Category Archives: gadgets

Using my iPhone GPS to record flight data

Another spot of geeking-out. After seeing a couple student pilot blogs with embedded maps of their flights (like this one), I wanted-in on the action. After some searching around, these maps have been created by SpiderTracks – a piece of hardware that provides live flight tracking facilities. At over £1000, I wasn’t exactly ready to hand over my cash, so I’ve been looking at cheaper solutions.

After lots of searching and thinking, I decided to try using my iPhone (with built-in GPS) and an app called MotionX-GPS, a £1.99 iPhone app with track recording features. I already had the app and had been using it for recording my hiking and walking in the hills, so I was familiar with how it worked and the accuracy had always been good, even when walking through dense forests without a clear line of sight to the GPS gods in the sky.

So, last lesson (lesson 6) I opened up MotionX-GPS and started recording my track as I got in to the plane. Lesson over, I pressed the stop button and saved my track to a GPX file. When I got home, I was able to import the GPX file in to Google Earth, which gives a pretty swanky visualisation of my route:

GPS route of Lesson 6
GPS route of Lesson 6

Google Earth even has a fancy ‘Play Tour’ option, which uses the timing data from the GPS file to recreate and play-back the entire flight in real-time (or speeded-up) using the usual 3D Google Earth style view.  Finally, it also has a ‘Show Elevation & Speed Profile’ option, which generates this pretty cool interactive graph:

Speed and elevation profile from lesson 6


I’ve always been a data fan (my inner geek calling!) but I think this will be particularly useful during later lessons when practicing the circuit, and then reviewing my cross-country routes…

Filming longer with the GoPro – Anker battery pack

I’ve been pleased with the quality of the GoPro and have been replaying my lessons at home to revise what I’ve learnt in the air (and to identify any mistakes or things to do better next time). My biggest disapointment has been the battery only lasts around 1 hour 10 minutes fully charged, which isn’t enough time to capture the entire lesson.

To improve this, I looked around at various power options. Here’s what I considered:

  • Extra GoPro rechargeable batteries – at only £20, one of the cheapest options. However it involves physically swapping the batteries over, something which I don’t want to be distracted with mid-flight.
  • GoPro BacPac – at £50, this pricey option connects directly to the back of the GoPro and provides another battery (without needing to swap anything over). The website doesn’t say how much extra time/power this provides. I didn’t choose this option because when attached to the GoPro the GoPro is too big to fit within the cover, meaning I’d need to also buy new mounting kit.
  • Veho pebble 5000mAh portable battery’ – inspired by the setup used by the excellent GoProFlying, I was tempted to buy this £30 external USB battery pack. It provides nearly 5 times more power than the built-in GoPro battery, so should keep filming for around 6 hours. I decided against this option in the end because of its size and weight. I’m currently mounting my GoPro using the suction cup mount, and this would need to be fixed somewhere nearby – complicating the mounting setup.
  • Anker Astro Mini 3000mAh Ultra-Compact Portable Lipstick-Sized External Battery Charger – I picked this up for only £10 from Amazon. I settled on this solution because of it’s tiny size and light weight. It’s slightly larger than a lipstick and is light enough to leave connected & dangling without danger of it pulling down the suction cup mount.

So far, so good. I filmed two lessons in a row and the GoPro was still fully charged, and the Anker still had charge left. It was fine dangling from the GoPro and didn’t cause any problems with the suction cup mount.

Here’s a snapshot of the installed setup:

GoPro Hero3 mounted inside Piper Warrior using the suction cup mount

The Anker is dangling down out of sight – you can see the USB cable. The other cable dangling down is the audio connector going in to the plane’s rear headphone socket.

Here’s a pic of the Anker at home alongside the GoPro, to give you a sense of scale:

GoPro and Anker Astro Mini battery pack

Flight recording kit

Three lessons have been cancelled since my last post, due to the poor weather. To keep up my motivation I’ve been watching quite a few clips on YouTube of people learning to fly. Particularly inspired by the excelling GoPro Flying channel, I decided I’d like to be able to record my own lessons, so I ordered some kit…

The GoPro is a tiny battery powered HD video camera, with a fish-eye style lens that is particularly suited to filming within the plane. I already had a GoPro Hero 3 Black Edition, so I just needed to buy some extra to get it set up within the cockpit.

GoPro Suction Cup Mount is a strong mount – apparently capable of withstanding speeds of up to 150mph – so perfectly strong enough for holding the camera steady inside the plane.

One of the things I particularly liked about the GoPro Flying channel is the way that cockpit audio (including radio transmissions) are recorded alongside the video. After researching various ways of achieving this, I decided to record it directly on the GoPro by using its external mic input. Firstly, you need an adaptor like this to connect to the headphones socket within the plane. It converts the headphone signal into a standard 3.5mm microphone jack, which you connect in to the GoPro using the 3.5mm Mic Adaptor cable.

It’s worth noting the GoPro camera doesn’t come with an SD card, so you’ll need to order one separately if you don’t already have one. I have a 32GB Class 10 card, which is large enough to store over 2.5 hours of high quality HD video – more than enough for my usual lessons, which are around 1.5 hours. If I want to record more video, I can easily reduce the quality.

I’m now eagerly awaiting my next lesson so I can try it out!