The History Of SAB Goblin Helicopters

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Written by James Wang
An exclusive interview with Enrico Bernabei, the designer of SAB Helicopters
As seen in the December 2020 issue of Model Aviation.

The SAB Goblin is probably the most popular RC helicopter in the past 10 years. The Kraken 580, introduced in summer 2020, is the 33rd helicopter design from the prolific SAB Heli Division. Different from conventional RC helicopters, none of the 35 SAB helicopter designs use tubular aluminum tailbooms.

All SAB models possess unique SAB flying traits. They are responsive, agile, have speed, and go where you point them with no hesitation. They are like the super sports cars of the RC helicopter world but without the high maintenance.

All SAB helicopters are designed in Italy by Enrico Bernabei. I have watched the Goblin grow from the prototype test phase to becoming a successful product. Allow me to share the success story of the Goblin, along with an interview with Enrico.

The Goblin and Its Successors

In approximately 2010, Enrico was in his 30s and was managing the CNC department of a large industrial factory on the Adriatic coast of Italy. During his free time, Enrico drew up a radical helicopter design of a 700-class electric-powered aircraft. He would get up at 4 a.m., and after a dose of espresso, he would start the design process in his home then go to the office and work his day job. That’s passion!

In 2011, when Enrico showed his prototype to Stefano Baiardi, the proprietor of SAB, who manufactures popular Italian carbon-fiber rotor blades, Stefano immediately became impressed by the Goblin’s concept. The two became partners and formed the SAB Heli Division to bring the Goblin to market.

Stefano is an expert on carbon-fiber composite manufacturing and has been producing carbon-fiber rotor blades at San Mauro Pascoli near Rimini, Italy, for more than 20 years. Rimini is a beach resort town near the Adriatic Sea. SAB is well known for its high-quality, carbon-fiber F3C and 3D rotor blades.

The first time that SAB unveiled the prototype Goblin was at the 2011 FAI F3C Helicopter World Championship, held in Brescia, Italy. SAB had a booth at the event to unveil the prototype Goblin 700.

I attended the world championship because I have followed F3C precision aerobatics ever since the first FAI F3C Helicopter World Championship was held in 1985. I love watching the gracefulness of F3C flight and following RC helicopter technology. F3C competition helps inject new technology into RC helicopters, which is similar to how Formula 1 racing fuels automotive innovation.

During the event, Stefano invited me to join Enrico and the company’s test pilot at a remote field to watch some test flights. It was impressive and mesmerizing. The prototype Goblin was agile and fast. It had an intense, ostentatious, fluorescent green paint scheme that allowed the Goblin to be spotted from 100 yards away.

the prototype goblin 700
02. The prototype Goblin 700 was unveiled to the public at the 2011 FAI F3C Helicopter World Championship in Brescia, Italy. On the left is Hiroki Ito, five-time FAI F3C World Champion, with Stefano Baiardi and Enrico Bernabei.
the fantastic looking goblin 630
03. The fantastic-looking Goblin 630, 700, and 770 were the first three Goblins introduced.

I had a chance to closely scrutinize the mechanics. The elegant design uses fewer nuts, bolts, and parts than most other similar-size helicopters. The three eCCPM servos sit directly beneath the swashplate and provide a straight-shot connection from the servo arm to the swashplate. There is no push-pull. All three servos are mounted on their flat sides instead of vertically, but by not using a rubber grommet, the servos stay rigidly in place.

Traditional electric helicopters use a single-stage transmission with a single, large nylon main gear that typically has roughly 100 teeth and a steel pinion attached to the motor shaft, which commonly has nine to 11 teeth. The Goblin uses a two-stage transmission, where the motor drives a first-stage gear with a toothed timing belt. The output of the first stage is a steel gear with helical teeth. This steel gear drives a nylon second-stage gear. A helical gear is used in the second stage to increase contact area and reduce gear noise.

The original Goblin 700 shape is avant-garde and has continuous curves. The canopy covers the mechanics and blends into the tailboom. The entire tailboom is a rectangular cross-section, monocoque, carbon-fiber tube that is manufactured from a female mold. There is no aluminum tailboom hiding inside. Using a toothed belt for the tail rotor drive keeps the mechanics simple. The electric motor is mounted on an aluminum platform. There is no structure surrounding the motor to limit the size of its diameter.

