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 3 of 3)
The biggest advantage of flying from the ground may be just that: staying on solid ground. Sells tried to get a pilot’s license in 2002, but had to give up lessons due to motion sickness. Pirker, the FPV mountain surfer, has never flown a full-scale airplane either. Would he want to? “Never,” he says. “I’m afraid of heights.”
WHAT YOU’LL NEED
The gear for First Person Video is pretty simple. First you need an aircraft, something large and sturdy enough to house a small camera. Most mid-size remote-controlled airplanes with a wingspan of a few feet can handle the payload (which can include an extra battery to extend flight time). Then you need a transmitter to send the video signal from the airplane and a receiver on the ground. And you need a wireless controller to fly the airplane.
To display the video, you can use either goggles (for a virtual reality feel) or a flat monitor with a sun visor to cut the glare. The advantage of the monitor is that you can easily look up and locate the aircraft in the sky.
Everything you need for FPV is available through several online sites, some of which are listed at right. After you have the necessities, you may want to upgrade with a few add-ons. For instance, head-tracker goggles sense the movement of your head and translate that motion to the airplane’s camera, so you can “look around” while flying. There’s also OSD, or on-screen display, which overlays information like battery life, signal strength, and GPS coordinates on your video image. A cheaper way to monitor this information is to mount a small LCD battery-life indicator on the airplane itself, within view of the camera.
Another option is the “return home” capability. If the airplane accidentally flies out of range and you lose signal, an onboard processor reads the GPS location and flies the airplane back toward you until you can take control again. Pretty sweet.
For the most part, FPV systems are still do-it-yourself, with the pilots assembling the parts. If you have no previous experience, don’t expect to jump right in; you might have to do some soldering, and it wouldn’t hurt to get a ham radio license so you know how to get the most out of your transmitter frequencies. Team Black Sheep is now offering an almost-ready-to-fly FPV Zephyr kit on its Web site for $1,999, with no soldering required (team-blacksheep.com/products/product:3). But big RC manufacturers are likely to catch up in this market soon, so keep an eye out for all-in-one, pre-made FPV aircraft that you will be able to fly right out of the box.
A good introduction to FPV:
Places to buy FPV gear online:
Online FPV and RC forums:
Mark Betancourt is a writer and filmmaker in New York City.