio controls, a red light on the quadcopter indicated it was ready to go.

Learning to fly

Hobbico claims the 1SQ V-Cam is suited even for novice pilots, which is perfect because that's exactly what I am. Still, I decided to fly it indoors at first until I could get the hang of the controls.

One of the V-Cam's handier features is the TAGS-FX Sensor Fusion stabilization system, which calibrates itself after sitting on a flat surface for a couple seconds. Once it's in the air, the system uses a 3-axis gyro and a 3-axis accelerometer to keep the copter level and centered. For the most part, this worked well to prevent it from rotating and pitching during flight, but it still drifted to the side a bit. The manual even specifically says that correcting the trim shouldn't be necessary, but I found it needed a little adjustment to keep it hovering in place.

Once I'd acclimated to the controls and could get the V-Cam to hover in place right after taking off, maneuvering it turned out to be a breeze. After about a half hour of practice, I had no trouble getting it to land almost exactly where I wanted. With a little more time at the controls, I was able to weave it down hallways and between furniture without much difficulty. I've honestly flown aircraft in video games that were harder to control.

The transmitter can switch between two modes: one for smoother controls and one for more aggressive flying. Personally, I found the aggressive settings worked best so long as you had a light touch with the controls, but that no doubt depends on your preference.

Time to go outside

Now that I knew I could fly the quadrotor without crashing it constantly, it was time to take it outdoors.

I took the copter out on both a calm day and a slightly windy day, and the difference was immediately noticeable. As you might imagine, even a light breeze can randomly throw the low-weight aircraft off course, so I had to battle the wind quite a bit. On a calm day, flying a few feet off the ground is still quite effortless, but reaching taller heights required some careful control.

I felt most comfortable with the V-Cam at about 20 ft (6.1 m) in the air, though I was able to maintain control of it up to approximately 50 - 60 ft (15.2 - 18.3 m). Any higher and the winds were too strong, plus it became much more difficult to spot the pint-sized copter against the clouds and sky.

Tall grass is also a factor outside, since the copter's rotors are only 4.1 cm (1.61 in) off the ground when resting. Several times after an abrupt landing, some long blades of grass would be wrapped around the rotor and needed to be pulled out. The instructions do warn against taking off in especially grassy areas, but sometimes the wind will have other ideas on where it lands.

There's also a designated button to automatically flip the copter in a chosen direction, but I only saw that work successfully twice. The other twenty or so times I tried, it would lose balance after finishing the trick and then wobble back and forth all the way to the ground. I never could determine why it flipped perfectly those two times and not for the others.

As mentioned earlier, I was sent an extra LiPo battery, which proved to be one of the more useful items at my disposal. A fully charged battery allows for roughly 10 to 12 minutes of flight time, and charging each battery takes about 45 minutes to an hour. Even with two batteries though, the V-Cam's time in the air seemed to rush by before I had to find a USB port and wait to recharge.

Takes a licking

For a tiny aircraft made of mostly lightweight plastic, the durability of the 1SQ V-Cam continued to impress me the more I tried (and more importantly failed) to learn how to fly it. I lost count of the number of times it smacked into a wall at full speed or ricocheted off a pole and careened into the ground.

The most serious damage it ever suffered was losing one rotor blade, which was easily retrieved and put back into place, good as new. Even the stabilization remained unaffected and continued to keep the aircraft centered right after takeoff.

Not that you should be careless while flying it. I still made sure to keep it over nothing harder than carpet or grass, but it's nice to know that making a mistake won't take the whole thing out of commission.

Shooting video and photos

One of the 1SQ V-Cam's more enticing features is the miniature camera fitted to the front, which allows you to capture JPEGs and video by pressing individual triggers on the transmitter. It doesn't have the greatest resolution (1280 x 720), but still takes relatively clear and vibration-free images for a mini-cam strapped to a UAV. It also records mono sound, but that really only picks up whirring rotors and wind noise during flight. Everything it captures is stored on a Micro SD card via a slot on the side.

Unfortunately, taking photos and video turned out to be more troublesome than I anticipated. For one thing, it's really difficult to tell for sure when you're actually recording. There's a red LED that will continually flash to indicate when it's shooting video or taking a photo, but it's located to one side of the quadcopter itself and can't be seen if you're standing on the opposite side. In broad daylight, that light is rendered invisible, so you're left hitting the record button and hoping for the best.

Numerous times, I would complete a run thinking I had taken some great footage only to check the Micro SD card and find it missing. It would have been nice to at least have an icon on the included transmitter's screen to indicate when the camera is running (using an alternate transmitter might solve this issue).

Similarly, taking still photos can sometimes feel iffy, since keeping the quadcopter completely steady while pressing the trigger button tended to be easier said than done. The best tactic I found was to just drift towards a target, hammer on the photo button a few times, and then choose from the multiple shots later.

The camera can also tilt for different angles, which is handy but takes a few trial and error sessions to get it positioned the way you want. I ended up taking quite a few underwhelming photos of the ground before finding a good angle to set the camera on.

Eventually, I was able to get a handful of decent shots, but using the camera definitely requires some extra practice.

In conclusion

Overall, I've been quite impressed with the Heli-Max 1SQ V-Cam. Despite a few quirks, it's a lot of fun to toy with and is definitely a great fit for an inexperienced pilot. The stabilization feature makes it incredibly easy to fly, while its surprising durability ensures it won't break while you're still trying to get the hang of the controls. It's already become a fixture in my home as a way to pass the time, not to mention my dogs' least favorite gadget since the vacuum cleaner.

Capturing images is tricky and relies a lot on luck, but the camera is still a worthwhile addition for the times when it does work. Given the price and the fact that it comes with everything you need to take aerial shots out of the box, it's not a bad deal as far as small quadcopters go.

If you want to take the Heli-Max 1SQ V-Cam for a spin yourself, both the RTF and Tx-R models are currently available through Hobbico's own retailer, Tower Hobbies.

Product Page: Heli-Max 1SQ V-Cam