Introduction: Make a UAV for Research and Photography

You, yes you, can build and fly a personal UAV. Read this and see how!

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I remember riding in the car when I was little, watching the shadow of our car float over the ground beyond the guard rail. I would imagine that the shadow was from a plane and would think about what it would be like to see the journey from the air. What if I had a little plane that I could fly from the car and explore the areas just behind the trees. What if I could launch a plane on a hike, and see the far peak on the other side of the glacier, or take a video of myself and friends waving from the top of a mountain?
These days, I live near the ocean and wonder what it would be like to capture video of sailboat races, darting in and out of the masts like the seagull scene in "Finding Nemo." What about a video of whales from the air? To see what the seagulls see as they float over the water, under massive bridges and over tiny islands...

Then I found FPV UAVs and the dream became a reality.

This instructable will walk through your my first FPV UAV, teach you how to get started, how to make one, how to fly one, and introduce modifications you can make as you dive deeper into the sport.

*NOTICE: I do not use this plane for any purposes other than photography and research (i.e. search and rescue concepts, aero design, measurements and mapping, etc...)
I do not support the nefarious use of these planes for spying or militaristic intent. I believe that as more UAVs fill the sky, it is important to show their potential as tools for science and recreation. As I build and fly, I often get comments like "what evil will you strap to it?", "who are you spying on?" To those people, I hope that you stop watching fox news and start watching Planet Earth. The world is full of places to explore, it gets even better from the air!

Step 1: Eyes in the Sky

FPV is going to cost you money. I hate to say it, but its true. The part you want to shell out a little dough for is your telemetry equipment. I went ahead and got a set of Fat Shark goggles with a camera. I really like the package I got from

The goggles, camera, transmitter and receiver, plus shipping all came to my door in less than 3 days at a cost just under $300.00
I got the:
Fat Shark Predator V2 Video Glasses w/Transmitter and Camera

There are cheaper kits. There are more expensive kits. I chose this one but can always upgrade later!

Why should I spend $300:
-You can fly, drive, sail, any model with this camera. It can be moved and placed whenever you want. You can even strap it to a dog and see what he does.
-The goggles allow for hookups with other video equipment and camera upgrades
-Fat Shark has figured out a nice system, they fit well and even have extra lenses for those who wear glasses. 

Step 2: Choosing a Learner

Start easy! 
You will crash. Things will break. It will suck. You will get over it.
So start with something that is meant to crash and not cost you a ton! I started with the Stratos Firebird, an excellent foam plane that can be purchased for about $110.00 USD. It comes with everything you need to fly and is basically idiot proof. I would give the firebird kit to a small child and they would be able to put it all together, even without the nice included instructions.

Why I loved the firebird as a starter plane:
-Insanely easy to pull out of the box and put together
-Comes with controller and battery and charger
-Replacement parts are cheap and available (a new fuselage is around $30.00)
-Durable. I have crashed mine a few times HARD, and then just glued it back together with contact cement. Like it never even happened. 
-Twin engines are programmed to help you learn! That's right, the plane has features to teach you good habits, then you can turn off the program when you feel comfortable. 
-I think it looks cool, and it comes with decal numbers and such to personalize it.

STEP 1: Build Kit (I did it while drinking beer and watching a movie, it is easier than Legos)
STEP 2: Strap a Camera to it (I used zip ties, aluminum tape and a piece of copper strip as a skid)
STEP 3: Hit the field and learn to fly it. (If you have played video games, you can fly this RC plane.) 

 - I would recommend the first few flights without the camera! If you lose your telemetry and need to get the plane home without the goggles, will you be able to? Really get a good feel for how the plane reacts and flies in light wind, how the launch feels, etc... Then strap on the goggles and go for a flight.
- Spend an afternoon just flying in a circle and landing somewhere near yourself. Don't fly to Vegas on your first flight. Try to see if you can steer the plane toward yourself and make a nice landing. This is a necessary learning step that should not be missed. It will take time, and you will probably need contact cement before a longer flight ever gets underway.
 - Stay Positive! Remember learning to ride a bike? You fell, it sucked, you got back on the bike. Keep in mind that its all part of the learning experience. Again, I highly recommend the firebird. When I crashed, it all went back together and kept flying.
- Fly somewhere safe. These planes can get away from you and crash. Be sure to start in an area where people or animals cant get hurt, and where retrieving your plane will not involve trespassing or cliff diving. A big open field works well, or look online for local RC airports (YES, they do exist!

Step 3: Take Off the Training Wheels, Order Parts for the Real Deal

What is your project goal? Do you want speed? A heavy camera? How about flight duration? Initial cost?

These are all factors that should be thought of when getting your first flight platform. There are literally hundreds of options, so lets break it down and make it easier.

Hobbyking, Nitroplanes, local hobby shops, etc... are a great place to start. People put a lot of time and effort into making kits and models for you to fly. I find it is better to start with a kit model and then work up from there. Choose one that meets your needs.

I chose to go through HobbyKing for my first build. Shipping from china takes a long time...  weeks.  I ordered my parts and started to work with the Foam plane from a local hobby shop. This worked out really well as I was getting comfortable flying and knowing what to expect from crash damage etc before building a nicer model.

