I built a drone for less than $500

2014-02-01 21.23.53

TL;DR (the short version)

For under $500 in parts I put together a remote controlled plane that I can fly without direct line of sight.  The plane has a camera that broadcasts its image in realtime to a 7″ LCD mounted to my remote control.  It has about a 1-mile range and 20-25 minutes of flight time.

Here’s my friend Jimmy flying it for his first time:


The backstory

When I was six years old I watched Home Alone 3.  The boy in the movie stuck a camcorder on a remote control car and drove it by watching the video feed on a TV in his attic.  He used it to spy on the bad guys. My god, that was so cool.

RC Car from Home Alone 3

RC Car from Home Alone 3

Ever since I was six I’ve been trying to re-create that setup.  I’m 22 now, so it’s been a few years.  In my teens (2002-2009) I obsessed about the project, poring over parts on eBay, but the gear was just too expensive.  Today, as result of the increase in RC hobby popularity, the prices are affordable now.


The Drone

Over the past 6 months I learned how to pilot RC planes entirely by flying and breaking them. I’ve gone through 4 planes, and I don’t regret it one bit.  In the long process of developing an autonomous UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), I’ve built a plane that I can pilot by watching a live video broadcast from a camera on the plane via an LCD screen on the ground.  Yes, it’s a drone.  In the remote control enthusiasts world, this is called First Person View (FPV).  The entire bill of materials for my first FPV system is under $500:


Parts required:

Plane: $60.02 –  HobbyKing Bixler 1.1 – Link
Speed Controller: – $7.18  HobbyKing 20A ESC – Link
Remote Control: – $69.97  Turnigy 9X 2.4GHz 9-channel transmitter – Link
Camera: $109.99 –  Boscam Explorer HD19 – Link
LCD Monitor: $30.65 -  7″ Car LCD from Amazon – Link
Video Radios: $54.99 -  Boscam 5.8GHz Video transmitter + receiver – Link
Batteries for Plane and Video Ground Station: $7.89×2 - Turnigy 2200mAh Li-Po – Link
Battery Charger: $24.07 -  Turnigy 50W Balancer/Charger – Link

A note on ordering from HobbyKing:  HK’s website can be pretty confusing for first-time visitors.  They have multiple warehouses around the world, and there are different product listings for the SAME product at a different warehouse.  You’ll want to check each warehouse for the items you’re looking for to optimize shipping times and cost.  I’ve linked to items in the US Warehouse where possible, and to the International Warehouse when not available in the US.


Building the system

In the world of RC this is a pretty simple setup.  The plane is a cheap foam model, which some people may scoff at, but I love.  The reason: when this thing crashes marvelously nose-first into the ground, the foam body absorbs the impact.  You’ll be gluing and duct-taping this plane body back together many times, but you’ll never have to replace the electronic parts.  In the old days our parents built their RC planes out of balsa wood (or some other ancient material like it).  They spent 20hrs building the plane so that it was just right.  Then it crashed into a tree and took 30hrs to repair.  I’d rather tape-up and keep flying.

Most of the RC gear is plug-and-play, though you’ll have to solder some connectors to get the speed controller plugged into the plane.  If you’re not comfortable soldering, take all of the parts to your local hobby store and they’ll solder it for you.  By now I’ve learned how to solder connectors for every component in my system, but when I got my first order from HobbyKing I went straight to the local hobby shop.  They soldered all of my connectors for me, gave me clear directions on flight prep, and even showed me how to work the transmitter.

The video gear should also be relatively straight forward to set up.  Plug the video receiver into your 7″ LCD and fire that puppy up!  Plug the video transmitter into your Boscam and fire both up!  I power my video tx (transmitter) and camera from the same battery that the plane is powered from. I created an extension cable for the battery pack and added a JST connector to it that powers the video gear.  You can do this, or you could power the video components from their own battery to keep things clean.

I’ve tried various methods for mounting the camera.  Using a rigid mounting method like popsicle sticks or a plastic mount often results in “jelly” video like this.  I’ve found that the cheapest, most flexible, and highest resulting quality method is to use lots of small strips of Gorilla tape:

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Building your first FPV system is all about experimentation and learning.  For your first system get some inexpensive gear and see if you really enjoy it.  Then, start upgrading parts as you go.  The setup that I’ve detailed here is certainly not professional-grade, but it’s a testament to how inexpensive the hobby has become and how much fun you can have at such a low cost!

I was playing with this system back in September 2013, and since then I’ve dug much further into the hobby of amateur FPV and drone control.  Today I’m testing full autopilot systems that control the plane autonomously, and for FPV I’ve set my 7″ monitor aside and now use a set of goggles with LCDs built-in.  I’ll be documenting more in due time, but I wanted to get a post up about my initial setup.  I think some of those first FPV flights are what fully sucked me into the hobby, and I’m so glad they did.

