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Asia Pacific F3C Open
American Adventure
JR Challenge 2004
How to setup your rotorhead
9Z for Dummies
3D Downunder
Victorian F3C Champs
Visit to Model Engines
Flying the Fury Tempest FAI
Pilot Profile - Pete (Panos) Niotis
Australian Trip 03
Introduction to the Century Predator
Building the Fury Tempest FAI
Professional Aerial Photography
Pilot Profile - Dwight Schilling
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Pilot Profile - Dwight Schilling
Toolbox Essentials
Setup for F3C
Vigor Refit
Pilot Profile - Curtis Youngblood
JR Challenge 2003
Pilot Profile - Len Sabato
Helicopter Resources
Comparing the Webra 91AAR and the YS 91ST
Engine Tuning
Curtis Youngblood in New Zealand
Futaba GV-1 Governor
Pilot Profile - Malorie Zastrow
Scale: Flybarless Heads
Pilot Profile - Jason Krause
JR 10X
Pilot Profile - Mark Christy
Futaba 9Z WCII
Pilot Profile - Alan Szabo Jr
163km/h with a Vigor CS!
Raptor 60 V2
Low cost, high camera!
TSK & the Squirrel Part (V)
Follow up - Hirobo Freya
Follow up - Hirobo Shuttle RG
Sceadu 30 update
Hirobo Shuttle RG
Vigor CS - My thoughts
Bye bye little Ergo
Kyosho Caliber 30
OS 91
JR Voyager 50
Hirobo Sceadu
TSK & the Squirrel Part (III)
NZ Team Returns from Heli World Champs
Hirobo Freya
OS 50 Review
Millie vs CS (Part III)
Living with the CS
TSK & the Squirrel (Part II)
Promoting the Hobby
Ergo Z230 Gasser
Millie vs CS (Part II)
Millie vs CS (Part I)
TSK & the Squirrel
TSK & the Squirrel (Part IV)
Low cost, high camera!
Malcolm Messiter

Brief overview
The picture above was taken with an ordinary digital camera carried aloft by an unmodified Raptor 30. The camera was held in a custom built module built from bits and pieces from a local DIY store at a total cost of about £15.00. The camera module is fixed onto the heli by rubber bands so it can be easily and quickly removed when you feel like normal flying again. You don't need to dedicate an entire helicopter to photography. Just attach the module when you feel the need to take pictures from a long way up, and remove it before practising autos! Read on for the full story.

In the beginning
It was late April 2001 when my Raptor 30 had its rather hazardous maiden flight. It was my first attempt with a model helicopter, so it took to the air with a child's hoop attached, and with me shaking terribly with fear. After half a tank full or so, and a few unscheduled touch-and-goes, the thing landed safely, to the obvious disappointment of the other club members. I was completely new to helicopters, so they were rather amused to see the heli-with-hoop about 30 feet up, right over the pits on that very first flight. Indeed several ran for cover, and one later suggested I might like to fly a bit further away, or maybe buy crash helmets for everyone. I chose the former, and someone took this picture as it neared the ground.

Like many newcomers to helicopters, I was hooked immediately and grabbed almost every chance to get it back into the air all summer long. I do recommend the hoop for beginners by the way. The blue sparkly one I bought was quite big and nicely shock absorbing, but it arrived from the toyshop half full of water! While this probably helps children a lot when hula-hooping, I smiled to think of what it might do to my centre of gravity as I tried to stabilise a hover. I made two pinholes in the hoop and drained all the water out to avoid doing that particular experiment.

Adding a camera
After a while my ability to control the thing had reached the point where the hoop could be removed, and I started to wonder whether I could use the helicopter to lift a camera without an excess of fuss and modifications. I did not want to take pictures all the time. I had at the time just the one helicopter, so it would need to become a multi-role machine.

My nice new digital camera deserved protection from vibration, impact, fuel, and condensing oil in the exhaust smoke. So I thought I'd better enclose it in something leaving only a hole for the lens. I considered building some sort of enclosure for several days. But when I was wandering around a big DIY store on an unrelated mission, I spotted a small plastic toolkit box that looked just the thing! I did not have measurements to hand, but it was so cheap and so light that I just bought it on the spot, with a few other odds and ends I saw near by: different stock rods of aluminium and plastic. As you may realise while reading this, the module was never really designed. I just built it, thinking over each new stage only when the previous one was complete.

Building the camera module
When I got it home, I found the camera fitted into the toolbox almost exactly. What a bit of luck! It also nearly fitted between the heli's skids. I made a new set of bigger and wider "skids" and fitted these below the toolbox. These would become my new "landing gear".