I chose the Target Drone v1.5 body, it looks very similar to the Boeing ScanEagle. Boeing puts a lot of work into aircraft  design and the ScanEagle has set records for flight endurance and reliability. Seemed like a good platform for sports photography and research! The Target Drone v1.5 is also DESIGNED to be a FPV rig. I got mine on sale for about $70.00. 

Radios and receivers, servos, motors, propellers, batteries, chargers, and ESCs are all available on hobbyking. I ordered a basic radio setup (Turnigy 9x), a brushless motor, a few 9g servos, a cheap ESC (poor decision), a decent battery, and a basic charger. I later found that my local hobby shop had much nicer ESCs from EFlight, and have since upgraded.

Craigslist and local listings area great place to find this stuff for cheap!  Some people lose interest in RC and just sell everything. Most RC hobbyists have extras laying around too. I always keep a few servos, wires, receiver, etc... on hand in case a crash or malfunction takes my plane out of commission. Radio shack always has servos and extra little parts for prototyping and fixing up your plane!

-A plane (Try here:
People also seem to really like the Bixler, after watching some youtube vids, I can easily see why!
-A motor suitable for your plane. Look up the specs for your plane or look at the motor for a rating. They usually post a range of plane weight, wingspan and propeller.
-A propeller for your motor. The numbers refer to the size and screw rate (turns the motor will make to drive the plane a given distance). Careful not to over do the prop. If you add too much load, the motor will overheat!
-An ESC (electric speed controller) get one rated higher than your motor! If you have a 30Amp motor, get a 40 or 50 amp ESC.
-Servos for your controls, the plane page should tell you how many to get and what size they need to be. Mine called for three 9g servos, I added an extra for my camera to look around.
-A battery for your flight. These come in a range of cell numbers, sizes and weights. The term #S refers to the number of cells (3s, 4s) and the mah rating (2200 mah) is a rating of milli-amp hours. a 2200mah will run 2.2 amps for an hour. Get a battery that your motor is rated for. 
-A charger, I got a cheap turnigy charger that I hooked up to an old PC power supply. works like a dream! (old pc power supplies are free if you go to the recycling center or find a friend with a busted PC.)
-Glue (I love hot glue, contact cement, and gorilla super glue)
-Tape (I use aluminum tape, electrical tape, Gaffers tape, and 3m Di-Noc Carbon vinyl
-Basic tools (pliers, screw drivers, hex wrenches, etc...)
-Beer and Snacks are optional but recommended.

Step 4: Gotta Build It to Fly It

Putting the plane together is not a chore, it is a hobby. Have fun with it! Get to know your plane.

My plane did not come with instructions... so I have put together some guidelines:

-Un-box your parts and take an inventory. If the plane calls for 3 servos and you find 3 wire looking things... chances are good that they are control rods to the servos. Pile the parts into what looks like proper categories.

-Do the easy parts first, within an hour you can be staring at your airframe, even without having anything glued. I added the wing spar, slid the wings on, screwed on the landing gear, etc... Just to see how the plane looks and make sure that everything is correct. It would suck to get halfway into a build only to realize that your wings are not the same size.

-THIS plane, is YOUR plane. Instructions are not necessary because you are a MAKER. You get to decide the best layout for your own rig. You may screw up, its a learning process... and I have some tips to cover up the blemishes.

-You may need to cut into the wings to get to the servo mounting bays. There should be an indent in the wing if your plane comes with servo covers. Use a razor knife to gently cut the skinning away from the intent outline only. The hollow cavity allows for servo placement, my wings even came with internal servo extensions.

Step 5: Give It Life!

When installing the motors and servos, be sure to mount them securely. Use contact cement and superglue as well as screws, I mount my servos using zip tie mounting pads in case I ever need to replace one. 

The landing gear servo is mounted in a balsa wood case and glued to the inside of the plane with contact cement. The front wheel mount required drilling into the frame to find the mounting hole, the indentation was not correct and I wound up having to cover holes with di-noc. I would recommend measuring before drilling.

Step 6: Looky Looky

Get fancy on the cheap with an extra 9g servo or two.
The turnigy remote is awesome once you learn to program it. Once you figure out how to tune one servo to a remote stick, it is easy to just add more. In one of my extra channels, I use a small servo to look up and down by turning an extra knob on the remote. Hot melt glue saved the day on mounting the camera to the servo. Not sure its great for the camera, but its only hot for a few seconds. 

I also decided that landing was for people in planes. UAV's do not need to land, they can parachute or even get caught in a net. I opted for the parachute, with a servo holding a rubber band in place as a release mechanism.

Step 7: Finish Work

Your plane has a motor, the wing flaps are programmed, the parachute works, the camera can look around... now its time to decorate.
Don't weigh it down too much, but stickers and decals personalize your plane and make it something you are proud of. I put extra 3m di-noc on the wing leading edges and belly of the plane because it is a really nice protective layer and looks like carbon fiber. you can put a clear coat on top to make it shine the same way as well!

When you travel to fly, the wings can be folded for transport. Just slide the wings onto the spar (and metal alignment pins) and tape with gaffers tape to reconnect the wings. Press down with firm even pressure to ensure a good stick.

Step 8: Test, Re-test, and Go Fly!

Here is a video of my parachute rig. It is still going through iterations and testing before I trust it to work every time.

I detached my rear landing gear and instead made a slider that moves on an aluminum extrusion ramp. This is going to be my launch platform!

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