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

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

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.


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