LED Hack Teaches DJI Mini 2 Drone New Tricks

Despite its diminutive proportions, the thrust to weight ratio of the DJI Mini 2 is high enough that it can carry a considerable amount of baggage. So it’s no surprise that there’s a cottage industry of remotely controlled payload releases that can be bolted onto the bottom of this popular quadcopter. But [tterev3] wanted something that would integrate better with DJI’s software instead of relying on a separate transmitter.

As explained in the video below, his solution was to tap into the signals that control the RGB LED on the front of the drone. Since the user can change the color of the LED at any time with the official DJI smartphone application, decoding this signal to determine which color had been selected is like adding several new channels to the transmitter. In this case [tterev3] just needed to decode a single color to use as a “drop” signal, but it’s not hard to imagine how this concept could be expanded to trigger several different actions with a few more lines of code.

Examining the LED control signal.

[tterev3] wrote some software to decode the 48 bits of data being sent to the LED with a PIC18F26K40 microcontroller, which in turn uses an L9110H H-Bridge to control a tiny gear motor. To get feedback, he’s using a small magnet glued to the release arm and a Hall-effect sensor.

Concerned about how much power he could realistically pull from a connection that was intended for an LED, he gave the release its own battery that is slowly charged while the drone is running. You could argue that since the motor only needs to fire up once to drop the payload, [tterev3] probably could have gotten away with not recharging it at all during the flight. But as with the ability to decode additional color signals, the techniques being demonstrated here hold a lot of promise for future development.

Folks have been strapping additional hardware to commercial quadcopters for years, but modifications like this one that actually let the craft release its payload and fly away hold particular promise for environmental monitoring and building mesh communication networks.

Continue reading “LED Hack Teaches DJI Mini 2 Drone New Tricks”

Web Tool Cranks Up The Power On DJI’s FPV Drone

Apparently, if the GPS on your shiny new DJI FPV Drone detects that it’s not in the United States, it will turn down its transmitter power so as not to run afoul of the more restrictive radio limits elsewhere around the globe. So while all the countries that have put boots on the Moon get to enjoy the full 1,412 mW of power the hardware is capable of, the drone’s software limits everyone else to a paltry 25 mW. As you can imagine, that leads to a considerable performance penalty in terms of range.

But not anymore. A web-based tool called B3YOND promises to reinstate the full power of your DJI FPV Drone no matter where you live by tricking it into believing it’s in the USA. Developed by the team at [D3VL], the unlocking tool uses the new Web Serial API to send the appropriate “FCC Mode” command to the drone’s FPV goggles over USB. Everything is automated, so this hack is available to anyone who’s running a recent version of Chrome or Edge and can click a button a few times.

There’s no source code available yet, though the page does mention they will be putting up a GitHub repository soon. In the meantime, [D3VL] have documented the command packet that needs to be sent to the drone over its MODBUS-like serial protocol for others who might want to roll their own solution. There’s currently an offline Windows-only tool up for download as well, and it sounds like stand-alone versions for Mac and Android are also in the works.

It should probably go without saying that if you need to use this tool, you’ll potentially be violating some laws. In many European countries, 25 mW is the maximum unlicensed transmitter power allowed for UAVs, so that’s certainly something to keep in mind before you flip the switch. Hackaday isn’t in the business of dispensing legal advice, but that said, we wouldn’t want to be caught transmitting at nearly 60 times the legal limit.

Even if you’re not interested in fiddling with drone radios, it’s interesting to see another practical application of the Web Serial API. From impromptu oscilloscopes to communicating with development boards and conference badges, clever developers are already finding ways to make hardware hacking easier with this new capability.

[Thanks to Jules for the tip.]

How To Run Alternative Batteries On The DJI Mavic Mini

Rechargeable batteries are ubiquitous these days, freeing us from the expense and hassle of using disposable cells. However, this has come with the caveat that many manufacturers demand their equipment only be used with their own official batteries. [aeropic] wasn’t a fan of this, so built a circuit to allow his DJI Mavic Mini to fly with any batteries he pleased.

