When discussing safety regulations for FPV hobbyists, the requirement for a spotter often comes up. It is a rule in many R/C clubs to fly with a spotter that always maintains visual contact with the FPV aircraft and is available with a secondary remote control to take over in case something goes wrong. Many countries in Europe also have this as a requirement outside of R/C clubs.
We argue that this rule/requirement for a secondary transmitter is completely useless and in most cases actually harmful to the safety of FPV. There is only one scenario in which it is of actual use that a spotter can visually see the aircraft, and that is when a video link or camera fails. With proper testing this point of failure can be mitigated without any aircraft leaving the ground. So, why is a spotter needed?
Where the rule came from
The requirement for a spotter comes from aviation law / rules / advisories that define a remote-controlled aircraft to be a vehicle flown via unaided visual contact (also known as VLOS). In order to meet this requirement, a spotter that has visual contact to the aircraft and possibility to take over control is needed. The visual line of sight rule comes from another section of aviation law, which dictates that people participating in the airspace must be able to "see and avoid" at all times.
So in other words, regulatory bodies claim that "see and avoid" is not (adequately) possible while purely flying FPV and therefore a spotter is required. We completely agree with this notion. Having flown in restricted airspace in numerous countries, we have noticed that the ability to locate and avoid aircraft flying purely FPV is limited to the forward-facing 170 degrees that our typical FPV aircraft is capable of seeing. We have little possibility to look back, and since we are slow in comparison to full scale aircraft, being able to monitor the airspace behind us must be a requirement.
How to safely participate in airspace
Legal requirements for FPV pilots differ in various continents / countries, but our goal as FPV pilots should be global: safety before pleasure. It is of no good use if we conduct unsafe flights. At the same time, we should push our envelope and try new things, it's what innovators do. Some of these things require us to fly in airspace where the possibility of other participants being present exists - be it paragliders, full scale gliders or small private aircraft. It should be noted at this point that if you are flying in places where commercial jetliners are near, you are flying way too close to an airport or are way too high!
So, we as FPV pilots demand a way of flying without somebody on a secondary transmitter and beyond VLOS. In order to one day get this permission, we must be able to show the people in charge we are capable of participating in airspace safely. With "safely" we mean that while we are in airspace we are aware and can "see and avoid" all full scale and manned air traffic.
We have developed a few practices that we feel are safe. They do involve a second person acting as spotter, but not for maintaining visual contact with the FPV aircraft. The spotter can monitor the airspace around our FPV aircraft, because he knows where the FPV aircraft is located by using the telemetry information from the video feed. When the spotter performs this function, it enables FPV pilots to perform "see and avoid" as required by airspace regulations and makes it possible for us to fly further distances safely.
Requirements for our proposed spotter
- The spotter is able to detect full scale aircraft and paragliders, hang gliders throughout the whole flight path of the FPV aircraft (binoculars allowed, even suggested in our opinion)
- The spotter can look at the video feed (external monitor, secondary goggles, google maps) to adequately position the location of the FPV aircraft. Telemetry helps!
- The spotter and the pilot can communicate altitude to ground (roughly), location of the FPV plane and location of oncoming airtraffic in relation to the FPV aircraft at all times during the flight
- Recommended: The flight path is known to the spotter prior to take off. Checkpoints and memorable landmarks are established.
The limitations that this type of spotter would pose should be acceptable to us FPV pilots. We can no longer fly "ultra long range" (more than 10 miles) and high flights without a ground-based chase-team that performs the function of the spotter. It is also no longer possible to fly above or inside clouds and at night.
Team BlackSheep have had numerous concerned full scale pilots or paragliders approach us and discuss with us our possibility of mid-air collisions and "see and avoid". They have sensitized us to the issue and we have developed this method to perform our FPV flights while not upsetting them. It is our hope that through this article we can persuade our fellow FPV pilots to use the same safety measures and through this add legitimacy to our request of being able to participate in airspace.