Friday, November 28, 2014

The FAA and Quadcopters/Drones

Recently, the FAA (USA aviation regulator) drafted some new rules on drones, which are unfortunately not very good.  The proposed rules say that anyone who commercially flies a drone needs to have a pilot's license.  Commercial drones today are mostly used by photographers for wedding pictures, real estate ads and by film makers.  In future, they might be used for crop surveying, search and rescue, and police work.

The FAA does need some rules to ensure that people don't fly drones near planes, over crowds of people, or near secure areas.  But what is the point of requiring a pilots license?

On the one hand, pilots know the rules of airspace use, and might be more cautious and careful.

On the other hand:

  1. There is no evidence that flying a full size plane makes you a good drone pilot.  In a plane, you fly a large vehicle using a stick, pedals, and gauges and land and takeoff from a well-managed airport.  A drone is flow from the ground almost anywhere using a little box with joysticks.
  2. It is expensive to get a pilot's license, and I am sure that wedding photographers have better uses for their cash and will likely not get a license.
It would be a lot smarter to have rules for commercial drones like this:
  1. you have to pass a test showing you can fly a drone (simulators are available for the FAA to test this)
  2. you know the rules through a written test
  3. the FAA checks your background - no criminals, no terrorists, etc.
  4. your drone is registered and carries a unique tag so it can be identified as being registered
  5. you carry your FAA license with you when operating your drone
  6. some basic rules should be written for hobbyists and commercial operators saying no drones over crowds, no drones over 200 feet within 2 miles of an airport, no drones in airspace designated as secure like over the White House, etc.

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Quadcopter Build - Photos of Finished Drone

The flower pot was the best cover I could find and the bungee cords hold it to the drone

Note the hole so the Controller LEDs are visible

You can see the Vuho camera beneath the drone

Bottom view

Battery mount and USB extender connector which also protects against controller USB damage

Camera mount with battery behind

Love that flower pot!

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

First Flights with Camera

I managed to get some quadcopter test flights done with my Veho VCC-005 action camera attached, both indoors and outdoors.  You can see the results in the attached Youtube video.  I also checked out the Loiter and Althold modes by triggering them from the transmitter while in flight and they seemed to work well.

Why Quadcopter-Drones are a Good Hobby for Me

The other day I reflected on why building and flying a quadcopter is an interesting hobby for me.  It is pretty straightforward, to my mind.  Two of my other hobbies that I started when I was young were personal computers and model building.  Drones combine these two together since you build the drone and program and interface it with a computer.  There is also a bit of photography thrown in, which is another hobby of mine.  I have other hobbies that are not conducive to drones like wine-drinking so we will not add those to the mix.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Lessons from First Quadcopter Build

I learned a few things from building my first quadcopter drone.

  1. The USB port is very fragile, attach a permanent short extender cable to connect to your PC.  Otherwise, you will be buying a new controller.
  2. You need to take time to think as you assemble the drone.  There are lots of ways of attaching components and taking some time to think will yield a better result.  Spending time with the Mission Controller application will help you set up your drone, understand how it will work, and allow you to test some of the functions before flying.
  3. The best places to get pieces are online stores like Amazon and Hobbyking, Home Depot, and your local hobby shop.
  4. Nylon cable ties are a great way to attach things to the quadcopter frame.  Why use bolts when a simple tie will do?
  5. Learn how the controller works before flying.  There are some modes like "althold" that sound useful but should only be triggered after flying.
  6. Make a tethered test setup to test fly your quad.
  7. Use the Wiki, google, youtube, and manufacturers sites to find solutions to problems or helpful tutorials.
  8. Get a good soldering iron and learn to solder.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Building and Free-Flying Quadcopter Part 13

Time to see if the quadcopter really flies.  You can see the successful test flight in the basement above, but the lighting is not great and Youtube has further degraded the quality to potato-camera level.  The quad flies well but is a bit sensitive to throttle and needed some work on securing the battery.  The not so smooth flying technique is the pilot's fault as I was trying to keep it away from the ceiling.  The hovering is pretty good and the next step will be some test flights outside when there is no wind.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Building and Flying Quadcopter Part 12

Well I went back and tried to fix the problems in the last test flight, which were:

  1. ESC's not properly calibrated - I was able to get them to calibrate once, but there is something weird about how these speed controls interface with the controller.
  2. Poor throttle control - It turns out that you should land and take off in "stabilize mode" and I was in "Althold" mode.  It took a lot of google searching to stumble across this.
  3. The receiver refused to work for a while and I don't know why.  After plugging and unplugging wires, disassembling the receiver, testing and testing, it started to work again for some unknown reason.
After fixing these issues, I tried the quadcopter with no props and it seemed better.  I then lengthened the tethers and ran another test flight shown above, which seems much better.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Building and Flying Quadcopter Part 11

Quadcopter Drone ready for tethered test flight

Making progress, I found the link to set up the motors, speed controls, etc and got the wiring for the ESCs and motors set up properly.  Then I mounted the propellers and spent a while trying to figure out how to arm the drone, which I found at this link on the wiki.

