Exciting news for the FPV community: Flight controllers and ESC are about to get cheaper thanks to the introduction of AT32 MCU in these boards! SMT32 flight controllers and flight stacks have become more expensive in recent years, with a complete flight stack costing over $100 became a norm. However things might change in the near future thanks to a new player entering the market – Artery AT32 chips! The potential saving for FPV drone pilots would be desirable, however there are factors you might want to consider before jumping in.
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The Problem with STM32
The micro controller unit (MCU) is the brain of our flight controllers, and the STM32 MCUs have long been the industry standard ever since the beginning of 32-bit FC, offering stability and performance that others couldn’t match. If you are not familiar with MCU in flight controller, check out this tutorial: https://oscarliang.com/f1-f3-f4-flight-controller/
However, the global silicon shortage and inflation in recently years have led to a significant increase in chip prices. This has prompted manufacturers to search for viable alternatives to maintain competitive pricing for FC and ESC. As a result, manufacturers have been leveraging lower-end parts such as the STM32 F4 series to manufacture more affordable components. A perfect example of this strategy is the Speedybee F405 V3, which, in 2023, stands out as a highly popular FC/ESC stack, primarily owing to its cost-effectiveness.
Recognizing this trend and to further address the STM32 cost challenge, companies are now exploring an entirely different, yet highly economical MCU option – the AT32.
What is AT32?
The AT32 is a MCU made by ArteryTek. It’s important to note that the AT32 is not a clone or a direct drop-in replacement for the STM32. To work with Betaflight, the AT32 will require some adaptations. However, considering its comparable performance and cost-effectiveness, it presents itself as a viable alternative to the STM32 MCU for our flight controllers.
Thanks to the comparable functionality and performance, you won’t be losing any advanced features or computational power when switching from STM32 to AT32. The truly compelling aspect of AT32 microcontrollers is their affordability compared to STM32.
In fact, AT32 MCU (AT32F421) are already being used in some of the latest ESCs, including the Hobbywing G2 45A, 65A 4in1 ESC, which we recently reviewed. It runs BLHeli_32 firmware, but you will also find this chip that on AM32 ESC.
Below is a overview of the specifications of popular STM32 F4 chips used in flight controllers and the AT32F435.
The new chip we’re starting to see in flight controllers is the AT32 F435. This chip offers performance between STM32’s F405 and F722, running at 288 MHz, compared to the F405’s 168 MHz and F722’s 216 MHz. Despite being based on the same M4 core CPU as the STM32 F4 series, it offers performance comparable to the larger M7 core found in the F7 series, thanks to increased clock speed and RAM. Additionally, with its smaller package size, the AT32F435 also emerges as a superior alternative to the STM32F411 for tiny micro quads.
Note that we can’t just compare the processor speed directly, there are more to consider, such as the differences and precision of the floating point units. It would be like comparing Intel processors to Apple M series processor. While the STM32 F7 chip does have double precision for floating point units, the real-world impact on FPV drones is minimal. After all, both STM32 F7 and AT32 F4 processors aren’t even being used to their full capability currently.
What makes the Artery chipset really stand out is its price-performance ratio. The AT32 F435 is cheaper than STM32 F4 counterparts, which leads to the lower cost of flight controllers.
Where Can You Buy AT32 FC?
We can anticipate more manufacturers offering controllers with the AT32 chipset. It brings substantial benefits to the end-user, particularly in terms of cost.
If you’re intrigued by the potential of AT32 flight controllers and want to give them a try, they are available for purchase now. Currently, NeutronRC appears to be the only manufacturer offering them.
One of the first AT32 flight controllers is an AIO board featuring a 25.5×25.5mm mounting pattern, powered by an AT32F435 MCU. It comes with an integrated 4-in-1 ESC that operates on AM32 firmware, powered by an AT32F421 MCU. There are 3 versions differentiated by ESC ratings of 35A, 45A, and 55A. The 35A version is available at an astounding price of just US$39.5! There’s also a slightly more expensive BLHeli_32 version. Get yours here:
For those seeking an alternative, iFlight also recently released their first AT32 FC (iFlight Blitz ATF435):
Caution: Compatibility with Betaflight
Artrey is still relatively new in the FPV ecosystem, which means there are challenges like drivers and Betaflight compatibility. At the time of this article, AT32 flight controllers are not compatible with Betaflight official release yet.
In May 2023, the NeutronRC F435 flight controllers for example, are running a special fork of the old Betaflight 4.3, called ATBetaflight. Its GitHub page can be found here: https://github.com/flightng/atbetaflight
In Jan 2024, you can now flash and configure AT32 flight controllers by downloading the latest Betaflight Configurator 10.10.0 RC1 (Artery AT32F435/7 DFU and VCP support). However it’s still a release candidate, not a stable release yet. But if you want to try AT32 FC this is a good way: https://github.com/betaflight/betaflight-configurator/releases
If you want the latest and greatest features of Betaflight, it might be wise to hold off for now. That being said, work is actively underway to extend Betaflight support to these new AT32 flight controllers and is expected to arrive in Betaflight 4.5. There’s no exact date yet, but we’re certainly looking forward to trying out these more affordable flight controllers.
When you first plug an AT32 FC into your PC, Windows should install the drivers automatically. If not, you could manually install the drivers by following these instructions. Note that the Impulse RC Driver Fixer does not work for AT32 FC.
It’s rare that you need to install this driver, but if you cannot connect the AT32 FC to the Betaflight configurator at all, Virtual COM Port driver might need to be installed.
- Visit the MCU page: https://www.arterychip.com/en/product/AT32F435.jsp
- In the “USB Tool and Driver” section, download and install “Virtual serial port composite PC driver”: https://www.arterychip.com/download/USB_Tool_Driver/VirtualCOM_Composite_DriverInstalll_V1.0.31.zip
Sometimes you could connect to an AT32 FC, but cannot flash firmware, this might mean DFU driver is needed. If you check in Device Manager, it would show the AT32 in DFU mode with a yellow symbol, indicating the absence of the correct drivers.
- Go to the AT32F435 page: https://www.arterychip.com/en/product/AT32F435.jsp
- Under Resources, then “Tool”, download “In-System-Programming tool supporting AT32 MCU”: https://www.arterychip.com/download/TOOL/Artery_ISP_Programmer_V2.0.11.zip
- Unzip and go to the “Artery_DFU_DriverInstall” directory to start the installer.
- Complete the installation and power cycle your PC (unplug cable, plug back in).
Although it may be premature to hail the AT32 as the new revolution in FPV drone technology, it’s undeniably a thrilling advancement. The Artery AT32 chip promises to deliver powerful, reliable performance at a significantly lower cost, making the joy of FPV flight more accessible.
- May 2023 – article created
- Jan 2024 – added info about support for AT32 FC VCP and DFU in Betaflight Configurator 10.10.0 RC1.