RC Aerial Photography EquipmentThe equipment used for aerial photography by RC airplanes is quite varied. Any type of camera can be carried aloft by any type of plane that will support the extra load. The basic components are the RC airplane, the camera, the camera mount, and the shutter switch.
Digital cameras are most commonly used for this purpose, although film cameras will do just as well. However, there is some overhead associated with setting up for an RC flight, so it's much better to know immediately if you have good pictures.
We will fly over the subject, take some pictures, review the pics on the digicam screen, then take off again if necessary to complete the mission. A suitable camera should be light relative to the overall weight of the airplane.
A couple of popular camera choices are the Nikon 3700, and the Pentax Optio S4 (shown below). The Pentax can be triggered by a infrared remote; there is an aftermarket product (the PRISM switch by www.hexpertsystems.com) that takes advantage of this and plugs into the receiver.
On other cameras, the shutter is triggered by having a servo push on the shutter release button. This of course is a slightly heavier solution, and requires the servo to be rigidly mounted relative to the camera.
In either case, the shutter is tripped by moving a stick on the rc transmitter. Note that these cameras are even capable of limited video, which makes for some neat bird's eye movies.
We've sent our Option S4 skyward for many aerial photography missions, and found our unit to be very rugged and dependable. You can check out some of the photos in the gallery.
Pentax Optio S4 + Prism switch. Weighs only 4 ounces!
Next you will need some way of mounting the camera to the airplane.
This will generally need to be custom built, but is not difficult to do. Below is a camera mount made of hardwood from the hobby shop. The joints are secured with epoxy, as this frame needs to be strong.
The tilted platform carries the camera, which is attached to the mount by a large bolt that fits in the hole intended for the camera tripod.
Note: use a chain, or strong cord, to attach the camera to the airframe as well! This way if the bolt fails, you don't have an expensive camera jumping ship.
On the mount below, the platform can be tilted by unscrewing the nut on the bottom right side, then re-tightening.
This feature is useful for aiming at and getting good pictures of your target, especially if your are limited in how (or if!) you can fly over it.
While many RC planes (or helicopters) can perform the AP function, a couple of popular ones have emerged. These tend to be slow-flying electric planes.
Slow gives you more time to setup for the shot, and less worry about camera damage from a crash landing.
Electric means less vibration to spoil your picture; and you can turn off the electric motor right before the shot to reduce vibration to near zero. Some people use glow or gasoline aircraft for aerial photography, generally with some type of vibration isolation for the camera in its mount.
The GWS Slow Stick is quite commonly used for RC aerial photography. It's cheap, flies well, and is easy to retrofit with a camera. It's mostly foam.
For those who prefer wooden airplanes, the EZ400G (an ARF) from Northeast Sailplane (shown below), is also widely used and works well for this purpose. The open design also makes this one easy to outfit with a camera.
Some strengthening mods are a good idea, including reinforcing of the pylon with spruce, and adding shear webs to the wing.
Here is our list of EZ400G mods for the aerial photography mission.
The total weight with Optio S4 camera, MPJet brushless motor and 2 cell 2100 LiPoly battery, is only 21 ounces.