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Renschler Picolario Talk Vario

The Renschler Picolario Talk was the first variometer produced to conform with UK regulations, and has been sold world-wide for several years. Many top pilots feel their Picolario is indispensable. Chris Williams, for instance, has championed the unit since it first arrived in the UK.

But the Picolario isn’t just a variometer! At the same time as it indicates the lift or sink your aircraft is encountering, it is constantly monitoring the on-board battery and reporting back to the pilot whenever there is a 0.1volt drop in power! It also serves as an altimeter, providing announcement at pre-programmed intervals, or on demand. Latest versions have an interference monitor and an extreme range warning, too! As if that was not enough, the Picolario Talk also records the maximum and minimum parameters of your last ten flights.

Aircraft Battery monitor
Interference monitor
Flight recorder

Although the Picolario is fairly expensive, very few pilots would argue that it does give exceptional value for money! It is also incredibly small and light, and power consumption is so small as to be of no consequence. John Williams couldn’t have made his enthusiasm clearer:- “It’s absolutely brilliant. I wish I’d bought it a year earlier. I’d recommend anyone to forget the price: Just Order It!”

All you need is the Picolario talk at £230, and a 433mHz hand-held radio to receive the audio tones and messages. Optional extras include an earphone to keep those messages to yourself and to reduce noise-pollution on the site, a Total-energy Pitot head assembly for enhanced accuracy and scale effect, and the red-button to allow easier programming if the model has a confined fuselage.

Firebird UK
Turfhouse, Luppitt, Honiton, Devon, EX14 4SA.
Tel: 01404 891685
E-mail: simon@firebirduk.com
Online shop: www.firebirduk.com

Facts about the Picolario

by Chris Williams

printed by kind permission of Traplet Publications Ltd.

The Picolario transmitter is a small, white plastic box (97 x 36 x 13 mm) with a sensor tube and an aerial sticking out of it; the weight is negligible at 24 g.

The transmitter sits in your model and is held in place via the services of a Velcro pad (or foam packing if you are of a nervous disposition), and is connected to a spare channel in your receiver. When switched on via the model’s receiver switch, the Picolario sets itself at zero altitude, regardless of where you are or at what height from sea level. All height telemetry transmitted during the subsequent flight is relative to the height at launch. But wait, I’m getting ahead of myself, what exactly does this nifty little unit do?

Its primary role is to convey to the pilot on the ground that information necessary to determine whether or not the model is flying through lift. It does this in exactly the same way as a variometer in a full-size sailplane using a rising beeping tone if altitude is increasing, a steady tone (or no tone at all) in zero sink, and a deep descending tone when the air is sinking.

I have heard said by some that the use of such a device amounts to nothing less than cheating, and I can see that in a thermal based competition this might be so, but when it comes to scale soaring, if it emulates something on the full-size then as far as I’m concerned it’s a damn sight closer to scale…

A secondary, but very important role is the conveying of the state of the model’s battery by giving the battery voltage via the use of a computer-synthesised voice. (Despite its digitised nature, this unmistakably woman’s voice still manages to have a trace of a German accent!)

Also via the lady’s voice, altitude information in meters tells you how far away your precious model is from Mother Earth.

It is also possible to set the unit up to tell you if your model has gone into failsafe, although I would have thought that would be obvious by the lack of control response and the pilot’s subsequent unsanitary condition…

Data (max and min values) from up to ten flights can be stored and replayed via the receiver, although of what use this might be I’m not sure unless you’re trying for an altitude record.
You might think that the foregoing is a pretty impressive range of capabilities, but there’s more.
If you assign a three-position switch (or, not so effectively, a slider) to the channel in which you have plugged the Picolario, you then control things from the ground via your model's Tx. For me this involved installing a switch into my MPX Cockpit tranny. I braced myself for a long session trying to get a half-nelson on the job but, rather to my surprise, the whole thing worked straight off, perhaps that’s what they mean by the phrase ‘plug and play’.

So, pull the switch down and it turns the unit off so you don’t necessarily have to have it beeping and talking to you during the whole of the subsequent flight.

In the middle position the vario sounds all the time, giving the vertical up or down parameters of the model, with occasional altitude and battery voltage pronouncements. In the up position you prompt the Picolario to give you an altitude and voltage reading at that moment.
The three-position switch in conjunction with the red button on the vario Tx unit allows the parameters to be re-adjusted to suit the pilot’s taste, the model type, or the flying conditions on the day.

