TL;DR (the short version)
For under $500 in parts I put together a remote controlled plane that I can fly without direct line of sight. The plane has a camera that broadcasts its image in realtime to a 7″ LCD mounted to my remote control. It has about a 1-mile range and 20-25 minutes of flight time.
Here’s my friend Jimmy flying it for his first time:
When I was six years old I watched Home Alone 3. The boy in the movie stuck a camcorder on a remote control car and drove it by watching the video feed on a TV in his attic. He used it to spy on the bad guys. My god, that was so cool.
RC Car from Home Alone 3
Ever since I was six I’ve been trying to re-create that setup. I’m 22 now, so it’s been a few years. In my teens (2002-2009) I obsessed about the project, poring over parts on eBay, but the gear was just too expensive. Today, as result of the increase in RC hobby popularity, the prices are affordable now.
Over the past 6 months I learned how to pilot RC planes entirely by flying and breaking them. I’ve gone through 4 planes, and I don’t regret it one bit. In the long process of developing an autonomous UAV (unmanned aerial vehicle), I’ve built a plane that I can pilot by watching a live video broadcast from a camera on the plane via an LCD screen on the ground. Yes, it’s a drone. In the remote control enthusiasts world, this is called First Person View (FPV). The entire bill of materials for my first FPV system is under $500:
Plane: $60.02 – HobbyKing Bixler 1.1 – Link
Speed Controller: – $7.18 HobbyKing 20A ESC – Link
Remote Control: – $69.97 Turnigy 9X 2.4GHz 9-channel transmitter – Link
Camera: $109.99 – Boscam Explorer HD19 – Link
LCD Monitor: $30.65 - 7″ Car LCD from Amazon – Link
Video Radios: $54.99 - Boscam 5.8GHz Video transmitter + receiver – Link
Batteries for Plane and Video Ground Station: $7.89×2 - Turnigy 2200mAh Li-Po – Link
Battery Charger: $24.07 - Turnigy 50W Balancer/Charger – Link
A note on ordering from HobbyKing: HK’s website can be pretty confusing for first-time visitors. They have multiple warehouses around the world, and there are different product listings for the SAME product at a different warehouse. You’ll want to check each warehouse for the items you’re looking for to optimize shipping times and cost. I’ve linked to items in the US Warehouse where possible, and to the International Warehouse when not available in the US.
Building the system
In the world of RC this is a pretty simple setup. The plane is a cheap foam model, which some people may scoff at, but I love. The reason: when this thing crashes marvelously nose-first into the ground, the foam body absorbs the impact. You’ll be gluing and duct-taping this plane body back together many times, but you’ll never have to replace the electronic parts. In the old days our parents built their RC planes out of balsa wood (or some other ancient material like it). They spent 20hrs building the plane so that it was just right. Then it crashed into a tree and took 30hrs to repair. I’d rather tape-up and keep flying.
Most of the RC gear is plug-and-play, though you’ll have to solder some connectors to get the speed controller plugged into the plane. If you’re not comfortable soldering, take all of the parts to your local hobby store and they’ll solder it for you. By now I’ve learned how to solder connectors for every component in my system, but when I got my first order from HobbyKing I went straight to the local hobby shop. They soldered all of my connectors for me, gave me clear directions on flight prep, and even showed me how to work the transmitter.
The video gear should also be relatively straight forward to set up. Plug the video receiver into your 7″ LCD and fire that puppy up! Plug the video transmitter into your Boscam and fire both up! I power my video tx (transmitter) and camera from the same battery that the plane is powered from. I created an extension cable for the battery pack and added a JST connector to it that powers the video gear. You can do this, or you could power the video components from their own battery to keep things clean.
I’ve tried various methods for mounting the camera. Using a rigid mounting method like popsicle sticks or a plastic mount often results in “jelly” video like this. I’ve found that the cheapest, most flexible, and highest resulting quality method is to use lots of small strips of Gorilla tape:
Building your first FPV system is all about experimentation and learning. For your first system get some inexpensive gear and see if you really enjoy it. Then, start upgrading parts as you go. The setup that I’ve detailed here is certainly not professional-grade, but it’s a testament to how inexpensive the hobby has become and how much fun you can have at such a low cost!
I was playing with this system back in September 2013, and since then I’ve dug much further into the hobby of amateur FPV and drone control. Today I’m testing full autopilot systems that control the plane autonomously, and for FPV I’ve set my 7″ monitor aside and now use a set of goggles with LCDs built-in. I’ll be documenting more in due time, but I wanted to get a post up about my initial setup. I think some of those first FPV flights are what fully sucked me into the hobby, and I’m so glad they did.
Here’s one of the most beautiful flights we’ve had. My friend Jimmy is flying over Horsetooth Reservoir in Fort Collins, CO: