Send In The Drones: Putting Wheels And Wings On The Internet Of Things

Imagine you’re a farmer trying to grow a crop under drought conditions. Up-to-the-minute data on soil moisture can help you to decide where and when to irrigate, which directly affects your crop yield and your bottom line. More sensors would mean more data and a better spatial picture of conditions, but the cost of wired soil sensors would be crippling. Wireless sensors that tap into GSM or some sort of mesh network would be better, but each sensor would still need power, and maintenance costs would quickly mount. But what if you could deploy a vast number of cheap RFID-linked sensors in your fields? And what if an autonomous vehicle could be tasked with the job of polling the sensors and reporting the data? That’s one scenario imagined in a recent scholarly paper about a mobile Internet of Things (PDF link).


In the paper, authors [Jennifer Wang], [Erik Schluntz], [Brian Otis], and [Travis Deyle] put a commercially available quadcopter and RC car to the hack. Both platforms were fitted with telemetry radios, GPS, and an off-the-shelf RFID tag reader and antenna. For their sensor array, they selected passive UHF RFID tags coupled to a number of different sensors, including a resistance sensor used to measure soil moisture. A ground-control system was developed that allowed both the quad and the car to maneuver to waypoints under GPS guidance to poll sensors and report back.

Beyond agriculture, the possibilities for an IoT based on cheap sensors and autonomous vehicles to poll them are limitless. The authors rightly point out the challenges of building out a commercial system based on these principles, but by starting with COTS components and striving to keep installed costs to a minimum, we think they’ve done a great proof of concept here.

Controlling Quadcopters With Wireless Mouse Dongles

Last week we gave away a few Crazyflie 2.0 quadcopters to some cool Hackaday Prize entries. This quadcopter ships with the intention of being controlled by your smartphone. But it can also be controlled by a PC with USB dongle and an nRF24LU1+ SOC. [ajlitt] didn’t figure out he wanted the USB dongle (the Crazyradio) that can control this quad until after he used his gift code to claim his Crazyflie quad. No matter; the dongles for Logitech wireless keyboards and mice use the same radio as the Crazyflie and can be modded to make this quad fly.

The board inside the Logitech unifying receiver is a simple affair, with some pads for the USB connector, a crystal, the nRF24LU1+ radio module, and a few passives. To get this radio chip working with his computer, [ajlitt] simply needed to break out the SPI pins and wire everything to a Bus Pirate.

Getting the Crazyradio firmware onto this proved to be a little harder than soldering some magnet wire onto a few pins. The chip was first flashed without a bootloader, a full image with the bootloader was found, after wrangling a single byte into place, [ajlitt] had a working Crazyflie radio made from a wireless mouse dongle. The range isn’t great  – only 30 feet or so, or about as far as you would expect a wireless mouse to work. Excellent work, even if [ajlitt] is temporarily without a mouse.

The Crazyflie 2.0 is available from the Hackaday Store, along with the add-ons if you don’t want to hack your own.

Ducted Fan Drone Flies

A while back, we wrote about the ducted fan, single rotor, VTOL drone that [Armin Strobel] was working on. It wasn’t quite finished then, and hadn’t got off the ground yet. He’s posted an update, and from the looks of it, he’s made tons of progress, including a first flight with successful take-off and landing.

The successful flight was no coincidence. Tuning any kind of ‘copter is a tricky business. Handling them manually during testing could be outright dangerous. So he built two different test-beds from pieces of wood, some 3D printed parts and bearings. One lets him mount the drone and tune its pitch (and roll), while the other lets him tune the yaw parameters. And just like they do in wind tunnel testing, he fixed short pieces of yarn at various points on the air frame to check for turbulence. Doing this also gave him some insight into how he could improve the 3D printed air-frame in the next iteration. He repeated the tests on the two test beds, going back and forth to make sure the tuning parameters were not interfering with each other. He also modified the landing gear to improve stability during take-off and landing and to prevent tipping. [Armin] is using the PixHawk PX4 for flight control and a BeagleBone Black for higher level functions and control.

Once the first flight showed that the drone could do stable flight, he attached a Go-Pro and recorded some nice video on subsequent flights. The next steps are to fine tune the flight control parameters to ensure stable hovering with position hold and way point following. He may also 3D print an improved air-frame. For details about the build, check out our earlier blog post on the Ducted Fan Drone. Check out the two videos below – one showing the first flight of the Drone, and the other one about the test beds being used for tuning.

