RC aerial photography
We all love that 'birds eye' view, right? Well, in the last few years rc aerial photography has become more popular as compact, lightweight digital cameras small enough to fix to a radio control airplane or helicopter have appeared on the scene, and have become stupidly cheap to buy.
The ongoing electronic revolution has given us a huge choice of miniature cameras, while rc airplanes, helicopters and blimps have become more capable of carrying them. So, getting that bird's eye view of where you live or fly from is very easy these days - and a lot of fun!
And thanks to ever-decreasing prices, you don't have to spend a fortune to try some basic rc aerial photography - all you need is a bit of rc flying experience and some basic photo-taking knowledge.
Even a very simple rc aircraft/camera set-up can give satisfying results, and many modern cameras can provide even more entertainment in the way of in-flight video.
As technology advances further, there will of course be more options available, but we're already at a stage where more or less anything is possible.
An impressive milestone in the world of rc aerial photography was the release of an RTF electric Predator UAV spy plane, complete with on-board digital camera. The Predator UAV can be seen below...
It wasn't that long ago that electric rc airplanes in general were not widely available, and RTF ones just didn't exist. And so to see an affordable RTF electric plane with a built-in camera was a great thing for the hobby. Another rc first!
But if you feel like utilising your existing rc airplane or helicopter for some rc aerial photography, below are some suggestions of what's available at the current time.
How and where the camera is mounted on the aircraft of course depends on the aircraft design and ability to carry a camera, so the following suggestions just focus (sorry!) on methods of camera operation.
Specialist RC aerial photography cameras
At the time of writing there aren't actually too many specialist RC aerial photography cameras available. Personally I have a but another alternative is this 5MP Traxxas GoPro R/C Hero Camera, pictured right. It's been designed specifically for use with any rc vehicle; car, boat, plane or helicopter and its 5MP resolution and shock-reducing mounts mean excellent results from the ground or the air.
A much cheaper and popular alternative is the , widely available on eBay. Many of my forum members use this very cheap camera, with great results.
The Keychain camera is very small and relatively light, so can be used on smaller rc aircraft.
DIY RC camera & servo set up
This is one of the most common - and cheapest - options, and provides good results so long as the camera is half-decent. You will, however, need a spare channel on your radio system. This can be either stick movement if your model is 3 channel and you have a 4 channel Tx, or one of the toggle switches or dials on a 5 or 6 channel Tx.
The idea is to fix a micro servo, with a modified horn, onto or close to the camera in such a way that when the horn rotates it activates the camera shutter button. How you attach the servo to the camera is up to you; zip ties or servo stickers work well. However you do it, make sure that the servo is secure and cannot move, and that only the smallest amount of movement is required to hit the button.
The very important thing to remember here is that almost all digital cameras require the shutter release button to pushed half-way to focus, then fully to take the photo. So you'll have to set up the servo so it does this with the right amount of movement from you at the Tx, and do plenty of testing and practice-shooting on the ground first.
Infrared camera switches
These are the high-tech version of the above method and there are several switches available at the current time.
The PRISM (Photography Radio-Infrared Shutter Module) switches from HexpertSystems.com are about the best. They plug directly into a spare slot of your receiver and are activated by that channel operation of your Tx. On activation, a signal is passed to the infrared sensor of your camera, which in turn releases the shutter. Obviously then, your camera needs to have an infrared sensor for this option - thankfully almost all digital cameras do!
A switch like this (shown below) is about the same price as a micro servo, and a lot neater.
Modified digital cameras
If your knowledge of electronics is vast then you may be very capable of modifying a basic digital camera yourself, to take power from and be activated by the receiver. This kind of job is well beyond most folks though, but fortunately there are modellers around 'in the know'.
PlaneCams.com is one such example, and two different digital cameras are available that have been specifically modified for rc aerial photography. These inexpensive cameras are an ideal option for keeping things simple, and the results are perfectly adequate. An example of one of PlaneCams cameras is shown below...
Electronic camera switches
Again, if your electronic knowledge is great then you can probably manufacture your own switch from a stock circuit board. But for those of us who can't, there are some commercial switches and devices available that plug directly into the receiver and operate the camera. They are small and neat, and can be used with many different cameras.
The Pico Switch is a relay switch that has a multitude of uses in rc aircraft, including of course camera shutter operation.
Another option is a USB interface, the Singapore Hobby Supplies 'URBI' is a nice example. Both can be seen below, left and right respectively...
Points to remember
The important thing to remember when trying rc aerial photography is, of course, to keep the weight down and keep it simple. The cameras don't need to be big or expensive. A 1MP digital camera giving a picture size of 1280 x 960 pixels will give you perfectly adequate results from an rc airplane or helicopter.
And of course, you need to remember the crash-factor; can you afford to lose the camera in the worst case scenario??
It depends on your aircraft type as to what size and style of camera you can use, and how you mount it - backwards, sideways or downward facing cameras are the best option, as there is less chance of dirt or insects getting stuck to the lens.
If you're trying rc aerial photography from a gas powered aircraft, there's also the serious issue of exhaust oil to deal with. And, again with gas aircraft, vibration is likely to be a much bigger problem. Mounting the camera on layers of foam will help, but trial-and-error must prevail; even the smallest amount of vibration of the camera will render any image useless.
However you try it, rc aerial photography is a lot of fun and I highly recommend trying it sooner or later! The beauty of modern digital cameras is that they can hold so many photos, so you can click away until you're ready to land your aircraft. And if your DIY system doesn't produce the results you expected, there's nothing lost and only valuable experience gained!
The important factor here is that rc aerial photography is relatively simple and cheap to do, thanks to the electronic advancements that have rocketed this hobby into a new age. But it is trial and error, so if you don't achieve the results that you were expecting, just keep on trying. Once you have the equipment, there are no costs!