Don’t Like the FAA’s Drone Registration? Sue Them!

When the US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) began requiring registration of quadcopters (“drones”) in the US, it took a number of hobbyists by surprise. After all, the FAA regulates real 747s, not model airplanes. [John Taylor], an RC hobbyist, has done what you do when faced with a law that you believe is unjust: he’s filed a lawsuit in the DC District Court, claiming that the FAA has overstepped their mandate.

Which one is the "aircraft"?
Which one is the “aircraft”?

The lawsuit will hinge (as legal battles often do) on the interpretation of words. The FAA’s interpretation of quadcopters to be “aircraft” rather than toys is at the center of the dispute. Putting hobbyists into a catch-22, the FAA also requires recreational RC pilots to stay under a height of 400 feet, while requiring “aircraft” to stay above 500 feet except for emergencies, take-off, or landing. Which do they mean?

The editorial staff at Hackaday is divided about whether the FAA ruling makes no sense at all or is simply making hobbyists “sign their EULA“. This writer has spent enough time inside the Beltway to know an expanse of a mandate when he sees it, and no matter which body of the US government is to blame, regulating toy planes and helicopters as if they were commercial aircraft is an over-reach. Even if the intentions are benign, it’s a poorly thought-out ruling and should be revisited.

If you agree, you now have the chance to put your money where your mouth is. The DC Area Drone User Group is putting together a legal defense fund to push [Taylor]’s case. Nobody would be cynical enough to suggest that one can buy the legal system in the US, but, paraphrasing Diamond Dave, it sure as heck can buy a good enough lawyer to get the law changed.

Drone Flies 12 cm on Wireless Power

[Sam M] wrote in with a quick proof-of-concept demo that blows our socks off: transferring enough power wirelessly to make a small quadcopter take flight. Wireless power transfer over any real distance still seems like magic to us. Check out the videos embedded below and you’ll see what we mean.

What’s noteworthy about this demo is that neither the transmitter nor the receiver are particularly difficult to make. The transmitting loop is etched into a PCB, and the receiver is made of copper foil tape. Going to a higher frequency facilitates this; [Sam M] is using 13.56 MHz instead of the kilohertz that most power-transfer projects use. This means that all the parts can be smaller and lighter, which is obviously important on a miniature quadrotor.

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Open Hardware RC Radios

A decade ago, RC transmitters were clunky, expensive and PCM. A decade before that, everything was analog. Now, RC transmitters are completely digital, allowing for hundreds of aircraft to take to the sky. They’re also cheap, thanks to engineers in China. Now, they’re open hardware, too.

An old Futaba radio outfitted with AR Uni electronics. Image source: vikar
An old Futaba radio outfitted with AR Uni electronics. Image source: vikar

An exceptionally long thread over on the RCGroups forums has been going on for a few months, extolling the virtues of the ‘AR Uni’ board that turns old transmitters into full featured digital radios. This board runs everything, from two analog sticks, a directional keyboard, pots galore, switches everywhere, and a fancy LCD that makes programming easy. The joys of Open Hardware, brought to RC geeks. It’s a thing of beauty. Continue reading “Open Hardware RC Radios”

Flying A Normally-Sized Drone With A Nano-Drone’s Brain

Drones come in all shapes and size, and [Kedar Nimbalkar] was wondering if the guts of a tiny Cheerson CX-10 nano-drone could take off with a larger body, leading to an interesting brain transplant experiment.

For his test, [Kedar] acquired a CX-10 and the body of a larger Syma X5SW drone. After gutting the CX-10 for its LiPo battery and circuit board, which features an STM32 ARM-core MCU, a 6-axis IMU and the wireless transmitter, [Kedar] studied the datasheet of the onboard SQ2310ES driver MOSFETs. He figured that with a maximum continuous current rating of 6A, they would probably be able to cope with the higher load of the slightly larger motors of the X5SW body. They also didn’t seem to overheat, so he just installed the board into the new body as-is and wired up the motors.

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Drones, Clever Hacks, and CG Come Together For Star Wars Fan Film

We weren’t certain if this Star Wars fan film was out kind of thing until we saw the making of video afterwards. They wanted to film a traditional scene in a new way. The idea was to take some really good quadcopter pilots, give them some custom quadcopters, have them re-enact a battle in a scenic location, and then use some movie magic to bring it all together.