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Autonomous Drones Now Carry People

There are a handful of companies trying to build the first autonomous car, but this project makes us think that they all might be heading in the wrong direction. [Thorstin] wanted to use a quadcopter to transport people, and built a working prototype of an autonomous quadcopter-esque vehicle that is actually capable of lifting a person.

The device isn’t actually a quadcopter anymore; that wouldn’t be able to generate enough lift. It has sixteen rotors in total, making it a sexdecacopter (we suppose). This setup generates 282 pounds of static thrust, which as the video below shows, is enough to lift an average person off of the ground along with the aluminum alloy frame and all of the lithium ion batteries used to provide power to all of those motors.

With the PID control system in place, the device is ready for takeoff! We like hobby projects that suddenly become life-sized and rideable, and we hope to see this one fully autonomous at some point too. Maybe soon we’ll see people ferried from waypoint to waypoint instead of being driven around in their ground-bound autonomous cars.

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The Shady World of Drone Racing

No one noticed the two men in the alley as the darkness of midnight approached – their long, black trench coats acting like a soldier’s camouflage.

“You got the goods?”

“Yeah, these are hot man…super fast..check this…”

The bark of a police siren broke their whispered conversation like a shattering glass, causing the two men to briefly freeze in their steps.

“Johnny B. got busted last week…did you hear?”

“No way man! What he get busted for?”

“Drone racing man…drone racing.”

Deep within the shadows of abandoned warehouses and dilapidated factories on the outskirts of Australian suburbia, the telltale buzz of numerous drones can be heard. Zipping to and fro at speeds upwards of 60km/h, these drones are not just flying. They’re racing each other. The operators use specialized FPV goggles that allow them to see the raceway in real time. This method, unfortunately, puts them on the wrong side of the law.

The dated laws governing drones in Australia are similar to those in the US, which were written for the radio controlled plane industry. While they technically forbid any flying outside of line-of-site, the Australian Civil Aviation Authority seems to be OK with the drone racing so long as it’s done indoors and poses no risk to people or property.

Know of any drone racing in your country? Is it legal? Do people do it anyway? Let us know in the comments.

The Trials Of Quadcopter Graffiti

Last April, graffiti artist [KATSU] strapped a can of red spray paint to a Phantom quadcopter, flew it up against one of the largest billboards in New York City, and pressed a button. Now, [KATSU], [Dan Moore], and Adafruit’s [Becky Stern] are trying to perfect a flying can of spraypaint, and they’ve met with some success and surely many broken props.

The team used an Iris+ for this project instead of the Phantom used by [KATSU] earlier this year, but the principle of the entire endeavor remains the same: fly up against a wall, flick a switch, and watch paint come out of a spray gun. To get the can spraying paint, they modified a can gun to accept a micro servo. This servo is connected to the trigger mechanism of the can gun, and the entire unit is slung under the quad.

Getting a quadcopter to put paint exactly where you want it is hard, even indoors. Luckily, the Pixhawk inside the Iris has sensor inputs and an ‘altitude hold’ mode that can accept a sonar sensor and can be programmed to stay a set distance away from a wall. These sensors are susceptible to interference, and a proper, shielded cable had to be made, but the sensor did work.

Flying the quad did not go as smoothly. The swinging can of paint changes the center of gravity of the quad, and even flying indoors proved difficult. Still, if you’d like to give it a go, [Becky] put up the instructions for their build. You can see the hover attempts in the video below.

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Wifibroadcast Makes WiFi FPV Video More Like Analog

Normal WiFi is not what you want to send video from your quadcopter back to the first-person-view (FPV) goggles strapped on your head, because it’s designed for 100% correct, two-way transmission of data between just two radios. Transmission of analog video signals, on the other hand, is lossy, one-way, and one-to-many, which is why the longer-range FPV flights all tend to use old-school analog video transmission.

When you’re near the edge of your radios’ range, you care much more about getting any image in a timely fashion than about getting the entire video sequence correctly after a delay. While WiFi is retransmitting packets and your video is buffering, your quadcopter is crashing, and you don’t need every video frame to be perfect in order to get an idea of how to save it. And finally, it’s just a lot easier to optimize both ends of a one-way transmission system than it is to build antennas that must receive and transmit symmetrically.

And that’s why [Befinitiv] wrote wifibroadcast: to give his WiFi FPV video system some of the virtues of analog broadcast.

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