Delay Time
There is a time lag from the point at which the model enters lift and starts to climb before the sounding of the first beep. The default setting is for a delay of one second to allow you to disregard small areas of lift in which it would not be practicable to circle. According to the manual, if you get a beep with this time delay setting, you can be sure it’s worth circling!

Sink Tone Level
You can also set the parameters for when you are flying through sinking air, or, as we call it hereabouts, ‘Williams’. You can set it up to be quiet when flying through zero sink, or, if you hate to be discouraged, you can lose the sinking tone altogether when the lift is not to be found.

Acoustic Scale Range
The unit has 40 different modulated frequencies up and down, in which you can select the range to be used. Now I like this next bit from the manual: ‘the less the value, the more nervous (and sensitive) the instrument’.

I must admit to being slightly baffled by this bit, but I guess we’re talking about setting the sensitivity of the unit to small differences in altitude whereby a too sensitive setting would have you chasing ghosts all across the wild blue yonder to little effect. (Or, as we call it hereabouts; ‘Williams’ Mode).

Altitude Time Interval
It is also possible to set the intervals where the automatic altitude declaration is made.

You might wonder what would happen if a dozen pilots turned up at an event with Picolarios clutched firmly in their sweaty mitts, would only one be able to operate at a time. There are in fact 16 channels available to be used with each unit, so although a bit of jockeying about would inevitable occur, you’ll all need to rush out in droves to my this unit before we have to start thinking about a separate pegboard!

The transmitter emits on the 433 MHz band, which, as I understand it, is legal in this country, but because the voice is synthesised it is OK. Do not use the hand-held unit as a regular walkie-talkie.
Also available with the unit is a very nifty earpiece, which fits over you ear so comfortably that you completely forget it’s there until you put the transceiver in the car and try to walk away! This is very useful on a windy day when the roar of air in your ears makes the transceiver’s speaker a trifle hard to hear.

Sweaty Palms Time…
On the slope, the Schweizer 2-32 was readied, and as per the manual, a careful range check carried out.

What do you hear when you first switch on? First the unit tells you which version of the software is installed, then the battery voltage and you hear a long-ish beep as the unit calibrates itself to the starting altitude.

I was somewhat dismayed as I walked away from the model Tx in hand to check the range to hear the voltage falling incrementally from 5.5 down to 5.1V. A quick test with my normal battery checker showed a healthy battery, so that’s one mystery that’s going to have to be solved later. (I believe it's common for the battery voltage to read artificially high when you first switch on, followed by a relatively quick drop to its correct state under load. Relax dude! KN)

In the air it was at once reassuring to hear the vario announcing lift as the model bounced up in the turbulent zone of air near the slope. I had assumed that flying from the slope in these conditions with a cold northerly wind would serve only to show that the unit was working as there was unlikely to be much in the way of thermal activity, and such proved to be the case.

However, it did prove useful to watch the model in the slope lift and to correlate the sounds coming from the radio with the attitude and climb rate.

A week later, once again in a twenty-knot wind, the opportunity arose for an aerotow session at Lordshill, near Warminster. This proved a much more useful test, this time via the services of my Bergfalke and Petrel models. The first thing that occurred to me was that if you needed a pre-determined release height for competition or site restriction purposes it’s just as easy to have the Picolario in the glider as the tug. Conditions on the day were not good, as you needed to keep well upwind in the strong breeze, and two thermal turns would soon see you downwind quicker than a senna-pod through a circus chimp.

Interestingly, although when the vario heralded lift it was fairly easy to see it for yourself by the model’s movements, there were plenty of times when it wasn’t visually obvious at all and the big disappointment was that due to the conditions it was difficult to circle and find the lift again. I must thank Mike Haddleton for discarding his pipe and slippers to tow me up on a day when none of us would normally have got out bed and for the photos from his new digital camera!

The next weekend saw us at the Rod Goevier Memorial Aerotow at the White Horse club near Lambourn, where they exercise racehorses. Needless to say the weather was less than cooperative with a gusty wind, low cloud and the sound of brass monkeys looking for lost hardware. What lift there was existed mostly by courtesy of the nearby ridge, which proved nothing more than that the Picolario was indeed working.

