Saturday, April 1, 2006

Learn to fly RC planes and helicopters with RealFlight G3


By David Gewirtz

My neighbor Roy is as much of a geek as I am. He was looking for a hobby (OK, apparently his wife insisted he go find himself a hobby) and he decided he was going to start exploring radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters. Both Roy and his wife thought this was a great idea, because not only would it give him something to do during his recreational time, but it also would get him out of the house.

Apparently, radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters aren't particularly easy to fly right out of the box. Both require training and skill development. The guy at the local hobby shop recommended Roy get an RC flight simulator and practice on his computer until he got good.

"When you crash, you don't destroy an expensive RC flyer."

As Roy told me, "Here I thought I'd found something to get me away from the computer and video games, and the hobby shop guy insists I buy this video game to learn how to fly!"

It turns out the entire world of radio-controlled hobbies is far more high-tech than I ever expected. From flight simulators to servos, to spread-spectrum controllers, to magnet-actuated flight surfaces, more and more of the RC hobby is resembling something out of a NASA lab and more and more of it involves computer technology that's about as unplugged as it gets.

For our first foray into this brave new world, we brought the Great Planes RealFlight G3 radio-control flight simulator into the Computing Unplugged Labs and decided to put it through its paces.

USB RC remote control

RealFlight G3 comes with two key components: a CD-ROM containing the flight simulator software and the RC remote control, shown in Figure A.


This is the ultimate plugged-in remote control. (click for larger image)

Here at Computing Unplugged, we generally cover technology that was once plugged in, and is now unplugged. This time, we're doing the exact opposite. Usually, an RC remote control has a wireless link to the RC vehicle it's controlling.

This time, however, the RealFlight G3 remote control has a wired connection. Where an antenna would normally come out of a typical remote control unit, the RealFlight G3 remote control has a USB cable. In effect, the RealFlight G3 remote control becomes a very sophisticated joystick for your flight sim.

The RealFlight G3 remote control has all the typical buttons you'd see on a regular remote control including the trim wheels, the switches that would raise and lower landing gear, and more. The one button it has that a typical RC remote does not have is the big red restart button. Click that and your plane or helicopter is back on the runway, ready to start up again.

This becomes important, because you're going to crash. A lot.