Review: MPC Remote Starter

When my wife said that for Christmas she wanted a remote starter for her 2013 Honda CRV, I reflexively jumped for joy inside. “Yes! A new project!” Merry Christmas to me! Keep in mind I’m not a car guy. I know squat about them. But I figured it couldn’t be THAT hard. Step 1 – Push button. Step 2 – Car starts. How complicated could the electronics actually be, am I right? Mmmm hmmm.

It didn’t take long for me to find a remote starter kit online. The one I purchased cost $189.95 and is made by MyPushCart. The Amazon reviews for MPC remote starters were mostly four and five stars and had mostly comments like “Easy to install!” and “Plug and Play!”

Side Note: Guys, when your wife says she wants a remote starter for Christmas, don’t buy a kit, wrap the box, and put it under the tree. She will NOT be impressed Christmas morning.

“What do you mean you still have to install it?!”

“It’s -10 degrees outside. Just when are you going to get around to that?”

“Can you even do this kind of thing?”

*sigh*

The Unboxing

Unboxing the kit was pretty intimidating. The first thing I saw was a slip of paper with a big red STOP sign. It looked to contain some useful nuggets of information. Of course, I immediately sat it to the side. Beneath that piece of paper was a whole mess of wires, switches, and boxes. Nestled in the very bottom of the box was a little booklet entitled “Remote Start Kit Installation Instructions.” That booklet contained a bunch of technical jargon and wiring diagrams. Nothing looked plug-and-play. The booklet contained very few pictures. And it certainly contained no step-by-step instructions. Uh oh.

Once I was filled with a sufficient level of “I’m-in-way-over-my-head” anxiety, I revisited the paper with the big STOP sign. It instructed me to visit a website and enter a code. It said that I’d then be able to download a “tip sheet” to help with installation.

It turns out that the tip-sheet is the Rosetta Stone for the whole installation process. It provides step-by-step instructions. It shows pictures of the kinds of existing connectors to look for, the order in which to hook things up, and the steps for programming the hardware to respond to your key fob. You absolutely need this document. It perhaps should have been included in the box. But I guess a downloadable is ok too.

Plug-And-Play?

MyPushCart doesn’t actually make most of what’s in the remote starter kit. It sources the electronic components from third party vendors, such as Fortin and CrimeStopper. MyPushCart’s value-add is that they supply wiring harnesses, firmware programming, and tech support that allows an otherwise complicated installation to be more or less plug and play.

Much of the wiring in the box doesn’t actually get used. In my case, I only needed 4 cables, all of which had connectors that fit an existing plug either somewhere in the vehicle or in one of the little included boxes. I suspect the extra wiring is included in these kits simply because it comes with the third party kits. MPC could have thrown it out, but they did the honorable thing and included it. The “Remote Start Kit Installation Instructions” that I previously mentioned was actually from one of those third party kits. It’s not needed at all for a MyPushCart install. Just like the extra wiring, this booklet came along for the ride.

Installation

For the 2013 Honda CRV kits, all of the installation occurs beneath the steering column. You have to remove the steering column cover for this. This isn’t difficult. When you turn the steering wheel to one side, you can see a little slot where you can insert a pry-tool, such a flathead screwdriver. If you pry this open, turn the wheel, and then pry the other side open, the top cover will just pop-up and expose Philips-head screws hidden beneath the pry-slots. There’s a third Phillips screw hidden way underneath the steering column. After all three of these screws are removed, the steering column cover should pop right off and expose an extremely neat and wirey mess.






At this point you might be asking yourself two questions – 1) Should I disconnect the battery for rest of this install? And 2) Is there a risk of setting off the airbag?

As for disconnecting the battery, you’ll at least need to be able to turn the steering wheel to remove the cover. Later you’ll need power to sync and test the kit components. But if the idea of leaving the battery connected while you’re disconnecting and reconnecting things makes you uncomfortable, please, by all means disconnect it. You can always reconnect it when you need it. I didn’t bother and everything went ok. But don’t let my blind confidence deter you from doing what makes you comfortable.

What about the airbag? The risk is pretty low so long as you don’t go Dora the Explorer on any wiring the tip-sheet doesn’t talk about. Keep in mind, though, that you are working in the vicinity of the airbag. The airbag’s electronic connections are exposed and accessible once the steering column cover is off. Just be mindful and deliberate about what you do and you should be fine.

There are only two steering column connections that need to be made. One is for the transponder plug and one is for the ignition plug. The MPC kit includes cables that allow the little remote starter controller boxes from the kit to work as sort of “men-in-the-middle” on these connections.