Here’s one of the most beautiful flights we’ve had.  My friend Jimmy is flying over Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, CO:

Some advantages of self-driving cars

I’ve been bringing up self-driving vehicles in conversations with friends lately.  There are some interesting potential benefits that would arise if self-driving cars were universally adopted. Here are some that I find fascinating:



Valets, shuttles, taxis, and parking be damned!

With a self-driving car there’s no reason to park the thing yourself.  You also won’t have to find parking in a crowded area (e.g. San Francisco).  The car can drop you off at the front door and go find its own spot to park.  Then you can beckon it with your smartphone once you’re ready to leave (read: Uber integration).  No more need for fancy valet services.  Airport shuttles will make little sense if your car can drive you to the airport and then park itself back at home.  Taxi drivers also seem unnecessary.


One car is better than two, or three

A self-driving car can drop you off at work, drop your wife off at work, drop the kids off at school, and then park somewhere equidistant to all three locations.  Unless there’s a long-distance trip that only one person is going on, a self-driving car can do the work of several cars.  Most families could probably get by with just one.


Never again: “can you give me a ride?”

My mom spent all of my childhood driving me to friend’s houses, or picking up friends and bringing them to our house.  I know, I am super lucky.  However, a self-driving car could have done that and would have taken zero of her time.


No more traffic lights. No more pedestrian walk signals

Google’s and Stanford’s self-driving cars already have thousands, if not millions, of real live miles logged in California.  The cars collect an incredible amount of data through multiple sensors, and they’re programmed for safety.  On a street with only self-driving cars, there’s no need for a pedestrian crosswalk.  Just walk or bike across the road and all of the cars will stop for you automatically.


Goodbye jams, goodbye road rage, and goodbye ‘thank you wave’

Computers are typically optimized for efficiency much better than humans .  A highway full of self driving cars that can communicate with each other could solve a significant portion of traffic jams.  No more need for the ‘thank you wave’ from Seinfeld.  If all cars on the road know that you’re taking the next exit, they’ll make room for your car when it’s time to get off.



I think that I’m an OK driver — but I’m positive that a computer collecting terabytes of data per second about the surrounding environment is better.  I have to look in my rear-view mirrors to see what’s behind me, which takes my attention away from what’s in front of my car.  That’s not so with a computer.

I’m skeptical, sure, but honestly I can’t wait to safely text and drive. Or eat and drive. Or _____ and drive.

Startup School 2013 – my takeaways

This was my first year attending Y-Combinator’s Startup School. It won’t be my last. The line-up of speakers had a lot of hot names, but every talk was interesting. Some were inspiring. Here are my favorite snippets from each speaker:

  • Phil Libin (Evernote) — Surround yourself with people that are smarter than you. Persist.
  • Dan Siroker (Optimizely) — Use the hell out of your customer’s feedback.
  • Ron Conway (SV Angel) — Entrepreneurs have to mature at an alarming rate to keep up with their company. Learn quick.
  • PG + Sam Altman office hours — Be open to letting your idea evolve.
  • Chris Dixon (A16Z) — The best idea for a startup looks bad to everyone else. How ironic. Knowing a ‘secret’ is very important.
  • Diane Green (VMWare) — Make people’s lives easier. They’ll love you for it.
  • Balaji Srinivasan (Counsyl) — Change comes from voice within or voice by exit. Voice by exit is powerful en masse.
  • Chase Adam (Watsi) — Work on something that you care about more than yourself.
  • Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook) — Hire people that you would want to work for.
  • Nathan Blecharczyk (Airbnb) — Pick ONE metric. Focus on it.

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Every entrepreneur should learn how to code

Heads up: I’m pretty much regurgitating what Paul Graham said in this interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BDA0t49AaZ4&t=7m37s.  Go watch it, it’s phenomenal. This post is my own experiential take.

I’ve spent the last six years looking for coders to build my ideas.  In 2009 I stole a friend’s business model for a Photoshop to HTML service.  I even went as far as hiring the SAME web designer he used to build his site.  That business failed because I was a bad friend and an idiot, but it was failing anyways because I couldn’t write a single line of HTML or CSS.

In 2011 I hired a few iOS programmers to help me build apps that I had ideas for.  The simple apps got finished and did just okay.  The complex app that we tried to build got abandoned and rejuvenated twice.  It never shipped.  That was 50% bad team leadership on my part and 100% me not knowing how to build anything for our app.  I was the ‘visionary/marketer/team leader… yeah, right.

