Everyone loves a flying machine. Since launching just over a decade ago, DIY quadrotors and other autonomous aerial platforms have matured rapidly, thanks to an obsessive community and access to technology advancements like lithium-polymer batteries, brushless motors, and increasingly small, high-powered processors and sensors. With these components, drones are now incredibly strong, stable, and capable of doing most if not all of the piloting themselves. So if these machines fly themselves, what do enthusiasts do to stay involved and excited? To help answer that question, we assembled a diverse gathering of top UAV flyers, including Hollywood filmmakers, smash-proof airframe builders, and aerial software and component creators, to discuss and demonstrate some of the newest tools and techniques involved in the pursuit of quadrotor aerial excellence. Their reports promise an exciting future in flight.
Going from 0-60 with APM
By Jason Short
Design Director, 3D Robotics
APM:Copter was born just over three years ago — on Oct. 10, 2010, to be precise. The date is indelibly etched in my memory, since it was the same day my son Lukas was born. We spent the week at the hospital while the Blue Angels flew overhead during Fleet Week in San Francisco. I knew my days of flying UAVs at the airfield were likely over, so I set about designing one I could fly in my backyard while my son napped.
Adapting APM:Plane to fly multicopter drones was simple at first, but engineering full autonomy turned out to be a wicked problem. Multicopters stress the flight controller system. There are over 100,000 lines of code running on the Arduino-based processor, and almost nothing can go wrong that doesn’t end in a bad outcome, often culminating in a crash. Producing a rock-solid flight control system and ironing out the details took a small army of volunteer developers and years of collaborative work, but the results have been astounding.
Today, the 3DR development team is focused on key features that will make it easier for new users to install and configure APM on any airframe.
Our latest software release, APM:Copter 3.1, brings some new and very helpful capabilities. Setup wizards walk you through the configuration process, and a new auto-tune function learns how the drone flies, maximizing flight performance and removing the burden of manual tuning. A new, highly advanced inertial navigation controller fuses GPS and internal sensors to empower a pilot of any skill level to fly the drone right out of the box, without the challenges inherent to manual flight. Software-defined “geo-fences” prevent you from flying too far or too low. If the drone breaks the fence, APM automatically takes control and flies back home on its own.
A new flight mode called “drift” relies on the intelligence of the autopilot to simplify flight control to a single stick. The end result is a drone that flies and corners more like a race car than a typical multicopter. If you lose orientation, just let go of the stick and the brakes will be automatically applied, bringing your drone to a safe landing.
The most exciting improvement is our new, full-featured Android tablet interface, which enables you to plan and control a drone in the air. Community-developed apps like DroidPlanner and Andropilot allow you to command the drone with a simple Google Maps-like interface.
Advanced features, such as the follow-me function, allow the tablet’s position to be sent to the drone, creating your own personal flying camera, ready to capture your next hike up Kilimanjaro, surf in Maui or your son’s first successful bike ride in the local park.
Building the World’s Toughest Drone
By Marque Cornblatt
Co-Founder, Game of Drones
Deep in a huge Oakland, Calif. warehouse filled with fire-breathing robots, monster machines, and other implements of destruction, a not-too-secret cabal of inventors, engineers, and artists meets late at night. This group gathers, first, to show off their latest custom-built drones, UAVs, and robots.
And, second, of course, to pit them against each other in one-on-one airborne “fights to the deck.”
The crucible of destruction is known, somewhat informally, as “Flight Club.” The first rule of Flight Club is that all commercially available drones and drone kits are far too fragile and expensive for heavy-duty use — especially if that use is dogfighting. But a number of innovative and perhaps even groundbreaking design concepts have evolved here, including many clever DIY methods for making drones cheaper, tougher, faster, and easier to repair.
Flight Club competition led me to team up with industrial designer (and long time aerial-dogfighting nemesis) Eli Delia. Together we began researching high-performance materials and manufacturing methods from tough-duty industries including aerospace, military/law enforcement, and even medical manufacturing.
That research led us to thermoformed polymers, and we soon began designing and prototyping airframes using various sheet plastics including styrene, polycarbonate, PET, and Kydex 100, the super-tough plastic “alloy” we ultimately settled on. Launching a Kickstarter let us test the market and get direct feedback from UAV pilots of all skill levels and needs, and this spark of user insight has already ignited several ideas for our next project.
