Homemade Locomotive POV Camera

By Ty’s Model Railroad - 4/17/2012 11:26:00 PM

Scratch built model railroad point of view track camera made from a cell phone and old engine

I recently completed a little side project that I’ve had on my mind for the last few months. A hobby store I had visited had rolling stock fitted with wireless cameras for an engineer’s-eye-view of your track layout. These were quite expensive, even for the basic starter kit. I immediately began to look for a more cost-effective option and figured that I might even be able to make my own camera car for little-to-no cost.

I have a junk drawer in my office with a couple unused, obsolete cell phones that still function fine. Each cell phone has a camera that shoots and records video that can be transferred to a computer via USB. That got me thinking. Would I actually be able to somehow use one of these old cell phone cameras as a travelling cab-view camera?

Scratch built model railroad point of view track camera made from a cell phone and old engine

The biggest challenge of using a cell phone for this task was making the camera face forward. This is because a phone’s camera is usually located on the back of the phone. Since the phone would need to travel on its side to properly fit through tunnels and under bridges, the camera always naturally faced off to either side of the track. This meant that the camera would need to be physically removed and re-positioned to a forward-facing position. 

Scratch built model railroad point of view track camera made from a cell phone and old engine

I played around with a couple different phones without luck as their cameras were directly soldered to the phone’s mother board. However when I took my old Samsung Instinct apart, I noticed that its camera was attached via a flexible data cable, which allowed the camera itself to move independently of the phone. I cut a hole in the back of the phone's outer shell around the camera so the camera could pass through and be accessible and positioned from the outside. I built an external support structure out of styrene to hold the camera in a forward-facing position.

Scratch built model railroad point of view track camera made from a cell phone and old engine

I sacrificed an old Bachmann GP35 engine to carry the phone camera. I removed the engine and cab structure, only keeping the motorized base. To allow the cell phone to pass through tunnels and under my trestle, it would need to be located as close to the track as possible, so I positioned it inside the engines fuel-tank structure, between the trucks. This of course was not long enough to house the phone, so I needed to cut the tank in half and extend it with rigid styrene extensions. The cell phone needs to sit at an angle to clear the bottom of the trestle and the camera was adjusted and installed to compensate for this angle. I used styrene pieces to support and securely hold the phone to the engine structure.

Scratch built point of view track camera running on a model railroad layout

The final product isn’t pretty, but it does the job. To use the camera, I simply activate the camera and set it on video mode and place the phone into position on the engine base. When ready, I press record, energize the track, and let the engine travel around my layout. Once I’m done recording, I simply remove the phone, tether it to my computer via USB, and download the footage. I know the quality isn’t as high as the more expensive commercial products available, but this didn’t cost me anything and the effect is equally as amusing.

You can see the very first test run on my layout in the video below.

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