Mounting a Camera on a Clay Pigeon and Shooting It Out of the Sky

Clay pigeon with 3d printed rotating camera mount

I’d never been clay pigeon shooting before but a group of us are invited to a friend’s ranch for an upcoming birthday. It’s 2017, I have a few weeks until the ranch day and I find myself excitedly dreaming up ideas of things to do there.

Maybe I can get a really bad drone that we can shoot down… or what if we hang targets from a drone? How can drones be involved? Drones and guns seem like a horrible idea… or is it a great idea?

How impossible would it be to get a camera on a clay disc 🤔? As soon as this thought crossed my mind I knew I had to try.

It seemed to me there were two main challenges:

  1. Is there a camera small and light enough to be mounted on a clay target?
  2. How to keep the camera pointed one direction while it’s flying?
For $28 it must be terrible... right?

This $28 keychain camera from Amazon might do the trick? At that price I’m not worried about shooting it full of lead. But is it even a passable camera? I order one right away and what do you know, it’s not half bad. It’s no GoPro, but it does it’s job and the video quality is much better than I had expected based on the reviews.

I figure a design like a wind vane might work. If I can keep a rotating vane pointed forward as the disc sails through the air then just maybe I’ll be able to mount the camera on the vane pointing back.

CAD model of wind vane concept

I design the vane to house a standard skateboard bearing and a base piece to fit right in the top cavity of the clay disc. I can only guess this will actually point straight in the wind, though. The easiest way I can think to test it is to hold it out the window of a moving vehicle.

It works! Not exactly an accurate test – the disc is not spinning, the speed may be wrong, and I have no idea if the disc will even fly correctly with all this stuff attached. But with some airflow it does keep straight. That’s good enough and I’m running out of time, there can be no more testing, we’ll have to do it live!

The day has come, we’re at the ranch. The best marksman is selected through a ladder. It’s time to launch the camera disc and see what happens…

The one and only flight of the clay pigeon with a camera glued on top

It flies! HIT! The disc bursts into a cloud of debris that rains into the ravine. The only hope is to find the microSD card intact, which seems … unlikely. We search, and search. It’s here! The camera is in one piece, a little scathed, but the flashing red light suggests it’s still recording.

The recording is wobbly and terrible. But this was literally it’s first (and final) flight. Not only did we get a perfect hit where the camera survived AND we found it, but it stayed pointed the right direction which was basically the only goal. It failed to get the smooth shot I imagined, but what a great project!

This is one of those projects that never quite made it as far as I thought it could. In the years since, I’ve realized that these kinds of projects and experiments are valuable and essential even if they don’t produce perfect results and beautiful shots. There’s still value in the process, and in documenting and remembering the things that get us excited to dream and be creative. ✌️

Thomas Renck

I make things. Sometimes I un-make things. Most of the time I write code and teach on intentionality in design.