How Do Infrared RCs Work?

Jada Toys GirlMazing 1/16 Scale Remote Control Pink Jeep
Courtesy of Walmart

Infrared RC toy vehicles are fun and popular little toys, often small enough to enclose in your fist. Cars, trucks, helicopters, and even tanks may come in infrared versions. Typical RC vehicles communicate through radio signals -- radio control -- or radio frequency (RF). Infrared (IR) communicates through beams of light.

IR toy vehicles operate just like TV, VCR, DVD remote controls by sending commands from a transmitter (the TV remote control or RC toy controller) through an infrared light beam. The IR receiver in the TV or infrared toy picks up these commands and performs the action given.

An IR transmitter sends out pulses of infrared light via an LED on the transmitter in a code that the IR receiver interprets and turns into specific commands such as Volume Up/Down (your TV) or Turn Left/Right (your RC car).

IR Range Limitations

The range of an IR signal is usually limited to around 30 feet or less. Infrared, also called optical control or opti-control, requires line-of-sight, that is, the LED on the IR transmitter must be pointing at the IR receiver in order to work. It doesn't see through walls. Depending on the strength of the IR signal and interference from sunlight or other infrared-transmitting devices, the range may be shortened. These limitations make IR unsuitable for RC vehicles intended for long-range flight, outdoor racing, and other activities where it may be difficult to stay in range and within line-of-sight.

IR Size Benefits

The frequency crystal and other components necessary for typical radio controlled vehicles won't fit into vehicles much smaller than the 1:64 scale ZipZaps. However, the smaller scale and fewer electronic components needed for infrared make a sub-micro class of RCs possible. IR technology allows manufacturers to create smaller and smaller remote control toys. They can be as small as the size of a quarter or as lightweight as the palm-size Picoo Z helicopter. Limited range is not a problem when engaging in tabletop races with sub-micro cars and indoor flying with a micro helicopter.

Not all remote control toys that use infrared are micro-sized. RC toys for toddlers may use infrared control because it eliminates the need for an antenna on the controller and vehicle. For toddlers, the limited range of infrared isn't a problem.

With or without infrared navigation, IR can add another element of fun to RC vehicles. There are RC tanks and RC airplanes that can fire at one another using infrared -- a hit might result in sound effects or a temporary disabling of the opponent.