Cheap model helicopters can be a great way of getting basic low-altitude aerials without needing thousands of pounds worth of kit and training. Although not powerful enough to pick up a full size DSLR, the largest ones 3 channel helicopters can just about handle a GoPro or compact video camera and the less expensive 3 channel types are fairly easy to fly. Their size also means that although you’re limited in practice to less than 30m altitude, you can get very close to your subject and even fly indoors. The helicopter pictured was the most powerful 3 channel model we could find and cost less than £70. We found it to be surprisingly stable and also remarkably sturdy (as a number of tree-based landings proves).
Time (30 mins)
The main drawback of cheaper helicopters is flight-time and range. Heavy lifting means running at full power, which can run the helicopter’s battery down in less than ten minutes. Having said, that batteries aren’t very expensive. so having a few on charge should mean you’re not wasting too much time. Less easy to get around is the short range of the radio systems: with cheap machines this can be less than 50m.
3 channels means that you have forwards/backwards, up/down and left/right turning. However, helicopters when in a hover, often drift sideways, which can be difficult to correct with such limited control.
Hanging your camera.
The biggest problem with adding anything to an aircraft is weight and balance. Co-axial helicopters like the one pictured have a vertically mounted tail rotor which pulls up or pushes down on the tail, causing the aircraft to tip and move forward or backwards. Hanging your camera too far forward or backwards basically will also cause the helicopter to do the same, making hovering difficult or impossible. Counter balancing with small weights such as coins can help.
Another problem is high frequency vibration. Shaking from the motors can cause nasty wobble and roll effects on progressive scan cameras, so hang your camera on something soft such as rubber bands or foam pads.
The final problem is seeing what you’re shooting. If you can deal with the extra weight, cheap cmos cameras strapped alongside your main camera allow realtime viewing, with a receiver plugged into a TV or monitor on the ground.