You’ve built the ultimate racing micro quad. Are you content to fly it through folding chairs and house plants? No; you want race courses with style! Enter the TBS LED Micro Racing Gates. These gates are sure to take any micro race course to the next level.
In the box, you’ll get four plastic gates with LED strips embedded inside. There’s an array of mounting options: four hooks, four magnetic blocks, and two clamps. For the electronics, you get four IR-controlled LED sequencers attached to a barrel jack cable, four barrel–to–XT-60 adapters, and one RaceTracker interface board/cable with XT-60. You won’t get a manual, batteries, or wall adapters. Not having power in the box is pretty typical, but the lack of documentation is a little curious for a TBS product. I’m sure there isn’t all that much to say, but a reference for things like input voltage range and available LED sequences would have made sense. You can also purchase the gates with a TBS RaceTracker included, which is an excellent cost savings if you planned on getting a RaceTracker anyway.
The first thing you need to do is find a power source. You have to read the product description on the website to find that 3S is recommended, and once you open the box the sequencer boards show a 5–24V rating. While powering via 2S does work, it gives a greatly reduced light output. You can also use a wall adapter; I tried 9V and 12V; both worked well. The RaceTracker Gate Interface doesn’t give a voltage range, and the product description unhelpfully just tells you it’s based on what kind of equipment you have. Putting 12V into this didn’t appear to hurt anything.
Once you’ve found a power source, you need to find a good location to put your gates. If you need some ideas, take a look at our article on course design. The equipment provided to mount the gates help make many options possible.
- The hooks are the simplest item and probably the least versatile. They only work to hang the gate down from something, and won’t keep it stable. You’ll need to already have something small to hook over, like a clothesline.
- The clamp has decent grip strength and an articulating head so you can turn the gate various directions with respect to the mount. It’s smooth inside, though, so if you want to hold onto something that’s also smooth you may need a non-slip shim (like a small piece of rubber). A few ridges help stop it from moving laterally, but rotating around a pole will be more likely. Because it’s spring-loaded, there’s better grip on larger objects. The clamp’s throat opens up a bit short of two inches.
- The blocks allow mounting to any ferromagnetic surface. In industrially-constructed areas like the maker space where we tested them, this is a brilliant method that offers a huge variety of placement options—though perhaps less useful inside many homes. Drywall construction often uses metal strips at the corners, which I was able to get a gate to hold onto, but bumping into it slightly would knock it down.
I found that using just one mount was at times not enough. A single clamp would hold a gate vertically just fine, but to lay it flat and create a “gravity gate” the clamps didn’t have enough strength and grip at either end. Using two clamps did the job. Similarly, a single magnetic block would hold a gate from above just fine, but if you held it from the side then contact with a drone might knock it down. Doubling up the blocks gave a more secure connection that stood up well to actual use.
One mounting strategy that seems to have been overlooked is simply standing a gate upright, such as sitting on the floor or a table. The magnetic blocks can do this on their own, but hitting a gate in flight will definitely cause it to fall over. We were able to find some scrap sheet metal pieces at the maker space that gave us a larger footprint. At least with what’s included in the kit, it’s far easier to hang the gates than stand them up. TBS links you to an object file for 3D-printing that can help, if that’s something you have available. It doesn’t seem to give the gate longitudinal support, though, so I’m unsure that it would prevent the gate from falling over. We think something should have been provided to solve this common task.
You might be limited in placement options by your power source as well. Wall plugs require you to run cabling; batteries add weight and therefore strain on your mounting hardware. If you use the gate interface, you’ll find it puts a lot of weight on some small connections if you were to just leave it hanging. TBS also links a 3D print for solving this problem, so hopefully you can get one made up if you’re in need.
Once you get the lights running, you’ll remember why you bought them. The gates are bright, colorful, and have a huge number of animations to choose from. They are basically impossible to miss even with crappy tiny FPV cameras at low frame rates. Flying a course made from them is a memorable experience.
The included animation sequencers are controlled via an included infrared remote. This offers turning gates on, off, and a quick selection of 12 solid colors—not all of which are exactly as pictured, but generally close enough. The remote’s other buttons are less obvious. There’s an ‘auto’ button which turns the gate on into a specific static (test) sequence if it’s already off. Brightness +/- buttons do work within a limited range after many repeated presses. “S+” and “S-” don’t appear to do anything. And then there’s “M+” and “M-” which change the animation sequence. There are tons of available sequences, each in many different colors, so you shouldn’t be at a loss to find something you like! But this is also a minor issue: there are so many that it takes absolutely forever to cycle through them if you’re looking for something in particular.
Only one remote controls all of the gates, so commands can sometimes spill over to nearby gates. You might prefer this at some times but not others.
