Droning On: The Anatomy of A Drone



These last few weeks I’ve been ordering parts for the Hackaday Testbed, a basic quadcopter to be used here at Hackaday. The top question I see when surfing multicopter forums is “What should I buy”. Which frame, motors,  props, speed controller, and batteries are best?  There aren’t easy answers to these questions with respect to larger quads (300mm or more) . There are a myriad of options, and dozens of vendors to choose from.

Advice was simple in the pre-internet days of R/C planes and helicopters: just head down to your local hobby shop, and see what lines they carry. Hook up with a local club and you’ll have some buddies to teach you to fly. This advice still holds true to a certain extent. Some hobby shops carry the DJI and Blade lines of multicopters. However, their flight control systems are closed source. If you really want to dig in and adjust parameters, you have to either buy a combo package with an open source flight control system, or buy every part separately. Unfortunately, very few local hobby shops can afford to stock individual parts at that level.

In the online world there are several “big” vendors. The classic names in the USA have always been Tower Hobbies and Horizon Hobby. Some new US-based companies are All e RC and ReadyMadeRC. Several Chinese companies, including HobbyKing and RcTimer, maintain warehouses in several parts of the world. I’m only listing a few of the big names here. If I’ve left out your favorite site, drop some info in the comments section.

The killer with many of these companies is supply. A popular component will often go out of stock with no hint as to when it will be available again. When it comes to single parts like batteries, it’s easy to just order a different size. But what about motors or speed controls? These components need to be matched on a multicopter. Changing one for a different model means changing all of them, so it pays to buy a spare or two when ordering! Click past the break for a breakdown of some multicopter parts.

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[Charles's] Epic “Total-Recap” GoKart Post


If you’ve built an electric vehicle in the past few years, you probably owe [Charles] a couple of beers. Now you can feel more indebted to him after you read his 17,500-word, 10-part post covering everything you need to know about electric go-kart design. You’ll want to grab a sandwich to keep you company.

You probably recall the Chibikart from posts earlier this summer, which is one of an endless list of EV projects [Charles] has up his sleeve. He’s been teaching MIT students how to build EV karts for a while now, and this total-recap “2.00gokart” novel is [Charles's] way of sharing the wealth. This is more than a simple how-to guide, though. Instead, it reads like a teacher’s edition of GoKarting 101, with a few brief and important histories, walk-throughs of how the class evolved, exhaustive links to vendors, graphs, videos, and plenty of reference and documentation.

If you have even the slightest interest in electric vehicles, do yourself a favor and give it a browse. There are a couple of videos after the break, and if you need some more motivation, check out the EV skateboard that uses a lot of the same parts.

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Fail of the Week: Flaming Brushless Motor Controller


Yep, smoke and flames are usually a sign that your electronics aren’t functioning as expected. This is actually the second failure encountered while learning about brushless motor controllers.

[Michael Kohn] purchase the motor while working on a different project and it went unused for quite some time. When he came across it again he decided he should learn the not-so-dark art of BLDC control.

The first hurdle was to figure out how to drive the three-wire motor when he had been expecting only two. The answer required him to come up with switching mechanism that allows three states for each wire: positive, negative, and not connected. His solution was to use MOSFETs. It’s a good idea, but unfortunately during the first iteration they were under-spec’d and he scared the crap out of himself when one of them blew up during testing (clip #1 below). After sourcing a more robust set of MOSFETs [Micheal] went back to testing which is when this little fire broke out. The 22 gauge wires connecting the Lithium battery to the driver just couldn’t cut it. See for yourself in the second clip.

It’s been awhile since we’ve said it: Please remember the Fail of the Week is not about ridiculing the hacker who was gracious enough to document his or her failure. It’s about learning from the mistake and discussing alternatives that can help others in the future. For instance, in this case some advice in determining MOSFET specs and wire gauge for any type of motor would be quite helpful. Have at it in the comments.

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Build a Sensorless Brushless DC Motor Controller

sensorless BLDC

[Davide Gironi] shows us how to implement a sensorless brushless DC motor controller (sensorless BLDC) using an ATmega8 microcontroller. In order to control a BLDC motor you need to know its rotational sequence position and speed so you can calculate and apply the correct current phase sequence to the motor windings at just the right time.

Simply said, sensorless BLDC means you’re not using a purpose built sensor to determine the motor’s position and speed, however, you are sensing the motor’s sequence position using the back EMF signal coming from one of motor’s coils that is not currently receiving power. When this back EMF signal crosses zero voltage a microcontroller can calculate the rotational speed and when to switch to the next power sequence. This technique is not good for position control motors but is great for continuous motors like computer fans and drives were the slightly reduced wiring costs make this type of BLDC control favored.

If you want to build a BLDC controller we recommend starting with [Davide’s] last project on sensor controlled BLDC motors. You can also checkout these interactive demonstrations for more understanding on the different BLDC configurations.

Follow along after the break to watch the video demonstration of [Davide’s] sensorless BLDC controller controlling a motor from CD-ROM drive.

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Fail of the Week: Photography Turntable


Turntable photography has seen a rise in popularity driven by online shopping. If you can’t hold it in your hand at least you can see what it looks like from all angles. From the still image, [Petteri Aimonen's] roll-your-own turntable looks great. It’s completely enclosed and has a very nice paint job. But when you see it in action it appears to suffer from a stutter.

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Building a brushless motor controller around an ATmega chip


You know when you see something like this it’s just going to be awesome, and we weren’t disappointed by our first impression. [Davide Gironi] built a brushless motor controller from the ground up using an ATmega8 as the brain. If you want to understand every aspect of a subject this is how to do it. Lucky for us he explains what each portion of the prototype does.

Brushless motors have no brushes in them (duh). But what does that really mean? In order to spin the motor a very carefully crafted signal is sent through the motor coils in the stationary portion (called the stator), producing a magnetic field that pushes against permanent magnets in the rotor. A big part of crafting that signal is knowing the position of the rotor. This is often accomplished with Hall Effect sensors, but can also be performed without them by measuring the back EMF in the coils not currently being driven. The AVR-GCC compatible library which [Davide] put together can be tweaked to work with either setup.

Get a good look at the system in action after the break.

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Showing off a high-performance brushless motor camera gimbal


Here’s [Tom Parker] showing off a brushless motor gimbal stabilizer for his GoPro camera. We saw a similar project a couple of weeks back that featured a 3d printed quadcopter mount. This offering is meant to be held in your hands. It keeps the subject in frame even if the cameraman’s hands pitch and roll (we figured aeronautical terms were best here). This image shows him demonstrating a level camera as he quickly rolls the frame from one side to the other. It doesn’t compensate for yaw, which is something he may change in the next iteration. We already like the results he’s getting with it.

About 3:15 into the video demo below we get a very quick description of the build itself. He started it as a project at University. Fabrication included work on a 3D printer, laser cutter, and vacuum forming machine. The grips are bicycle handlebar components. To overcome the stabilization system the operator has access to a joystick. Without this you’d never be able to aim the camera up or down because of auto-leveling.

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