In 2010, a radio controlled aircraft collided with a small private plane during a charity airshow at a Colorado airport. While there was no visual damage to the private plane, the incident reflected a growing trend in rc aviation – the use of FPV planes. During the course of this blog, we will discuss the current problems surrounding their use.
We first need to define an FPV plane. An FPV (First Person View) plane is a radio controlled model aircraft, which utilizes a small onboard video camera and transmitter sending imagery to a ground receiving unit in the form of video goggles or a portable LCD screen. The view from such flights is the same as a pilot would have from the plane. Because of this, the rc pilot on the ground need not maintain line of sight (LOS) contact with the model, limited only by the reach of the radio signal and the power supply of the aircraft. While a number of rc aircraft are built with FPV capability, kits are available to install video cameras on virtually any rc plane. The rc pilot using goggles or head tracking gear usually has an exciting flight experience.
The capability of FPV aircraft to fly beyond visual contact range (some have a radius in excess of thirty miles), as well as an altitude ceiling above 3,000 ft., may sometimes cause problems when the pilot loses the video signal. For example, private planes often make their landing approaches at altitudes within the envelope of the FPV model. A loss of signal at the wrong time could result in a collision between the two craft and pilot error due to the distraction. Collisions with communications towers, power lines and other ground obstacles pose an equal threat. Though there are currently no laws or regulations governing control of FPV planes, the Academy of Model Aeronautics has proposed several guidelines to make FPV flight safer.
The first is the use of a buddy box system, in which two pilots, one in sight of the rc and the other monitoring the flight by video are able to direct the plane using independent flight controls. Another proposal requires an FPV pilot to fly their craft within line of sight at an altitude of no higher than 400 ft. Some models utilize autopilots, which automatically fly the plane back to its controller upon loss of video power. For all of the safety concerns, there has never been a recorded incident of an FPV plane causing major property damage or injuries, due to the majority of FPV models being constructed of styrofoam, which is lighter and less rigid.