Fast forward to today, where you can find HD action cameras on the shelf of every electronics store or online retailer. GoPro gets the credit for bringing the affordable mini-HD camera concept to the masses and we now take HD video for granted since every cell phone includes this recording capability.
While a GoPro or iPhone can shoot excellent video, pilots have more demands in the cockpit and need a camera solution designed with aviation needs in mind. This includes the ability to record cockpit audio, eliminate propeller distortion, and connect with other aviation apps, accessories, and avionics.
Fortunately, Garmin offers that exact solution in the new VIRB Ultra 30 for aviation. This 3rd generation camera from Garmin improves just about every feature from the previous two VIRB models and includes the aviation accessories pilots need right in the box.
The first thing you’ll notice when you pick up a VIRB Ultra 30 is the new form factor, which is much slimmer and more compact than previous models. Our favorite feature is the inclusion of an LCD display on the back, which serves as both a viewfinder and touchscreen menu to control the camera. The original VIRB had a small viewfinder on the top of the camera, but this wasn’t too useful in the airplane since it was tough to see in the cockpit. The screen on the VIRB Ultra 30 is positioned on the back now, making it much easier to frame up your shot. The LCD is very responsive to touch and the on-screen menus are intuitive and easy to use, which is not the case with most other action cameras.
When all the video quality settings are dialed up to the max, the Virb Ultra 30 can record 4K video at a smooth 30 frame per second (fps) frame rate. To put this in perspective, most HD TV programming is broadcast at a resolution of 1920 x 1080, while 4K footage measures in at 3840 x 2160–over 4 times the number of pixels and detail in the video.
GoPro has offered 4K action cameras for a few years now, but it hasn’t been until recently that the average person had a monitor or TV to actually see all those pixels. Today YouTube supports 4K video and just about every TV sold now is a 4K UHD TV (it’s actually difficult to find one that’s only 1080p HD), so there’s a good chance you can find a way to enjoy your 4K video. Here’s some sample 4K footage we shot with the VIRB Ultra 30 landing back at Sporty’s last week – we were blown away after reviewing it on 75” 4K LCD TV:
The VIRB Ultra 30 is fully automatic, meaning all you have to do is flip the record switch forward and the camera takes care of the rest. It does an excellent job right out of the box balancing bright and dark areas in the airplane with minimal compression. For additional control you can enable “Pro Settings,” which allows you to fine tune exposure, ISO, white balance, focal points and more.
Like most action cameras this size, the VIRB records to a removable microSD card, which is one of the few items not included with the camera. A 64GB card will store around 2 hours of 4K video, but you can extend the recording time by dropping the resolution down to 1080p HD quality from the main menu. The rechargeable battery lasted an average of about an hour and a half during our testing, but you can easily extend the life of it by plugging in a USB cable to a backup battery or 12-28V USB cigarette lighter adapter.
Aviation features for pilots
The VIRB Ultra 30 with Aviation Kit includes the airplane-specific accessories you’ll need so you don’t have to chase them down separately. This includes a prop distortion filter, to allow you to capture clear shots out the front window of your airplane, and an audio cable to record communications from your intercom.
The aviation kit also two separate camera enclosures. For recording outside the airplane in the elements, you’ll want to use the fully-enclosed waterproof case. For recording inside the airplane, the skeleton cage keeps the camera secure, while still allowing you to use LCD touchscreen controller and access the USB port for charging or audio recording. Both cases use the GoPro style connector, which means there are lots of mounting adapters already on the market that will work with this new camera. The NFlightCam suction mount is one of our favorites for mounting it to the front or side window.
Like previous VIRB models, the Ultra 30 includes a variety of built-in sensors that allow it to capture GPS position data, speed, and altitude. This G-metrix data can then be added as an overlay to your video when using the included VIRB edit software for PC or MAC.
The VIRB Ultra 30 includes both WiFi and Bluetooth connectivity to provide additional control options for the camera. You can connect the camera to your iPad or iPhone over WiFi and use the free Garmin Virb app as a remote control and viewfinder for the camera. Or if you’re flying with the Garmin Pilot aviation app, you can fully control the VIRB right from the Connext section of the app. You can also use the D2 Bravo series watch, aera 660 portable GPS or G3X Touch flight displays to control the camera.
As an alternative to the included audio cable, you can pair a Bluetooth compatible aviation headset to the camera and record cockpit audio wirelessly. This also allows you to take advantage of the voice control functions, allowing you to speak commands like “Start Recording” or “Take Picture” to perform those tasks hands free. Check your headset for compatibility, though - our newer Bose A20 worked great, but older Bluetooth headsets may not.
And since it’s Connext capable, the VIRB Ultra 30 can receive aviation-specific data from your G3X Touch flight display, Flight Stream 110/210 or Flight Stream 510.
Garmin includes a free editing program with the camera called Virb Edit, which is compatible with both Windows and Mac. This allows you to view your video and GPS track on a Google satellite map, and see other stats like groundspeed and altitude synced to the video. It provides user-friendly editing options that allow you to quickly trim and combine clips. Finally, you can either export your edited video, or upload it directly to your YouTube account. We’ve used numerous free editing programs in the past, and Garmin has done a nice job with this one to make it easy for those without much video experience to do basic editing.
Is it the best camera for pilots yet? Yes! Combine the 4K video quality with the included aviation accessories and wireless connectivity options, and you have a camera system that exceeds the needs of even the most demanding aviation videographer.