PowerUp 3.0 Smartphone-Controlled Paper Airplane
Is there anyone among us who didn’t love paper airplanes as a kid? For me, paper airplanes provided the first practical avenue to satisfy my curiosities about aviation. I was able to experience firsthand the effects of tweaks that I’d made to a design.
The PowerUp 3.0 is a device that builds on the foundation of traditional paper airplanes by providing a motor and control system. Yes, you read that correctly. It is now possible to fly paper airplanes by remote control. It sounds far-fetched, but the technology is upon us.
The backbone of the PowerUp 3.0 system is the Smart Module. At the front of this 8.9-gram device is a plastic housing that contains a receiver and a tiny LiPo battery. At the rear of the Smart Module is a brushed motor with a 45mm-diameter direct-drive propeller. Also at the rear is a teeny plastic rudder that is attached to a magnetic actuator. The two ends are joined by a square tube that appears to be made of carbon fiber. The wiring is hidden within the tube for protection and a clean appearance.
The functions of the Smart Module are controlled from your smartphone via Bluetooth. By installing the PowerUp app, you are provided with a slider to control the throttle position. Rudder control is carried out by tilting your phone right or left. This setup is a big departure from the spring-loaded joystick controls that we are used to, but it works effectively.
The Smart Module has built-in clips for attaching it to a paper airplane, thereby providing a means of thrust and directional control in one fell swoop. You can’t attach the Smart Module to just any paper airplane and expect success. The pair must be compatible in terms of providing clearance for the moving parts and having the correct center of gravity. To help get you started on the right path, the PowerUp kit contains five printed templates of two airplane designs. You can also download additional templates from the PowerUp website.
The PowerUp 3.0 includes everything needed to create a remote-controlled paper airplane, including five airplane templates.
The PowerUp 3.0 is controlled via the PowerUp app on a smartphone. The application works well, but it is much different than using a standard RC transmitter.
As with all new products, the first step should be to thoroughly read the manual. The PowerUp does not disappoint here. The included booklet covers all of the details of operation, as well as tips for folding and flying the airplanes.
As suggested, I started with the Invader design. Folding the airplane was a little challenging because the printed fold lines were not quite symmetrical. I presumed this was merely a printing error. Both of my Invader templates were slightly offset, but all three templates for the Nakamura were fine. With a little tweaking, I was able to complete the Invader and get it trimmed for nice flights without the Smart Module.
Before adding the module, I charged the internal battery. A micro-USB cable is provided for this function. The plug fits tightly into the module’s front housing, so firm pressure is required. The charging process takes 20 to 25 minutes for a fully depleted battery.
Before putting the module-equipped Invader in the air, I took a few minutes to get used to the control interface. Although the throttle slider only occupies a narrow column in the bottom part of the screen, it behaves as if it is the full screen width. Touching any part of the bottom screen advances the throttle to the corresponding level on the slider.
I accidentally started the motor a few times before I realized how the screen functions. The app has a throttle-lock feature to help prevent wayward inputs.
Rudder control is not proportional. It is either full left, full right, or free floating. Rudder inputs can be commanded with either of two movements. You can twist the phone about an imaginary axis going from the top to the bottom, or you can rotate it about an axis going from back to front. Choose the movement that you prefer and be careful to avoid movement in the other axis. It only requires a few degrees of tilt in either axis to activate the rudder.
Flying with the PowerUp 3.0 is interesting. If you don’t have access to a sizeable indoor facility such as a basketball court, scout out an unused soccer field on a calm day. You may not need that much room, but it’s better to have extra space rather than too little.
When everything goes well, full power will give the Invader a gentle climb while rudder inputs serve to keep the airplane nearby. To maintain altitude or descend gently, ease back the throttle as necessary. During these ideal flights, my primary thought was, “I can’t believe I’m actually controlling a paper airplane!”
The tiny rudder doesn’t have much control authority, but that’s a good thing. After all, it is only a paper airplane. The paper easily twists and contorts during flight, so subtle movements are in order. It’s probably better to think of this as a Free Flight model with throttle control and yaw “influence.”
It would be unrealistic to expect consistent flight performance from the Invader or any other paper airplane with the PowerUp. There are simply too many variables to contend with. Even a gentle landing is likely to tweak the position of one of the paper elevators, guaranteeing different trim for the next flight.
This is the Nakamura model in flight. The small rudder provides gentle yaw authority.
Roughly a third of my flights ended within a few seconds and a stone’s throw from the launch. It could be because of an unrecognized trim change, or maybe just a poor launch. The more successful flights might last 30 seconds or even longer than a minute. I usually end the flight on purpose because the model is drifting too far downwind. I’ve not yet flown an entire charge on one flight (approximately 7 minutes), but I’m sure it’s possible.
Despite the short flights and botched launches, flying with the PowerUp is fun. It’s hard to be upset about crashing a paper airplane. The rubber bumper on the front of the Smart Module has prevented any damage to the unit—even with nosedives onto concrete. Most of the time, I can just pick up the airplane, check the trim with a quick test glide, and then launch it for another powered flight.
I’m still getting used to flying with my smartphone. The controls and Bluetooth connection have never faltered; it’s merely an unusual flying interface for me. Given the slow rudder response, I sometimes use a lot of exaggerated body English when flying with the PowerUp. I’m sure it’s comical to watch. Someone whose brain is less rigidly hardwired to traditional RC transmitters might find using the phone interface more intuitive.
Although I enjoyed flying the Invader and Nakamura, I realized that the utility of the PowerUp concept is hindered by the structural limitations of paper airframes. It seemed reasonable to consider that other materials might provide more consistent flights.
A representative from PowerUp suggested that using thicker, more rigid paper could improve the flying characteristics. I am interested to try it, but I have not yet done so. My experiments so far have focused on thin foam.
I found that 2mm Depron foam is roughly half the weight of the paper templates, while being much more rigid. This has prompted me to create a handful of foam airframes to integrate with the PowerUp Smart Module.
I enjoy the challenge of creating and tweaking designs around the fixed dimensions of the Smart Module. Some fly well right off the bench, while others are incurable duds. Either way, enjoyment comes from learning by doing. In many ways, the PowerUp 3.0 is providing the same type of satisfaction for me that paper airplanes did so long ago.
As advertised, the PowerUp 3.0 is a way to add remote control to paper airplanes. It certainly delivers in that regard, and I’m sure many people will enjoy it as packaged. Yet, the Smart Module offers another equally appealing function. It provides a practical and affordable way for anyone, young or old, to fuel his or her fascination with aviation.
Whether you use paper, foam, balsa, or something else, the PowerUp 3.0 offers a means to give your own flying designs power and control. You might also want to check out the simpler and less expensive PowerUp 2.0 system ($16.99). It is also intended to clip onto a paper airplane, but it provides a 30-second motor run and no rudder.
What’s in the box:
>> PowerUp 3.0 Smart Module
>> Mounting display and storage box
>> Micro USB cable for charging
>> Spare rudder
>> Spare propeller
>> Invader templates (for beginner pilots)
>> Nakamura templates (for advanced pilots)
>> DuPont waterproof template
>> PowerUp 3.0 Guide
>> RC control through Bluetooth, smartphone, or tablet
>> Free mobile app
>> 180-foot range