The plastic does feel a bit cheaper than I’ve come to expect from a TBS product. This could be functional, though: it must be both lightweight and translucent. None of the components are especially rigid. I felt at times like I might break something when snapping hardware on and off the gate frames, though I haven’t actually broken either. Sometimes the magnetic bricks come apart, but each time this happened I was able to snap them back together. Everything will stand up to a micro quad collision just fine—unless you knock it down from a high place and it falls on something hard.
All the gates come with the power cord facing to the inside of the gate. This isn’t ideal—the gates are small enough as it is; you don’t want any cabling getting in the way. If you push the cable up toward the short side of the gate, you can easily pry it apart here and pass the cable through. It’s a quick mod that makes the setup process nicer.
One of our sequencers didn’t respond to the remote. Hopefully this is a one-off issue and not indicative of quality. TBS support has generally been excellent when other issues have come up so I expect it will be replaced. (The review product was on loan, so I didn’t contact TBS about this myself.)
What’s it like to actually fly these? Several packs of gates went into construction of a course for Multirotor Vermont‘s maker space micro series. This event video gives you a look at DVR flight footage alongside external shots of the course:
As long as the gates are lit, they are unmistakably bright. Despite the brightness, depending on the camera’s contrast settings, the gates can still sometimes be hard to see. If the camera corrects for a dark environment by pushing background areas to white, there may not be enough contrast to find the gate. For maximum effect, you may want to consider what else will be in view while placing your gates. If you turn the gate lighting off, they’re very difficult to see until you are close—so make sure you have enough power available to light them for your entire race event. Because of the way dynamic range compensation works in cameras, gate visibility can improve by turning their brightness down, so that’s worth a try as well if you’re having visibility issues.
In many FPV cameras, the subtle colors wash out to white because these cameras simply don’t have the dynamic range to display anything that bright. (Even the stand-alone photo above suffers from this to some degree, and it was taken with an SLR using a carefully balanced strobe to reduce the brightness difference between the LEDs and the frame.) Other cameras did better and the color came through reasonably well. It’ll depend on your hardware, camera settings, and the amount of other bright/dark objects in frame at the time. Again, because of the way dynamic range compensation works in cameras, turning the brightness down on the gates often delivers more saturated colors.
The other really important thing to know before picking up a set of these gates is that they are small. The gates are 30.5cm by 42.5cm, which is about 12″ × 16.5″ in Imperial. The gate area works out to 200in². This is considerably less than MultiGP’s gate spec of 361in² which is itself already smaller than the “race spec” Tiny Whoop rectangular gate. It takes an accomplished pilot to navigate these while carrying a good amount of speed. Fairly new pilots often aren’t able to fly them at all. Challenging yourself like this is likely to make you a better pilot, but be aware that your race courses will be much slower until you get very good at it.
Along with the challenge of size comes an unexpected added difficulty when you are racing: propwash. Since all pilots are aiming for the same small gaps, pilots are closer together throughout the race. This makes it much harder to avoid flying through another pilot’s propwash or washing someone else out as you go by. You can see this happen in several places in the video. Micro quads are pretty poor at recovering from propwash, so you may want to fit more powerful motors just to improve your recovery time.
Connecting with the TBS RaceTracker
You might recall in our head-to-head with the ImmersionRC LapRF, the RaceTracker took second place—but here’s a trick the LapRF can’t do! Using the data cable that comes with the RaceTracker, you can connect the Gate Interface board to have your LED gates react to race status in real time. Each gate package comes with one of these, and you can order the Gate Interface separately if you like.
- Solid white with RaceTracker connected but powered off
- Off when tracker connected and powered on but no race is running
- Green for 3s, then fades out, at race start
- White after race start
- Pilot color for 3s when crossing the gate (TBS assigns the pilot colors)
- Blinking/chase pattern in pilot color for 3s if best lap
- Chase pattern in pilot color when nobody is crossing
- Red for 3s when maximum lap count is reached, then off
This is a pretty neat feature and great for spectators especially (as racers typically won’t see the effects of their own crossing). It’s only designed with a single RaceTracker in mind, though. To use this feature on multiple gates throughout your course, you need multiple RaceTracker units. These can’t be networked together so you have to configure and start races for every one individually—which is really cumbersome (especially if you’re trying to do it from a single phone or tablet). It’s also a bit of a pain to get the data cable in and out of the Tracker, so hopefully you only have to do this once.
There’s a “wow” factor that a well-lit course can produce, and these LED gates are one of the only ways to get that without undertaking a huge DIY project. Whether it’s worth $75 or more for 4 gates worth of cosmetic upgrade is a decision you can only make for yourself—there will definitely be arguments that it’s entirely unnecessary going up against arguments that the improved flight and spectator experience makes them a must-have. It’s like having a Lightrax course in your own home. Make sure to consider the difficulty of a course built with these gates. You’ll be slowing most of your races down, (unless your group is composed of well-above-average pilots,) and raising the barrier to entry for new racers. If that’s not a concern for you and you’ve got the available funds, you’ll be the proud owner of a race course that’s way cooler than everyone else’s.