‘FPV’ drone pilot makes videos with a unique perspective

CLEVELAND — Eric Hellinger’s arms are down at his side, firmly gripping what looks like a video game console controller. His head is wrapped in a virtual reality goggles that, just a few years ago, would be more at home in a science fiction cyberpunk feature.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

Eric Hellinger controlling his drone.

His feet are planted firmly on the ground, but he is flying.

It’s always intense,” Hellinger said. “It always gets your adrenaline going. Which is what I like. I like the pressure.”

Hellinger is a professional FPV or “first-person view” drone pilot.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

Most modern drones are carefully controlled by GPS positioning, allowing pilots to easily and meticulously position and hover their drones in the air for those sweeping aerial shots you may see on TV and on our own news station.

FPV drones are different. They place full control of the drone in the pilot, with Hellinger using a custom drone controller and virtual reality headset to give him that first-person view and unparalleled precision in controlling the drone’s flight.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

“It’s starting to be adopted for all types of applications, movies and commercials, things like that,” Hellinger said. “I do a lot of indoor work around here and it and it’s nice because the indoor doesn’t really matter about the weather.”

With FPV drone control, Hellinger can perform spectacular high-flying drone maneuvers and stunts, whether it be flying outside around buildings and larger obstacles, or inside tight spaces, such as a rock-climbing gym, a Porche dealership, or even inside the News 5 studio.

“It’s very much like a video game,” he said.

Inside the News 5 studio, Hellinger demonstrated his customized 5-inch FPV drone – a small carbon-fiber frame, a soldered flight control circuit board and a tiny camera surrounded by four drone propellers with 3D-printed plastic guards. He attached a GoPro camera to the top of it, strapped on his VR goggles, and the miniature flying machine buzzed to life, hovering steadily a few feet off the ground.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

“On the ground, I see through the goggles,” he explained to curious onlookers as he set up for his next flight. “You use the headset and you use a controller, it looks like an RC controller.”

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Dave Colabine / News 5

Controller in hand, he began piloting the small device around the studio, zipping around the space, up into the rafters, and even over to News 5 anchor Danita Harris, who had peered in and was delighted to see what the commotion was about.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

And just as quickly as he had taken off, Hellinger had to set the drone back down.

“I have to change the battery,” he said. “The battery only lasts about five minutes.”

For outdoor flying, Hellinger uses a larger, 10-pound drone with a larger battery that can fly for slightly longer – seven to 10 minutes. That drone can also support auto-piloting through GPS and larger cameras.

“I think having the knowledge of knowing how to build the drones is definitely very important, because it allows you to improvise effectively on set.”

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Dave Colabine / News 5

He said, for example, on one shoot he was able to mount the GoPro backwards to get a reverse shot.

When he is manually piloting, just like an actual pilot, Hellinger must remain aware not only his drone’s surroundings, but also several other factors and variables, like radio signal strength, link quality, controller battery life, drone battery life and wind speed.

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Dave Colabine / News 5

A look inside Hellinger’s drone headset shows some of the readings displayed in real-time.

“Definitely bit of a learning curve for FPV. But if you put the time in, practice, learn how to build them, it can definitely pay off,” Hellinger said.

With his ability to send his drone into a barrel roll with the flick of his finger, and with the ease he sends it careening through the tightest of spaces, one might think Hellinger has been piloting drones for years — not so.

“I got started flying drones in early 2021,” he said. Before that, he bounced around jobs, including car salesman, copier salesman, and professional touring musician, playing lead guitar and bass.

He said he didn’t make a lot of money doing that, so he decided to take flight with a new career path.

“I just saw that it was going to be something that people were going to need,” Hellinger said. “And especially the FPV stuff, I saw how unique it was, and I just started doing it and never stopped.”

Since that time, Hellinger and his company Vivid Flight Media have shot FPV drone videos for high-profile clients including the Cleveland Guardians, the Cavaliers, Mountain Dew, Playhouse Square, and Jack Entertainment.

Hellinger said that in addition to the adrenaline rush of an FPV drone flight, the end result of his work is highly gratifying.

“The most rewarding thing about this type of work is it enables you to get amazing footage that people have never seen before,” he said. “I personally enjoy when the entire production crew is standing around the monitor or the camera after the shot and their jaws are just dropped in awe at the shot we just got.”

With a growing list of clients and an expanding portfolio of impressive and exhilarating drone videos from around Cleveland and beyond, Hellinger may well have found his calling.

“I really enjoy getting amazing footage for people,” he said. “Another thing I enjoy about it is, it’s something I’m really passionate about. Being in the moment, you’re completely in the moment. You’re connected to the machine, when you’re flying it, it’s like time doesn’t really matter at that point. You’re just in it. So it’s very cool. It also pays well.”

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Dave Colabine / News 5

See more of Hellinger’s videos on his Instagram pageYouTube channelFacebook page and website.

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