One of the big disadvantages of earlier varios of this type was the necessity to run a wire along or through the wing to act as an aerial. The great thing about the Picolario is that it is small, light and has a very short flexible aerial installed into the unit enabling it to be moved from model to model within seconds without any fuss (All you need is a lead ready made up in the model to plug it in). Obviously then, you only need the one unit to be able to use it on your entire fleet of sailplanes!
Visual perception of lift is most easily obtained when the model is at low altitude and at a reasonable distance from its pilot. Watching your machine in slope lift with the Picolario on merely serves to confirm your own perceptions that you are in rising, or sinking air. At altitude, however, there is a much greater angular distance between model and pilot, and it’s here that the Picolario really scores, or would if there was any thermal lift about. When you circle back with the wind to a position directly overhead, there are no visual clues to be had at all, and it was thus for a few poignant moments I found lift at the White Horse event that otherwise would have been invisible.

At the recent Middle Wallop aerotow event I watched Dave Briggs find a series of thermals using such a device in his 1/3 scale K6 and stay up in excess of an hour. To get a better spread of opinion, I later asked him for his, and he was kind enough to e-mail the following...

‘…I have used it all summer now, and its only since Thomas at Caen showed me how the sensitivity works that I have had the full benefit. It has taught me which clouds work and which don’t, but the two biggest benefits have been that I don’t hang around in sink anymore, and when I do hear it sing, it has taught me not to turn too tight in thermals, which I always did thinking that they are always small.'

'It has also showed me that even at low altitudes that there are still quite large areas of localised lift, thus extending my flights! As for making me a better thermal pilot, I don’t know, my flight times have increased amazingly when there’s lift, but when the air is dead it’s dead, and no buzzing or bleeping makes any different to your flight times.'

'Well, I think I thermal better now, and it has taught me to look around more instead of just wandering around until the flight ends. Also I have been quite surprised when you are under a fluffy lifting cloud that the centre of the thermal is quite a bit down wind, especially at the altitudes we fly at.'

1I have also found that in weak thermals where it is difficult to centre or stay in it, it's much more efficient to tack in and out of the lift rather than circle. I have found it to be a fantastic piece of kit, a bit pricey but well worth it, and after all if it keeps me in the air longer, then I can practise more…’

This device holds out the promise of prolonged thermal flight for even the most ham-fisted of pilots, (me, not you…) but I think it would take a reasonably long period of time to get the best out of it, learning how to tailor its capabilities to your own.

I’m not sure about the battery voltage thing, once again time and trial and error will probably sort things out; you could, for instance, drain your flight battery to its minimum safe level and then record the stated voltage, knowing that when it reached that it was time to come down.

Looking back over what I have written so far this looks more like a eulogy than a review, so I’d better find something to criticise:

1. The clip on the receiver is too tight making it hard to clip it to your T-shirt.
2. There are no English instructions for the receiver…
3. Um…no, that’s it.

I don’t believe in many things; I don’t believe the letter which says that I’ve been chosen to receive a big cash prize, all I have to do is ring this number; I don’t believe any establishment that says it will ring me back and deal with my enquiry without fail on the same day, and I certainly don’t believe all that guff that you can’t tell it from butter…

I do believe however, that the Picolario, given a reasonable amount of time, could turn me into an almost competent thermalist, so if they want it back they’d better come mob-handed, because the moat is dug, the dog is starving and the drawbridge firmly closed…

And there's more...
Thermal ace Adrian Lee is currently using a Picolario to hone launch technique and setting and QFI will soon carry his findings on both launching and the Picolario.

Technical Data
Sensitivity: ca. 5cm/s
Resolution altimeter: 1m
Operating range: -500m to 9000m NN
Temperature range: -20 to +50 degrees C.
Dimensions: 90 x 26 x 20 mm
Weight: ca. 22g
Power supply: 4.4v –10v through RC receiver
Current consumption: 45 mAh
Tx frequencies: 16 channels in the 433 MHz band
Manufacturer: Renschler Flight Instruments.

For further information: www.firebirduk.com
E-mail: simon@firebirduk.com
Sole UK distributor: Firebird UK, Turfhouse, Luppitt, Honiton,
Devon, EX14 4SA. Tel. 01404 891685.


