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
(Page 2 of 3)
Sells (who calls himself Crash9 online) posted about his improvements in the Web forums, and by January 2007 he was receiving so many messages from people wanting to get into the hobby that he decided to start his own site (fpvpilot.com) listing everything he’d learned about FPV. Now he custom-builds systems and ships them to buyers all over the world.
But, according to Sells, most people find they can put together the equipment themselves. “If you understand yellow wire goes to yellow wire, red wire goes to red, you’ll be fine with FPV. If you can hook up a VCR and program the clock on it, you can do this stuff with no problem.”
Both Pirker and Sells say one of the best things about FPV is the fun of exploring places that would otherwise be hard to visit. Pirker’s playgrounds are breathtaking—snow-capped mountains, waterfalls, an alpine ski resort. Sells covers the deserts, sometimes chasing off-road trucks racing around on slippery dunes. He recently flew the Grand Canyon, and like Pirker has posted dozens of FPV videos online.
As for whether stunts like Pirker’s New York flight are legal, Federal Aviation Administration regulations on FPV flying are still a gray area. The only FAA document related to model airplanes dates from 1981, and suggests that they should be flown below 400 feet (which Pirker interprets as 400 feet from the top of the highest structure) and no closer than three miles to an airport. They also should stay away from full-scale aircraft. But these aren’t regulations per se, and people who don’t follow the FAA’s suggestions haven’t technically broken the law.
“They’re violating guidance,” says Les Dorr, a spokesman at FAA headquarters in Washington, D.C. “It’s not mandatory, but we expect them to follow it.”
According to Dorr, a recent increase in model aircraft activity has prompted the FAA to form an Aviation Rulemaking Committee to take a look at Unmanned Aircraft Systems, particularly small ones like those flown by Pirker and Sells. The committee will produce a set of regulations addressing those aircraft later this year.
Fans of FPV insist that in the right hands, the hobby is safe. According to Pirker, Team Black Sheep has never had a single technical failure. That’s because he and RiSCyD check their equipment thoroughly every time they fly, and replace systems twice as often as the manufacturers recommend. FPV fliers have their own strict code of safety (like no flights in airspace that can’t be monitored by a spotter), which, Pirker admits, he follows more faithfully than official Austrian government rules. European regulators “are very uptight about FPV,” he says. “As soon as we take off, it’s already a gray zone.” Besides, permits in Austria are prohibitively expensive for hobbyists.
On the online forums, some commenters say that Pirker’s free-roaming New York flight suggests that FPV could be used by terrorists. Sells dismisses the worry. Building a remote-controlled aircraft large enough to carry a harmful payload would be more trouble than it’s worth, he says. Building a full-size airplane would be easier.
During his New York flights, Pirker was approached several times by the National Park Service and New York police, but they just ushered him somewhere else. “We were told we were not allowed to fly in Liberty State Park, so we flew from a different location,” he says. One officer even admitted that he was an avid RC pilot himself, and was excited to see Pirker’s cool setup. Pirker thinks that stroke of luck may have saved him the headache of trying to explain why his airplane didn’t pose a threat to the city.
Judging by the number of visitors to Sells’ Web site—500 to 700 a day—interest in flying by video is already robust. Hits on the site have tripled in the past two years, and the traffic is still growing. According to Sells, the majority of FPV enthusiasts live in the United States and Australia, but there are sizable communities in Europe as well. As for whether there’s real money to be made, Sells thinks the movie industry, for one, could become a big user of FPV footage. “I mean, if you could fly a camera through a room, out the window, up a high-rise, and come back…” He trails off in mid-sentence, just thinking about the possibilities. “You can’t do that with a crane or anything else.”
Pirker plans to keep pushing the envelope of high-speed, spectacular FPV flying. He and RiSCyD want to perfect the art of tandem flights: standing side by side on the ground, with each (virtually) flying his own airplane. They also have two ambitious FPV goals for this year. “The first is going to space…with a balloon,” Pirker says. “The second one is, we’re actually looking for funding to go to the Himalayas and fly Mount Everest.” For that they’ll need a bigger Zephyr, with more wing surface to create lift in the thin air above 29,000 feet.
As for Sells, he seems to have an endless list of potential uses for FPV. Geologists could use it to study land formations. Lost hikers could use it to orient themselves. Anyone could see the massive ancient designs on the desert floor in Nazca, Peru, without having to buy a seat on an airplane. Sells himself is content just to take his helicopters to the lake with his family, or explore the desert near his home.