Building Homebrew VTOL Rockets

No one can deny what SpaceX and Blue Origin are doing is a feat of technological wizardry. Building a rocket that takes off vertically, goes into space, and lands back on the pad is an astonishing technical achievement that is literally rocket science. However, both SpaceX and Blue Origin have a few things going for them. They have money, first of all. They’re building big rockets, so there’s a nice mass to thrust cube law efficiency bump. They’re using liquid fueled engines that can be throttled.

[Joe Barnard] isn’t working with the same constraints SpaceX and Blue Origin have. He’s still building a rocket that can take off and land vertically, but he’s doing it the hard way. He’s building VTOL model rockets. Most of the parts are 3D printed. And he’s using solid motors you can buy at a hobby shop. This is the hard way of doing things, and [Joe] is seeing some limited success with his designs.

While the rockets coming out of Barnard Propulsion Systems look like models of SpaceX’s test vehicles, there’s a lot more here than looks. [Joe] is using a thrust vectoring system — basically mounting the Estes motor in a gimbal attached to a pair of servos. This allows the rockets to fly straight up without fins or even the launch rod used to get the rocket up to speed in the first few millseconds of flight. This is active stabilization of a model rocket, with the inevitable comments of ITAR violations following soon afterward.

Taking off vertically is one thing, but [Joe] is also trying to land his rockets vertically. Each rocket he’s built has a second Estes motor used only for landing. During descent, the onboard microcontroller calculates the speed, altitude, and determines if it’s safe to attempt a vertical landing. If the second motor has sufficient impulse to make velocity and altitude equal zero at the same time, the landing legs deploy and the rocket hopefully makes a soft touchdown in the grass.

While [Joe] hasn’t quite managed to pull off a vertical takeoff and landing with black powder motors quite yet, he’s documenting and livestreaming all of his attempts. You can check out the latest one from a week ago below.

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Drone-Drone

Yes, the pun was ripped off the article that got our attention . It was just too good not to share. A team of researchers in Japan created an artificial honeybee, a small drone that is meant to cross-pollinate flowers. The (still) manually controlled drone is 4 centimetres wide and weighs only 15 grams. At the bottom side of the drone, a mix of a special sticky gel and horse hair resides. The purpose of this gel is to collect the pollen particles as it bumps into the flowers and exchange it as it goes hopping around from plant to plant. In experiments, the drone was able to cross-pollinate Japanese lilies (Lilium japonicum) without damaging the plant, stamens or pistils when the drone flew into the flowers.

The gel used for the artificial pollinators was the result of a failed experiment back in 2007. While researching electrical conduction liquids, Eijiro Miyako, a chemist at the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology (AIST) Nanomaterial Research Institute, produced a sticky gel with no useful electrical characteristics and stored it away in a cabinet. After 8 years, when cleaning the cabinet, he found the gel still sitting there, unspoiled.

“This project is the result of serendipity. We were surprised that after 8 years, the ionic gel didn’t degrade and was still so viscous. Conventional gels are mainly made of water and can’t be used for a long time, so we decided to use this material for research.”

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PVC Submersible ROV

[mark.brubaker.1] and his crew decided to make a submersible for a school project using PVC pipes as a frame. It has two motors on the back to provide forward thrust and steering as well as a horizontal mounted motor in the middle of the PVC chassis to provide up and down thrust. They used regular motors which they waterproofed by inserting them inside a case full of plumbers wax. We’re not sure how long this will hold at the bottom of the ocean, but it works fine for a school project in the pool. Here’s the instructions on how to make one.

The build is completely analog, the controller is a board with three switches which individually control the different motors. So if you want to turn left, you fired up the right motor. For right you do the opposite and fire up the left motor. Up and down, well, you get the picture. If you have a swimming pool, lake or some water body nearby and you’re looking for a weekend project with your kids, this is a great tip. It’s not an Arduino controlled robot fish, but it’s a first step in that direction; you can later on use the frame to improve on the design and add some electronics.

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I’m BatBot

How would you like a bat bot for your next pet drone? Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Coordinated Science Laboratory and from the California Institute of Technology, created a bat drone. This is not your regular drone; it’s not a styrofoam, bat-shaped, four-propeller kind of drone. It’s a drone that mimics not only the shape but the movement of the bats wings to achieve flight.

