Cheap FPV Cameras, Are They Worth Buying?
Typical Low Cost FPV Setup
Available from xHeli.com
Being one with more desire for toys than money to buy them with, I thought long and hard before buying a $39.95 complete FPV setup. On the positive side, it was a complete setup and the most I could lose was $52.33 (shipping included). On the negative side, the old clichés “you get what you pay for” and “you can’t believe everything you read” really nagged at me. So after far too much procrastination, I bought it. I think one of the major reasons for buying this setup is because it was complete, with nothing else to buy (as long as you have an old TV and a 9 Volt battery). To buy a better quality setup would have taken more study to pick and choose the various components, and at that time I had very little knowledge on the subject.
The Package Arrives; the Excitement Builds
After receiving this setup, I quickly hooked it up to the TV in my living room, but I had a lot of interference. I suspected the 2.4 GHz system was getting interference from my 2.4 GHz wireless phone/intercom system. You will likely have this problem too; a number of household items broadcast on 2.4 GHz. However, once I unplugged the intercom, I was pleasantly surprised to see it had quite a good picture for a cheap camera. The next step was to mount the camera on my RC car. I powered the camera/transmitter with a 9V battery, and a camera mounting bracket was included, so this was not difficult. I could now sit on the couch and drive the RC car around inside the house. This was a lot of fun, but going into other rooms would prevent the video signal from reaching the transmitter. I had to go to that room to retrieve the car. You will need a direct line of sight to use this setup.
The Real Test, The Hard Data
The next step was to move outside and give it a true distance test. This setup was advertised to have a wireless transmission range of 450 feet (150 meters), Line-Of-Sight. I thought that this would certainly be enough transmission range to drive a RC car, and hopefully enough to fly a slow park flyer airplane, as long as I was on a buddy box. However, I could not get even 1/3 of that range with a reliable video signal. During the range test, I was at least 75 feet (22.7 meters) from the nearest house, which I presume would be the nearest interference source. Once the receiver was tuned in (which is sometimes difficult), I had a good picture. I placed the receiver at about 6 feet (1.8 meters) off of the ground, on top of a camera tripod, and had a direct line of sight (without obstacles) between the transmitter and receiver. I ran the RC car in a straight line, away from the receiver and recorded the distance when the video signal failed and went black. I would then do a U turn and bring the car back within range and try it again; this was repeated numerous times, over several days. The video signal would repeatedly fail at a distance of between 132 to 189 feet (40.2 to 57.6 meters). This is not to say that the signal was reliable at less than 132 feet (40.2 meters); it was not. The video signal was not reliable, even at short distances. Sometimes the video would show a lot of noise, or even go black momentarily fairly close to the receiver; less than 75 feet (22.7 meters). The video signal failures were not consistent. However, at a distance of less than 75 feet (22.7 meters) you could actually drive the car and have fun. Of course, this is provided that you can live with the annoying noise in the video and dropped signals. Another noteworthy thing to mention is that going around a tree, a person or any other obstacle that breaks the line of sight will certainly result in a degraded or lost signal, even at this short range.
Maybe I am Doing Something Wrong
Being the cheapskate that I am, I really wanted this thing to work. My hope was to fly FPV using my SkyFly 2. This camera/transmitter was: small, light and compact, and fits nicely inside the SkyFly 2 cockpit. Many other FPV setups would not fit in this small space; if this system did not work, it will likely mean buying another airplane. Knowing this, Idid not give up easy.
I tried several other things that I hoped would help.
I thought I might be getting interference from the RC car receiver. To test this, I had someone hold the camera/transmitter (without the car) and walk away from the receiver (along the same path the car had been taking), but I did get any noticeable improvement in video signal.
I had the receiver mounted on a six foot aluminum step ladder, with a good ground between the ladder and receiver. Presumably this would provide a better ground plane for the antenna, but the signal did not improve.
I mounted the receiver on the top of a pole about 12feet (3.7 meters) above the ground, but the signal still did not improve.
My tests have followed the scientific method by changing only one variable and repeatedly recording the results. Nonetheless, I am a beginner at FPV, and I certainly do not have all of the answers. Therefore, I contacted the vendor who sold me this setup, and asked them if my results are typical. I also gave them a link to the original review, and asked them if there was anything I could do to improve my test results, but I could not get straight answers from them. Further persisting, I specifically told them that I did not want to give a bad review for a good product,and that I would repeat my research if they would send me a known good working unit; they refused.
So, in the end, my original thoughts were right, “you get what you pay for” and “you can’t believe everything you read”. This wireless camera was not designed for FPV; it is a low end security camera. I can not imagine anybody being successful using this camera to pilot an aircraft of any type. Most RC car enthusiasts will not likely be happy with it either. If you have a very small, open area where you run a RC car, and the patience to put up with a more than reasonable amount of noise and video blackouts you might find some application for these cheap FPV setups, but I doubt it. The best advice I can give is: do not repeat my mistake; do not buy a cheap a FPV setup. Save your money for a quality receiver, transmitter and camera.