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Posted by on Jun 5, 2013 in Blog, Video

Aeroxcraft Brushless GoPro3 Gimbal XL

The dawn of a new era…

With every addition you make to your craft as your kit evolves, you hope to get a little tiny bit further toward the ultimate goal of pro-quality film footage. Most times you are disappointed, and the improvement you get is either minimal or not really noticeable, or actually makes things worse. But very occasionally, you find a bit of gear, or technology advances, and this results in a quantum leap upwards. Today was such a day…

If you fly multi-rotors and haven’t seen them already, get a load of this… it’s a brushless gimbal. Apart from the makers themselves, I may even be the first person on youtube to get some footage up with this one. It’s new, from UK maker Aeroxcraft, and uses the latest in gimbal tech to deliver a terrifyingly good result.

The smoothest it gets ? Yes. And for only £250. Bargain.

The smoothest it gets ? Yes. And for only £250. Bargain.

Gimbals – what’s all that then ?

Because of wind, and the various other problems inherent in trying to film from a platform that is suspended in a swirling medium on motors and props, it is hard to get the camera to stay still. Quite apart from all mechanical and resonant /conducted shakes of the drive components, every time the wind hits your craft, it rocks in the air, and ruins your shot as it drags the camera with it. Sure – your flight controller corrects for this, and levels your craft, but not til a film-ruining few seconds later. Any amount of wind or less than perfect craft stability results in duff footage. It becomes a real quest to rectify this. This is why we need gimbals. What they do is isolate craft movement from camera movement on pitch and roll axis. There were a few high end gimbals that truly delivered spectacular results, but they cost thousands, and were way out of my range.

Of the vaguely more affordable ones, initially they were servo driven (like the X-aircraft jobby I have just totalled in a recent crash), later belt drive, then direct drive, but pretty much everyone agreed, if they didn’t like to admit it, that even if you spent £700 on one, it was only a minor improvement on not having one at all. You could get reasonably usable footage on calm days, and my ratio of good usable shots to airtime was about 1:8.

Then humans invented the brushless gimbal – for the first time directly connecting the camera platform to 2 brushless motors and a flight-controller independent control board. Suddenly, things got REALLY smooth, as the motors are able to react very much faster than servos, however connected.

For the first time, we don’t have to pay £3000 for a gimbal that REALLY works. We can have one that is pretty damn flawless for about £350 including the landing gear it mounts to. When Aeroxcraft announced their first brushless gimbal I could hardly get the cash to them fast enough.

In for the Win…

Well, assuming it continues to produce footage this smooth, across a range of props and configurations, then that’s me happy -I will have finally achieved the standard of video I was aiming for, so now I can stop. Only joking. Now I can START – by which I mean really get going on filming some decent aerial footage of the awesome countryside around me, and beyond. Well done Aeroxcraft ! I know I am winning because for the first time in my flying history, Youtube didn’t tell me my video was shaky, and would I like to use their de-shake tool. Previously I have been very much beholden to their de-shake alogarithms to get me any sort of smoothness at all, often producing horrible artefacting, and ruining my best shots – but no more ! Now the smoothness comes from within, and I can hopefully get on with flying decent locations rather than being on a constant quest to eliminate video problems :)

I had very high hopes for this Aeroxcraft brushless gimbal. Fully realised and surpassed, as it turns out...

I had very high hopes for this Aeroxcraft brushless gimbal. Fully realised and surpassed, as it turns out…

Review / First Impressions

Construction

The gimbal is built out of G10 and aluminium, and is sturdy – up to the task, like the landing gear by the same company. The landing gear is tough, and will withstand many small knocks, but will break in a crash from anything above 80 ft, as I’d expect this gimbal to, but Rob stocks a good range of spares, so that’s good to know, and good reason to buy from him.

The GoPro3 is snuggly housed in a G10 cage which will go a long way to saving it should the worst happen. Workmanship and materials are universally good – machined parts are finished well. If I had one small criticism it is that the gimbal is very hard to move along the rails, and the 2 ends of it seem to move along them alarmingly independent of each other. I appreciate they need to be snug to stay on and resist vibration, but we do need to be able to move them quickly and easily too – not every battery I fly is the same, and it’s nice to balance my craft even though my Naza does a decent job of compensating for it. Likewise, moving the fully-loaded rails back a bit though the landing gear is a nightmare, and has to be done a mm at a time. Still – small whinge, hardly a big problem.

Better in isolation…

New isolation mount from Aeroxcraft - the end of the jello war ?

New isolation mount from Aeroxcraft – the end of the jello war ?

I also got the F550 custom isolation mount, which is an ingenious system for decoupling the frame and its vibrations from the landing gear, and more importantly, gimbal attached to it. It does take up some flat space on the  lower frame (minor pain the arse), but also strengthens it by adding G10 pieces to both sides, so swings and roundabouts.

We get silicone nuts and bolts, spacers, rubber grommets, washers and all fittings required to decently reduce conducted mechanical motor / prop vibration. If I’m honest it’s a bit of a fiddly one to assemble, but until you crash, you only have to do it the once.

I don’t know how much this is contributing to my jello and micro-shake free video; I only know that I don’t have any jello or micro-shakes which should tell you everything you need to know !

Mechanics & Electrics

The gimbal comes with a Martinez Arduino brushless controller mounted to the back, and its level sensing IMU is helpfully mounted to the top of the camera housing. Early models had that on the bottom, which would have been a terrible idea given how low the gimbal is to the ground on that landing gear.

