How To: Make a cheap car video recorder
Vishal, a senior manager at a well-known bank, drives to work every day. He is known as one of the safest drivers in his circle. He never broke traffic rules, and had never got a ticket in all his years of driving. One morning, he was driving at 60Kmph on the highway as usual, when a young man suddenly sprang across the divider to cross the road. The man was hit by Vishal’s vehicle, but survived, with a few scratches. The police was called. Vishal was in deep trouble. Luckily he had installed a digital video recorder (DVR) in his car. From its place on the windscreen, it recorded every part of his journey that day. The recording proved in court that Vishal was driving safely, and following the speed limit, and that the man who was injured was at fault. Vishal was finally set free, all thanks to the DVR in his car.
A car DVR already available in the market
Car recorders are becoming popular all over the world. There are plenty of ways in which DVRs prove useful. Taxi operators monitor if their drivers are following the rules, parents can check that their children are being responsible, and innocent car owners have evidence in case an accident occurs. Those driving a four-wheeler definitely know how bad road conditions are, whether on a highway or in a bylane. Traffic conditions are often bad, especially in India where even simple and safe rules such as lane driving, speed lanes, speed limits, signalling, and parking are not adhered to. You have to be very careful to avoid accidentally bumping your vehicle into another. In case you are involved in an accident where you are not at fault, a photograph or video recording of the incident could prove your innocence. Street cameras are not implemented anywhere and even if they are, they are usually never maintained. Installing a video recorder in your car is recommended to deal with any untoward incidents, but a branded DVR for the car is very expensive. We show you how to make one in less than Rs. 1,000.
Note: The amount of money you spend will depend on the type of recorder you want build, and the storage and battery capacity you need.
Automobile digital video recorders (DVR) are standard digital video cameras mounted on a car’s dashboard to record its entire journey. They come in varieties; some comprise of dual cameras for front and rear (driver and rear view) recording, wide angle lenses, high definition recording, high speed or high frame rate recording, night vision, and GPS geo-tagging. The prices of these DVRs are exorbitantly high. The cheapest and simplest China-made car video recorder can cost you around Rs. 4,500. We show you how you to make a simple DVR in less than Rs. 1,000 by using an inexpensive spy camera, and a few parts that can be found at home.
Spy cameras are cheap and small
First, find the cheapest spy camera and buy it. There are many variants to choose from, such as pen, keychain, button, cap, tie, book, and toy. We chose the keychain spy camera as it has a small and housing that can be easily hacked.
The keychain spy camera without a memory card was bought for a meagre Rs. 650. An 8GB microSD memory card was bought for around Rs. 250. The video recording quality of the spy camera was excellent. A keychain spy camera is small, lightweight and can be mounted anywhere around the windscreen or dashboard. It is not easily noticeable because of its small size. The battery used in spy cameras has a very short running life, and cannot record more than 20 to 30 minutes of video. The battery capacity is usually only 150mAh to 300mAh, as the entire spy camera package has to be as small as possible. We need to bump up the battery life for the camera to record at least two hours of video. If you need more video recording time, buy a larger storage card and install a battery with a higher capacity.
Laptop cells serve the purpose best
There are two ways to increase the battery life: Either replace the internal battery with a larger-capacity rechargeable one, or simply rig the unit to run off an external power source. Using a larger capacity battery means the battery unit would need to be externally attached as the shell would be too small for it. Using a power source such as a power adapter or a converter from the car’s cigarette lighter point is the best choice. For either method, you have to open the camera and de-solder the existing battery. Then, attach a pair of longer wires, which can conveniently reach the power source. A metre's length of wire should be enough.
Since the voltage requirement of the video recorder is usually 3.7V DC, you will require a battery with a similar voltage output, and a rating of 1000mAh or above. You can use these batteries:
• An 18650 battery either purchased from the market or ripped off from an old laptop battery pack.
• Any old or new mobile phone battery with a rating of 1000mAh.
• Batteries ripped out of non-working media players or similar gadgets with a higher rating.
Remember to check the voltage and the rating before using any battery. You can alternatively use a power adapter or a cigarette lighter mobile charger unit. Since their output voltage is 5V DC, you need to step it down to 3.7V DC by incorporating a voltage dropping circuit. You can find one on Chinese electronics websites or make one yourself. The work and cost involved would then increase, but you are assured of never running out of power. Once all your requirements are in place, proceed to hack the recorder.
Open the spy camera casing and locate the battery and its terminals. Carefully de-solder the wires from the PCB and store away the original battery. We suggest you connect this battery to a small motor or LED to discharge it entirely before storage or disposal, as Li-ion batteries are dangerous, especially when the terminals can short each other. Now solder the long wires onto the proper places on the PCB by confirming the positive and negative terminals, ensuring your connections are safe and secure. Make a small hole or cut out a gap in the enclosure of the spy camera’s shell so that these wires can be routed outside the camera. Ensure the wires are not loose to avoid their breakage from wear and tear. You can use some wax or hot glue to secure the wires in place, but do this only after the complete gadget is ready and tested.
Rig the spy camera for accommodating the larger battery
Now solder the other side of the wires to a battery holder for your battery. Mount the device on the car’s dashboard for testing. Plug in the memory card, and start recording your journey to test the video quality, video frame and time.
As every camera has a different kind of housing, you can make use of strong magnets, Velcro strips, or mobile phone mounts to mount the DVR on the car’s dashboard. Use your imagination to find a secure place where the camera can face the front and capture the maximum angle of view. Place the camera in a way that it does not pick up vibrations from the engine, music, or bumpy rides, as vibrations reduce the clarity of video recording. Using permanent magnets from an old non-working hard drive is one of the best options we have tried so far.
That’s it. You can now feel safer when driving. Test ride your recordings and find a suitable angle for the camera. Make changes to the memory card storage size and the battery capacity depending on your journey time. You can also use outdated camcorders, handheld video recorders, old mobile phones and other such devices.
You can also use of an old Android phone as a car DVR by making use of the apps available. What's more, you can instantly see the video on the display screen too. Using an Android phone is a lot easier too. You do not need to rig the battery as your car charger will work fine here. Apps such as ‘DailyRoads Voyager’ and ‘VideoRoad (Car Video Recorder)’ are available for free on the Play Store. These apps also include GPS geo-tagging, current speed and timestamps as an overlay on the recorded video. The videos can be stored and viewed later.
Installing a car DVR is also beneficial to those who want to improve their driving skills. You can review the video after every drive and identify your mistakes and areas of improvement. Driving instructors can monitor their students' performance with a car DVR.