back to article The DIY spy-in-the-sky: From kites to octocopters

Last week, we offered a brief history of aerial surveillance, with a promise to give a few pointers to the budding DIY spy-in-the-sky. Interest in airborne photography has skyrocketed in the past few years, driven by the availability of lightweight cameras packing plenty of pixels at bargain basement prices. Such kit allows …


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  1. Shaun 2
    Thumb Up

    Good article, and just in time for Mothers Day too.

  2. Haku

    If (when?) they're banned

    What's to stop someone putting miniature spy cameras in tennis balls with built-in gyroscope stabilisation and firing them straight up (so they can be easily retrieved) for aerial shots?

    And would tennis balls then be banned?

    1. Crisp

      Re: If (when?) they're banned


      Someone get me a mini-cam, a tube of tennis balls balls, some hair spray and a lighter.

      There goes my weekend....

  3. Ralph B


    No mention of the Parrot AR Drone? Erm, why?

    1. Gordon861

      Re: Parrot?

      I wondered about that too. Perhaps this will be coming with a more in depth review soon as these are the most commonly available ones right now.

    2. Lord Elpuss Silver badge

      Re: Parrot?

      I suspect predictable range is the problem with the AR Drone. You're controlling it with WiFi, so assuming absolutely no interference then 100m max. In an urban environment, using an iPhone to drive it will give you a range more like 30m.

      I've had 2 AR drones. The first one was going great then I took off the altitude limiter; it disappeared into the clouds and came back down a couple of minutes later completely out of control. Shouldn't have happened according to Parrot (it's supposed to hang around if it loses the WiFi signal) but in any case it was wrecked.

      The second one was fine, and I took some great aerial photos of my house with it, but was far too nervous after losing the first one to let it get more than about 20m from me including vertical.

      Did learn something interesting about Parrot's guarantee though; when the first one was destroyed Parrot refused to honour the warranty as it was crash damaged. My argument was that it crashed BECAUSE it lost control and was therefore broken under warranty - but this carried no weight with them. Given that 99% of AR Drones will have been crash damaged at some time in their lives, I wonder if Parrot have ever had to pay out on a warranty claim??

      These days when I buy a helicopter or quad I tend to assume it has no warranty the minute I fly it for the first time. Ultimately gives me less heartburn.

  4. g.marconi

    I doubt if anyone would bother to use an SLR when there is no-one there to use the optical viewfinder. Also they are a lot heavier due to the weight of the prism and mirror mechanism

    1. melt

      "the best camera is the one that's with you".

      1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

        And I'll keep my SLR

        with me too.

  5. Tom 7 Silver badge

    Anything you can just drop a phone into?

    Its got everything you need to control a copter and a camera too.

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  7. EddieD

    Bought a gopro for this very reason

    Just got a Hero3, mainly for cycling and diving, but I will try and clip it on to my big kite at some point. I would go the weather balloon route, but I know that if I got a cylinder of helium, I'd just waste it all on Donald Duck impressions.

    1. Matt Bridge-Wilkinson

      Re: Bought a gopro for this very reason

      Tried last last year and the wind just wasn't strong enough it and kept slowly coming down. With good strong winds its certainly achieveable.

  8. Nick Woodruffe
    Thumb Up

    Quadcopters, hexcopters and octocopters. Make brillaint camera platforms partly due to their excess thrust left over from using brushless motors.

    Yes you can buy off the shelf or better still if you like playing with a soldering iron, make your own. I built my first using a small square of laminate flooring for the center plate and two lengths of 10mm square alloy tubing bought form B&Q. The control board can be pruchased for under 30 quid, add 4 speeed controlers, 4 props, 4 motors, transmitter and recieiver and have the whole lot ready to fly for under £200. Capable of lifting an SLR, I use mine with a Go-Pro as it's more durable when I crash.

    Advise you get insureance by joining the BMFA for £30 per year but not sure how you would be covered flying in a built up area. Most model flyers have airfields or farmers fields to fly safe and uninterupted.

    Its an interesting area and allows you to mess with Atmel, Arduino and other simple electronics. Just search for "Multiwii" or "kkmulticopter" on the internet to get a taste of what you can do with no more experience than mecanno.

    If you reaaly want to see how well they fly in sport mode then search our "warthox" in That guy really can these things to the limit.

    1. This post has been deleted by its author

  9. Benet Allen


    You've left out my favourite.... - very good chief pilot, too.

  10. JDX Gold badge

    Draganflyer X-4

    They also don't seem to list a price, and since they are keen to point out it's cheap compared to a plane, I guess it's not cheap at all.

    1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

      Re: Draganflyer X-4

      Yup, when you see "call for pricing", you know your wallet is going to take a hit.

      1. Gordon 10 Silver badge

        Re: Draganflyer X-4

        isnt this what they used on Top Gear over the weekend? If the results were not mocked up they were certainly impressive. Suspect they hired/leased one rather than bought it.

        1. JDX Gold badge

          Re: Draganflyer X-4

          Since theirs was an octo and the X-4 is a quadro, clearly not. But it did look a lot like the octo also featured in this article, and yes it was very impressive. I want one.

  11. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Living drones

    What about harnessing a little MD-80 or similar to a homing pigeon?

    1. Francis Boyle Silver badge

      Re: Living drones

      You want to harness a DC-9 to a homing pigeon. Wouldn't that be just a little cruel.

  12. Andrew Alan McKenzie

    living drones

    100 years too late I am afraid.

  13. James 36
    Black Helicopters


    these guys are good I have bought a couple of helicopters from them

    other suppliers are available

  14. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    There are some great ones available straight out of the box - seen both a fixed wing and rotor for less than £100. Still think the Lego one is the bee's knees.