My personal UAV — the one I fly every day — is one of our company’s first proto-types. It’s been crashed and/or dropped from hundreds of feet too many times to count. It has been flown through fires and landed in (and launched from) stagnant water. We’ve (deliberately) flown it through plate glass windows and shot it out of the sky with a 12 gauge shotgun. It keeps coming back for more.
Sure, it’s scuffed, scratched, torn, and beat, but it still flies straight and true as the day we first launched it. The magic is in the airframe construction, and it’s hard to imagine any other type that could withstand such abuse without becoming unflyable.
Besides the super-tough construction, we like to strip our airframes down to the bare necessities. For example, rather than using four ESCs on separate boards, we favor a 4-in-one ESC board for motor speed control. This reduces the number of failure points significantly. The end result is a super tough, super simple airframe that can survive an entire day of flying, fighting, and crashing without a single repair.
Because most pilots go to great lengths to avoid collisions and crashes, most airframes — though they may be carefully designed to optimize other factors — are mechanically fragile. This has created a culture of expectation in which airframes that break when they crash are an accepted norm. Thus many amateur pilots are rightly afraid to take risks and really hone their flying skills for fear of damaging their frail, expensive gear.
At Game of Drones, our approach flies directly in the face of this culture. Our motto is “Fly ‘em hard and put ‘em away wet. They’re only drones.” It’s my hope that this approach will not only make it easier for beginners to enter the hobby, but will also inspire more people to design, build and fly drones for aerial combat games, business, research, and more.
Drones as Aerial Access Points
By Adam Conway
VP Product Management, Aerohive Networks
Wi-fi technology will make drones simpler to control and provide the opportunity, eventually, for internet-controlled drones.
While the vision for drones is that they operate fully autonomously taking off, flying a mission and landing without human intervention, of course we will want to be able to find out where our drones are located, know whether they are functioning properly (or not), and be able to change the mission or take over manual control at any time.
Achieving these ends will require maintaining wireless connectivity throughout the majority of each flight.
Wireless communications for hobbyist and pro-level UAVs today primarily consist of three connection uses:
Control: Steering a drone in manual mode, or switching into autonomous mode, is typically accomplished with a traditional R/C transmitter and receiver
Telemetry: As a drone is flying around it has the ability to send telemetry data back to a ground station. Telemetry data typically consists of onboard sensor inputs including GPS location and diagnostic data, but it can also be used to change settings on the drone mid-flight and provide new mis- sion waypoints. Telemetry data is typically sent over a long-range serial link like IEEE 802.15.4.
Video: This is what gets most drone users excited — the idea of sending back real-time video so someone on the ground can experience what it is like to fly. For most hobbyists the only option for getting video from a drone is an analog wireless video transmitter/receiver. Analog video systems offer the advantages of being reasonably low-cost and having very low latency or lag.
With all three of these systems running at the same time there is a risk for interference (with potentially disastrous consequences) so most operators use different frequency bands for each system. Typically drone operators use 900 MHz for telemetry (at least in the US; 433 MHz is standard in Europe), 2.4 GHz for control, and 5GHz for video. Since higher frequency means shorter range, video typically is the weakest link and will go out before an operator loses control or telemetry.
A better solution, however, may be to combine all three systems under a single wireless technology, one that has the range for flight but also the bandwidth to be able to deliver video, control and telemetry with a single radio. For this, wi-fi is the obvious choice: it’s fast, inexpensive, and (if set up properly) has the necessary long range.
In the long view, wi-fi and other TCP/IP-based networking technologies are going to be foundational for creating drones that are internet-controlled.
Today there are already consumer drones, like the Parrot AR, that use wi-fi for video and control signals. But among the more flexible open-source autopilot software and hardware, support tends to fall off. However, a few eager engineers and hackers have already begun experimenting with adapting ArduPilot for wi-fi telemetry and control, and I think it’s only a matter of time until all drones move to wi-fi.
Touch-Tablet Drone Control
Co-Founder, Fighting Walrus
For telemetry ground stations, UAV pilots today are basically confined to using Windows-based laptops. The Fighting Walrus Radio (FWR) is designed to expand the options by adding a long-range data link between your personal drone and your iPhone or iPad. It now allows users to collect telemetry and send waypoints, and (in later versions) will add full manual control.