There are a handful of other projects where, if I knew how to code, I could have at least built a shitty prototype in a few days.  Instead these projects took months, and the things that other people built for me were often shitty anyways.  Full disclaimer: I still can’t code, but I’m learning Ruby on Rails and it feels incredible to know that I’ll be able to build from an infinite box of virtual legos soon.  Here’s why I think every entrepreneur should learn how to code:


Being the “idea guy” is bullshit.

I’ve known one person that can pull this off.  I can’t.

There are a million ideas out there.  Yours might be great, but what really matters is execution.  Great idea + bad execution = crap.  Bad idea + great execution = gold (maybe) — because likely along the way of executing, your idea will evolve into something that’s actually valuable.  Either way, ‘maybe gold’ is always better than ‘definite crap’.

Knowing how to build things greatly improves your chance of executing well.  It also just makes you so much more valuable to the company.


Things you build yourself will always be better.

Your idea hopefully alleviates pain somewhere.  Your intimate knowledge of that pain is your biggest asset.  When you try to outsource the building of your pain killer, you have to describe the pain to whoever you’ve hired.  They never experience the pain for themselves. How fucked up is that?  The people building the solution don’t even have the problem.  Yikes.

This is why we always hear that successful companies came out of tools that the founders built for themselves.  When you build a solution for your own pain, you build it right and you build it fast.  Then you make it better.


Coding is the fastest and cheapest way I know of to build magical things.

Building tangible magical things like electric cars and reusable rocketships takes a lot of people’s money and time, and a lot of bureaucratic paper movement.  You can build great software by yourself in your basement with a mediocre computer.

Almost every day in 2013 I find a new plugin or website that makes me say “holy shit! I can do X ten times faster with this!”  That’s valuable magic.  As starting entrepreneurs ( ones without gobs of money) building software is the fastest and cheapest way to create real value for users.


Entrepreneurs are heralded as scrappy individuals with great ideas and great hustle.  They bring people together to solve problems, and that’s fantastic.  I’m just learning, over time, that an entrepreneur who knows how to build version 1 of his/her product will have a business with customers way faster than the entrepreneur that has to hire a web design firm to do the same thing.

As my friend Scott would say “A hacker that can hack code and can also hack business is dangerous!” I sure wouldn’t mind being dangerous.



Unlocking an AT&T iPhone Just Became 60 Times More Expensive


Since the release of the iPhone 5S and 5c the price for unlocking AT&T iPhones has skyrocketed. Six weeks ago Newaya could unlock any AT&T iPhone for $0.50 – $2.50, depending on processing time. Today the cheapest unlock available is just under $30, and the faster unlocking services cost up to $60. This is wholesale pricing.


The most convincing reason we’ve heard is that AT&T is trying to prevent users from buying the iPhone 5S or 5c and immediately unlocking it for resale internationally. Apple and AT&T have tried to fight this trend in multiple ways over the past few years. This is effective, and it’s causing huge problems for wholesale iPhone buyers/sellers.

Why you should upgrade to the iPhone 5S (even if you don’t want to)

Apple started shipping the iPhone 5S and 5c just a couple weeks ago. The iPhone 5S has a fingerprint reader in the home button and a handful of upgraded internal components. The iPhone 5c is essentially an iPhone 5 with colored plastic on the back. Neither of the phones boast significant updates for most everyday users, but you should still upgrade to the iPhone 5S if you have an upgrade available with your wireless carrier. Here’s why:

The latest iPhone is worth a lot

The iPhone holds its value over time stronger than any other cellphone on the market. When I started Newaya in 2010, I would buy back used AT&T iPhone 4 models from customers in late September for ~$500. The AT&T model of the iPhone 4 was released in June, so this was four months post-release. In October 2011, 12 months later, I was still able to pay customers up to $250 for their used AT&T iPhone 4 models — that’s AFTER the release of the iPhone 4S. Remember, this is for a phone that most customers originally paid $200 for when they signed a 2-year contract. Being able to sell something for $250 after 16 months of use when you paid $200 originally is pretty righteous, right?

You could sell your new iPhone and make a $300+ profit

Even though Newaya has grown and we have more costs today, we’re still paying customers up to $500 for the iPhone 5S immediately after release. That value will certainly come down over the next 12 months, but there’s a good chance that an iPhone 5S will still be worth $200-$300 when the iPhone 6 is released. Since the iPhone 5c really isn’t much of an upgrade, it’s value is not as significant: Newaya is currently paying up to $350 for a lightly used iPhone 5c.

If you used your upgrade to buy an iPhone 5S today for $200 and sold it immediately to Newaya for $500, you would make a $300 profit. This is simply not possible with other smartphones like Samsung’s Galaxy models and HTC’s One unless you’re willing to assume the risk and time of selling the phone yourself.

bottom line: If you have an upgrade when the new iPhone comes out, use it. Your carrier is handing you several hundred dollars worth of subsidies, and they are worth the very most when the latest iPhone is released. If you don’t want the new iPhone, sell it to someone like Newaya or on Craigslist, eBay or Swappa.