Looking back on my various descriptions of the Renschler Picolario variometer over the past year it seems that I may have given just the slightest hint of the merest impression that I like it. Well, I do, I like it a lot.

In fact, my involvement in scale soaring is now neatly split into two eras: pre Picolario and post Picolario, and I'd just like make a quick mention of the latter. It wasn't until the summer of '02 that the weather improved sufficiently to finally try the darned thing out and the difference to my flat field flying, i.e. aerotow, was little short of amazing. It is truly said that in the Kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed man is King, and in my case I soon came to realise how blind I had actually been. Now, instead of randomly floating about the sky in the hope of blundering into some lift (and wishing I were on the slope instead) it seemed that finally a map of the sky was available, a sort of thermic GPS.

OK, this is the point where all those gifted individuals who have always been able to find lift without artificial aids will sniff and say 'Huh, wot's all the fuss about, been there, done that, without anyone holding my hand'. I'm sure Mystic Meg would say the same thing about predicting the future, but I'd rather have the vario predicting the future of my flights on the basis that I'm not the seventh child of a seventh child. Therefore, I reject cries of cheating out of hand because this is SCALE soaring and we are merely utilising an instrument that if denied the use of, full-size pilots would burst into tears and throw their parachutes out of their prams.

Without wobbling on too much, I'd like to recount two incidents during this season that illustrate how good this device is. The first involves a session with my trusty Schweizer 2-32.Having spotted two buzzards circling warily at a low-ish altitude I pointed my machine in their general direction and listened with some interest to the vario. Alas, lacking the sophisticated reflexes of the buzzards, I was unable to circle accurately with them, instead, flying past them several times. The vario confirmed what we always knew, Raptors are good at thermalling, because the rate of climb indicated in my earpiece rose to a crescendo as the model approached the birds, and diminished as it flew away. Anyway, (sidetracked again!) it was as I switched on for the next flight that the voltage information in my earpiece informed me that the juice was running low. Sure enough, plugging in the battery checker caused my face to be bathed in an orange glow, almost as bright as the red that would have shone from my boat race had I continued. The cause of the problem was clear enough, Albert Einstein described it almost perfectly with his theory on Time Dilation. the more you enjoy yourself flying from thermal to thermal, the faster time flies by, Q.E.D. One model saved, if fact two, because this happened later in the season too.

We expect to entertain paranoid feelings about the flight batteries in our models, but there are other pitfalls out there too. The second incident involves the Minimoa, this time on a day of absolute perfection at the fag-end of summer, just before the monsoon started that announced the commencement of the building season. The air was silky smooth, the lift gentle and widespread; twice I had entered the approach and twice the vario and enabled me to soar back up to altitude again. (This irresistibly reminded me of the International Glider Meeting at Lasham many years ago when I was trying to photograph the oldest surviving Minimoa HB 282 in flight, and each time it swam into view on the approach it suddenly started to circle and fly away again). Slouched comfortably in my chair with the warm sun bathing my face and the Minimoa's translucent surfaces glowing with light as she circled higher and higher I couldn't help but wonder what heaven had to offer compared to this. Sloppy thinking of course, because it became immediately obvious that she was circling without any input from me.

Aghast, I looked down at my transmitter and clocked the blank display.flat battery. Williams in full panic mode is not a pretty sight, and I had pulled out most of my hair before someone suggested changing the battery from my other Tx. A couple of fumble-fingered minutes later I peered fearfully back up at the sky where the Minimoa was still ascending in circles with apparent unconcern.

Now I knew that the failsafe settings were good, but it was a nerve-wracking way to find out. (Afterwards, during the post mortem, I decided that the combination of the vario in one ear, and the Sunday afternoon power-models in other has prevented me from hearing the warning beeps from the Tx.) This incident, more than any other, shows the capability of the Picolario, a device that, like Prozac, should come with this government health warning: 'Use of this pleasure extender can seriously flatten your batteries'.

Like anything with a chip at its heart, the Picolario is being continuously upgraded, the first one being the use of the TEK head which I have described in an earlier column. Coming up are things you might find hard to believe.

Airspeed indicator anyone? I was only joking earlier on when I mention GPS but. GPS anyone? (Yes, really).

How about the capability of telling you when you are about fly out of range of your receiver? As I understand it, current versions can be upgraded with the new capabilities as and when they come out, so be sure to read about it here first.!