The FWR was born from a collaboration on diydrones.com, a large online community focused on private UAVs. Australian-based software engineer Claudio Natoli developed a ground station iOS app using hardware licensed for development only, and thus couldn’t be published to the app store. Fighting Walrus co-founder Bryan Galusha (who also oversees the San Francisco Drones Startup Meetup) had been talking with Apple about a made-for-iPod (MFi) drone device since 2008. Bryan connected with Claudio through diydrones.com, and persuaded him to open-source his software.
A tablet’s portability and touchscreen interface makes it very convenient for map-based use, and we expect tablet flight control to become common. AndroPilot and DroidPlanner are already very popular for Android tablets, which have the advantage of using an open USB interface. iOS and MFi, on the other hand, require a lot more work, but also promise a more seamless user experience.
The FWR connects with small drones like Parrot. ARDrone2, but also larger units like 3DRobotics’ Iris. Any drone that supports the MAVLink protocol is compatible, including all those that use Ardu-series flight controllers (both ArduPilot Mega and the new PX4 Pixhawk], whether rotorcraft or fixed-wing.
Fighting Walrus was successfully crowdfunded on Indiegogo last spring, and product development now continues with an expanded team of five people. Originally a part-time cofounder with Bryan, I’ve come on full-time to drastically accelerate development. If you’re interested, preorders are available now, and the product is on-track for full production in early 2014.
Jeffrey Blank & Andrew Petersen
We are a unique collective of filmmakers, designers, and flying robots. Using a fleet of custom multirotor UAVs and custom camera gimbals, we offer our services as aerial cinematographers for feature films, commercials, music videos, and sporting events around the world. We feel fortunate to be supported by a network of amazing people and look forward to seeing where this exciting new technology will take our business and our art.
Our systems provide a cost-effective, safe, dynamic alternative to traditional aerial videography, making them an attractive substitute for producers considering conventional methods like manned helicopters and cranes.
Each UAV is designed with a different camera weight class in mind. Our heavy lifting octocopter was built to mount high-end cameras (like the RED Epic) that can produce the super high-resolution imagery the film industry now expects from professional camera operators. The RED camera, in fact, is the industry standard and flying it was our first big goal.
Now, with pro-quality HD cameras getting smaller and cheaper every day, we believe that the future of cinema drone technology is in a more compact system. Our new UAV design (the D2) comes equipped with everything a professional aerial video team would ever need for a shoot: onboard GPS, a custom three axis brushless gimbal, full HD video downlink, wireless follow focus, and even dual parachutes for those “oh sh*t” situations. With great agility and response time, we expect the D2 to find a comfy spot at the top of the cinema-drone food chain.
We originally got into flying drones because they can capture shots that are not practical using any other camera platform. Now we’ve had a glimpse of what’s possible, and are striving to constantly develop our technology. The complex, rapidly evolving intersection between technical development and artistic expression is what makes this business so much fun.
The Drone Dudes’ Rules Of Flight
Flying a UAV makes you a pilot, and like any pilot, you are responsible for the safe operation of your aircraft. The Drone Dudes share their rules of engagement.
- Know your equipment inside and out, and always double-check that everything is in perfect working order before each flight.
- Charge those LiPo batteries inside fireproof bags in a safe location with proper ventilation. Understand the hazards and science of LiPo battery charging, and keep an eye on the cell voltages, yourself, as you charge or discharge your batteries.
- Choose a safe fly zone away from buildings and highly populated areas. Think about what could happen if your aircraft fails mid-flight.
- Understand how changing weather conditions like temperature, altitude and wind will affect your overall flight performance.
- Check your onboard fail-safes and have a coordinated emergency plan with everyone in the flight area.
- Keep a safe distance from subjects and onlookers and always allow for unexpected drift from your plan.
- Keep a clear, safe zone for takeoff and landing.
- Make sure your payload is perfectly balanced on your airframe.
- Fly safe and stay alert. Listen to your gut and fly within your means. Do not let distractions divert your attention and don’t hand the controls to anyone without proper training.
- Always fly line-of-sight so you can see what’s going on. Do not solely rely on your GPS or flight controller to do the work for you. These tools can fail and you need to be prepared for that. If you are flying in a FPV mode (first-person view), use a spotter with binoculars to keep visual orientation of your aircraft for you.
- It’s a good idea to always fly with a telemetry module that can relay live info about your aircraft. Watch your battery voltages for any irregular performance and keep your flight times modest, always flying on the safe side.
- Clear communication is essential. Make sure you have a reliable team supporting you and that everyone knows the predetermined flight path before you take to the sky.
This article first appeared in MAKE Volume 37, page 54.