Droning On: Maiden Flights

do-55

When we last left off, the Hackaday Drone Testbed was just a box of parts on workbench. Things have changed quite a bit since then! Let’s get straight to the build.

With the arms built and the speed controls soldered up, it was simply a matter of bolting the frame itself together. The HobbyKing frame is designed to fold, with nylon washers sliding on the fiberglass sheets. I don’t really need the folding feature, so I locked down the nylock nuts and they’ve stayed that way ever since. With the arms mounted, it was finally starting to look like a quadcopter.

drone1

Using the correct screws, the motors easily screwed into the frames. I did have to do a bit of filing on each motor plate to get the motor’s screw pattern to fit. The speed controls didn’t have a specific mount, so I attached them to the sides of the arms with double-sided tape and used some zip ties to ensure nothing moved. In hindsight I should have mounted them on the top of the arms, as I’m planning to put LED light strips on the outside of edges of the quad. The LEDs will help with orientation and ensure a few UFO sightings during night flights.

Power distribution is a major issue with multicopters. Somehow you have to get the main battery power out to four speed controls, a flight controller, a voltage regulator, and any accessories. There are PCBs for this, which have worked for me in the past. For the Hackaday Testbed, I decided to go with a wiring harness. The harness really turned out to be more trouble than it was worth. I had to strip down the wires at the solder joint to add connections for the voltage regulator. The entire harness was a bit longer than necessary. There is plenty of room for the excess wire between the main body plates of the quad, but all that copper is excess weight the ‘bench’ doesn’t need to be carrying. The setup does work though. If I need to shed a bit of weight, I’ll switch over to a PCB.

Click past the break to read the rest of the story.

[Read more...]

Droning On: PID Controllers and Bullet Connectors

droning-on-hill Not all drones are multirotors – Posing in our title photo are Maynard Hill and Cyrus Abdollahi. Maynard’s plane, TAM5 aka The Spirit of Butts Farm, is the smallest aircraft to make a transatlantic flight (YouTube link). Retracing the path of Alcock and Brown from Newfoundland to Ireland, the 6 pound (dry weight) model made the trip in just under 39 hours. All this happened in 2003, and was the cap on a lifetime of achievements for Hill. These are the types of pursuits that will be banned in the USA if the FAA restrictions go into effect.

Flight Controllers

Quite a few of you thought the Naze32 was left out of last column’s flight controller roundup. I hear you loud and clear! I’ll add the Naze to the controllers which will be tested on The Hackaday Testbed. The hard part is finding the darn things! I currently have an Acro Naze32 on its way to Droning On HQ.  If I can find a full version, I’ll add that.

PID Controllers Deep Dive

I’ve gotten a few questions on Proportional Integral Derivative (PID) controllers, so it is worth diving in a bit deeper to explain what a PID controller is. PID controllers are often found in process controls managing parameters like temperature, humidity, or product flow rate. The algorithm was initially designed in the late 1800’s as a method of controlling the helm of large naval ships. In fixed wing drones, PID keeps the plane’s wings level and on course. In multicopters, PID loops control heading, but they also provide the stable flight which allows the quadcopter to fly in the first place. A full explanation of PID loops would be beyond the scope of a single article, but let’s try a 10,000 foot explanation.

pidP: This is the “Present” parameter. P Has the most influence on the behavior of the aircraft.  If the wind blows your quadcopter from level flight into a 30 degree right bank, P is the term which will immediately take action to level the quad out. If the P value is too high, The quadcopter will overshoot level flight and start banking the other way. In fact, way too high a P value can cause a quadcopter to shake as it oscillates or “hunts” for level. Too Low a P value? the quadcopter will be very slow to react, and may never quite reach level flight again.

I: This the “Past” parameter. The I term dampens the overshoot and oscillations of the P term, and avoids the tendency of P to settle above or below the set point. Just like with P, too high an I term can lead to oscillation.

D: This is the “Future” parameter, and has the smallest impact on the behavior of the aircraft. In fact, some flight controllers leave it out entirely.  If P and I are approaching a set point too quickly, overshoot is likely to occur. D slows things down before the overshoot happens.

