Freestyle vs. Racing

What distinguishes a freestyle frame? Anything that isn’t specifically designed for racing is often considered a freestyle frame. Race frames are designed for pure performance at the expense of almost everything else: light weight and minimal surface area for low drag. This tends to make them more difficult to build and maintain, less durable, and with less protection of the internal components. It’s a formula that squeezes out the most possible speed and handling from the other parts making up the quad. By contrast, anything that doesn’t follow this formula is labeled a freestyle frame.

This doesn’t mean that anything which isn’t optimizing flight performance is ideal for freestyle. Instead, it becomes a more personal choice. Not having the singular performance goal allows designers to diversify quite the features to make available. Your flying style, tolerance for replacing parts, and capabilities as a builder will all affect what does and doesn’t interest you. This article will help you decide which features you’re interested in so you can make the best choice for you.

Durability

SabotageRC dingo5 partially assembled

SabotageRC’s Dingo uses a lot of curves that reduce stress concentration points. This leads to a stronger frame overall at the cost of some added weight.

Durability is often a high priority for freestyle pilots, and many freestyle frames emphasize it. Nobody wants to break something and quit for the day, so frames that can take a beating and keep on going will always be in demand. What should you look for in a durable frame?

  • Arm thickness: In general, a thicker arm is less likely to break because more material provides a wider area to distribute stress over in a crash. While a race frame may have arms 3mm thick and less than 6mm in width, more durable “freestyle” arms are generally at least 4mm thick and could be as much as 20mm wide.
  • Internal plate thickness: Similar to the arms, the other structural plates are generally more durable if they are thicker. You should also look at the pattern of cutouts in the plates. Having more cutouts can often reduce material strength, but their location and shape makes big difference.
  • Stress risers: When a material is subject to stress, the force usually becomes more concentrated in some areas than others. This is called a stress concentration (or stress riser) and creates a location that is much more likely to break. As a general rule, using curves instead of hard angles in a design and increasing the amount of material in these stress points will improve overall durability. Frames with rounded corners and cutouts will fare better than those that are sharp.
  • Carbon Direction: Nearly all frames are made of carbon fiber. These weaves are stronger along the direction of the fibers, meaning the plates are weaker at 45-degrees to the weave. While you can’t really tell how the carbon sheets are oriented based on the appearance of top-most twill layer, frames with individual arms will usually be cut optimally for each arm but unibody frames can’t re-orient the carbon to make this happen.
  • Carbon quality: Not all carbon fiber is made equal. Depending on the size of the fibers, the process used to create them, and the number of fibers in a weave, the strength of the material can vary considerably. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do as a consumer to figure out whether the carbon is use is a good grade; it’s often not published or the terms in use (like “3K”) are essentially meaningless. The best advice here? Expect to get what you pay for.

Weight

3" freestyle/racing drone

For propellers smaller than 5″, frame dimensions matter a lot more. Pay close attention to the dimensions of mounting points for motors, flight controller stack, and camera.

A race has one goal when looking at the weight spec for a frame: is it light enough? Lighter is faster, and that’s all there is to it—race frames weigh in anywhere from 60–80g on average. For a freestyle pilot, the decision is again much more nuanced. Since extreme weight reduction isn’t the goal, frame designers have the ability to build up other features without as much concern. Freestyle frames often weigh in from 90–120g.

The added weight in a freestyle rig is often touted as a benefit. With a higher inertia, the flight characteristics change: the quad is more resistant to acceleration and changes of direction. Freestyle pilots often prefer this because it creates more of a “floaty” feeling. A pilot can launch a heavy quad into the air and know that its momentum will continue to carry it in the same direction. This gives the pilot time to execute flips, rolls, and other acrobatics while the quad continues to follow a natural path. Executing acrobatics with a light weight race frame can divert the frame’s path much easier during these moves. Heavier quads are also more resistant to vibration, which helps to provide smooth “jello-free” footage. At the end of the day, the weight is a pilot preference—light weight frames are quite capable of acrobatics—but most freestyle pilots prefer a slightly heavier rig.

A heavier weight does mean carrying more momentum into a crash. The heavier quad takes a harder impact for the same amount of speed as compared to a lighter one. Usually, this is more than offset by smart design, but it’s worth noting that weight in itself does not provide durability.

Protection

A SabotageRC Dingo5 arm showing direction of carbon fibers

Carbon that runs parallel to the arm will lend greater strength along its length and width where it’s needed most. (But the top-most twill layer doesn’t tell you how it’s oriented within.)

