Introduction: RC Flight Trainer - Single Axis Movement

About: I am an American teaching English at Shangluo University, Shaanxi. I like making machines that do interesting but fairly useless things - I call them Quixotic Machines.

I built this trainer/simulator to let my students experience a little of what it is like to control a radio control airplane or helicopter - safely without expensive crashes of real rc aircraft. Airplanes have three axis motions - pitch (up and down) - roll - and yaw (left and right). Since this trainer only has basically a single  movement (yaw - left and right) it becomes very easy for them to quickly understand how to operate the two channel controls - motor speed and yaw. I found that within a few minutes the student goes from trying to mentally figure out how to move the controls to moving them without thinking about them. This is how one must fly a radio control aircraft - if you have to try and figure out how to make the next move, it is too late and you have crashed. That was exactly my first experience learning to fly an rc plane - no trainer, no training and crash.

The machine itself is quite simple and I built it in about 5 hours with parts I had lying around, mostly from other projects. I used a cigar box, curtain rod holder, jump rope handles and bearings, aluminum molding, acrylic ruler, zip ties, assorted nuts and bolts, a fiberglass fishing pole section, and the radio, motor speed controller (ESC), servo and motor from a cheap rc airplane.  The only tools required were a saw, drill and soldering iron.

I think the photos and video are quite self explanatory if you want to build one yourself. It is a fun reuse of that old airplane you no longer fly or never learned how to fly.

I searched around on the internet for a commercial product like this and only found a very sophisticated one sold in China requiring slip-disks to get the power from an electrical outlet to the motor - always a complicated and expensive prospect. I'm surprised no one sells a simple pitch/yaw/roll version. I guess if you want one like that you just buy a plane or copter. Very often new flyers with no experience will buy a nice expensive aircraft and think they are able to fly it without some sort of training but that just can't happen. Probably the cheapest way to train is to download FMS, a free flight simulator for the computer and buy the flight control (pretty cheap) that simulates using a real rc radio. The problem is you still don't get the visceral and emotional effect you do get with a real mechanical simulator - the sound of the motor, the feel of the sticks, movement of the servos, and the realism of the machine. Probably the most difficult idea to grasp or deal with is:  when an aircraft is coming towards you, you must reverse the controls - to go left you must use right stick. But the computer simulator does give you full motion control and great visual feedback. I see the purpose of something like this machine as a good introduction by dumbing down the controls to a very basic level of two channels. In fact one of my first airplanes was a two channel plane using only one stick for thrust which controlled pitch (up and down) and the other to control yaw or turning - similar to this machine.

This would be a fun little machine to interface with the computer. Also if the speed of the propeller is high, the arm can be transitioned to a new position very quickly - faster than you can see it happen. This  feature could probably be useful if someone has a need for high speed arm placement (with high tolerances for absolute position).

I plan to add a little more realism by incorporating another pivot point to give the motor/prop the ability to change the pitch (up and down movement). Should be simple to accomplish without requiring any changes to the electronics (no additional servo).
Earlier I had built a more sophisticated trainer with an rc airplane but the control surfaces of the airplane didn't work well at the speed it had to travel around in a circle - and it was much larger and more difficult to set up and use - and more dangerous.

Video:  first couple minutes is just me working the trainer, then a couple minute description followed by about 5 minutes of a first time student using the trainer.
Photo 1:  shows complete machine
Photo 2:  shows cigar box base and curtain rod holder
Photo 3:  shows servo connected to wooden lever which rotates shaft that motor/prop are attached to
Photo 4:  battery, radio receiver and motor controller attached to acrylic ruler
Photo 5:  brushed motor and propeller 
Photo 6:  backside of trainer - used jump rope handles and bearings to build rotating parts of trainer