The real heli skids would need somehow to rest on top of the toolbox. So I fitted plastic "rails" complete with flange, to accept the heli skids on either side of the toolbox. All the fixing was done with simple nuts and bolts, and I even managed to find a use for some nuts and bolts included in the Meccano set my dear Mum had given me for Christmas.

Inside the toolbox, I made a hole for the lens, and fitted some foam rubber both to hold and to protect the camera. I mounted the camera's remote shutter release in such a way that a servo would easily operate it (see photo TO BE ADDED LATER). Both the shutter release and the servo were mounted with double-sided sticky foam, a surprisingly easy operation that took me almost three minutes just before lunch one Sunday. I set the servo to operate on the "throttlehold" switch of my transmitter, (no autos with camera…) and I adjusted the travel so that the servo pushed the switch just the right amount and no more.

At this stage, it was possible to rest the heli in the module's "rails" and the thing looked altogether possible. But what of the weight I thought? The camera plus the module weighed a total of about three pounds. The heli alone weighed about six pounds.

Trials with a simulator
Nine pounds with an OS 32? Could it lift the extra three pounds? How could I find out safely? Well, there's no real way to find out with any certainty without actually trying it. But there is a way that gives a useful indication: a software simulator! I used RealFlight G2 simulator for this test. At the time, it did not simulate a Raptor 30, so I selected a nearby 30 sized machine, a Dolphin. I set the engine to the same as mine (an OS 32) and saw that its "normal" weight was also about six pounds. I increased the simulated weight to ten pounds and tried to fly. It flew without problem! I went on increasing the simulated weight, and found that it still flew, but only just, even at nineteen pounds! It was hard to control in a descent at that weight, but it did suggest that, even allowing for some possible lack of reality, I might stand some chance of getting away with a mere nine pounds total weight. Later, I found that the simulator proved to be pretty damn close to the real thing, and much closer than I and others had expected.

Attaching the module
My heli was still not actually attached to the module. Several complex attachment ideas were considered over a cup of tea, but simplicity won the day (or was that sheer laziness?). Firstly, I made four small foam rubber 'collars' using electrical tape and bits of foam rubber. I slipped these over the Raptor's skids at the ends. They allowed the skids to rest in the rails with no direct contact, and hence I hoped might absorb vibration. Then I simply pulled the module onto the heli skids with several stout rubber bands placed around both sets of skids. I used eight of them (two per corner) to be really safe. These bands take the weight of the module and the camera. It was finished!

I rested the whole thing on the garden table for a while with radio on, engine off, and the slight smell of marvellous gravy filling the air. I took a few test pictures of the garden from the top of the table. It worked! An early flight test seemed like a good idea - maybe after lunch.

Flying with the camera
Out on the Bedmond flying field, I did a little camera setting up before starting the engine. Since the camera was going to be operated remotely and at some considerable distance from its subjects, I set the camera to manual focus and set the focus to infinity. I also disabled the auto-exposure facility and set that manually as well. I thought it a good idea to extend the camera's inactivity timeout to ten minutes, to avoid the thing turning off just as I was ready for a shot.

I closed the plastic toolbox, attached the rubber bands, started the engine, and tried unsuccessfully to look relaxed. As I cautiously increased the throttle I remembered those who warned me it "would not fly". The throttle stick gradually slid past the place where I'd normally see it leave the ground. The rotors whirled ever faster. It stayed on the ground. I wondered … the suspense was terrific! Then with the throttle stick only a little higher than usual, it drifted slowly into the air with a disdainful casualness. I was delighted, and hovered carefully for a while. The hovering was actually better than usual, possibly because of the extra weight, the lower CG, and maybe my extreme caution. After a few flights with camera I became more accustomed to the modified performance, which I found I could improve with a slight tweak to the throttle curve. I raised the throttle curve a little in the hover zone so that I could have a bit more engine power with the same collective pitch. This resulted in a slightly higher than usual hovering head speed. The most noticeable changes to the flying characteristics were improved hovering, and a distinct reluctance to stop descending after any rapid descent! That meant that for safety, all descents from great altitudes needed to be slowed early, and landings had to be executed with more caution. I found the best way to remind myself to do that was to recall the price of the camera, and the helicopter.

Since the engine was working harder than usual, I ran the mixture a little richer. A lean engine just might overheat I thought. If you fly with a similar camera module, be sure to see lots of smoke from the exhaust. An engine failure at altitude could be expensive and auto landings might not be all that possible. I didn't try that yet!

In a nutshell, it really does fly perfectly well. It also shows that you don't need a 60-sized machine to carry a camera, and you certainly don't have to dedicate an entire machine to aerial photography. It can all be done, occasionally, with your one and only 30-sized machine for very little cost. This last shot is an unusual self-portrait! I am holding the transmitter, hovering very high and nose in while I moved the throttlehold switch to take the picture. Yes, that tiny dot down there is me.

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