Outfitting the Gaui 500X for FPV and Aerial Photography

Unafraid to Crash

Several months ago I picked up a Gaui 500X Quad Flyer kit.  I wanted an inexpensive platform for learning FPV (first person view) flying and light aerial photography.  I have several larger multicopters for professional photography.  But I wanted a small practice aircraft that would be cheap to fix.  I didn’t want to be afraid to crash it, while improving my piloting skills.  This article takes a look at the Gaui 500X for this purpose.

Gaui 500X First Impressions

When I first opened the box, I was impressed with the engineering quality of the whole package.  For example, the ESC’s are amazingly tiny.  They fit inside the quad’s arms, so both wires and ESC’s are hidden.   Very nice.  The wiring harness is an extremely small and simple design, constructed from bullet connectors soldered together.  Reliable.  There’s a very light weight blade guard to prevent blade strikes should the copter bump into something.  The arms of the quad are foldable, so you can pack the whole thing in a small canvas bag (included in some kits).  And there’s an optional lighting kit with LED’s for each motor mount.  This makes day flying easier and night flying possible.

Good Motors, Good Electronics

In case you’re wondering whether there might be overheating problems with internally mounted ESC’s, the motors and ESC’s run warm, but never hot.  Even with heavy loads (over 1600 grams but under the 2200 gram limit), I’ve never had overheating (unlike my larger multicopters).    The Scorpion motors are small, but efficient and ample for the quad plus a small camera.

Gaui 500X Motors and Electronics in an AGL Hobbies frame

Gaui 500X Motors and Electronics in an AGL Hobbies frame

  Continue reading

A Short Cut To Getting Your Camera In The Air

I’ve spent more than a year trying to build a helicopter that can lift a small DLSR and give clean, crisp stills and vibration-free video. I’ve built a variety of aircraft: some single rotor (with collective pitch) and several multi-rotor helicopters. I’ve also experimented with different camera mounts, and different flight control computers.

This is part 1 of a series of posts describing what I’ve found that works best and how you can build your own aerial platform (or what to buy if you want someone else to build it). This information can save you a year of trial-and-error experiments. Better, you can go straight to a solution that will work for you without wasting a lot of time or money.

First, here’s a picture of 6 rotor helicopter, a hexacopter, with a Skyrover camera mount and camera. I finished this one recently and it gives the best results for stills and videos that I’ve been able to get so far. In future posts, I plan to take you through every step of the build process. I’ll explain my choices and the reasons for them.

Hexacopter with Skyrover camera mount, MK electronics and D90

Here’s a view from the top.

Hexacopter with Skyrover camera mount and D90, top view

I’ve found that multicopter configurations with 4, 6, 8 or more rotors (propellers) to be the smoothest, most stable and easiest to fly. On these multicopters the rotor has a fixed pitch. So the only way to cause the multicopter to roll, pitch or yaw is by changing the speed of the motors relative to each other. Translating the joystick movements on a remote control into speed variations of the motors is done by an on-board computer. How stable the multicopter is in flight (especially in the wind) is determined largely by the computer and the quality of its software.

I’ve found that the computers made by www.Mikrokopter.de (sold in the US by www.Mikrokopter.us and by www.quadrocopter.us) to be particularly good and probably among the best available. I’ll discuss the reasons why I think they are a good choice below.

Another contributing factor to stability and smoothness in flight seems to be the number of rotors. Having looked carefully at dozens of videos, I’ve noticed that even with the best multicopters, there’s a little bit of jerkiness, or low amplitude, short duration roll movements. I call these micro-rolls. Usually, they appear as tiny and brief (barely noticeable) jerks rolling to the right or left. These movements are most often caused by sudden stick movements by the pilot. They are also caused by wind. They are subtle and most viewers don’t notice them. But professional videographers notice them. So if you have discriminating clients, you’ll want the smoothest copter you can get.

When comparing videos, my subjective judgement is that octocopters (8 rotors) show the least of these micro-rolls. If carefully flown, you can get very smooth movement with an octocopter sometimes with no visible micro-rolls in the video. It looks like the octocopter is on a pole, not flying through the air. Hexacopters can be reasonably clean too, but they seem to be a bit jerkier. Quadcopters are usually a bit worse. The reason octocopters are immune to these movements is that there is more mass at the ends of the arms. And the arms on octocopters tend to be longer to make room for the propellers. So it takes a lot more energy to roll or pitch an octocopter.

You might think that a properly stabilized camera mount would absorb micro-rolls. I haven’t seen one yet that removes them completely. Please let me know if you find one. The camera mounts tend to be better at removing slow, large amplitude movements. So, my recommendation is that if you’re building a multicopter for aerial photography, go with a 6 or preferably an 8 rotor design.

