At Aussie Drone Reviews, we believe that seeing the world from your drone’s-eye view is the best way to fly. Here’s how to get your FPV experience off the ground:
Getting started with FPV:
First Person View, more commonly referred to as ‘FPV’, is now the most popular way for pilots to fly the majority of multi-rotor and fixed winged drones, be it for high-speed thrills or a more sedate bird’s-eye view of the world.
The term ‘first person’ refers to a perspective rendered from the viewpoint of the drone through a camera wirelessly transmits video feed to a headset or mobile device operated by a pilot on the ground – giving the pilot a true bird’s eye view of the environment where the drone is flying.
In recent years, the cost of a camera , video transmitter and entry-level googles or FPV screen has fallen so low that many traditional line of sight (LOS) pilots have tried FPV for themselves and become hooked.
Now it’s easier than ever to get into FPV with equipment that’s pretty much guaranteed to work together even if it’s from different manufacturers.
What equipment do you need?
Before we dive into the equipment that we’d recommend for new and more experienced pilots, let’s look at the parts of a FPV system. Most FPV setups operate at 5.8GHz – why 5.8GHz? It’s a set of frequencies that’s available in most places and it doesn’t interfere with the 2.4 GHz radio frequency of modern radios. There are other options for flying much longer ranges using lower frequencies but they are much more specialised and expensive – so we’re going to keep things simple to start with and only look at 5.8GHz FPV setups.
The first part of the system is the aerial camera. This captures the image and sends it to the FPV video transmitter (VTX). Most modern camera from vendors like RunCam and Foxeer are all great with excellent default settings so that the image is always well exposed with a clear and balanced image. Many modern camera also feature the ability to change the settings to suit your own preferences with changes to the saturation, colour and exposure, as well as other things like PAL/NTSC settings.
Video transmitter (VTX)
The next part of the setup is your drone’s video transmitter or VTX. The VTX connects to the camera on the model and transmits the image coming from the camera. Many modern VTX units support all of the available frequencies and bands. FPV commonly uses five bands (usually called A, B, C, F and Race) and each of those has eight channels or frequencies they can use. We’ll go into channels and bands in a moment.
The antennae are what send and receive the FPV radio signals from the VTX to your goggles or display screen. Enclosed circular polarised or ‘Pagoda’ style antennae are cheap and work fantastically well, but more expensive specialised designs are available, too. Just to make sure you have the same style at both ends to give yourself the best possible picture.
Googles & screen
The final piece of the FPV jigsaw is the googles or screen that you’ll use to receive the image from the VTX so you can see what the camera sees. Most FPV pilots haver their own preference for googles and I have to admit that I’m a Fat Shark fan. The price range can run from $50 (AUD) to well over $500 for a set, but like a radio, a decent set of googles will last you for years.
A common question asked by some new FPV fliers is “do I need to bind to the camera?” The answer is no. Unlike a radio receiver you don’t need to bind both together. As long as the VTX and googles are set to the same channel you should see the image clearly. This does also mean that if you own a set of googles you can use them to watch other pilots’ 5.8GHz FPV signals. You won’t hurt their ability to see their FPV video doing this – and it’s a great way to get involved at race events or social gatherings.
Taking to the skies
Some pilots, though not many in my experience will take to the FPV perspective quickly and find it easy to fly that way. If you’ve flown a line of sight, moving to the FPV can feel like you’ve lost all of the ‘clues’ as to what’s going on with the mode – with the attitude, height and speed typically being the main examples.
Some, including myself, feel ‘seasick’ at first, as the view in the googles and the movement of your body are not the same. But almost everybody will get the hang of it and get past this feeling with enough practice. If you find you suffer from any sickness or feel a little unsteady on your feet, then sit down to fly. I used a folding camping chair at first.
Using a spotter
But how do you ‘learn’ to fly FPV? It’s best to practice with a flying buddy (when flying FPV you should always have a spotter with you to keep an eye on the world around you for possible dangers), so make sure sure that your language or warning messages are agreed before you start. In the heat of the moment not getting clear instructions about something you need to do to avoid a crash can cause the blood pressure to rise for both of you!