The Goblin’s layout is extremely flexible. The aluminum drivetrain platform from the original Goblin 700 was later used for the Goblin 630, Goblin 770, Urukay, Black Thunder series, the Drake, and the Havok. Between 2012 and 2019, Enrico used the proven Goblin 700 layout and spun out a family of smaller Goblins: the 630, 570, 500, 420, and 380 (the number represents the main rotor blade length in millimeters). This is a stroke of business ingenuity. These smaller Goblin helicopters are equally stable, fast, and agile.

Enrico and Stefano are great thinkers, creators, and marketers. I visited the company’s new, modern factory in San Mauro Pascoli shortly before it opened in December 2017. Simply looking at the funky camouflage color scheme they chose for the factory’s façade, one can immediately feel SAB’s vibrant energy.

In addition to RC helicopters and rotor blades, SAB makes high-speed turbofan RC airplanes and carbon-fiber graphite hydrofoils for kitesurfing and windsurfing (search for Moses hydrofoils on the internet).

It’s always a pleasure to chat and brainstorm with Enrico and Stefano. They constantly search for outside-of-the-box ideas, innovative materials, and disruptive solutions.

I once gave them a tour of my helicopter factory where full-scale helicopters are engineered and transmissions are designed and manufactured. They were fascinated.

In 2018, Enrico released the new Kraken 700 model helicopter. Its second-stage gear reduction is enclosed in a gear box sealed with grease. The Kraken also sports numerous other refinements over the Goblins that have dominated RC helicopters since 2012. The smaller version, the Kraken 580, was released in summer 2020, and a nitro engine-powered Kraken was expected to be out in December 2020.

The original Goblin line (700, 630, 570, 500, and 420) has been discontinued, but there are still roughly 10,000 Goblins flying around the world and they are in hot demand on the secondhand market. Some mutated versions of the Goblin 700 are still in production, such as the Havok 700 with a three-blade rotor, the Urukay for F3C competition, the 700-size and mini-size Comets, the nitro-engine versions of the Black Thunder, and the 380-size Buddy.

The Urukay is a fantastic model. Swiss pilot Ennio Graber won the 2015 F3C World Championship with it.

The newest SAB model (the 35th) is set to be released soon and will be an F3C competition helicopter.

In case you are looking for spare parts for the Goblin 700 series, there are only two sizes of the big Goblin helicopters. The Goblin 700, Goblin 630, Goblin 630 Competition, Black Thunder, Havok, and Drake use lower-height side frames and canopies, and they can all share side frames and canopies. The Goblin 700 Competition and Goblin 770 utilize taller side frames and canopies and can share side frames and canopies.

enrico the ingenious italian designer
04. Enrico, the ingenious Italian designer of the Goblin series, was happy to see his first creation on the front cover of an RC magazine.
enrico and stefano unveiled the pint size goblin 380 in 2014
05. Enrico and Stefano unveiled the pint-size Goblin 380 in 2014.

I recently crashed my Goblin 700 Competition model, damaging its carbon-fiber side frames, so I replaced them with a pair of Goblin 770 Sport G10 fiberglass side frames, which were less expensive. The aluminum drivetrain platform, servo mounting tower, motor mount, tailboom, different types of landing gear systems, and different main and tail rotor systems are interchangeable and fit any of the previously mentioned Goblin helicopters.

In addition to developing a successful helicopter design, Stefano and Enrico have put together a strong team of demonstration pilots and a distribution network around the world. When hobby shops and distributors saw the original fluorescent green Goblin 700 in 2012, they all wanted to sell the product.

Bert Kammerer and his wife, Suzi, are the US distributors for all SAB products and help support technical and marketing aspects for the helicopter product line. When Goblins were first launched, Bert traveled to at least 25 fun-flys and trade shows each year to help demonstrate and promote the heli. Bert is a great 3D pilot and still addresses any technical issues that the distributors have and helps test new products.

Bert is also the founder of the popular BK servos that are used by many pilots. Kyle Stacy works in Florida for Bert and is super helpful in answering technical questions. Kyle is a great ambassador and one of the best 3D pilots in the world. He has won the International Radio Controlled Helicopter Association (IRCHA) One Competition.

At most major events, including the IRCHA Jamboree in Muncie, Indiana; Swiss Heli Alpine Smackdown in Lodrino, Switzerland; 3D Masters in the Netherlands; and Rotor Live in Germany, I have found Stefano, Enrico, Bert, Suzi, Kyle, and their cadre of top 3D team pilots explaining their new products or helping customers.

kyle stacy and bert kammerer
06. Kyle Stacy (L) and Bert Kammerer performed a tandem demonstration flight.
the kraken 700
07. The Kraken 700 is Enrico’s 30th heli design. It replaces the Goblin series. This is the author’s Kraken with BK Servos and an enclosed second-stage drivetrain.

