Get ready for a view of New York that would make Spiderman jealous. Expert remote control pilot Raphael "Trappy" Pirker recently took his 54 inch Zephyr model plane on a harrowing tour of Manhattan and the surrounding area. The best part: his RC vehicle was fitted with a camera that wirelessly transmitted an amazing recording of everything it saw - Pirker was piloting his craft with this visual feed. As you can see in the video below, the results were spectacular. The plane looks to be flying within a few feet of buildings and whizzing past bridges with ease. You have to check out around 2:01 when he starts to buzz the Statue of Liberty. Phenomenal! First person view (FPV) flying is a growing part of the RC community and watching footage like this I can certainly see why. Could the new era of personal video recording be spreading to the sky?
New cameras are making it cheaper and easier to record every moment of your life. We've already discussed how this kind of 'lifelogging' could be fueled by our fascination with extreme sports and real world adventures. Pirker's video of Manhattan makes me wonder if FPV flights wouldn't be an even greater enticement to get people recording and sharing their lives. Watching his Zephyr tour New York certainly makes me want to strap a camera to a RC plane and upload the video to the web:
Of course, Pirker's attempt is far outside the bounds of any novice like myself. He custom built his "Ritewing" Zephyr (read about the construction here) and fine tuned the controls and video relaying system so that it can perform at absurd ranges. Pirker has tested his RC and video electronics to a distance of 27 miles. According to calculations, the maximum range would be 120 miles! For a FPV RC that's just insane. Not only is the Zephyr a custom build, Pirker is an expert pilot. He's tested his skills against sheer mountains, strong winds, and treacherous drops. You can't take a plane that flies at 80 mph (130 km/h) through a city full of drafts and radio interference and hope to come out in one piece - not unless you are an expert.
It's the extreme nature of Pirker's flight that has garnered him praise and condemnation. The Academy of Model Aeronautics issued a statement declaring his flight "posed a significant threat to people and property." In an interview with FliteTest, Pirker explained that he didn't violate FAA airspace (the Zephyr was a model craft), and that he and his team took precautions to make sure that the plane wouldn't fall on innocent people in the case of failure. You can see the full interview in the video below. For those worried that the text "Points Proven = 1" was some vague reference to terrorism, Pirker explains that it was about a challenge from a fellow FPV pilot who didn't think he could handle Manhattan. Good to know.
Despite the ethical debate sparked by Pirker's flight, I think everyone can admit that his footage was absolutely awesome. While his Zephyr and control system are obviously custom built and top of the line, we are still talking about an RC system here. It's remarkable how advanced systems like this have become, and the cameras and equipment used are still relatively cheap. You or I, if we invested two years of our lives to gain the experience needed, could do what Pirker has done. How much easier will it become in the years ahead. There already are commercially available drones that are simple to fly and that transmit a video signal to your iPhone. Give it some more time and there could be many more people flying cameras through the sky. Sure, that will raise some hard questions about privacy and safety, but it will also lead to some incredible videos. I'll leave you with one of Pirker's many clips of his FPV piloting through mountain ranges. Don't you want to be a part of this?