Armattan has strong roots in the FPV freestyle industry. The manufacturer has developed high-quality frames—and backed them up with a lifetime warranty—for more years than many pilots have been flying FPV. What goes into frame design for revolutionary models such as the Chameleon? Where do these designs come from, and what goes into their production? What’s behind the “legendary” Armattan-quality carbon? I had the opportunity to have a conversation with Chris Leroux and Jason Hay, owner at and frame designer for Armattan, respectively.
How did you get started?
Chris: It goes back to the beginning where it wasn’t a company, it was just me flying quads. There were really not many frames available back then. It was like the F330 and F450 by DJI which was like plastic frames. That was back in about 2011, 2012. Originally it was to make sure we make them tougher. We looked at what failed every time you crashed, and started making frames using metal. I always love to fix things; I had a company back in Alberta called “Mr. Fix-It”—basically fixing anything that’s broken whether it was on a car or on a house.
Jason: I first started designing frames 4 years ago when I got annoyed by the frames currently on the market. Most of the designers didn’t seem to take into account the electronics that had to fit into their frames. Some were way too tight. Some had way too much space. And others had loads of wasted space, but were still hard to build. Another downfall I saw was the lack of protection for the FPV camera. My first solo design was an effort to correct all these issues. It ended up relatively heavy by even the standard of the day, but it flew well and was a tank. Chris took notice of my designs and asked if I would like to do some design work for him.
Where do you draw inspiration from for new frames?
Chris: I just try to do things differently—I look at frame making and what you’ve got is a whole bunch of different problems. With any type of engineering means finding solutions to problems: whether it’s how you protect the camera, how you mount the camera, where you put the battery, how you mount the VTx, a bunch of different things like that. I get my inspiration through looking at some of these different problems and trying to think of unique ways, ways that are appealing to the eye, ways that are strong—to come up with solutions that combine these different elements.
Jason: I like to just start drawing from scratch. I will tweak and tweak until the final product is often something very different from what I start with. That’s how much of the SabotageRC offering came to be. This is also the process used for the Mongoose and Japalura.
What’s the design process like, and how long does it take?
Chris: Sometimes I will just sit there and I just grab a piece of paper and a pen and I start drawing stuff to see if something will make sense; see if I can come up with something that is different but that achieves certain things better than previous models have achieved. When I work on paper I draw to scale and I’ll actually have the components in hand, get as close to scale as possible. On the other hand, Jason plays a very big part in correcting some of the aspects of the drawings that, once he puts it in CAD, he has a lot better ability to get more precise. Jason plays an essential role making sure that he turns a concept into a real product.
How long really depends on the model. The Chameleon took well over a year. We started with a design and produced a few prototypes, it took us months upon months to do this. Then, I didn’t have good contacts for cutting metal, so it took a while to find our footing in the manufacturing process. After the whole prototyping was done, I pretty much sat back and thought: “It’s not going to work.” It was too hard to manufacture and also too hard to maintain. I decided to go a completely different direction from there. All together it was nearly two years. To this date it’s the frame we spent the most time designing. After we used metals successfully, we gained experience from there. The process speeds up a little bit.
Jason: Chris typically will sketch up an initial concept and make a video explaining his vision. From there, he and I have discussion on slack to talk through questions and concerns. After that, I will usually draw up my rough interpretation in CAD to make sure I’m on the right path. From there, I continue to tweak and improve until we are satisfied. Then we will prototype. We often only need 1 or 2 rounds of prototypes to get it right.
What are some of the important details and considerations that go into frame design?
Jason: This is where I come in. I get to take Chris’s vision and make it into something that is easy to produce and build. Designing the body of any unibody frame is stupidly simple—make sure the popular components of the day fit easily and are easily serviceable. Add some holes for weight savings and zip tie slots, and you’re done. A modular arm frame is quite a bit trickier if you want to isolate the arms from the flight controller stack.
Chris: The little details make a difference at the end of the day where something is practical or not, and then the good old challenge it’s always been, which is to create something that’s functional, that’s strong enough for warranty, but that’s not too heavy. It’s the same thing with a lot of other sports today, whether you’re designing a mountain bike, a skateboard, or a miniquad frame. You’re always going to struggle with being able to use as little material as you can while having the strength needed in order to have something as light as possible but that’s still strong enough to do its job.
What kind of testing is done to make sure your design theories prove out into solid products?
Chris: Actually, the Chameleon was a big gamble. About two months before we released… I took the Chameleon and I put that next to one of our F1-4 frames and just hammered the crap out of it. By the time I finished hammering, I said “look, the F1 is completely trashed. I’ve been hammering the aluminum just as much…” and that’s when my team were like: “wait a minute, this might actually work.” From there, Jason really lifted his sleeves up, and really calculated everything well.