Great engineering, sleek-looking products, savvy marketing, and excellent customer support are what make their models so successful.

Now, let’s start the interview with Enrico.

Q&A With Enrico Bernabei

James Wang: Ciao, Enrico. I am a huge fan of the helis you have designed. I might not have tried all 35 designs, but I must have built at least half of them. What inspired you and made you decide to design the first Goblin helicopter in 2010?

Enrico Bernabei: In 2010, I flew quite frequently and hated spending more time on maintenance and repairs than time in flight, so I started to design a model that [was] as simple as possible. My goal was to have as few parts as possible [that were] easy [to] access and easy to replace.

JW: I say that designing full-scale or model helicopters is not just a science—it is also a black art because you must develop a "feel" for what makes a helicopter fly well. Were you always good at engineering and designing mechanical items? What preparations in your life helped you when you designed the first Goblin?

EB: I spent my youth playing with and making RC cars. Then I worked in a technical office where we manufactured 3- to 5-axis CNC [machines] for woodworking. From these experiences, I have gained a good mechanical [background] and became good at computer-aided design.

JW: Did you do the first flight on the first Goblin 700 prototype?

EB: Yes, I did, but my [pilot] level has never been high. [It] was enough to do the initial flight tests. I had expert pilots help with extreme testing.

JW: What triggered or inspired you to eliminate the traditional circular aluminum tailboom and go to a big, carbon-fiber, graphite tailboom?

EB: When you are not a super pilot, the main problem is visibility. When I was flying other helicopters in the early days, I painted their aluminum boom in some fluorescent color to try [to] improve visibility. After a while, I came up with an idea that maybe a variable-section composite tube could further improve this aspect. Honestly, it is thanks to this idea that my long collaboration with SAB began.

the sab factory
08. The SAB factory, with its camouflage façade, opened in Italy in 2018.

JW: How tight should a tail belt be?

EB: [This] is not easy to answer. Always make it tight, but the important point is when you spool up the rotor, or during flight [if] you can hear the tail belt make some noise, then the belt needs to be a bit [tighter].

JW: The colors and color schemes on all SAB helicopters are eye-catching. Do you design the artwork and choose the colors?

EB: Yes, I do. The scheme and the choice of color is very complicated. They must be original, feasible, please the maximum number of people, and be no uglier than the previous one. For these reasons, it is increasingly complex, and the time required is always greater. As mentioned, the goal is always to look for a comment like, "Wow, this is nicer than the previous one."

JW: How did you come up with the names Goblin, Urukay, Kraken, etc.?

EB: We honestly do not have a particular reason for choosing our names. We normally have 10 to 15 options, and, based on the meaning and how the feeling is when you pronounce it—we decide. Goblin, Urukay, Kraken … they have personalities, [are] easy to remember, determined, and [have the] meaning of aggressive characters.

JW: Why did you to switch to a sealed drivetrain design for the Kraken series?

EB: The closed transmission was a nontrivial choice. The challenge was to create a new SAB model of similar weight [that was] not too expensive, almost indestructible, and [required] almost no maintenance. I believe in this solution. I had to keep working on some details to reach all [of] the goals set.

JW: You have designed 35 SAB helicopters already and are still going. Do you have a personal favorite?

EB: I don’t think I have a favorite. I like to design what does not exist. I like the models that first proposed new solutions. For example, the first Goblin 700 introduced in 2011; the compact, but fully 3D-capable 380 in 2014; the nitro engine Goblin in 2016; the Fireball with the main rotor driven directly by the electric motor in 2017; and the Kraken with a fully enclosed second-stage transmission in 2019. All [of] these models have concept solutions that did not exist in the RC helicopter world.

Thank you, Enrico and Stefano. I wish you continued success. Please surprise us with many more outrageous SAB helicopters for years to come.

the famous and unforgettable fluorescent green is the goblin
01. The famous and unforgettable fluorescent green is the Goblin 700’s original color scheme.

SOURCES:

SAB Helicopters

www.goblin-helicopter.com

BK Hobbies/SAB USA

(352) 559-8959

www.bkhobbies.com

IRCHA

www.ircha.org

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