Budget Cameras for Aerial Photography

Smallest Cameras for Aerial Photography

I’m always on the lookout for simple and inexpensive ways of taking pictures.  The term ‘inexpensive’ usually doesn’t go with aerial photography.  However, I recently came across two new products that are moving in the right direction. They are the HD Hero Camera from GoPro, and the FlyCamOne 3 from the Acme game company.  This is neither a preview nor a review of these two new products.  Rather, this post is a quick announcement with some notes about their capabilities.  I will write full reviews after I’ve had a chance to try them out.

Small, Light Weight and Good Image Quality

HD Hero basic camera kit.
HD Hero basic camera kit.

The HD Hero is a very small, fixed focus, wide angle video and still camera designed to be worn during extreme sports. Often it is attached to a helmet and shoots everything you see as you race, jump, swim or cycle.  You turn it on and it continues to shoot continuously while you are otherwise occupied. There are optional mounts for attaching the camera to all sorts of things, including car fenders (suction cup), surfboards, handlebars, etc.  The HD Hero can shoot video at 1080p at 30 fps, and 720p at 30 or 60 fps.  It can also shoot 5 megapixel still photos automatically at 2, 5, 10, 30 and 60 second intervals via a built in timer.  The lens is very wide angle, taking in 170 degrees at the 720p setting, and 127 degrees at 1080p.  The aperture is f2.8.  Amazingly, it comes with a waterproof housing that’s good to a depth of 60 meters. The basic camera sells for $259 with battery, mount and underwater housing.

The HD Hero caught my attention for aerial photography for several reasons.  It is extremely small and light, weighing 3.3 ounces (94 grams) including battery, or 5.9 ounces (167 grams) including the waterproof housing and battery.  Its dimensions are 1.6 x 2.4 x 1.2 inches (42mm x 60mm x 30mm).  This makes it suitable for smaller UAV helicopters and airplanes.  Where the HD Hero really surprises is with its image and sound quality.  It uses a point-and-shoot size CMOS sensor with very good light sensitivity.   It shoots to an SD card with no screen, so you don’t see what you’ve got until you can get to a computer.  The videographer, Philip Bloom, has some interesting comments about his first experiences with the HD Hero camera here.

What appeals to me about the HD Hero is the possibility of shooting aerial still photos inexpensively.  Because of its size and weight, it could easily be attached to a 400 series or possibly smaller helicopter.  You could even clamp it to the top of a simple pole or mast.   Shooting real estate aerials could be done by setting its timer to take a picture every 2 seconds.  You fly it attached to your favorite helicopter.  When you want to take a picture, you’ll have to hover, making sure the camera is pointed in the right direction.  If you can hold the hover for 2 seconds, you’ve got the shot.  Since there’s no tilt or pan control, you need to point the helicopter where you want each shot.  It will definitely require a “feel” to get it right, and it won’t be for everybody.  It certainly won’t be fool-proof.  But it could be just the ticket for quick aerial stills where you want to use the smallest, most benign aircraft with very little setup to get into the air.  Let me know if you try it and it works out. Incidently, the sports videos on the GoPro site are amazing. Definitely worth a look.

Smaller and Lighter with Amazing Options

FlyCamOne 3 with downlink

FlyCamOne 3 with downlink

Another camera suitable for very small aircraft is the FlyCamOne 3.  FlyCamOne 3 is the third generation of the popular FlyCamOne series.  What is noteworthy about the new generation is that it has some very useful modules as well as remote tilt and pan control of the camera.  The camera system is comprised of a camera module and a screen module as well as optional transmitter and receiver modules.  The separate camera and screen reduces the flight weight, since you can remove the screen for r/c model flying.  You can mount the screen back on the camera to view video that has been shot and stored in the camera’s SD memory card.  Alternatively, you can mount a FlyCamOne3 transmitter module on the camera, which gives you a real-time video downlink as you fly. The live picture is transferred at 2.4GHz to a receiver module where the removed screen of the camera  can be mounted. Within the near future there will be video goggles will give you a first person view (FPV) from your aircraft. A GPS module is also in the works. Finally, a small hand-held transmitter (433MHz) will be available to remotely tilt and pan the camera, if your r/c receiver doesn’t have extra channels for this purpose.  Typical prices are $139 for the camera module, $99 for the video downlink kit including the transmitter and receiver modules, and $29 for the 433MHz transmitter to control tilt and pan of the camera.

Some of the specs for the FlyCamOne 3 are listed here.

  • Size…………………..98mm x 50mm x 15mm
  • Weight……………….62 grams
  • Battery……………….500mAh Lipo
  • LCD…………………..shows battery, memory, mode and action
  • Video…………………VGA resolution (640×480) at 28fps
  • Head movement…..2 stepper motors for pan and tilt controlled via a standard receiver cable
  • Memory……………..micro SD card (4MB/sec write speed).

However, before you get too excited, there are some significant limitations.  First, the transmitter outputs 10 milliwatts and uses spread spectrum technology.   10 milliwatts is fairly low power and will likely limit the downlink range to a few hundred meters.  You should also be aware that transmitting video over spread spectrum could result in the video stream breaking up when there are other flyers using 2.4 gHz nearby.  Of course, this is not a problem for the video streamed to the SD card in the camera.

But that brings us to another limitation.  The camera takes VGA resolution (640 x 480) video at 28 fps.  This, of course, is not suitable for professional purposes.  Video I’ve seen from earlier generations of the camera show the dreaded “jello cam” effect, which is objectionable when there’s a lot of vibration.  This could be more of a problem when FlyCamOne is mounted on a helicopter than on an airplane.

Limitations aside, I find the FlyCamOne 3 to be an exciting development.   The modular design with built in pan and tilt control is very well conceived.  Put in a better camera, a better lens, a bit more power in the transmitter, and you’d have an amazing package for aerial photography.  While FlyCamOne is not intended for the pro photography market, a high end implementation would be exactly what we need.

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