The first connection that needs to be made is the transponder plug. You disconnect the existing transponder plug connection and insert the provided T-harness. The second connection is for the ignition plug. Just as with the transponder plug, you disconnect the existing plug and insert the ignition T-harness in between.

I found the ignition T-harness step to be particularly tricky. The vehicle cabling is wrapped super-tight which made disconnecting the existing connection extremely awkward.

At this point, the tip-sheet tells you to secure the new wiring and replace the steering column cover. My advice is to hold off until you verify that everything works. Also, depending on where you place your remote starter boxes and slack wiring, you might need better access and visibility to the area beneath the steering column than you’d get with the cover on.

The next thing you have to do is connect one of the kit boxes to ground on the car. This box is the CrimeStopper RS000-G5, referred to as the “RS brain” or sometimes simply as “RS” in the tip-sheet. The cable included for this features a 12-pin connector on the “RS-brain” end and three wires on the other end that are labeled “Parking Lights”, “Ground”, and “Hood Pin”. I have no idea what the “Parking Lights” or “Hood Pin” connections were for. I simply wrapped those wires up with black tape and tucked them away. The “Ground” connection is meant to be attached to a bare-metal spot on the vehicle. It has a little ring-connector that looks designed be screwed down.




I first thought that finding a bare-metal connection point beneath the steering column would be a challenge. But I managed to find an existing screw that had enough slack to accept both the ground connection and a spare nut that I found in my trusty box of “mystery screws and nuts”. Once the ground connection is made, you can plug the 12-pin plug into the RS.

The next step is to sync the electronic boxes and the car together. This simply involves connecting the EVO-ALL and the RS using a single 4-pin wire, plugging in all the T-harness connections to the EVO-ALL, and then performing a series of steps that involve button presses and turning the key in the ignition. It takes less than a couple of minutes. The tip-sheet describes all of this in detail so I won’t duplicate it here.

The tip-sheet also includes instructions for programming the RS. However, my kit included a sticker on the RS that said, “This module has been preprogrammed by MyPushcart for 3 times lock and is ready for use.” As a result, I didn’t actually have to do any of those steps. It looks straightforward though.

From this point, everything just worked. I tested it by simply pushing the lock button on the vehicle remote three-times slowly. The console lit up, and then a couple of seconds later the vehicle started on its own. It’s at this point that I began the process of trying to organize and situate the wiring and controller boxes. This is BY FAR the most difficult and tedious process of the entire thing. The cabling and boxes are bulky to say the least. Finding a spot for everything wasn’t easy. I basically zip-tied and velcroed the whole mess to anything that wasn’t designed to move. It wasn’t pretty. But I kept things out of the way and that’s the most important thing. The biggest challenge is finding a way to position the T-harness plugs so that the steering wheel cover can go back on. The cover doesn’t leave a lot of room for anything extra around the steering column area. So figuring out where things should go involved a lot of trial and error.

Tech Support

I said earlier that one of the value-adds that MPC brings is in tech support. I want to bring some extra attention to this. MPC’s tech support is AWESOME! I only used their email tech support. But I used it a LOT. I peppered them with photos with annotations and lots of questions relating to confusion over connectors, the names of things, a few installation missteps, etc., etc. They ALWAYS responded – if not the same day, usually the next day. Kudos to those guys for being so patient with me.

Conclusion

Do I recommend an MPC remote starter kit? It depends. If you’re a DIY-er, absolutely. If you’re just into the idea of having a remote starter and don’t care about how it gets installed, MPC may still be an option. Maybe you have a tinkerer in your family you could barter with. MPC also has a network of installers that might be an option for you as well, but that’ll be an extra cost.

At the time of this writing, it’s been a few weeks since I installed the MPC kit. My wife has only reported one weird occurrence of the car starting unexpectedly while unlocking and locking the doors. There’s some confusion around the sequence of remote button presses she actually used, so we’re not 100% sure what happened there. We’ve also discovered it can be a little tricky to get the timing of the button presses just right. Too-fast, nothing happens. Too-slow, nothing happens. Get it right, it’s not immediately obvious because the car takes a couple of seconds to start. Practice makes perfect, I suppose.

All in all, this was a fun kit to install. It’s super interesting and I learned a lot. I’m sure you will too.

Fall Foliage in Maine

A few weeks ago, I finished editing what may be my last drone video of the year. Near the beginning of October, I spent about 2 weeks filming fall foliage near my home in Durham, ME. I had hoped to have a few more days to film, but alas…a monster storm came through and took out whatever remaining leaves were left on the trees.

I didn’t have as much footage to work with as I had hoped, but I comped together what I had. The video is below.

All of the video was shot using a stock DJI Phantom 4 Advanced.