So why do multicopter pilots dread PID tuning?  Quite simply, it’s a tedious process. Couple a new pilot and an unproven aircraft with un-tuned PID values, and you have a recipe for frustration – and broken propellers. Things get even more complex when you consider the fact that there are at least 3 sets of PID variables to be tuned – Pitch, Roll, and Yaw. Some flight controllers now support multiple PID values depending on the style of flight. Want your plane or multicopter to fly around like a hotrod? You need a totally different set of PID values than a docile trainer craft. Rolf Bakke (KapteinKUK himself) made a video illustrating how multicopters behave when tuning PID values. You can easily see how a quad can go from “drunk” to “angry bee” with just a few value tweaks. All this is coming together with The Hackaday Testbed, which will help me in posting a few PID tuning videos of my own.

Hackaday Testbed Update

As for the testbed itself, it’s nearly complete! You can follow the progress on my Hackaday Projects Page. Most of the assembly has been relatively straightforward.   though of course there are always a few snags. It seems I always forget something when ordering up parts for coils-bada build. In this case it was 2.5mm banana plugs and motor mounting screws.

The Hobbyking motors attach to the frame with 3mm screws. The problem is that there really is no way to know how long the screws should be until you have the motors, mounting plates and drone frame on hand. I have a bunch of 3mm screws of various lengths, and thankfully there were enough screws of the correct length to mount the motors. Murphy is always at my side, as I accidentally grabbed a screw that was 1mm too long and, you guessed it, screwed right into the windings of the motor. Doh! Thankfully I had spares.

bullet-solderBullet connectors can be a real pain to solder. There are some jigs out there which help, but I’ve always found myself going back to the old “helping hands” alligator clips. Bullets tend to use lower gauge wire than we’re used to with regular electronics. 14, 12, even 8 gauge wires are used on R/C aircraft. A low power soldering iron with a surface mount tip just won’t cut it. Those irons just doesn’t have the thermal mass to get the connectors up to soldering temperature. This is one of those places where a decent 40 watt or better Weller iron (yes, the kind that plugs right in the wall) can be a godsend. I’m using an Metcal iron here, with a wide flat tip.

bullet-solder-2Bare bullet connectors and alligator clips can also create a problem – the metal clips create even more thermal mass. Years back an old-timer showed me a trick to handle this. Slip a piece of silicone R/C plane fuel tubing on the bullet, and then clip the helping hands onto the tube. The tube will act as insulation between the bullet and the clip. Silicone can easily withstand the temperatures of soldering. I’ve also used the silicone tube on the jaws themselves – though eventually the jaws will cut the soft tubing.

That’s about it for this edition Droning on! Until next time, keep ‘em flying!

Title photo credit Cyrus Abdollahi.

Droning On: Choosing a Flight Controller

do4 The flight controller is the nerve center of a drone. Drone flight control systems are many and varied. From GPS enabled autopilot systems flown via two way telemetry links to basic stabilization systems using hobby grade radio control hardware, there is an open source project for you.

Modern drone flight controllers can trace their roots back to R/C helicopters. Historically, R/C planes were controlled directly by the pilot’s radio. Helicopters added a new wrinkle to the mix: tail rotors. Helicopters use their tail (or anti-torque) rotor to counteract the torque of the main rotor attempting to spin the entire helicopter’s body. It all works great when the helicopter is hovering, but what about when the pilot throttles up to fly out? As the pilot throttles up, the torque increases, which causes the entire helicopter to do a pirouette or two, until the torque levels out again. The effect has caused more than one beginner pilot to come nose to nose with their R/C heli.

The solution to this problem was gyroscopes, heavy brass spinning weights that tilted in response to the helicopter’s motion. A hall effect sensor would detect that tilt and command the tail rotor to counteract the helicopter’s rotation. As the years wore on, mechanical gyros were replaced by solid state MEMS gyros. Microcontrollers entered the picture and brought with them advanced processing techniques. Heading hold gyros were then introduced. Whereas older “rate only” gyros would drift, weathervane, and wiggle, heading hold gyros would lock down the helicopter’s nose until the pilot commanded a turn. These single axis flight controllers were quickly adopted by the R/C helicopter community.

