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Before You Try or Buy: How Do Drone Goggles Work

You’ve heard all about drone goggles, and seen the drone racers with their heads buried in the sci-fi looking headsets, and you’re super curious to know what the hype is all about. How exactly do drone goggles work? What can you see when you’re wearing them, and how do you use them to control a drone?

Drone goggles give you a First Person View (FPV) of what the camera on your drone sees, for the virtual experience of flight. Most drone goggles use head tracking technology to allow you to control the direction of the camera on the drone, or in some cases the flight direction of the drone, through head movements.

Almost all of us have wondered what it looks like from the bird’s eye view, and we all know now that we can get the perspective from a drone camera. But the FPV experience takes that idea to a new level of (virtual) reality, by allowing the operator to see, right in front of their eyes, in an immersive experience, what the drone camera is seeing, and even to give control of the drone’s motion simply through a turn of the head. 

How it works

In the simplest terms, FPV goggles are simply a screen for viewing the drone camera’s video feed, whether it’s in real time or recorded for later viewing. This would be an alternative to, or in addition to, viewing the video feed from your drone’s camera on a smartphone or tablet connected to your drone controller, or a video screen built in to a controller. The video plays on the screen of the goggles, which are worn right in front of your eyes. 

One of the things that can be confusing to a new pilot is that in the event that your drone gets turned around (facing you, rather than away from you), the controls are, or feel backwards, and next thing you know, you want to head left, but what you think is the left control sends your drone flying off toward the right. One of the advantages of an FPV view while flying a drone is that while you are looking through the goggles, you will always be looking in the same direction your drone is, and you won’t have this getting turned around effect. 

Many types of drone goggles have head tracking technology that monitors head movements to direct the camera orientation. For instance, while your drone is in flight, if you move your head up or down, or to the left or right, sensors in the goggles will track the movement and signal the gimbal to turn the camera in the same direction. This allows for an incredibly stunning immersive flight experience.

Even going beyond that, there are some drone goggles that will enable you to control the flight of your drone through head tracking. This means that turning your head to the left will not just direct the camera to point left, it will send the entire drone turning toward the left. Straightening your head out again will send the drone in a straight path (in the new direction). 

Types of Drone Goggles

Before we move on, we need to clarify that there are several rather different types of apparatus that fall under the term of drone goggles.

  1. Augmented Reality (AR) Goggles

Sometimes called drone glasses. This type of drone goggles are transparent, but superimposes the drone’s video feed over the viewer’s field of vision while not entirely obscuring it. On the screen, the user can see flight statistics and other key information about the drone’s flight, while still having the ability to keep the drone in sight through the lens of the goggles. One example of this type would be the Epson Moverio BT-300FPV Smart Glasses.  

  1. Low Profile Virtual Reality (VR) Goggles

This is the majority of the drone goggles out there, and the ones that automatically come to mind – the ones you see drone racers using. These goggles contain a small LCD screen for each eye and a magnification lens that focuses and enlarges the image on screen for a better view of the image, and a more immersive experience. This type of goggle is extremely popular among FPV because they are small enough to be easily portable, and lightweight enough to be comfortable to wear. They tend to be a little bit more expensive than Box Goggles (see below) due in large part to the special magnification screens, but the portability and comfort factors may justify the additional cost. This type of goggle completely blocks out your physical view of your drone or anything else in your surroundings.

  1. Box Goggles (VR)

Box goggles look a little bit more like what you might think of as a virtual reality headset for gaming or your smartphone. They are a little bit bigger and bulkier than the low profile goggles. Box goggles contain a regular LCD screen with a magnification lens, and the screen is enclosed by a box that keeps out sunlight, and protects the internal apparatus. They completely obscure your vision, immersing you entirely in what the drone video feed is showing you. A couple advantages of box goggles over the low profile goggles: they can provide a higher resolution image because of a bigger screen, and they are usually roomy enough to be able to wear glasses inside them, if contacts don’t work for you.

Line of Sight Laws

One aspect of the different types of drone goggles mentioned above that may have jumped out at you is whether or not they obscure your vision. Why would this really be such a big deal? If you’re going to get the best FPV experience, wouldn’t you want to be all in, fully immersed? To really answer that, you have to consider the FAA regulation that demands that all drones must be operated within visual line of sight.

If you are wearing an FPV headset that completely obscures your vision, how can you stay in compliance with the visual line of sight law? There are two ways around this.

  1. Fly Indoors

If you are flying inside, this rule doesn’t apply, which is one of the main reasons that many racing events are hosted in indoor venues. 

  1. Have a Spotter

You are allowed to circumvent this rule by having a visual spotter, provided they are within audible range of you, the controller, and maintain a continuous visual on the drone during flight. 

What does this mean for FPV goggles? If you’re flying a drone with FPV goggles on, you must either be flying indoors, have a spotter, or be using goggles that don’t obstruct your view of your drone during flight. If you want to have the immersive FPV experience, but you can’t fly indoors or don’t have a spotter, another option is to take your drone on a flight without goggles on, and record the video of the flight. You can play this back on the goggles after flight for an immersive flight experience, though it will not be happening simultaneously. 

Who’s using drone goggles, and for what?

If you’re considering getting into the FPV thing, it’s important to consider which aspect of it you’re most interested in. This will help you decide which type of goggles might be right for you. You can think of FPV drone users as falling into two categories: racing and recreational.

  1. Racing

Drone racers almost always use FPV goggles during their races. They use low profile FPV goggles, and are most concerned with how quickly their drone’s video feed is being transmitted to their goggles, to help them fly very fast, crash free. Image quality is of secondary concern.

  1. Recreation

Many other non-racing drone pilots enjoy the FPV experience simply to get that indescribable feeling of flying, and see the view from the air. These types of users might be more likely to opt for box goggles that can offer a much higher quality of video (and immersive flight experience), when image latency is not so urgent. 

What about you? What would you like to see through your drone’s eye view?