CES: Self-Flying Drone Cars

CES, the Consumer Electronics Show, is in full swing. Just for a second, let’s take a step back and assess the zeitgeist of the tech literati. Drones – or quadcopters, or UAVs, or UASes, whatever you call them – are huge. Self-driving cars are the next big thing. Flying cars have always been popular. On the technical side of things, batteries are getting really good, and China is slowly figuring out aerospace technologies. What could this possibly mean for CES? Self-flying drone cars.

The Ehang 184 is billed as the first autonomous drone that can carry a human. The idea is a flying version of the self-driving cars that are just over the horizon: hop in a whirring deathtrap, set your destination, and soar through the air above the plebs that just aren’t as special as you.

While the Ehang 184 sounds like a horrendously ill-conceived Indiegogo campaign, the company has released some specs for their self-flying drone car. It’s an octocopter, powered by eight 106kW brushless motors. Flight time is about 23 minutes, with a range of about 10 miles. The empty weight of the aircraft is 200 kg (440 lbs), with a maximum payload of 100 kg (220 lbs). This puts the MTOW of the Ehang 184 at 660 lbs, far below the 1,320 lbs cutoff for light sport aircraft as defined by the FAA, but far more than the definition of an ultralight – 254 lbs empty weight.

In any event, it’s a purely academic matter to consider how such a vehicle would be licensed by the FAA or any other civil aviation administration. It’s already illegal to test in the US, authorities haven’t really caught up to the idea of fixed-wing aircraft powered by batteries, and the idea of a legal autonomous aircraft carrying a passenger is ludicrous.

Is the Ehang 184 a real product? There is no price, and no conceivable way any government would allow an autonomous aircraft fly with someone inside it. It is, however, a perfect embodiment of the insanity of CES.

Surviving the FAA Regulations: Modelers Move Indoors

New FAA rules are making radio-controlled aircraft a rough hobby to enjoy here in the USA. Not only are the new drone enthusiasts curtailed, but the classic radio-controlled modelers are being affected as well. Everyone has to register, and for those living within 30 miles of Washington DC, flying of any sort has been effectively shut down. All’s not lost though. There is plenty of flying which can be done outside of the watchful eye of the FAA. All it takes is looking indoors.

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Open-Source Firmware for a Mini Quadrotor

Since you’re going to have to be flying your “drones” indoors anyway in the USA, at least in the US Capitol region, you might as well celebrate the one freedom you still have — the freedom to re-flash the firmware!

The Eachine H8 is a typical-looking mini-quadcopter of the kind that sell for under $20. Inside, the whole show is powered by an ARM Cortex-M3 processor, with the programming pins easily visible. Who could resist? [garagedrone] takes you through a step-by-step guide to re-flashing the device with a custom firmware to enable acrobatics, or simply to tweak the throttle-to-engine-speed mapping for the quad. We had no idea folks were doing this.

Spoiler alert: re-flashing the firmware is trivial. Hook up an ARM SWD programmer (like the ST-Link V2) and you’re done. Wow. All you need is firmware.

The firmware comes from [silverxxx], and he’s written all about it on the forum at RCGroups.com. He’s even got the code up on GitHub if you’re interested in taking a peek. It looks like it’d be fun to start playing around with the control algorithms. Next step, Skynet!

Reading the forum post, it looks like you’ll have to be a little careful to get the right model quad, so look before you leap. But for the price, you can also afford to mess up once. Heck, at that price you could throw away the motors and you’d have a tricked-out ARM dev kit.

And if you insist on hacking everything, you can probably re-purpose a wireless mouse controller to control the thing. Write your own code for the controller and you’ve got an end-to-end open firmware quadcopter for a pittance.

Truck-Sized Star Destroyer Takes Flight

While some of you may have been to see the new Star Wars movie, you might be sad that everything happened a long time ago in a galaxy far away. But there’s a group of RC enthusiasts called [Flite Test] who are trying to bring at least a little bit of that fantasy into real life. They’ve created a truck-sized Star Destroyer that actually flies. It looks kind of terrifying, too.

While it’s not as big as a “real” Star Destroyer, it’s certainly one of the biggest we’ve ever seen in real life. Built out of foam, this monstrosity is 15 feet long and powered by two huge electric motors and a large lithium polymer battery. Of course they didn’t start out by building this huge flying spaceship; they created a smaller model as proof-of-concept and flew that one around for a while to make sure everything was shipshape. While it’s exciting to see the small model in flight, it’s another thing to see the 15-foot version swooping around.