    I can understand wanting to restrict these devices in built up areas, apart from the privacy issue, I would not want one dropping on my head when some numpty loses control of it. But outside of built-up/urban areas I don't see why they shouldn't be allowed.

    Def on my xmas list either to buy or build at some point.

    1. JDX Gold badge

      A bit hard to legislate that, unless local councils decide individually somehow?

  15. JaitcH

    Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

    AVOID the GoPro Hero cameras UNLESS you want pictures featuring condensation on the lens!

    The heat from the camera causes condensation to form on the lens insert - even in locations as hot at SaiGon or as cold as Kapuscasing, Ontario, which effectively renders images unviewable.

    If you must use a GoPro I suggest you use the waterproof case with a couple of vent holes stuffed with some breathable material. The holes should be at the lowest point of the case.

    My employer has had eleven GoPro units for the past couple of years and there are now superior units available under the names of Sony, Liquid Image, ION Air Pro, Vio POV.HD, etc. Choose carefully and test at low temperatures! Unfortunately GoPro support is not good.

    You should also choose SD memory carefully, GoPro doesn't function properly with many brands of SD memory.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

      ...and yet there are a great deal of videos and still photos out there, publically accessible, taken using gopros and condensation free. I've seen some recently from places as hot as the Sinai peninsula in summer and as cold as Niseko in the winter. Funny old world, isn't it?

      1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

        Re: Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

        Indeed. If you're really worried, there's a skeleton back for the camera which means it's not hermetically sealed. Our balloon boys Dave Akerman and Anthony Stirk have had no problems with the GoPro on multiple flights.

        1. EddieD

          Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

          And they supply a set of reusable dessicating inserts for the Hero3.

          1. JaitcH

            Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???


            So GoPro finally admits it has a problem?

            Of all the POV cameras I have used only the GoPro exhibited these problems.

            Even the Oregon Scientific unit was better, and it used standard batteries, but it's problem was it it was unserviceable - simply dump and buy another.

        2. JaitcH

          Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

          @Lester Haines

          The 'skeleton' back is useless in heavy rain as there are too many large openings.

          And, when the water has entered, quite a bit has to accumulate before it overcomes the internal lip of the rare cover of the case. Only if you are taking pictures of clouds, with the camera tilted skywards, will these holes permit moisture to exit the case.

          And, given the condensation is between the lens of the camera insert and that of the external lens, it is extremely hard even to permit a 'draft' to equalise the moisture.

          Riding in the desert hardly equates with the extremes of space.

          1. Lester Haines (Written by Reg staff) Gold badge

            Re: Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

            Fair point. Since we don't operate balloon launches in rain, it's not an issue for us.

      2. JaitcH

        Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

        How long are these video's and what cover were they using? If you use a 8 or 16-gigabyte chip, which obviates case opening they will mist but ONLY over the lens.

        I used two GoPro's, daily, for years and they both suffered from the same effect. The humidity comes from within the camera.

    2. Andy Kay
      Thumb Up

      Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

      Or use some anti-fog solution? Fairy liquid works well

      1. JaitcH

        Re: Low Orbit Helium Assisted Navigator launch, a GoPro HD HERO???

        Fairy liquid doesn't work for prolonged periods. Might for 'fairies' though.

  16. Graham Marsden

    Time Team...

    ... used a rather nice Delta-winged drone with a camera in a recent episode to do shots which they'd normally have used a much more expensive helicopter for.

    It actually gave pretty good results.

  17. This post has been deleted by a moderator

    1. mmeier

      Re: Surface to Air Missiles For Obliterating eXternal Espionage Surveilance

      So smart Windows-controlled drones carry a Sidearm or four.

  18. 1Rafayal

    I am currently building an Android based quad copter.I got one of those really cheap Android Mini-PC's off Ebay, they only cost £40, and hooked it up to a Phidget.

    With a combination like this, you can pretty much do anything, but for my purposes it will just allow control over the copter itself.

    I preferred this over an Arduino based machine, Android gives you everything you need in one package. My inspiration for this was the recent article on launching an Android smartphone based satellite into space.

  19. Dave Bell

    Proper DIY

    I gather that keeping Spitfires flying supports a component manufacturing industry which can supply all the parts you need to build your own Spitfire. So for DIY spy-in-sky stuff, go for the Spitfire PR Mk XIX. Not only do you get good pictures, you get to fly a Spitfire.

    Nothing else comes close.

    1. mmeier

      Re: Proper DIY

      Yup, heritage flights Spit is a beautiful plane The Lanc makes me look for a Acht-Acht but that is family tradition, where I come from they find RAF/USAAF "zum schiessen"

      As an alternative you can get a brand new replica "Butcherbird" FW190. Since reece is done low this is saiid to be even better. Sadly they have not yet done a "Longnose" but the A-version I had the pleasure to see looks great.

  20. maladmin

    flying penguins

    No mention of flying penguins from Festo?

    Or my current favourite a flying jellyfish

    The potential for surveillance was described by Gibson in his book Zero History.

    1. mmeier

      Re: flying penguins

      There are two ways to make a penguin fly:

      Plug some holes and fill it with Helium

      Pust a FFAR in and light off

      Both are a waste of good lamp oil

  21. IvyKing
    Black Helicopters

    "U-2" toy plane from the 1960's?

    My brother got it as a gift 1964-65, plastic sailplane like body with foam wings and timer for camera (127 film, half frame). He never got the thing to fly long enough to get a picture, but he was all of 9 years old at the time.

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