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Video A Quadcopter Development Platform (Video) 30

Not everybody at a Maker Fair (or even Faire) is there to get kickstarted or to make a billion of whatever it is they're displaying. Ned Danyliw is one of the non-kickstarter people: an electrical engineering student displaying a quadcopter development platform he hopes can bring the cost of a quadcopter prototype down to $50 or so, or about the same price as a toy quadcopter. You can follow Ned's work step by step and see all the code at his blog, Burnt Transistors. (Alternate Video Link)

Tim: So Ned, you’ve got a booth here at Maker Faire. You have a copter down here but it’s mounted on this thin piece of metal here. Can you talk about the software, and why is it mounted like that?

Ned: Yeah. So what I am trying to do is develop a quad copter development platform that will be affordable to students and hobbyists. And the reason why it is not modeled like that because it is still in development. So what I’m trying to do is I am working on the stability algorithms, so how do you transfer the coordinates like its orientation and translate that into actually stabilizing the quad copter—so how do you control the different motors, change the thrust of each individual motor and get it to stabilize. So this rig here actually allows me to stabilize it, in just a single action, I can isolate just the pitch. From that I can tune the different control loops and get it so it gets a stable flight and then I will be able to translate that to a flying model. This avoids me having to deal with it crashing all the time.

Tim: Now the hardware of this little helicopter, it has got some things that we now see in toys, but specifically you are not creating a toy, you want it for a certain purpose.

Ned: Exactly. Yeah. I want to create a quad copter that can be hacked. In order to I thought the best way to do that was to develop the quad copter from the ground up. So that involved designing my own controller with its own processor, all the sensors necessary, all of the power electronics that would be needed to drive this quad copter. That not only allowed me to make sure that a developer would be able to change whatever aspect they want about it, but also it would allow me to control the costs, and bring the cost down to be comparable to that of one of those $50 toys.

Tim: Now as you make the prototype, can you talk about some of the hardware that you are actually employing at this point? Let’s look at some of things down here and you can point out what you are using them for.

Ned: Yeah. So actually on the bottom here is just a LiPo battery so this is actually just a 400 milliamp power battery—that’s where it gets all of its power. And on top you have the radio, so this is a 2.4 ghz nRF24 radio. It is a networkable radio, so in the future if someone wanted to, you can have even most of the quad copters talking to each other. And maybe experiment with something like swarm robotics. And underneath the radio, if you can remove it, you have in the center there is the sensor. So that is a chip, it is a 9-axis sensor. So it has a gyroscope, magnetometer, and an accelerometer all in the same package—that’s where I get all of my orientation information. So I can tell how far it is tilted forward or backwards. And on the bottom of the board—you can actually see it better here—is an ATmega328. So that is the same chip that is used on the Arduino Uno, it is just an 8-bit microcontroller. Even though it is not that powerful, it turns out it is powerful enough to stabilize a quad copter. In the end, I actually will be moving away from this AVR chip, and the reason is because it is just powerful enough to stabilize, but since I want this for developers, I don’t want them to have to worry about their code breaking their stabilization software. So I will be moving to an ARM based technology and that will give them more headroom to actually experiment with their own algorithms.

Tim: Would that also save you any weight?

Ned: It probably wouldn’t save me that much weight, but it would remove some of the programming pins necessary for an AVR. So I would be able to replace the charging pins and the programming pins with probably just a micro USB since I can interface directly with the computer. It would also even save me cost. Because ARM chips are very inexpensive and even if they are more powerful than the ATmega variant because ARM chips are used in a lot of cell phone technologies—it is incredibly cheap.

Tim: Now not many people are making this kind of project, even students at Stanford. So how is it that you have enough electronics experience at your tender age to create on these recent platforms?

Ned: Yeah, so in high school I was actually lucky enough to work in electronics lab. I went to Thomas Jefferson High School and we had a microelectronics research lab. So in there I got to get my hands dirty with all of these different circuits, learn how to design circuits and lay out circuit boards. I basically carried on that passion for electronics with my going into Stanford. And so I wanted some project that I could work outside of class, and I decided that what I wanted to do was try and make this quad copter. It seemed like a very challenging problem and something that a lot of people hadn’t really looked at, at least in the low cost development area. So that’s kind of my motivation. I’ve been learning a lot of stuff as I go. So I am constantly reading stuff on how to control these quad copters online, looking at previous code that people have written, trying to adapt my code off of that.

Tim: Speaking of your code, the openness of your code is one thing that people have different approaches to, let’s say—how open is your code?

Ned: Yeah, so my code will be completely open. I am posting it all on burnttransistors.com which is my blog. I will probably set up a Git repository so at least my latest edition of the code will be put there. But I want to go with the idea that since this is for developers, I don’t want to hide anything for someone who is trying to write their own stabilization code. I want them to be able to take the same advantages that I have for looking at this code online, and adapt it from it. Or if you think I might have done something wrong, you can do it better— then you don’t have to start from scratch, you just go ahead and add it on top.