Its 2 iPower brushless motors governing pitch and roll are powered (in my case) by a 2 cell 7.4 LiPo that sits velcro’d in the tray at the top of the gimbal. DO NOT CONNECT THIS THE WRONG WAY ROUND !

Pitch control is achieved with a single cable direct from receiver to brushless controller board. Currently, with this assigned to a rotary on my Devo 10, I can’t get more than 20 degrees of angle up or down from center, even with travel limits increased to max on the TX, but I’ve written to Rob about that, and we’ll see what he says. UPDATE: Now the online manual is much better, with full information about how to get the gimbal tuned. It’s a real mission to do, but in theory, you only have to do it the once.

You have to start the craft level for the gimbal to initialise properly, and this it does in about 10 seconds after it is powered up. Thereafter, it’s an ultra-slinky smooth ride to video heaven.

The GoPro3, snuggly encased in its G10 skeleton cage...

The GoPro3, snuggly encased in its G10 skeleton cage…

In use

The gimbal places the camera very low to the ground, which slightly restricts the sort of take-off space you can choose, but once in the air, the gimbal is nothing short of a wonder to behold. In today’s tests, the wind was furious and gusty, even at ground level, and flying on slow-fly 11 x 4.7″ props, my hex was like a rag doll in the wind, even on 4S batteries. I was getting kicked about all over the place – control was jerky – gains are wrong – movement was really quite erratic in places, and to review the video – you just wouldn’t know it.

The GoPro 3 remains still, and its only movement is the lateral movement of the craft itself. It’s very close to perfection, and really not far away from being like those full size heli-cams on Lord of the Rings etc etc – rock solid in all but the fiercest gusts. at last – we have at our disposal a reasonable way of living in windy Britain and still being able to film usefully – and I’ve never had that before, so I am maximum pleased.

WARNING: Just once, with the sun in my eyes, I plugged the battery in the wrong way round for literally a millisecond before noticing, and fried the board. Or rather just the fuse. Either way it stopped working, and I’m down for a while trying to replace either fuse or board. BE CAREFUL WHEN POWERING UP !!!

If this happens to you, the part you need is a Schurter 3404.0018.11, which is a 6.3A OMI 125. RS components do them in packs of 10 for £2.48, but have a minimum order of £20. Unhelpful when you want 1. I bridged mine with a little wire loop knowing that if I plug it wrong again, I definitely kill the whole board. Rob at Aeroxcraft can do the boards for £40 + VAT if that happens. Excellent service and advice from him, by the way…

An ultra-clear screen-grab - click for full 1920 size. No post-processing.

An ultra-clear screen-grab from on board video – click for full 1920 size. No post-processing.

No jello or microshakes, partly, I assume, thanks to the silicone mounts in the gimbal itself, and that Aeroxcraft isolation kit I bought for the 550 frame, which decouples the landing gear, battery and gimbal from the mainframe entirely, with its cleverly designed rubber grommet pass-through system and solid, reliable join to the main frame.

Verdict

10 / 10. I love it. If I crash and lose it I may even cry a little bit before ordering another one immediately. Nothing else I have ever used or owned is this good, as this video and hopefully others in the future will attest.

Good Bits

  • Exceptionally smooth footage
  • Very well built
  • Controller built-in / ready assembled / tested
  • Jello-free, shake-free image
  • Isolation mount works perfectly, even with standard rubber mounts (silicone ones up for test soon)
  • Doesn’t rely on the Naza to do its gimbal control
  • Easily powered (2S)
  • Not many connection points to pre-flight check
  • Tidy Design / minimal weight (216g including rails and motors)
  • Should have the capacity to look straight down and almost straight up. Limits allow this, but TX control travel does not so far…
  • Ever evolving online manual – allows new info and FAQ to be added

Less good bits

  • Board easily breakable if care not taken with battery polarity (blows fuse)
  • Slightly awkward to get camera in and out
  • Slightly awkward to move gimbal along rails
  • Camera very close to ground using Aeroxcraft landing gear
  • Unavoidably a lot of circuitry and sensors are very exposed, or near the ground, and uncovered against the elements and crashing. I think I’ll be covering my board at least, and probably the level sensor too.
  • Landing gear isolation mount fittings restrict frame space for components a bit. Most components want to be mounted flat on foam tape, and this doesn’t help that plan. It can be worked around easily enough.

10 / 10

In reality, it should be a 8.5 – there are enough things about it that could be improved that remove it from a ‘strictly perfect’ scoring, but it gets a 10 from me anyway, simply because of its immense smoothness and quality of result, which make up for any and all shortcomings or minor fitting annoyances (you will need 5 jointed fingers to get some of those screws in place), but these are few and far between, and often one-time problems  anyway. Overall, it’s a great show from Aeroxcraft at a damn reasonable price. If spares and support continue, it’s hard to see why you’d ever use anything else.

More tests to come, next time with gimbal pitch control, FPV restored and maybe Graupner 10″ props. We’ll see. For, now, I’m calling today a huge win.

As this is an XL report, here’s a bonus video showing some set-up stuff (mainly me rambling on), and then a complete flight with ground cam overlay so we can see how much the wind is kicking, and how much the magic gimbal just deals with it. It is very much a test flight, so don’t watch this one unless you really interested in this sort of thing. I will be doing spectacular scenery, but this is not it. It’s my back yard. But it is very smooth.

See you next time…

JW