The Path to Part 107

Being a multicopter enthusiast, it’s not uncommon for family and friends to ask me for help in taking aerial photos. I’m usually happy to oblige. Sometimes, however, these requests have some sort of commercial aspect to them. Maybe they’re trying to sell their house. Or maybe the company they work for is having an open house on a new facility they just built and wants some fun marketing photos. In the past, I’ve always had to turn those types of requests down. Not only did I not have the appropriate gear (that FlyCam2 velcroed to the top of my 250 just doesn’t cut it), but I also wasn’t legally allowed to do so.

I recently decided to solve both of those problems. Solving the equipment problem was easy (I bought a DJI Phantom 4 Advanced). The legality problem, however, required a bit more effort.

Since August 2016, the FAA has required commercial drone pilots to be certificated under the rules set forth in what’s commonly referred to as CFR 14 Part 107. “CFR” is the Code for Federal Regulations. It’s a set of rules for all sorts of things including elections, food and drugs, wildlife management, and even the Executive Office of the U.S. President. CFR Title 14 covers Aeronautics and Space (aka aviation regulations) and Part 107 is the section specific to “Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems”.

Part 107 not only spells out the rights and responsibilities of the sUAS remote pilot in command, but it also specifies all the things that remote PICs need to know in order to become certificated for commercial operations. It’s a LOT of information. And it’s been criticized for containing material that many folks feel is irrelevant for sUAS operations. But it is what it is. If we want to make money with our toys, we have to play by the rules. For me, that meant I had to take an aeronautical knowledge test.

For someone licensed to fly a manned aircraft, passing the Part 107 aeronautical knowledge test should be a breeze. It’s mostly a subset of information you already need to know to obtain or maintain your pilot’s license. My only experience with planes, however, was as a passenger. The test material was entirely new to me. But I did it on my first try. And if I can pass the test, so can you.

Study Materials

In preparing for the exam, I wasn’t really sure where to start. I Googled around and bounced from site to site that offered loads of study tips and links to YouTube’s videos. And it didn’t take long for me to become overwhelmed. I decided that I needed something a bit more structured. So I signed up for an online course, as well as picked up a Part 107 study guide from Amazon.

The course I signed up for was Drone Pilot Ground School. It’s a little pricey compared to some other options ($299 at the time of this writing). But for me, it was the Munchkin City on my path to Oz. It’s well laid out, provides downloadable videos of the lectures, PDF transcripts, quizzes, practice tests, and even bonus material on drone business related topics – all of which I found extremely helpful. It also provides you with access to material for 5 years. Certificated sUAS operators need to retest every 2 years, so I will most certainly be repeating this course.

Once I got about ⅔ of the way through the course, I started working my way through the book/study guide, “Remote Pilot Test Prep – UAS: Study & Prepare”. Much of what was in the book reinforced what I had already learned in the online course, but there were also a few new nuggets here and there. Another nice thing about this book is that it gives you access to 5 online practice tests.

Even with these two sources of study material, I still ended up feeling shaky on a few topics (weather, METARs, and airport signage, mostly). So it was then that I turned back to YouTube to fill in the gaps. After having gone through both the online course and the study guide, it was much easier to wade through all the Part 107 related YouTube videos and select the content I needed.

I put in around 50 hours of total study time. That’s around 1-2 hours of studying a day for about a month. After all that cramming, I felt it was time to pull the trigger on the test. I wasn’t 100% confident that I would actually pass, mind you. But I was 100% confident that my brain was fully saturated with information. It could hold no more. 🙂

Test Registration

The FAA publishes a list of testing centers across the U.S. So the first thing I did was phone up the testing center nearest me and asked to register for the test. “We only administer the tests. We don’t handle registration here. You need to contact CATS.”

Oops.

I had ignored the phone numbers for both CATS and PSI at the top of the FAA’s testing center list, mostly because I had no idea what their relevance was to me or the testing centers.

I visited the CATS website first. I had hoped to register for the test electronically. That way I could take my time and make sure all of my information was entered correctly. At the time of this writing, the CATS website provides a lot of information but no way to register for the test. You have to call them up and give a person your info over the phone.

So I called them up. And then I waited on hold for a crazy long time (like, cable-company hold time). Eventually, someone came on the line. I explained what I wanted to do, and they started taking my information. The CATS person stressed how important it was that the information I provided them was exact, right down to whether my driver’s license used “RD” vs “ROAD” in my address. I paid $150 for the exam. And then I was asked which testing center I wanted to visit. I told her. The lady on the phone said, “OH! I should have asked that first. I registered you through PSI and that particular facility uses CATS. I’m going to have to refund you, re-enter your registration information, and then rebill you via CATs.” I was then put on hold for another long while as she did all of that.