We’re sad to report that the Star Destroyer did meet a similar fate as the one that Rey was scavenging at the beginning of the movie (spoilers: it crashed), we hope that the RC team rebuilds it so it’s space worthy again. Maybe they can even add a real-life ion drive or a few lasers to make it even more real.

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FAA Bans Drones For More Than Six Million People

In recent weeks, the FAA has solicited input from hobbyists and companies in the ‘drone’ industry, produced rules and regulations, and set up a registration system for all the quadcopters and flying toys being gifted over the holiday season. Whether or not the FAA is allowed to do this is a question being left to the courts, but for now, the FAA has assuredly killed a hobby for more than six million people. The FAA has introduced an updated Temporary Flight Restriction (TFR) for a 30-mile radius around Washington, DC.

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The 30-mile TFR area

Previously, there had been a blanket ban on drones, UAS, and model aircraft within a 15-mile radius of a point inside Reagan National Airport. This point covered the District of Columbia proper, and the suburbs of Bethesda, College Park, and Alexandria – basically, everything inside the beltway, and a mile or two beyond. The new flight restriction for drones covers a vastly larger area – all of the DC metro area, Annapolis, half of Baltimore, and all of northern Virginia. This area encompasses a population of more than six million people.

The DC metro area has, since 9/11, become some of the most complex airspace in the entire country. There are several military bases, Aberdeen proving grounds, the US Naval academy, and of course the White House, Capitol building, and the Pentagon. Even commercial airliners are subject to some very interesting regulations. For the same reason general aviation shuts down in southern California every time the president visits LA, you simply can’t fly model aircraft within the beltway; it’s a security measure, and until now, flying clubs in the DC area have dealt with these restrictions.

The new TFR has effectively shuttered more than a dozen flying clubs associated with the Academy of Model Aeronautics. DCRC, a club with a field in the middle of some farmland in Maryland, has closed down until further notice. The Capital Area Soaring Association has also closed because of the TFR.

Although called a Temporary Flight Restriction, this is a rule that will be around for a while. The FAA says this restriction is here for good.

Drone Registration is just FAA Making You Read Their “EULA”

Over the last few weeks we’ve waded through the debate of Drone restrictions as the FAA announced, solicited comments, and finally put in place a registration system for Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Having now had a week to look at the regulation, and longer to consider the philosophy behind it, I don’t think this is a bad thing. I think the FAA’s move is an early effort to get people to pay attention to what they’re doing.

The broad picture looks to me like a company trying to get users to actually read an End User Licensing Agreement. I’m going to put the blame for this firmly on Apple. They are the poster children for the unreadable EULA. Every time there is an update, you’re asked to read the document on your smartphone. You scroll down a bit and think it’s not that long, until you discover that it’s actually 47 pages. Nobody reads this, and years of indoctrination have made the click-through of accepting an EULA into a pop-culture reference. In fact, this entire paragraph has been moot. I’d bet 99 out of 103 readers knew the reference before I started the explanation.

So, we have a population of tech adopters who have been cultivated to forego reading any kind of rules that go with a product. Then we have technological advancement and business interests that have brought UAS to the feet of the general public both with low costs, wide availability, and pop-culture appeal. What could possibly go wrong? Let’s jump into that, then cover some of the other issues people are concerned about, like the public availability of personal info on the drone registry.

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Flying Planes With Squirrel Cages

Fixed wing remote control planes are ridiculously overpowered. Whereas normal, manned fixed wing aircraft need to take into account things like density altitude, angle of attack, and weight limits, most RC aircraft can hover. This insane amount of power means there’s a lot of room for experimentation, especially in new and novel power plants. [Samm Sheperd] had an old squirrel cage fan taken from an electric wall heater and figured one man’s trash was an integral part of another man’s hobby and built a plane around this very unusual fan.

squirrel-cage-fan-wideThe only part of the squirrel cage fan [Samm] reused was the impeller. Every other part of this power plant was either constructed out of foam board, plywood, or in the case of the brushless motor turning the fan, stolen from the ubiquitous box of junk on every modeller’s workbench.

The design of the plane puts the blower fan directly under the wings, blasting the air backwards underneath the empennage. During testing, [Samm] found this blower pulled around 350W from the battery – exactly what it should draw if a properly sized propeller were attached to the motor. The thrust produced isn’t that great — only about 400g of thrust from an airframe that weights 863g. That’s very underpowered for an RC aircraft, but absurdly powerful for any manned flying machine.

Does the plane work? Of course it does. [Samm] took his plane for a few laps around the neighborhood and found the plane flies excellently. It is horrifically loud, but it is a great example of how much anyone can do with cheap RC planes constructed out of foam.

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