The biomimetic robotic platform, dubbed Bat Bot B2, is an autonomous flying robot. The wing mechanics are controlled by a brushless DC motor for the wing flapping along with four wings actuators to provide linear motion that allows the wings to further change shape in flight. The wings are made of a 56-micron, silicone-based membrane (thinner than an average condom), which for sure helps with their elasticity as well as reducing overall weight, which is only 93 grams.

The bat has only made twenty flights so far, ranging up to 30 meters with some rough landings. It’s not much yet, but the prototype looks pretty slick. We covered another bat bot back in 2012 but the original information is no longer available, and we don’t know what happened to that project. There was also no video. In contrast, you can watch Bat Bot B2 glide.

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Cheap DIY FPV Micro-Drone

FPV drones are a fun but often costly hobby for beginners. Opting for a smaller drone will reduce the chance of damaging the drone when one invariably crashes and the smaller props are also a lot safer if there are any innocent bystanders. YouTuber and Instructables user [Constructed] wanted a cheap FPV capable drone that they could comfortably fly in-and-out of doors, so of course they built their own.

Once the drone’s frame was 3D printed, the most complex part about soldering four small-yet-powerful 8.5 mm motors to the Micro Scisky control board is ensuring that you attach them in the correct configuration and triple-checking them. A quick reshuffling of the battery connections and mounting the FPV camera all but completed the hardware side of the build.

Before plugging your flight controller into your PC to program, [Constructed] warns that the battery must be disconnected unless you want to fry your board. Otherwise, flashing the board and programming it simply requires patience and a lot of saving your work. Once that’s done and you’ve paired everything together, the sky — or ceiling — is the limit!

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Frankenquad takes to the air

Modern quadcopter flight controllers perform a delicate dance of balancing pitch, yaw, bank, and throttle. They can do this thanks to modern MEMS gyros and accelerometers. The job is easy when the motors, propellers and speed controllers are relatively well matched. But what if they’re not? That’s the questions [SkitzoFPV] set out to answer by building Frankenquad.  Frankenquad is a 250 sized FPV quadcopter with 4 different motors and 4 different propellers. The props are different sizes from different manufacturers, and even include a mix of 3 and 4 blade units. If all that wasn’t enough [SkitzoFPV] used 3 different electronic speed controller. Each speed controller has a micro running different firmware, meaning it will respond slightly differently to throttle inputs.

Keeping all this in check was [SkitzoFPV’s] branded version of the Raceflight Revolt R4 flight controller. The Revolt is powered by an STM32F4 series ARM microcontroller. Most of these controllers run variants of the cleanflight open source flight control software. The question was – would it be able to handle the unbalanced thrust and torque of 4 different power combinations?

The flight tests proved the answer was a resounding yes. The quad hovered easily. As the video shows [SkitzoFPV] went on to burn a few holes in the sky with it. Admittedly [SkitzoFPV] is a much better pilot than any of us. He did notice a bit of a bobble and a definite yaw toward the smaller propeller. Still, it’s rather amazing how easily a modern flight controller was able to turn a pile of junk-box components into a flying quadcopter. You can learn more about flight controllers right here.

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Disposable Drones

How do you deliver medical supplies to a war zone cheaply? The answer, according to this project, might be to make a disposable drone. Created by friends of Hackaday [Star Simpson] and the Sky Machines group at Otherlab, this project is looking to make drones out of cheap biodegradable products like cardboard.

Rather than risk an expensive drone that might never return, the project imagines a drone that flies to the target, delivers its cargo with an accuracy of about 10 meters and then be easily disposed of. The prototype the team is working on is part of a DARPA project called Inbound, Controlled Air-Releasable Unrecoverable Systems (ICARUS) and is a glider designed to be released from a plane or helicopter. Using a cheap GPS receiver and controller, the drone then glides to the destination.

It’s an interesting take on the drone: making it so simple and cheap that you can use it once and throw it away. And if you want to get a feel for how [Star] and Otherlabs approach problems like this, check out the awesome talk that [Star] gave at our recent SuperConference on making beautiful circuit boards.

Thanks for the tip, [Adrian]!