How Electric RC Airplanes Work





Today’s electric RC airplanes can do just about anything a nitro or gas powered plane can do.

In fact, many people have converted their glow powered airplanes to electric model airplanes.

The beauty of flying electric is that there is never on oily mess to  clean up when finished flying.

There is no need for carrying a gallon of fuel. With an electric plane, you simply charge the batteries and go fly!

Parkflyers

Small electric airplanes are perfect for starting out in this hobby. I personally learned to fly with an electric park flyer.

Park flyers are small electric airplanes that usually come with everything installed and ready to fly.

RC electric airplanes are also quieter, safer, and can be flown in fields, parks, and other places where glow powered airplanes can’t (or shouldn't) be flown.

I'll have to say though, there's one drawback that's hard for many of us to overcome...  An electric motor just don't sound near as cool and a fuel burning engine!

Let's discuss the different electrical components involved with flying electric airplanes. Be sure to follow the links to pages with more details on each.


If you have a specific question about electric planes, don't hesitate to ask your question here!


Components of Electric RC Airplanes

Image from Castle Creations

An electric RC plane has a motor, an electronic speed controller (ESC), and sometimes a gearbox.  Of course, they all need batteries.


Electric RC Motors

There are two types or RC electric motors used with RC airplanes. The first type seen below is a "canned" motor. This is a standard DC motor with brushes.

The second type of motor is a brushless RC motor. Brushless motors are much more efficient and lighter than canned motors.

Not so long ago, if you wanted to fly large airplanes you had little choice but to use a glow engine or gas engine. That's not the case any more!

Thanks to brushless motors, you can now fly any size RC aircraft without worrying about loud and messy engines.

Brushless motors have revolutionized both ends of the spectrum. The increased power to weight ratio of brushless motors has also brought about an entire new breed of micro RC airplanes. Learn learn how brushless RC motors are so much more powerful than canned RC motors.



Electronic Speed Controllers

An electronic speed controller(ESC) is what controls the speed of the RC electric motor.

The ESC plugs into the receiver. Both the motor and battery plugs to the ESC. As you move the throttle stick, the receiver tells the ESC to change the speed of the motor. 

Pretty simply right?  Actually, there are a few key characteristics and options that you need to be familiar with to insure you choose the right ESC for your airplane.  One of the most important things is knowing the difference between ESC's for brushed and brushless motors.

Learn more about Electronic Speed Controllers Here


Do You Need a Gearbox?

The speed at which an RC electric motor runs most efficiently is often much faster than we want the propeller to turn.  This is especially true with brushless inrunner motors.

A small plastic gearbox between the motor and propeller reduces the output speed and increases the torque of the propeller shaft. This allows the airplane to use a larger propeller that produces more torque.


Learn more about propeller thrust vs. propeller speed

These gearboxes are really simple. They generally consist of a small pinion gear on the motor driving a larger gear on the output shaft. Gearboxes are most commonly used on small light weight parkflyer electric rc airplanes where minimizing weight is crucial.  

Gearboxes are noisy, they reduce efficiency, and its an added part that can and does get damaged during a crash. Whenever possible, you're best bet is to use a slower higher torque outrunner motor that doesn't require a gearbox.


Types of Batteries

Obviously, the batteries are what supplies power to run the motor, receiver, and servos. The three types of batteries most commonly used with electric RC airplanes are Nickel Cadmium(NiCd), Nickel Metal Hydride (NiMH), and Lipo batteries.

But let's not fool ourselves, Lipo's are by far the most widely used these days. Not only with electric RC airplanes, but with most all electronics.

That being said, every type of battery needs to be charged differently and may require different chargers. Be sure to read the directions that come with your batteries carefully.


NiCd batteries are commonly used for transmitters and receivers of both gas and electric RC airplanes. Many lower priced park flyers use this type of battery also.

The main disadvantage of NiCd batteries is that they have a memory. In other words, the capacity diminishes if you do not fully discharge the battery after every use before recharging.



NiMH are similar to NiCd batteries and have less issues with “memory”.  The capacity per weight is more than that of NiCd batteries.

I replaced my receiver NiCd receiver batteries with NiMH batteries and they last about twice as long before having to be charged.



LiPo batteries are a quantum leap from the other two types of batteries. These batteries pack an enormous amount of energy and are much lighter than the other two types.

 LiPo batteries keep a constant power output throughout the flight where as NiCd and NiMH batteries slowly loose power until the battery is dead.



Question about Electric Airplanes or Components?

Do you have a specific question about your electric RC airplane? Have question about component selection? What size battery to get? Problems getting it all to work right?

Don't hesitate to ask your question here. We'll do our best to help you find the answers you're looking for!

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Additional Reading...

If you found this page helpful, I highly recommend taking a look at these pages as well.  


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