Tim: Now do you think of it as open hardware as well as open software?

Ned: Yes, I do. I think that what I want to do is provide this platform for people to explore the software with. I think a big issue is: People tend to be more comfortable with working in software than they are with hardware. So I want to provide the hardware so that way that won’t scare them away. But I want to make the design completely available, because a lot of times, in order to write very good code, you need to have an innate knowledge of the hardware that goes along with it. And I think the best way is just providing all this information.

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A Quadcopter Development Platform (Video)

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  • by Trachman ( 3499895 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2014 @05:07PM (#47216905) Journal
    Just wait a little bit. I can smell that very soon there will be initiatives to regulate drones in the same way they want to regulate 3D printers For those who have not seen here is the link with impressive drone model, all DIY, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v... [youtube.com]
    • Of course they will, once someone builds a killer anti-personnel quadcopter. Every modelmaker will be labeled a terrorist by then.
      • Toys [wikipedia.org].

      • RC planes and helis have been around for decades. Small microcontroller kits and GPS modules have been around for years.

        Yet we've not seen this tech used as a weapon. Why? - because an amateur drone is a rather fiddly, unreliable, and failure-prone method or carrying out any sort of attack, compared to the simplicity and much higher payload capacity of a suicide bomber or car/truck bomb.
        • I was thinking more about assassinations than about mass killings. You don't need a huge payload for that. A gram or two of a skin-absorbed poison (perhaps nicotine sulfate?) is all you'd need. A few incidents like that and watch the governments cracking down on airborne systems of any kind.
    • by BitZtream ( 692029 ) on Wednesday June 11, 2014 @05:57PM (#47217297)


      They've been regulated since before they existed. The FAA already handles them, just like RC airplanes they've handled for the last 50-60 years.

      And for reference:

      http://ardupilot.com/ [ardupilot.com]

      They aren't going to bring the price down to $50 until the sensors are $1 each. Considering a quality GPS still costs > $50, as do a set of gyros or a set of accelerometers that are high enough quality to be useful, this is a year or two off still.

      • Actually, they are *not* regulated -- and that's the big problem right now.

        From the FAA's perspective, there are no regulations pertaining to RC model aircraft -- only guidlines.

        This is why the courts overturned a $10,000 fine levied against Raphael Pirker by the FAA -- because there are no regulations to back up that penalty.

        The FAA are scrambling to come up with some regulations but, until then, they are hoist by their own petard (or lack of work in this area).

      • They aren't going to bring the price down to $50 until the sensors are $1 each. Considering a quality GPS still costs > $50, as do a set of gyros or a set of accelerometers that are high enough quality to be useful, this is a year or two off still.

        I watched the video yesterday and I'm not re-watching it, but did Danyliw's quad even have GPS? Because if not, you can already get a decent Micro Quad for about $50 [hobbyking.com] that's built out of a PCB. Granted, it doesn't have GPS and can't fly autonomously, but it is a standards-compatible and hackable quad at the $50ish price point.

  • Turnigy Micro-X. [hobbyking.com]
    It's designed to be hacked, has 6050 MPU and 328P Atmel processor and built-in DSM2 receiver. It comes with the open source multiwii software, I'm sure the other arduino based ones work just as well.

    The nRF24 sounds neat.

    • This is true. There is nothing new about Danyliw's project other than the 3D printing aspect of it.

      That being said, I think it is a super cool project that he's doing, especially for an undergrad. He'll learn a ton from it, and will probably go on to do great things.

  • If the term "platform" is even slightly comparable to "framework", it is time to run.

  • by Anonymous Coward

    I'm just whining, but personally I really dislike the "Faire" name a lot of people use. I think it turns people away from going to these events..

    When I see that spelling, I think of things like people who are in to "faeries" and "magick" and SCA members and other such niches. It doesn't sound at all like "People showing off cool stuff they've built", and I wish people would stop spelling it that way.

  • Forget about aerial video and photography with these "drones" -- the most fun you can have with one of these multi-rotor craft is this:

    FPV racing [youtube.com]

    These are tiny multirotor craft fitted with FPV (first person view) video gear and flown around a course (which can be as simple as a few trees in a field).

    Stunningly good fun and a real adrenaline buzz -- without all the privacy and safety issues that "droners" create with their DJI Phantoms and other consumer-grade multirotors.

    Just Google/Youtube for "mini H quad

  • Why not just build an RC helicopter sizable enough to do what you want?

    You want automation? It can be done on an rc helicopter too.

    I just don't see the point of having a bunch of weak motors as opposed to a single strong one with control of thrust via cyclic and collective pitch controls on the blades.

    • by hawk ( 1151 )

      I don't care *how* it flies so long as I can have it chase anything larger than a hummingbird, yet smaller than a cat, that moves.

      @*#(*^% air rats eating my seeds, berries, and other fruit. Go at them while emitting raptor cries . . .


In seeking the unattainable, simplicity only gets in the way. -- Epigrams in Programming, ACM SIGPLAN Sept. 1982