Remote control toys are so much fun that it is easy to lose yourself in the moment and enjoy the sheer technical wizardry of it all. When toys are this distracting, you’re hardly going to ask yourself how they work. But on the rare occasion that you do ask yourself this question, here is the answer in a nutshell.
There is a huge selection of remote-controlled toys on the market today. Cars, planes, robots, helicopters, trucks, boats…you get the idea. For all this variety, the operating principles behind them are pretty much the same. Every remote-controlled toy has four main parts.
- Power source: This is needed to send power through the toy and enable all the parts to work. In most remote control toys, that power source is most often batteries.
- Motor: The motor moves all of the parts and performs the basic functions that makes the toy do what it is designed to do. In the case of a remote-controlled vehicle that would include turning the wheels, steering, acceleration or braking.
- Transmitter: The transmitter is, to all intents and purposes, the remote control. It’s the thing you hold in your hand to give directions to the RC car or toy.
- Receiver: This is found in the toy itself and features an antenna and circuit board that receives the signals the transmitter sends to move the right parts.
So, how do these parts work together? In most remote controlled toys, the transmitter uses radio waves to send a signal to the receiver. The receiver then makes the motor work – that motor is powered by whatever source that particular toy uses. As we said before, that is typically batteries. That’s a brief answer – here’s the more detailed version.
The transmitter in the hand-held controller sends a signal to the toy over a specific frequency. In the case of RC cars, this is usually 27 MHz or 49 MHZ. Most controllers have the option for either MHZ, making it possible to play with two cars together without interference.
The controls will depend on the specific toy but in the case of a remote-controlled vehicle, they’ll usually include forward, reverse, and left and right combinations. When the controls are touched, they cause electrical contacts to touch at the same time. This transmits a number of electrical pulses, and the sequence of these pulses relates to a particular action. Using a remote-controlled vehicle as an example, actions like “forward” and “right” are transmitted to the vehicle’s receiver using radio waves.
The receiver takes this information and learns which part of the toy to move, using the motor and circuit board to achieve this. The receiver never stops working – it constantly scans for signals from the transmitter and that is how it instantly follows any commands you give it.
Today’s remote control toys represent great leaps in playtime technology, yet they’re based on old-fashioned scientific principles. We have to thank people like Alessandro Volta who created the first battery in 1800. Meanwhile, Heinrich Hertz was the one who worked out how to send signals via electric waves in around 1885, and Nikola Tesla who invented the first radio controlled vehicle in the late 1800s. It’s pioneers like them who give us so much high-tech fun today.