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.

Hackaday Links: December 27th, 2015

PCBs can be art – we’ve known this for a while, but we’re still constantly impressed with what people can do with layers of copper, fiberglass, soldermask, and silkscreen. [Sandy Noble] is taking this idea one step further. He took C64, Spectrum, and Sinclair PCBs and turned them into art. The results are incredible. These PCBs were reverse engineered, traced, and eventually turned into massive screen prints. They look awesome, and they’re available on Etsy.

$100k to bring down drones. That’s the tagline of the MITRE Challenge, although it’s really being sold as, “safe interdiction of small UAS that pose a safety or security threat in urban areas”. You can buy a slingshot for $20…

[styropyro] mas made a name for himself on Youtube for playing with very dangerous lasers and not burning his parent’s house down. Star Wars is out, and that means it’s time to build a handheld 7W laser. It’s powered by two 18650 cells, and is responsible for more than a few scorch marks on the walls of [styropyro]’s garage.

Everybody is trying to figure out how to put Ethernet and a USB hub on the Pi Zero. This means a lot of people will be launching crowdfunding campaigns for Pi Zero add-on boards that add Ethernet and USB. The first one we’ve seen is the Cube Infinity. Here’s the thing, though: they’re using through-hole parts for their board, which means this won’t connect directly to the D+ and D- USB signals on the Pi Zero. They do have a power/battery board that may be a little more useful, but I can’t figure out how they’re doing the USB.

[Keith O] found a fascinating video on YouTube and sent it into the tips line. It’s a machine that uses a water jet on pastries. These cakes start out frozen, and come out with puzzle piece and hexagon-shaped slices. Even the solution for moving cakes around is ingenious; it uses a circular platform that rotates and translates by two toothed belts. Who would have thought the latest advancements in cutting cakes and pies would be so fascinating?

It’s time to start a tradition. In the last links post of last year, we took a look at the number of views from North Korea in 2014. Fifty-four views, and we deeply appreciate all our readers in Best Korea. This year? For 2015, we’ve logged a total of thirty-six views from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. That’s a precipitous drop that deserves an investigation. Pyongyang meetup anyone?

Camera Quadcopter Almost Hits Slalom Skiier

During the World Cup slalom skiing championship on Wednesday, ski champion [Marcel Hirscher] was nearly hit by an out-of-control camera drone, that crashed just behind him while filming during a run. Watch the (scary) video embedded after the break.

According to this article in Heise.de (Google Translate link), the pilot was accredited and allowed to fly the quad, but only over a corridor where no spectators were present. After the first couple of runs, apparently the pilot went off course and quite obviously lost control of the copter.

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