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Team Black Sheep raised eyebrows with its overflight of New York City in 2010. (Team Black Sheep)

Pilot Cam

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

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(Continued from page 2)

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.

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.

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