Jason: None of us believed that the split aluminum cage would work, but Chris was convinced. I took some of my lessons learned in designing the roll cage on the Kaeru frame and applied them to this.
Jason: We prototype multiple times, and often allow some of our team pilots to test them for us.
Chris: We’re not looking at the kind of engineering and advanced testing and R&D that you would see for large companies. We do stress tests on the carbon fiber and we do stress tests on the metal parts. We use scales on the carbon fiber to see how much weight would be required before it comes to a breaking point. On a carbon fiber arm [for a 5″ frame], we need to at least be able to get about 140lbs on one arm. You’ll get away easily with about 80lbs on a 3″.
Many pilots swear by “Armattan carbon” as the best in the industry. What makes it special?
Chris: We came in on this industry really early in the game. The advantage is that we, over time, got to try a whole bunch of different stuff. We’ve probably switched carbon fiber suppliers about four times. It’s not only changing suppliers but trying different laminates. It’s a mix of getting the best supplier we can get, and also being able to work with them to be able to get some customization made into the actual lamination of the sheets themselves.
At the moment we’re settled with our “classic” carbon fiber. It’s made in Japan. It does cost a little bit more than the stuff you can get from China, but it does have better characteristics. And that also has to do with the layout of the carbon fiber now. We can choose to have something that’s a bit more flexible or a bit more stiff.
Also, I think some part of it is that we warranty it, and so people tend to associate that with: “Who would warranty something if they didn’t have faith in their product?” Trying to sell something inferior would be akin to shooting ourselves in the foot.
How strong is too strong?
Chris: The [Chameleon Ti] has been on the market well over a year now and I probably can count the titanium cage that we replaced under warranty, I can count on one hand, they just don’t break. If you look at it from a warranty perspective, this was great because it’s costing us nothing. If you look at it from a perfectionist point of view where you’re trying to make something that is as good as possible and as light as possible… it wasn’t as much of a success because it was heavier than it needed to be.
I don’t shoot for having zero warranty claims. It would be easy to achieve, but… it’s not going to be a design that is efficient and really good tool for the pilot as much as an asset for the company to make as much money as possible—and I try not to think that way. Some would ask, “why is it superior if it breaks easier?” Well, it’s superior because it’s got more LiPo space, 40% more real estate, it flies better, it’s got better provisions… meanwhile we’ve been able to do all this at about the same weight. I could have gone and made it tougher, to have fewer warranty claims, but would I have been proud of it on an engineering point of view?
How do you continue to stay relevant in this rapidly changing field?
Chris: After we release a frame to the public, we get feedback from the mass, from end users. From there we go back to the drawing board and say “How can we remove what they don’t like and then add what they actually requested?”. But a lot of frames have very similar designs. I think that whichever company out there can make that next leap, they’re going to do very well. This is what I try for—somehow come up with designs that haven’t been thought of before, and finding new things.
Jason: I stay active on social media, and try to follow the current trends while also attempting to anticipate and direct these trends. I’m an electrical controls engineer by trade, so I do a lot of machine design, programming, and debug. My lunch break is always reserved for flying, designing, or building quads.
Your frames are typically freestyle. Have you considered developing anything recently for racing?
Chris:It’s not said that we’re not going to re-enter the racing scene at some point with something light weight. Again, uses that fusion: introduce different provisions using metal, carbon fiber, and rubber, maybe even titanium. But it’s most certainly not going to be warrantied. These frames all break, we know that. 80g frame going 70mph hitting the grass on a race track? It doesn’t come out of it without a broken arm or something.
For us, anything we put out there is lifetime warrantied so it differentiates us from the competition. It doesn’t matter what you do, what you make, what you sell—if you can differentiate yourself from your competitors, you get an edge in the business. We did have a “lite” series and a successful racing frame called the SCX200, but the number of times people contacted us when they broke it—they didn’t realize it wasn’t warrantied even though it’s big on our website with a complete explanation… they hear Armattan, they think it’s warrantied, end of story. If they are disappointed, it’s not good for us.
What can we expect in the future?
Chris: We’ve just finished a new design which will be released in the next month or two. I looked at how we’ve been doing things and I thought, “well, if you look at this part here, it’s okay but it doesn’t need to be like that; if you think about it, it’s too heavy.” We’ve changed the geometry so that it is as strong, but not as heavy.
Jason: I’m currently researching and testing smaller brushless designs, and we hope to have something available for indoor brushless season. We missed it last year, and don’t want to miss again. I’m personally also working on toothpick frame design with hopes that Chris will pick it up in the spring.