By Aaron Waldron
It has only been about a decade since the start of the first technological revolution in the RC industry’s young history. After over four decades of incremental changes in the radio systems, power units, and batteries that powered and controlled nearly ever RC car on the planet, the last ten years have seen the transition from crystal-equipped AM and FM radios to 2.4 GHz systems, from incredibly labor-intensive brushed motors to brushless power units, and from finicky Nickel-based batteries to lighter, more powerful Lithium-based packs. The series of drastic, sweeping upheaval of the status quo forever changing the industry from backyards to the World Championships.
And the changes have ushered in new developments, too - the cars are different, the tires are different, and the ways that owners use these new products is similar to the previous generation only in spirit. The transition from “old spec” to “new spec” brought with it new manufacturers, and those who weren’t able to keep up with the pace of change fell off the radar - or sank completely.
There have been clues over the last couple of years that we are nearing the brink of another change. As manufacturers started to release their second, third, and fourth (or more) new models of the current technology, similar patterns have developed that preceded the big changes starting in 2005: now with each brand offering competitive units with similar features and performance capacity, the game shifted to other aspects of the product experience - smaller case sizes, wider tuning options, and greater access to available technology. You need just one look to see how much brushless ESC’s and 2.4 GHz receivers have shrunk in size and weight, and yet they’ve also added functionality only previously available with separate standalone units - like telemetry and stability control. Battery manufacturers have started moving toward providing specialized cases, rather than aggressively pushing for more powerful and longer lasting cells. As we’ve seen with nearly every other notable feature relating to RC electronics, it’s only a matter of time before all the major brands produce similar offerings.
In the last two months, two new products that have hit the RC scene (and LiveRC’s home page) could provide a big hint into not just the future of technology within our hobby, but also potential changes in the industry’s landscape.
Back in 2013, Airtronics released the Super Vortex Plus speed control - its first race-spec ESC since the advent of brushless motors. Tucked within its attractive gun metal-anodized case was every feature you’d imagine from a 1-2S racing ESC, along with the incredible ability to connect to the M12 and EXZES-Z transmitters via the Sanwa Synchronized Link. Racers who combine the Airtronics Super Vortex Plus with an RX-472 receiver and one of the aforementioned radios can not only adjust their ESC’s parameters directly from the transmitter, but the radio can also display full telemetry data such as speed, rpm, temperature, and voltage.
In May of this year, Airtronics went one step further - stuffing the RX-472’s internals inside the Super Vortex Pro case. Both the receiver and speed control function as normal, with the full capabilities of the standard RX-472 and Super Vortex Plus (including the nifty SSL compatibility with the M12/EXZES-Z), but the Super Vortex Plus required only the space of one unit. Simply plug in your steering servo, connect the power and sensor leads to the motor, and you’re off.
Team Orion, meanwhile, created their own combo with the dDrive - by stuffing a sensorless ESC built on a circular circuit board into the endbell of a 4-pole brushless motor. Unlike the Airtronics Super Vortex Plus Zero combo, which was aimed right at hardcore racers and hobbyists buying exclusively from the highest shelf, Team Orion intends the dDrive to be a powerful, efficient power system perfect for backyard bashers that’s easy to install and use. I’m no electronics engineer, but I can’t see there being too many more hurdles stopping them from doing the same with an R10.1 Pro and VST2 Pro. In a high-stress environment like racing, what better way to encourage the two units to work synergistically than to make them one piece?
Combining electronics components isn’t anything new. Tamiya’s CPR system combined the receiver and speed control into one unit back in the 1980s:
And Team Losi not only did the same for the Mini T in the early 2000s, but they bundled the electronics for the steering servo (everything but the motor and gears) into the same unit as well.
Though both the Super Vortex Plus Zero and dDrive units accomplish the same task of lowering the number of major electrical components in the car by one, they also reduce production resources - and could trigger another change in car design.
Sure, combining two items into one might be a hassle if the failure of one component requires the servicing or replacement of the entire unit, but it wouldn’t be the first time that an ESC that shorted out damaged the motor or receiver (or both) along with it. And perhaps it could motivate the brands to make each portion of the unit serviceable. Of course, other manufacturers will have to jump on the trend in order to promote change through competition, but that always helps improve all products across the board.
The potential performance gains, not to mention improved consumer experience and better overall value, could be enough to spur manufacturers to pursue similar units, but the real motivation will probably be way more selfish than that.
Since the turn of the century, the largest manufacturers have been engaged in an arms race to diversify in order cover as much of the hobby shop shelf - and each customer’s receipt - as possible. That’s why kit brands now offer branded electronics, accessory brands have begun creating kits, and distributors and retailers have been trying to gobble up brands of both types. Not only are many major brands merging or divesting, and spreading themselves out as much as possible, but they’re trying to leverage their products to gain as much market share as possible.
You don’t have to look very far to see proof that RC manufacturers feel locked in a life-and-death struggle for market share amid a sea of increasing competition. Every time a brand introduces its own non-compatible tire and wheel design, or non-standard power plug, or oddly sized axle, they’re trying to strong-arm their customers into buying only the replacement and optional items with their header cards - or in some cases, force other brands to pay royalties for making compatible products. Sometimes it works, sometimes it fails - spectacularly.
Any brand that can lock a customer into using its transmitter, servo, speed control, receiver, and motor, will be rewarded handsomely. There are fewer transmitter manufacturers in the RC industry than there are speed control, motor, or servo brands (and some radio makers also have items in those other categories already), so they obviously have the upper hand. The more companies that succeed in packaging and selling that magical five-pack, the less room there will be for manufacturers that specialize in only one or two items - some of which are the oldest and most well-known brands in RC.
When will the next change happen - and which brands will survive?