3 Lessons My Dad Taught Me, But I Had to Learn Myself

My dad’s lessons on business and life always turn out to be true and valuable. Usually I don’t listen the first time around, and I end up kicking myself. These three have been big in my life lately.

1. It’s important to be uncomfortable

I hated my first year in college. I didn’t know the new city I was living in and I did a crap job of working to know it better. There was a mental block towards new experiences in this new place.

When I went home for the summer after year 1, I told my dad that I wanted to transfer to a university back home. He wouldn’t let me. He said that I needed to make an uncomfortable place comfortable. That the process was important. I reluctantly went back for a second year.

4 years later I love Colorado. It’s a really special place for me to be living and building a company. I couldn’t  see the opportunity for this place to be great when I moved here because I was personally uncomfortable. Getting over that unfamiliarity is the first threshold in learning anything new. The faster that you can get past it, the easier it will be to pick up new skills and explore new places.

Now I try to get uncomfortable wherever and however I can.


2. Focus sucks at first, then it works

Towards the end of college I had a lot of things going on. School, app development, starting a company, and helping my friends with their companies.

Dad has always been cautious but supportive about this. He encourages me to have different seeds planted, but he doesn’t believe in multitasking.

For a long time, I thought I was great at multitasking. I’m not. Other people might be great at it. I’m still not. And that’s okay. Better, in fact that I know what I’m bad at.

At first things went great. But when each thing got bigger, I was spread way too thin. It’s hard to do a lot of things really well.

In the last nine months I’ve honed my focus onto just one project: Newaya. It’s the main thing I’m thinking about day to day. The transition is hugely liberating and Newaya will likely have grown 2.5-3x from 2012 to 2013. Legit progress, yo.


3. Business happens over time (life does too)

I used to feel that in the information age, long-term relationships and conservative business growth fell by the wayside to rapid software iterating and viral growth.

Dad tried to explain this a hundred times. My feeling was wrong. Super wrong.

A genuine portion of Newaya’s growth comes from the fact that the company has been around for 2+ years to date. I now believe that it takes at least 1-2 years for other people and companies to see that you’re really serious, and are not going to abandon ship for another project or interest. This is especially pertinent to folks that have a lot of hobbies and ideas.

Depending on the industry and your sales cycle, you might meet a potential customer on day 1 of business that doesn’t need your product/service until day 500. Make sure you stay around until day 500, it’s really fun to turn these connections into customers.

Fast Becomes Free on the AppStore

Fast has been available for almost a year and a half now. I’m really proud of it. I think that it’s the most beautiful speedometer app available for iPhone. Ben and Jan (Fast’s designers) both worked really hard on this one, and it shows. It’s not just me. People love Fast. I’ve received numerous emails from ecstatic customers that have used Fast to replace their speedometers on their cars, motorcycles, and even to try in their airplanes! This feedback has been so rewarding. It has made the time, effort, and financial cost of development completely worth it.

Customer Jeremy Lacey uses Fast with the green skin on his custom motorcycle!

Fast did great on the App Store in the beginning. There were several days in the first few months after the release with over 100 paid downloads. But as time went on, sales declined and Fast’s ranking in the AppStore did too. Now, if you search “Speedometer” on the App Store, Fast is the 33rd result.

But I think that Fast can do better. I believe that if more people begin to use Fast, they’ll appreciate it’s killer design and simple user interface. Hopefully this will make Fast rise in the ranks on the App Store, and the app will get the use that it deserves.

Starting today, Monday August 20th, Fast is 100% FREE on the iOS App Store. Please download and share it to your heart’s content.

Die Behind a Shitty Desk, at a Great Start-Up

Last fall I attended a conference for start-up entrepreneurs – with speakers that talked about things like “What not to do or say to a venture capitalist.” It was fun, and super educational. The best thing I heard all day, though, was an anecdote that a tenured entrepreneur had to share. This guy was in a room full of suits.. Even I was wearing a suit. He had on jeans and a messy polo shirt. A real entrepreneur.

The guy shared a story about a mentor or friend of his that was visiting him in the office one day. Apparently this friend had been quite successful and was rolling in the dough from good investments and IPOs. But the friend had an epiphany of sorts. His friend walked up to his desk, grabbed the edges of the old table and exclaimed: “I want to die behind a shitty desk at a great start-up!”

I thought that was really great.

So today I got my first real office desk. I paid $55 at a thrift store in town. It’s actually pretty sweet, depending on which angle you look at it from..