Having a frame that doesn’t break really only saves you time and money if the other parts you have mounted inside it don’t break either. You should evaluate a frame that you are considering to purchase based on how well the other parts you strap in will be protected, too.

The biggest problem area is usually the flight camera. When the camera sticks out the front of the frame, it can take hits pretty hard. It might sound easy enough to move it backward, but many pilots don’t like seeing parts of the frame or the props in the video feed. Another issue that crops up when you pull the camera into the frame is that you often lose the ability to run high tilt angles. It’s tough to find a position that satisfies all three of these constraints. Often at least one area is left to compromise. You may need to decide which is most important to you. If you don’t want to replace a camera, look for a mount that’s recessed inward so the lens doesn’t stick out. Keep in mind that both the front and the top can cause potential issues. You’re not often flying the quad level (since you tilt forward to move) and are more likely to hit the upper part of the frame. When it comes to visibility, find some YouTube videos of pilots flying the quad you’re thinking of buying and see if the frame pops into view on FPV feeds.

The most important piece to protect might be the action camera. If you use a brand-name camera, it probably cost more than the whole quad. These are much more difficult to protect given their size and shape variety, so a lot of frames offer little to no protection at all. If you find one that offers decent protection, it’s probably built for a specific type of action camera and makes other compromises. One such example is the Shendrones Corgi—which holds only the GoPro Session and you’ll be carrying nearly 150g in the frame alone.

Most other parts stay fairly well confined within the main body of the frame, but take a brief look at the design and think about how you will build it before you buy. Will individual ESCs hang off the arms? Will the battery run into anything else in a crash? Will the receiver antennas be safely out of harm’s way? Can the video antenna easily break or get pushed into a prop in a crash? Taking a few moments to consider this might help you choose a frame that better serves you for the long term. If you’re totally new to the sport — look at what your frame your favorite acro pros are flying. Buying a top end frame might cost a little more money, but you’ll start out right and quickly figure out which features matter to you.

Building and Maintenance

The Armattan Chameleon topped “best freestyle frame” lists and created a wave of spin-offs with its revolutionary deck design and camera mounting/protection.

Another important consideration for your ideal freestyle frame will be what it takes to build and maintain it. Different frames allow different styles of parts to be used, which can limit and direct your selection. Parts and standards have changed over time, so it’s certainly not a given that you’ll be able to make anything work. But sure to pay attention to these details when making purchasing decisions:

  • Does the frame have full-size (36×36mm) or mini (20×20mm) mounting holes for a flight controller?
  • Can the arms handle individual ESCs, or does the build require a 4-in-1?
  • What size motor mounting holes does it have?
  • Is there enough room to stack taller components?
  • What sizes of camera can be used (full, micro, mini)?
  • How will you mount your receiver and its antennas?
  • How will you mount your VTx and its antenna?
  • Will you have plenty of space to build with (helpful for new builders) or will it need to be tight?
  • How will you mount your action camera?

Once you have it built and flying for a while, eventually something will break. How easy is it to make basic repairs? Some frames have a lot of small parts that can easily get lost if you work on them in the field, while others are simple and you can change out a broken arm without taking nearly any of the quad apart. Many fall in between, or have special features like access panels or hinged plates to make working on them simpler. These can make maintenance easy, but can also complicate or weaken the frame structurally if not carefully designed.

Other Considerations

Other things you might want to consider when picking out a frame:

  • Does the manufacturer support it? Is there a warranty of any kind? Are spare parts available? For example, Armattan has a class-leading lifetime warranty on many frames—you break it, they’ll replace it. Some other manufacturers have similar warranties.
  • Does it bring anything novel or exciting to your flying? Karearea’s Kea frame has waffle-like plates that add wind resistance and increase hang time, unlike anything else available.
  • Does the styling appeal to you? Does it make you want to fly it?
  • How much does it cost and is that within your budget?

Conclusion

In the end, selecting a freestyle frame is a very personal choice. Each presents its own unique set of compromises in durability, component protection, ease of build and maintenance, and so on. You’ll have to choose something that fits your situation and gives you the features you want most. Hopefully this guide has given you the tools to evaluate and make a smart, informed decision about which is best for you.

This article was made possible by SabotageRC. SabotageRC is a branch of Armattan, a frame producer renowned for their high quality and lifetime warranty. Using the same quality components as Armattan, SabotageRC aims to deliver a high quality product at a much lower cost. It does this by dropping the premium experience, warranty, and specialized hardware. Pilots who can’t spring for the premium and might otherwise buy poor quality product might consider SabotageRC instead as they offer quality products at a competitive price point.

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