With support, your spotter can help give you some of that detail about losing or gaining height and drift as you fly, and this will help you start to get a feel for all the that just from the images in the googles alone. With practise you’ll be able to judge speed, pitch, and roll angles along with any changes in height from the video footage alone and need less and less support from your spotter to fly safely.
Practice with an FPV simulator can be helpful, too (not to mention less painful and costly if you crash!), but in many pilots’ experience there is no substitute for the real thing. My other tip is to start without all of the on-screen display pieces tuned on of you’re flying with a flight controller with an OSD. The information all over the screen can be an overwhelming distraction when you start out and you’ll likely find yourself crashing as your eyes stop ‘watching’ the flight and are drawn to the OSD data!
Goggles vs screens
For many, googles simply are not comfortable to use. Screens are handy for those who need lots of sight correction or wear glasses and don’t have an issue with fogging up on cold mornings. They are not as immersive as goggles but still a great choice.
How far can I fly?
“How far can I fly?” is probably the next top question I get asked when pilots are looking at FPV gear. If you’re using a video transmitter on the model set at the legal 25mW maximum power, with a decent set of antennae and a sensitive receiver in the googles or FPV screen you’re using, then you can easily get up to around 150 metres before you start to lose the FPV signal. Some FPV models use Wi-Fi as it allows for an owner to ‘view’ the footage from their tablet or phone. The range here is usually a lot less and depends more on the quality and orientation of the phone!
Most 5.8GHz FPV equipment comes with a ‘rubber ducky’-style linear antenna. Unless the model also has the same style stay away from using them. Specialised antennae and diversity can extend that range significantly with most pilots using two antennae together (one is usually directional, like a ‘patch’ antennae) to get the best of both and keep the signal strong. With sensitive antennae it’s easy to fly beyond the range of your standard 2.4GHz radio.
Buying guide (beginners)
Given the growing range of FPV accessories out there it can be quite daunting knowing what equipment you need and what’s best for you. When starting out I’d always advise that you keep the costs down as much as you can. Until you know that this is something that you love, there’s no point spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on expensive gear you may not ever use again. Many manufacturers have created special FPV kits for beginners and rolled out some of the features we only saw in high-end FPV equipment a few years ago.
The all-in-one kit
Likely to become a more common solution for beginners, we’ve seen the likes of Far Shark create a fantastic way to experience FPV for the first time – and learn to fly a quadcopter generally – with the ‘101 Drone Training System,’ an all-in-one package containing everything you need, including googles, radio, drone and batteries.
The new Quanum Cyclops Diversity googles are my top buy for a new starter. They work great, come with a decent set of starting antennae, and also feature a DVR! They are simple to use, can be powered from pretty much any spare battery you have and even feature an auto-scan button for those times when you can’t remember what you set the model’s VTX to.
There’s lots of choice here with the best cameras costing about $70 now. If you want really cheap and cheerful (so you don’t mind if you break it!) then something like the Eachine TVL1000 works great and costs well under $20. If you want a camera that will be something you are still using in a few years go for something like the RunCam Micros Swift 2 or similar.
You’ll find plenty of options here, too, with suppliers like Eachine and vendors such as Aomway. I always like to choose a VTC that has variable power settings, provides the 5v needed to power a camera and supports the 40 main channels used in FPV. Most of these VTX units cost well under $20 now so you won’t break the bank. If you are happy to spend a little more, I’m a fan of the Quanum Elite VTX units. I’ve had lots of them and they just work well.
As well as buying these pieces and putting it together yourself there are also little VTX/camera/antenna combos that come in one small package that can be stuck onto just about any model. They are small and lightweight, though usually run on a very small selection of voltages – but they do offer a fantastic and easy way to add FPV to your favourite model.
If you don’t already have a model you want to add FPV to then you can buy a Bind and Fly (BNF) or Ready to Fly (RTF) package that may require only one or two pieces of extra kit (such as radio or batteries). So long as the model and the goggles or screen you use can operate the same bands and channels then it will work fine. Keep in mind that matching antennae are a good idea and also make sure you’re familiar with how to change the power and channels on it before leaving for the flying field.