Drones, robots, planes and vehicles: RC toys with an app

As a general rule, we recommend control with a handheld transmitter, but there are exceptions where control by an app makes sense. In this article we look at models that are controlled by a smartphone or tablet.

Four different technologies are mainly used for control. Classic wireless transmission, control via infrared signal and use of WLAN or Bluetooth connection. Classic wireless transmissions dominate in the lower price segment, but some models with app control are also available.

And the bluetooth control basically replaces the ordinary remote control. However, operation over a WLAN signal has some notable advantages and disadvantages. The big advantage is the diversity of data that can be sent bidirectional. In addition to control, this applies to the transmission of video and audio signals, for example. An additional video transceiver, such as that used with FPV drones, is not necessary. This reduces costs and allows for smaller scale equipment. In addition, complex control commands and model programming can also be transmitted via WLAN. DJI shows this with its smart but very expensive Robomaster S1 (test report).

Although the operation works reliably within the WLAN range, the transmission usually has a little delay. Other disadvantages of this technology are often short range and less control via the touch screen. If it were not for high-speed flights or attempts to record, the latency of current models is negligible.

If you look at the set of remote controlled cars with app control, you will find simple RC toys that can be controlled by handheld transmitter and app. Here the app is usually only intended as an alternative to the portable transmitter. Data is usually transmitted via Bluetooth. No more control commands are conveyed here. However, playback via a smartphone opens up new possibilities. As an alternative to controlling with the joystick, the motion can be easily controlled. This works perfectly with the Playmobil Rocket Racer for just under 50€ and we like it better than the control with the included mini remote. But here it is worth considering the prices. The RC Rock’n’roll racer from the same Playmobil series is available from €33.

So we recommend taking a look at the cheaper no-name terminal block kits, which offer similar functionality but only cost a fraction. In general, our experiences with inexpensive terminal blocks have been positive. As a rule, parts are hardly distinguishable from the originals. The motors may be weaker, but not all Klemmstein remote-controlled groupsets are powerful. The main drawback is that the program is only available in English. However, since programming is usually done with adults, this is okay.

If you don’t want to use mounting blocks, you can instead take a look at one of the bolt-on kits for robots. Here, it is possible to control via a smartphone, but the actual programming of the technical components (Arduino or Raspberry) is done on the PC. These kits are for anyone who enjoys programming. These kits are less convenient as RC toys. Depending on the equipment, small kits such as a robot car cost around 55 euros. More complex variants such as the hexapod robot cost more than 100 euros.

If you just want to play and not mess around, for now you should have a look at the R2-D2 smart robot from Hasbro. The interactive robot is currently available for around 65€. Usually the price is more than 100 euros.

The balls from Sphero, which can be controlled via the app, are at least exciting. This is not only unusual, but experience has shown to be very interesting. While the tiny Sphero-Mini is still affordable at €50, the complex, programmable variant Sphero Steam costs more than €185.

Of course there are also RC cars with application control, such as the German-developed Sternkind drift cars (test report). Not only can these RC cars drift around corners, but the overall application enables changes in driving or confrontation behavior with other drivers. However, the controls take a while to get used to and the upgraded German drift cars are also very expensive.

There are also many product entries with additive application in the field of RC aircraft. However, more often than not, it’s just a transfer of photos via the app. This is the case with toy drones or video drones such as the DJI Mavic series.

However, there are also some notable exceptions. There is a small DJI Tello drone (Test Report). Although it can optionally be controlled via a console, it is ultimately designed to be operated via a smartphone. In addition to controlling and transmitting images, the motion sequence can also be programmed via the software. DJI (Ryze) Tello is available in different designs from around €85. The significantly more expensive Xiaomi Fimi X8 Mini (test report) video drone can also be controlled for 420 euros via the app. Its range with the remote is much higher, but the package size without an additional controller is smaller.

However, our budget information is not a drone, but a small aircraft. The Smartplane Pro from TobyRich is already available from Amazon for 15 euros. The price on other platforms is also only 18-22 euros. The background is that the manufacturer is now insolvent and therefore no spare parts, extra batteries, etc. are available. This can also cause problems if a warranty is claimed – but an exchange is usually possible without any issues at Amazon. The aircraft measures approximately 33 x 30 cm, weighs only about 40 grams and is controlled exclusively via an app. Flying works well with a little practice and is also very fun for adults. The Smartplane Pro has so far escaped the meadow unscathed. However, experience has shown that there must be enough space available, otherwise the aircraft, which is generally quite stable, will quickly get stuck in a tree or bush.

Controlling RC toys via the app not only has advantages, but also opens up new possibilities. In addition to transmitting images from small drones, such as the DJI Tello (Test Report), it is also possible to program them using an application.

If you are interested in crafts, games and programming, you should definitely take a look at the sets of remote-controlled installation blocks, available from 20 euros. DIY models may not boast high speeds, but they are fun and comically enhance understanding of technology. If you wish, you can also control RC models of Playmobil or Star Wars robots via the app, but programming is not possible here. Aside from motion control, the system offers no advantages over a handheld transmitter.

We find the Smartplane Pro from TobyRich, controlled exclusively by a smartphone, to be unusual, but cheap and good. Although there are no spare parts here, the fun of flying and its current price of only €15 seemed worth the risk to us.

Leave a Comment