An actively stabilized camera mount can keep your camera pointed where you want it, even when the multicopter is pitching and rolling in the wind. The camera mount should also absorb vibrations caused by the motors and rotors. The Skyrover camera mount (available at MikroKopter.us) is an inexpensive mount with active stabilization for pitch and roll. It is designed to work with the Mikrokopter computer and software.

The Skyrover doesn’t have gyros or accelerometers itself for stabilization. It comes only with servos. It relies on the Mikrokopter computer (or similar) to provide the right signals to the servos. While this is a good arrangement and works reasonably well, it is possible to improve it. The main reason it’s not perfect is that the gyros, which sense motion, are on the Mikrokopter computer board. So they’re not actually sensing the camera’s motion directly. The camera is not rigidly attached to the multicopter’s frame. There are soft rubber shock absorbers connecting the camera mount to the copter. So a better arrangement would be to have the gyros mounted on the camera mount, so they are sensing the camera’s movement directly. You can set up the Skyrover to work like this (there’s a gyro+computer product called PicLoc you can use for this), but you need to provide the extra gyros and hook them up yourself. Not difficult, but you need to decide whether the effort is worth the slight improvement.

But even with the standard arrangement of the Skyrover and Mikrokopter, the Skyrover is amazing at absorbing vibrations and stabilizing the camera. I’ve shot stills at dusk at 1/125 second and got results that were consistently tack sharp. Can’t do better even on a tripod.

For video, the results are also quite good. The Skyrover mount compensates for helicopter movement quickly, smoothly (important for video) and with lots of torque for heavier cameras. The current version of the mount will accomodate a camera body that is 5.75 inches wide. This is wide enough for most small and medium size DSLR’s. Though it’s not quite wide enough for a Canon 5DII. My understanding is that a wider carriage version of the mount will be available to handle larger cameras (Spring 2011 time frame).

Equally important, the Skyrover is mostly made of aluminum. It can withstand hard landings and outright crashes, often protecting the camera from damage. At 600 grams, you can lift it easily with an octocopter or hexacopter suitably powered (we’ll explain what this means later as well). I prefer aluminum to carbon fiber. Carbon fiber can shatter in a crash. Aluminum bends. So, you can bend the aluminum back and (hopefully) keep flying.

To be continued…

How To Get Started In Aerial Photography

What’s It Really Take?

Back in November 2009, I posted an article about choosing (radio controlled) helicopters for aerial photography. At the time, I was looking for the cheapest way to get professional quality results for both still and video. Back then,  you’d need about $3k worth of helicopter (or more). You’d also need to hire a pilot, or spend a year or more likely two years learning to fly it yourself.

Well, all that’s changed. There are new helicopter designs with ever more sophisticated electronics. The new designs are cheaper, more stable, easier to fly, stay in the air longer, and are safer and easier to repair than “conventional” helicopters. And as digital cameras get smaller and lighter, the loads placed on these helicopters are reduced. This makes it possible to use smaller, less powerful helicopters to get the job done. Sound good? Here are the details… Continue reading

Start Your Own Space Program for $148

The Vision

This is a story that I find inspiring.  Since it’s also about photography and space, I find it even more inspiring. It’s about two MIT students who wanted to photograph the “edge of space.”

It started when Oliver Yeh had a vision. He wanted to see the curvature of the earth and the blackness of space from high up in the stratosphere.  Many of his friends thought he was crazy.  Not Justin Lee. Lee accepted the vision and made it his own.  So together they set out to accomplish the task.

The Ingenuity

Like others before them, Yeh and Lee decided to use a weather balloon  filled with helium  to lift a small camera up into the stratosphere.  They bought a 300 gram latex balloon online.  Balloons are capable of reaching altitudes of 20 miles or more. Unlike others before them, Continue reading

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 Continue reading

Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide

Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair

Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair

The Bird’s Eye View

Have you ever wondered what the world looks like from a bird’s perspective?  Have you wondered how you might get a small, or maybe not so small, camera airborn to find out?     The book Aerial Photography: The Essential How-To Guide by Greg McNair shows you how to get started with remote controlled (unmanned) aircraft capable of carrying cameras.    I recently bought a copy, which I ordered from his website www.aerialphotobook.com for $49.95.  This post is a brief review of McNair’s book.

The Dreaded AP Mosquito Continue reading

Aerial Photography on a Budget

Lower Cost Aerial Photography

My previous post contained information about an electric helicopter and camera harness for remote controlled aerial photography, the AeriCam. Since the cost of the AeriCam helicopter and camera harness starts around $9k (in kit form), I wondered whether there was a significantly less expensive way to get professional quality aerial photographs and video. Since I was an avid radio-controlled (RC) airplane builder as an adolescent, I thought I’d do a little research to see what could be constructed with current technology.  Here’s what I discovered.

How to Pick a Helicopter for Photography

After some research, I discovered that there are radio controlled helicopter kits that are capable of carrying professional still and video cameras.   Continue reading