I also needed a way to test-fly the drone, given my propensity to crash quadcopters.  I came up with a system using an old piece of plywood, with holes to allow rope to be attached to the drone landing gear.  The rope is wrapped around some tall screws on the plywood to allow adjustment.  This is shown in the photo above and actually worked out well.

Then our first test flight shown above.  The drone worked, although the controls need adjustments, particularly the throttle.  You can see me testing throttles, forward motion, yaws left and right, and left and right movement - all the basic movements.  So now it is back to the wiki and Mission Planner to find out how to tune the controls.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 10

Further Progress.  I reloaded Mission Planner onto my laptop and it seems to work with the controller now.  The rats' nest of wiring is somewhat tamed and the receiver and controller are mounted using double sided foam tape (get it at Home Depot where they call it "mounting tape").  The extended landing gear are installed and I found an appropriate non-metallic shell to cover the electronics.  Yes, it is a 6 inch flower pot, and it is perfect for the job.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 9

The build continues.  I temporarily wired up the controller, receiver, speed controls, GPS and connected to Mission Planner using my desktop PC.  It is not easy to figure out exactly how to wire it as the new controller had no documentation!  I found some useful information on the Ardupilot Wiki and found a basic pinout here.  Hooked it up by USB and it seemed to work, but...I had the controls all wrong.  After playing around with the radio calibration screens, I got the rudder, throttle, ailerons, elevator mapped correctly to the controller.  I could then calibrate the compass, accelerometers, radio, etc.

The I had a brilliant idea (uh-oh).  Since I would be programming things in the field, I should use my laptop with Mission Planner to set up the drone.  Well, for some reason the laptop did not like to calibrate the compasses so after a few hours of frustration, it was back to the desktop where everything worked.  There was also the issue of the compass being off by 90 degrees due to no markings on how to mount it, but this was easily fixed.  The compass is mounted with the GPS on the wooden tower in the photos above.

Next steps are to tidy up the wiring and mounting, calibrate speed controls, attach props, and do some testing with the unit tethered to make sure it is set up properly.  Stay tuned.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 8

Photo 1

Photo 2

Back to the drawing board.  I am still trying to repair the broken USB connector on the flight controller but the parts are taking forever to arrive.

In the meantime, I ordered a new flight controller from Amazon which cost $30 less, is a little bigger, and comes with a case.  This required a new mounting setup which is shown in photos 1 and 2.

The next step will be to wire it up and test it.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 7 - &%$#*

Stuff goes wrong when you are building a model, at least it does for me.  Today, I connected up the receiver, controller, speed controls and interfaced to Mission Planner on my PC.  Mission Planner allows you to set up your quadcopter, calibrate sensors, and make flight plans.  My goal was just to do the set up and see how calibration works.

Two problems:

  1. The speed controls did not seem to inteface to the flight controller - they delivered no power.  Need to check this out.
  2. As I was calibrating the compass with the USB cable installed, the connector broke off the controller card (see photos above).  It looks like this is a common problem - the connector is definitely flimsy.  The calibration processs has you waving the quadcopter around with the cable attached and it put too much strain on the surface mount solder joints on the board and pop.  My attempts at repair using the original connector were unsuccessful.
Now I have to wait for a new connector and see if I can repair it, which does not look easy given the tiny dimensions of the connector.  I also ordered a backup controller in case I cannot repair the old one.  Lots of swearing and frustration and it will probably be at least a week before I am back up and running.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 6

Photo 1: ESC (speed control) and motor mounting

Photo 2: More detail on the ESC and motor

Continuing with the build, I attached bullet connectors to the Turnigy 25A Plush speed controls (ESC) using the soldering technique mentioned in the previous blog entry.  The motor leads were shortened to 2 cm to make the wiring tidy and to reduce latency.  I then used heat shrink to insulate the bullet connectors.  The Turnigy Multistar 2216 motors were also mounted on the frame.  The speed controls are connected to the motors under the frame arms and the connections to the power distribution panel are also underneath.  This is shown in Photo 1 and 2 above.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 5

Photo 1 Controller and GPS Mounted on quadcopter

Photo 2

The electronics need to be mounted on the quadcopter and there is no easy way to do it.  Therefore, I combined some old model skills with some new model skills to come up with the mounting arrangement shown in photos 1 and 2.

I used a scrap piece of 1/8" aircraft plywood to make a mounting base, used some wood dowels to make standoffs, and mounted the controller and GPS unit.  The GPS/Compass is mounted away from the controller to limit interference.

Let's see how well this works.

Sunday, November 2, 2014

Building Quadcopter Part 4

Continuing the build.  I mounted the power distribution panel on the bottom level as shown in photo 1.  It is a Hobbyking part that connects the battery up to the 4 speed controls.  The only problem is that you cannot use the current sensor that came with the controller package, but that is OK for now.
Photo 1 Power distribution

I also found a reasonable guide to the software to run the controller at this location.  Without this info, I was not able to find much useful info on how to load and set up the software on the flight conroller.
Photo 2 frame assembled

The frame is pretty much assembled as shown in Photo 2 and I have moved on to setting up some of the electronics wiring.  The video below was quite useful in helping learn the right technique for the Deans bullet connectors used in the power wiring.