The quadcopters themselves are some of those high performance racing quadcopters with 4K video cameras attached. The kind of thing that has the power to weight ratio of a rocket ship. Despite what the video implies, they are unfortunately not TIE Fighter shaped. After a day of flying and a few long hikes to retrieve the expensive devices after inevitable crashes (which, fortunately, provided some nice footage), the next step was compositing.

However, how to trick the viewer into believing they were in a X-Wing quadcopter? A cheap way to do it would be to spend endless hours motion tracking and rendering a cockpit in place. It won’t look quite real. The solution they came up with is kind of dumb and kind-of brilliant. Mount a 3D printed cockpit on a 2×4 with a GoPro. Play the flight footage on a smartphone while holding the contraption. Try to move the cockpit in the same direction as the flight. We’re not certain if it was a requirement to also make whooshing and pew pew laser noises while doing so, but it couldn’t hurt.

In the end it all came together to make a goofy, yet convincingly good fan film. Nice work! Videos after the break.

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A Drone Photosphere is Worth 4000 Times Pi Words

One of the problems with a cheap drone is getting good video, especially in real time. Cheap hobby quadcopters often have a camera built-in or mounted in a fixed position. That’s great for fun shots, but it makes it hard to get just the right shot, especially as the drone tilts up and down, taking the camera with it. Pricey drones often have a gimbal mount to keep the camera stable, but you are still only looking in one direction.

Some cheap drones now have a VR (virtual reality) mode to feed signal to a headset or a Google Cardboard-like VR setup. That’s hard to fly, though, because you can’t really look around without moving the drone to match. You can mount multiple cameras, but now you’ve added weight and power drain to your drone.

MAGnet Systems wants to change all that with a lightweight spherical camera made to fit on a flying vehicle. The camera is under 2.5 inches square, weighs 62 grams, and draws less than 3 watts at 12 volts. It picks up a sphere that is 360 degrees around the drone’s front and back and 240 degrees centered directly under the drone. That allows a view of 30 degrees above the horizon as well as directly under the drone. There is apparently a different lens that can provide 280 degrees if you need that, although apparently that will add size and weight and be more suitable for use on the ground.

The software (see video below) runs on Windows or Android (they’ve promised an iOS version) and there’s no additional image processing hardware needed. The camera can also drive common VR headsets.

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Reverse Engineering Quadcopter Protocols

Necessity is the mother of invention, but cheap crap from China is the mother of reverse engineering. [Michael] found a very, very cheap toy quadcopter in his local shop, and issued a challenge to himself. He would reverse engineer this quadcopter’s radio protocol. His four-post series of exploits covers finding the right frequency for the radio, figuring out the protocol, and building his own remote for this cheap toy.

[Michael] was already familiar with the capabilities of these cheap toys after reading a Hackaday post, and the 75-page, four language manual cleared a few things up for him. The ‘Quadro-Copter’ operated on 2.4GHz, but did not give any further information. [Michael] didn’t know what channel the toy was receiving on, what data rate, or what the header for the transmission was. SDR would be a good tool for figuring this out, but thanks to Travis Goodspeed, there’s a really neat trick that will put a 2.4GHz nRF24L01+ radio into promiscuous mode, allowing [Michael] to read the transmissions between the transmitter and quadcopter. This code is available on [Michael]’s github.

A needle in an electromagnetic haystack was found and [Michael] could listen in on the quadcopter commands. The next step was interpreting the ones and zeros, and with the help of a small breakout board and soldering directly to the SPI bus on the transmitter, [Michael] was able to do just that. By going through the nRF24 documentation, he was able to suss out the pairing protocol and read the stream of bytes that commanded the quadcopter.

What [Michael] was left with is a series of eight bytes sent in a continuous stream from the transmitter to the toy. These bytes contained the throttle, yaw, pitch, roll, and a ‘flip’ settings, along with three bytes of ‘counters’ that didn’t seem to do anything.  With that info in hand, [Michael] took an Arduino Nano, an nRF04L01+ transceiver, and a Wii nunchuck to build his own transmitter. If you’re looking for a ‘how to reverse engineer’ guide, it generally doesn’t get better than this.

You can check out a video of [Michael] flying his Wiimoted quadcopter below.

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