A remote-controlled airplane, a camera, and a pair of goggles can put you in the (virtual) pilot's seat for as little as $500.
- By Mark Betancourt
- Air & Space magazine, July 2011
Raphael Pirker used to fly traditional remote-controlled airplanes, but he can’t remember now what the thrill of it was. He no longer settles for watching model aircraft fly around over his head and thinking how much fun it would be to be up there soaring among the birds.
Now Pirker flies FPV, or First Person Video, using electronic goggles to watch video streaming in real time from a camera mounted on the airplane. In effect, it’s like being in the cockpit. His airplane, a flying-wing-style Zephyr with a 54-inch wingspan, is light and fast, with a top speed of 90 mph—ideal for feeding his addiction to high-speed aerobatics. Thanks to high-power transmitters and other clever gadgetry, Pirker has roamed as far as 27 miles from where he stands.
So where does he fly? Anywhere he wants. “It’s like, you know, you’re traveling,” says the 26-year-old business and IT student. Originally from Switzerland, he now lives in Austria, where he finds some pretty dramatic landscapes to fly over. “I don’t climb mountains. I don’t do a lot of hiking,” he says. “But with FPV I can just go places, and within five minutes I’m up on a 3,000-meter mountain.”
Most FPV pilots record their flights—and post the videos online—sometimes using a second, record-only camera that shoots in high-definition. The videos Pirker puts up are often of thrill rides: The camera shows the nose of his Zephyr as the airplane careens down the face of a cliff or zips between tall alpine trees, rolling its wings at the last possible moment to avoid a crash. Some of the adrenaline comes from knowing he’s got $2,000 worth of equipment rocketing around up there, inches from the rocks and miles out of his reach.
“You’re naturally nervous about losing [the airplane],” he says. “But at the same time you want to push the limits. There’s always the clash between fear and temptation in life.”
Pirker has a strong presence online, where he goes by Trappy. He and a friend, who calls himself RiSCyD (“Risky D”), are an informal flying duo called Team Black Sheep. Last December, Pirker stood in a park near New York City’s East River, put on a pair of goggles, and flew around the Brooklyn Bridge. Later, he guided his airplane to the Statue of Liberty and buzzed her head. Team Black Sheep recorded the whole thing on video and posted it online, stirring up a Web-wide buzz about the legality of the flight (but mostly about how cool the footage is). (Editor's Note: See the comment below from the President of the Academy of Model Aeronautics.)
We’ll get back to that legality question.
First Person Video is growing among RC hobbyists. Although a few pioneers had mounted film cameras to gas-powered aircraft in the 1970s, veteran FPV pilot Scott Sells says the modern hobby dates to the late 1990s, when cheaper and smaller video systems became available. The first rigs required expertise in electronics and radio transmission, but since then have become much cheaper and easier to use. Now, says Sells, an FPV system is simple to set up and straightforward to fly, and can cost as little as $500.
He got into FPV in 2003, when he was having trouble controlling his traditional RC helicopter. It was hard to keep track of the vehicle’s three-axis motion while looking at it from a distance. “I kept thinking, If I could just fly this thing from inside the cockpit, I’d have no problem.”
So, with some guidance from the then-new online FPV forums, Sells strapped a small security-industry camera to his little helicopter and started beaming video to a monitor. In no time he was a pro pilot.
Sells thinks it’s easier and safer to fly an RC aircraft from its own perspective. He likens traditional RC flying to trying to pilot a real airplane from the control tower. “I’ve had people I’ve tried to teach how to fly in the traditional RC view, and they just don’t get it,” he says. “You put the goggles on them and toss the plane for them, and next thing you know they’re flying it all over the place.”
Sells’ day job is fabricating off-road racing trucks for big races like the Baja 500, and his professional skills came in handy when he noticed that vibrations in his helicopter during flight were causing the video chip to separate from his onboard camera. Working in his home garage in Lake Elsinore, California, he started making lightweight, aluminum parts that dampened the vibrations.