Today’s flight control systems have many sensors available to them – GPS, barometric pressure sensors, airspeed sensors, the list goes on. The major contributors to the flight calculations are still the gyros, coupled with accelerometers. As the name implies, accelerometers measure acceleration – be it due to gravity, a high G turn, or stopping force. Accelerometers aren’t enough though – An accelerometer in free fall will measure 0 G’s. Turning forces will confuse a system trying to operate solely on accelerometer data. That’s where gyros come in. Gyros measure rate of rotation about an axis. Just as our helicopter example above covered yaw, gyros can be used to measure pitch and roll of an aircraft. A great comparison of gyros and accelerometers is presented in this video from InvenSense.

Stay with us after the break for a tour of available flight controllers and what each adds to the mix. [Read more...]

Droning On: The Anatomy of A Drone

 

drone3

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.

[Read more...]

Droning On: Resources and First Steps

droning-on-logo

It’s been quiet these last few weeks in drone news. Some members of the commercial community are performing missions, while others are waiting on the results of the FAA’s appeal to the NTSB. There is no denying that drones are getting larger as an industry though. Even Facebook has jumped into the fray, not for drones to deliver real world pokes, but to provide internet access in remote areas.

gotaerial-octo

One of the high points in the news was an octocopter operator’s discovery of 2500 year old rock drawings, or petroglyphs in the Utah desert. While exploring a known archeological site, Bill Clary of GotAerial LLC flew his octocopter up to a cliff face. The rock formation would have made rappelling down the face difficult at best. He found an amazing collection of petroglyphs which he documented in this video. While the authenticity of the petroglyphs hasn’t been proven yet, they appear to date back to the Basketmaker people who lived in the area from approximately 500 BC through 860AD.

Maybe you’re asking yourself how you can get in on some of these sweet drone adventures? Whether you’re considering your very first flight, or already own multiple aircraft, you’ll want to read our discussion of getting started (specifically: acquiring your first drone) and discovering drone-related communities. Hit that “read more” link to stay with us.

[Read more...]

Welcome to Droning On

droning-on-logo

Tesla_boat1Welcome to Droning On, Hackaday’s new column covering all things unmanned. In this column we will primarily focus on aerial vehicles, both fixed and rotary wing. Expect to see traditional R/C, as well as First Person View (FPV) models, computer controlled autopilot systems, as well as anything new that shows up on our radar.

First, a little bit of history. The earliest radio control vehicle in history was designed by a man known well to Hackaday, Nikola Tesla. Tesla presented a radio controlled boat at an electrical exhibition in New York in 1898. Tesla called the system “Teleautomaton” and said the craft utilized a borrowed mind. In addition to cruising around a man made pond, the boat could solve equations by blinking lights atop two of its masts. Tesla would encourage viewers to call out math equations, then flash the lights from the boat’s control panel.

For many years R/C as well as its cousins Free Flight and control line were hobbies occupied solely by hackers. One needed to have metal machining skills to build engine parts, draftsman skills to read plans, and carpentry skills to build airframes. Radios were built from tubes. Control, if it may be called such, was all or nothing – so-called “bang-bang” systems. Much like their model railroad compatriots, R/C plane modelers built with the parts they had on hand. Several early DIY R/C planes were controlled by rotary telephone dials. Dial 1 to pull up, 2 to turn left, etc. Control surfaces were moved by rubber powered escapements rather than the servos we’ve come to know and love. Aerodynamics also came into play. With such rudimentary control systems, planes were designed to be inherently stable. Thankfully there were numerous proven air frame designs available from the free flight arena. Slow flight, high dihedral, and docile stall behavior were the rule of the day. Early R/C planes could be thought of as free flight vehicles with occasional suggestions via radio control. Click past the break to find out more about drone history, and to read about the recent FAA judgement.

[Read more...]

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 93,553 other followers