Three years ago I integrated a quad rotor into an old Hasbro Star Wars Speeder Bike, unknowingly setting myself down a path that resulted in millions of YouTube views, hundreds of new maker friends, and an insatiable desire to make things fly that simply shouldn’t. Now whenever I walk down a toy aisle, I’m constantly on the lookout for my next build.
When it comes to flying, weight is king. Using plastic toys is the easiest way to create a lifelike model, but they’re heavy. A rotary tool is your friend. Use a sanding drum to remove any unnecessary material, and swap in lighter materials for non-structural parts. If you don’t want to use a donor vehicle, or can’t find one, there are thousands of free papercraft plans of most popular sci-fi ships. Recreating these with plastic or foam is an easy way to get a light, highly detailed model (Figure A).
Your next consideration should be lift, and blending the propulsion system into the model as much as possible (Figure B). Black rotors are barely visible while spinning, and you can now find many rotor sizes molded in clear plastic, which look great on display. Multirotors have to tilt in the direction they want to go. If the rotors are installed level with the rest of the vehicle, this can make for a strange nose-down attitude in forward flight. Install the rotors at an angle so that the ship cruises around level.
Now it’s time to decorate. Weathering or dirtying up is the easiest way to make it look realistic, and a simple paint wash can add depth and bring out details like panel lines. Add your own touches by scoring the part with a razor blade, then going back to work in the paint wash. Little defects add character and can cover up mistakes. When possible, lay your parts flat for painting (Figure C).
Your creations might have some bizarre handling qualities, so getting them to fly well is an exercise in trial and error. These frequent encounters with terra firma can take their toll on light/fragile structures. To address this, I’ve recently shifted from using rigid foams like EPS and Depron to more compliant materials like expanded polypropylene (EPP). EPP can be sourced in a variety of densities, in sheet thicknesses from 2mm to 10mm. Thinner foams can be used to replicate most papercrafting techniques, and hold up well to repeated abuse. As an added bonus, EPP is solvent resistant, so it can be painted with pretty much anything and easily glued with cyanoacrylate (super glue).
Now get out there and get building! We live in a new golden age of flight.