Eventually, she came back on the phone and asked when I wanted to take the exam. She’d need to call the facility and find out what availability they had. Again, I was put on hold. Once she returned to the call, she said that everything was all set and that I should be receiving a confirmation email shortly with all of the details. Hooray!

After I hung up with her, I quickly received a confirmation email. Upon scanning the details, I noticed that “LANE” in my street address was misspelled as “LANAE”. So much for accuracy. But I guess the burden was on me to make sure my information was correct. So I called them back and waited on hold again.

Once I was able to talk to someone again, I explained what happened. The correction was made and I received a new confirmation email.

The Test

A few days later, I drove to Maine Instrument Flight, Inc. in Augusta to take the exam. Maine Instrument Flight provides a number of services, among them being a flight school. I walked up to the main desk and announced that I was there to take the Remote Pilot general knowledge test. A very nice lady whose name escapes me checked for my name on the test schedule and then lead me to the second floor.

We sat together at a desk, where she took my ID and verified all of my info in the CATS system. She again stressed how important it was that my information was exact.

After being told to leave my cellphone and anything else electronic behind, she lead me into a small room that contained three desks facing the wall, each separated by a cubicle partition. All of the desks had the same arrangement of computers, scratch paper, calculators, and pencils.

She sat down behind a desk and attempted to walk me through a demo of the CATS software. As soon as she showed me how to change the font size, the software crashed. As she restarted everything, I told her not to worry about a demo and that I’d just figure it out. The software looked remarkably similar to the study guide practice exams.

She handed me a copy of Airman Knowledge Testing Supplement and a few pieces of clear plastic for reasons that aren’t entirely clear to me (I think she was afraid I’d accidentally mark in the book). She explained that there was a camera watching the room and that when I was finished, I should just stand up and poke my head out the door. Then she left me to it. At that point, I clicked the start button and the countdown clock began ticking away.

The test itself was a lot more straightforward than I expected. It’s 60 questions and you’re given 2 hours to complete it. The questions were very similar to the practice tests I had taken. I was very happy that I had spent so much time going over sectional charts as it seemed at least ¼ of the questions revolved around them in some way. It only took me around 30 minutes to complete the exam.

I stood up, poked my head through the door, and then the lady reappeared. She lead me back to the original desk. She punched a few buttons and then she printed out my results. 88%! Woohoo! She asked if I wanted to see the questions I missed. “Sure!” “But it doesn’t tell you the correct answer,” she said. “Meh. Nevermind then.” I signed something, received my results which contained by test ID along with a page that described the next steps, picked up the rest of my belongings, and was on my way.

IACRA

Your work isn’t finished once you pass the aeronautical test. After you pass the exam, you need to submit an application to the FAA for a Remote Pilot Certificate. This whole process is managed through a system called IACRA (Integrated Airman Certification and Rating Application). Before you can do so, however, you have to wait up to 48 hours for your test results to show up in IACRA’s system. It was Memorial Day weekend at the time, so I figured I’d kick back and give the whole process a full three days. I wasn’t in a terrible hurry.

When Monday rolled around, I created my IACRA account. I then filled out an application for a remote pilot certificate. As part of the process, you have to lookup your test results using the code appearing on your results document and “attach” it to the application. Once it’s submitted, you can even download a PDF copy of the completed application. The PDF is a little confusing, though. Even though your test results are an attachment of your application, they don’t appear in the download. For a long while, I questioned whether or not I had missed a button or a checkbox in the application process.

Temporary Certificate

After about a week, my temporary airman certificate was available for download. The temporary certificates aren’t much to look at. They don’t have an airman number, a certification number, or much else. It’s mostly a cookie cutter form that’s autopopulated with your name and address and that’s about it. But it does allow you to start performing commercial operations with your drone.

Final Certificate

It took two months (May 29th to July 28th) from the time that my application was submitted to receive my final certificate. I was expecting a colorful certificate that I could hang on my wall. Or maybe a paper card similar to what recreational drone operators are supposed to carry around with their registered drones. I was pleasantly surprised at what did show up. It was a little blue/green plastic card similar in size to a driver’s license. It had all my information on it as well as a really cool FAA hologram. Very fancy. It will undoubtedly impress all my nerd friends.

Conclusion

All in all the Part 107 certification process is pretty straightforward. The hardest part, IMO, was the waiting. I was also unimpressed by CATS, but the systems the FAA employs for registration and application are all easy to use and well documented.

The whole certification experience has since inspired me to start my own aerial photography business – Kirk Aerial Solutions, LLC. If you’ve gone through the process, I’d love to hear how your experience was different or similar to my own. Leave a comment below and tell me about it. And if you’re just starting your journey towards Part 107 certification, I hope hearing about my own experience helps in some way.

-Shane