Every sport has a distinct learning curve. The better you get, the more effort you must put in to progress that extra 1%. Your progression on the FPV learning curve is mainly based on your piloting skill and gear familiarity. When you upgrade any part of your FPV drone or equipment you must regain familiarity before progressing further up the FPV learning curve. This happens to a different extent depending on the component being upgraded. The question is, should you upgrade your gear, or should you stick with your current setup?
The FPV Learning Curve
Every time you upgrade a component, your skill on the FPV learning curve drops as you are not used to your new gear. As you gain familiarity and fine tune it, your skill continues to increase. Knowing what to upgrade and specifically when to upgrade is a crucial element of this sport. The FPV learning curve can be compared to a logistic growth function.
Generally, more practice translates to progressing further up the curve. There is another factor of the FPV learning curve to consider which is the maximum position on the curve that your gear can take you to. For example, an Immersion RC Mojo [link] would not be particularly useful for a top of the FPV learning curve pilot. It would, however, be excellent for a beginner to intermediate skilled pilot. An FPV upgrade can be categorised into two sections; those that affect flight dynamics and those that don’t.
Flight dynamics or FD is a term to describe the handling of your craft. This is dictated by the frame, motors, props, some electronics, rates and even the aerodynamics of the craft. Implementing an upgrade to a FD component will lower your skill on the FPV learning curve significantly as it changes your familiarity with the aircraft.
Non-FD upgrades will usually have a very minimal drop on the FPV learning curve. The exception to this is upgrading goggles or transmitters.
Flight Dynamics Upgrades
FD changes will significantly affect a pilot’s skill on the FPV learning curve significantly. Knowing your craft’s handling is the only way to hit that gate or gap every time. Flight dynamics components are usually part of your craft. Every time a FD component is swapped, the performance of the drone changes. FD changes will significantly drop your skill on the FPV learning curve until you regain familiarity with the new flight characteristics. Motors and propeller upgrades will influence FD the most. Changing FC or ESC’s has little effect if the same settings are maintained. My entire fleet runs F4’s of different brands from a Fortini to an Omnibus. As they all run the same rates, PIDS and Betaflight version, each craft has no noticeable FD changes. Generally, I do not recommend regularly upgrading your FD components unless you have a lot of time to regain familiarity with your craft. I’ll now go over the main FD components and their effect on the flight dynamics.
Upgraded motors will usually be smoother, faster, and more powerful. Upgrading motors mainly increases the ‘smoothness’ of acceleration and the responsiveness in corners. Bigger motors will also decrease the ‘spool up’ time of propellers. These changes in FD will take a decent amount of time to regain familiarity with. When you regain familiarity with the new motors, you should progress further up the FPV learning curve.
Changing propellers can affect the acceleration, top speed and throttle response of the craft. Each model of propeller has slightly different handling characteristics. Some propellers have an almost linear throttle response where others will have a ‘spool up time’ where they aren’t effective until a motor reaches a minimum speed. Propellers will also corner differently as they ‘grip’ the air differently. Changes to propellers will drastically alter your familiarity so I do not recommend frequently changing propellers.
Batteries mainly change the momentum and throttle response of the quad. Changing battery weights has a major effect on the FD as you lose the intuition as to how much your drone will ‘drift’ in a corner and how quickly it changes direction. Higher C-batteries supplying more power will allow for quicker direction changes and throttle response. Battery brand/size shouldn’t be frequently upgraded to maintain performance consistency between flights.
Frames can also have a moderate effect on the FD although their effect isn’t as high as motors or propellers. A frame can change a few elements such as momentum and drag. Lighter frames will allow for more responsive turns however are less durable and harder to control. Heavier frames are generally better for pilots on the lower end of the FPV learning curve as they are less responsive, easier to control and more durable. As a racer, I gradually went for lighter and lighter frames as I progressed up the FPV learning curve. At the end of each year, I would upgrade frames. For freestyle pilots where weight isn’t a limiting factor, frame do not need to be frequently upgraded.
