Like a lot of people, I love flying. The few times I’ve taken flying lessons, though, I’ve quickly given up. For one thing, they’re expensive, and I’m a cheapskate. Also, flying small planes is, well, dangerous. Even a couple of minor incidents where the instructor was taken by surprise were enough to give me cold feet. Clearly, I must lack something in the right-stuff department.
Fortunately, technology has caught up with my longings to soar. In the latest twist on a hobby I’ve enjoyed for years—flying radio-controlled models—the pilot need no longer view the world from the ground. Now you can easily outfit a model with a video camera and a radio downlink, allowing you to take in the experience from the point of view of the cockpit. It’s sort of like having your own private MQ-1 Predator—minus the Hellfire missiles.
This new branch of the hobby goes by the name first-person view, or FPV for short. FPV flying has been controversial in modeling circles because some of the people doing it fly very high and well out of sight, meaning that their models might crash someplace where they could do some damage.
It was only a year or so ago that the Academy of Model Aeronautics, an organization that provides U.S. modelers with liability insurance, deemed FPV flying an acceptable activity at its chartered airfields—and only if two pilots work in tandem. One looks up at the plane in the usual manner while the other does the FPV flying. Their radio-control transmitters need to be linked so that the person looking at the plane can take control in an instant if the FPV pilot loses orientation or flies too far away. Done in this way, FPV is no more dangerous than flying radio-controlled models in the standard fashion.
While it’s hard to suppress the urge to take off on a cross-country jaunt when flying an FPV model, with a little self-control you can responsibly stay in visual range and still have a great deal of fun. And this way you’re far less likely to lose your plane.
Having read up about this activity at such sites at DIYDrones.com and FPVPilot.com, I was eager to give it a try. I purchased a tiny SN555 video camera for US $129 from Hobby Wireless, an online seller of FPV gear. While there, for another $95 I also bought a diminutive 0.5-watt video transmitter and a matching receiver tuned to 910 megahertz, which is well separated from the frequencies used for radio-controlled model aircraft in the United States (72 MHz and 2.4 gigahertz). Note, though, that you need an FCC amateur license to operate a 910-MHz transmitter in the United States.
The big question was what model to use. I ended up with a plane called the Twin Star II, which is manufactured by Multiplex Modellsport of Bretten-Gölshausen, Germany. It normally retails for $150, but I picked up a kit for this model at the bargain price of $86 from BP Hobbies of Piscataway, N. J.
The Twin Star works well for FPV because it is electrically powered, so there’s no oily engine exhaust to foul the camera lens. And as the name implies, it has two motors mounted on the wings, rather than a single motor up front. So there’s no spinning prop to obscure the view from the cockpit.