Flight Controller Settings
The settings of your FC can dramatically affect craft familiarity. Changes to rates or PIDs directly influence the handling of the craft and its feel in the air. I recommend that you do not frequently change these settings. You can learn more by reading Callum’s article on PID tuning and rates.
Non Flight Dynamics Affecting Upgrades
Non flight dynamics affecting (FDA) upgrades include your FPV gear and parts of the drone such as the VTX, FC, and antennas. Pictured below are some non FDA upgrade examples.
Most non-FDA upgrades can be implemented at any stage with little FPV learning curve drop. The exception to this is your transmitter or goggles. Changing either of these will drop your familiarity a noticeable amount. The advantage of non-FDA upgrades, however, is that they are significantly easier and quicker to familiarize yourself with then FD upgrades. I switched from a DX6 transmitter to the DX9 and was familiarised within twenty packs. In the case of changing goggles, adaptation can also be quick if their aspect ratio is the same. I remember switching from Attitude V3’s to HD3’s only took about ten packs for this reason.
As for the non-FDA electronics on a drone, upgrading them will have almost no impact, if they are configured similarly to your old electronics. For example, a flight controller can easily be upgraded but changing its rates, Betaflight version, or PIDS will affect the FD. It is good practice though to run the same electronics in your fleet of quads as familiarity with your electronics can speed up repairs.
Strategies for Upgrading
In this hobby, it is inevitable that upgrades will need to happen as you progress up the FPV learning curve and as technology evolves. When upgrading components, I would recommend using backup quad where you can familiarise yourself with the upgrades first before implementing them into your main fleet. When you decide to upgrade your main fleet, you can either do it gradually (component by component) or by building entirely new replacement quads.
Gradually upgrading your fleet is the best way to upgrade without significantly dropping down the FPV learning curve. gradual upgrades resemble a science experiment where you only ever change one variable and measure its effect on the experiment. When gradually upgrading your fleet, start with your last backup quad and fly it until you are comfortable with the upgrades. From there, you can go ahead and upgrade the rest of your fleet. This is my strategy during a racing season as I want to always be prepared for the next event rather than at the bottom of an FPV learning curve drop.
Switching to an entirely new quad will drop you down the FPV learning curve a significant amount. Sometimes you just have to implement a replacement upgrade when your skill is exceeding the limits of your current setup. In total, I have been through four replacement upgrades as I progressed up the FPV learning curve. The best time to upgrade is between race seasons when there is significant time to familiarise yourself with your new setup. If you are a freestyler then feel free to upgrade your current fleet whenever you feel like it!
An important note however is that the better you are or further up the FPV learning curve you are, the quicker you will be able to adapt to the new set-up. Part of what makes F1 drivers as good as they are is their ability to constantly adapt to new changes/cars in a short time period. Quad pilots are the same.
Like F1 drivers, I would also recommend learning your new set up before any formal race event. You spend comparatively little time flying at a race event compared to practicing. When you get to the event, you should already be moderately familiar with your setup to guarantee the best results.
Should You Stick with Your Gear or Upgrade?
To be completely honest, I think the answer to that is entirely up to you and your style. I prefer to stick with my gear based on consistency and cost.
My recommendation is to stick with your gear for a about a year before upgrading to a replacement craft. Except for camera’s, tuning tweaks and small frame component updates, I generally do not implement many upgrades to my fleet during the season. This allows me to maintain a high degree of consistency and familiarity. Sometimes the latest features aren’t worth that trip back down the FPV learning curve. One of my FPV friends has been running a variation of his current setup for the past three years. In that time, he has switched to a canopy, a 4-in-1 ESC and a new brand of propellers. This may not seem significant but his recent competition winnings speak for themselves.
Whilst in the early stages of progressing up the FPV learning curve, I would recommend sticking with your setups and focus on learning to fly. You should only really be upgrading when you find yourself constantly at full throttle. As you get better, you can upgrade parts more frequently with less of a skill drop however the added benefits of these parts may not outweigh the disadvantage of having to re-familiarize yourself with them.
Knowing what to upgrade and when is a fundamental aspect to this hobby. Hopefully, these recommendations will allow you to make the best decisions when upgrading your fleet of drones!