The Mavic Mini uses I2C to communicate with official packs, making the hack relatively straightforward. [aeropic] built a board nicknamed B0B, which tells the drone what it wants to hear and lets it boot up with unofficial batteries installed. The circuit uses a PIC12F1840 to speak to the drone, including reporting voltage on the cells installed. Notably, it only monitors the whole pack, before dividing the voltage to represent the value of individual cells, but it shouldn’t be a major problem in typical use. Combined with a few 3D printed components to hold everything together, it allows you to build your own cheap pack for the Mavic Mini with little more than a PCB and a few 18650 cells.

It’s always good to see hackers getting out and doing the bread and butter work to get around restrictive factory DRM measures, whether its on music, printer cartridges, or drone batteries. We’ve even seen the scourge appear on litter boxes, too. Video after the break.

Continue reading “How To Run Alternative Batteries On The DJI Mavic Mini”

Mavic Mini Gets Custom Clear Case

Apparently, in the drone scene, sticker wraps are popular for a custom aesthetic. [Useless Mod] wanted to go a little further, however, and decided to build a full crystal enclosure for his Mavic Mini, facing some hurdles along the way. (Video, embedded below.)

The first stage of the build was disassembly, with the compact 249 gram drone requiring a deft touch to avoid damaging the delicate ribbon cables and mechanisms inside. With the drone stripped down to its bare components, a silicone mould was made of each individual piece of the case, with new parts being cast in clear epoxy. It’s not a job for the faint of heart, with many undercuts and complex features to contend with. However, [Useless Mod] managed to produce the parts and get it all back together.

An initial test flight ended poorly, when the drone entered an uncontrollable wobble due to the case not being fully assembled. However, with fresh internals and with everything properly put together, everything worked! It’s not a build we’d suggest for the inexperienced, as the moulds required are complex and the electronics quite fragile. The final result is a good one though, and it even weighs 10 grams less than the original casing!

For those in the US, the world of drones is set to change drastically in short order.

Continue reading “Mavic Mini Gets Custom Clear Case”

DJI Fights Back Over Sensationalist Drone Reporting

Over the past few years the number of reported near misses between multirotors, or drones as they are popularly referred to, and aircraft has been on the rise. While evidence to back up these reports has been absent time and again.

We’ve looked at incident reports, airport closures, and media reporting. The latest chapter comes in the form of a BBC documentary, “Britain’s Next Air Disaster? Drones” whose angle proved too sensational and one-sided for the drone manufacturing giant DJI. They have penned an acerbic open letter to the broadcaster (PDF link to the letter itself) that says that they will be launching an official complaint over the programme’s content. The letter begins with the following stinging critique:

As the world’s leader in civilian drones and aerial imaging technology, we feel it is our duty on behalf of the millions of responsible drone users around the globe, to express our deep disappointment at the BBC’s negative portrayal of drone technology and one-sided reporting based on hearsay.

It then goes on to attack the tone adopted by the presenter in more detail : “overwhelmingly negative, with the presenter frequently using the words ‘catastrophic’ and ‘terrifying’.“, before attacking the validity of a series of featured impact tests and highlighting the questionable basis for air proximity incident reports. They round the document off with a run through the safety features that they and other manufacturers are incorporating into their products.

DJI have pulled no punches in their condemnation of the standard of reporting on drone incidents in this document, and it is a welcome and rare sight in an arena in which the voices of people who know something of multirotors have been rather lonely and ignored. The BBC in turn have responded by saying “its investigation had shown positive uses of drones and that its programmes were fair“.

Over the past few years we have reported on this issue we have continually made the plea for a higher quality of reporting on drone stories. While Britain has been the center of reporting that skews negatively on the hobby, the topic is relevant wherever in the world there are nervous airspace regulators with an eye to any perceived menace. These incidents have pushed the industry to develop additional safety standards, as DJI mentions in their letter: “the drone industry itself has implemented various features to mitigate the risks described”. Let’s hope this first glimmer of a fight-back from an industry heavyweight (with more clout than the multirotor community) will bear the fruit of increased awareness from media, officials, and the general public.

If you’d like to see the BBC documentary in question it will be available for the next few weeks to people who see the Internet through a British IP address.

Thanks [Stuart] for the tip!

The Drones And Robots That Helped Save Notre Dame

In the era of social media, events such as the fire at Notre Dame cathedral are experienced by a global audience in real-time. From New York to Tokyo, millions of people were glued to their smartphones and computers, waiting for the latest update from media outlets and even individuals who were on the ground documenting the fearsome blaze. For twelve grueling hours, the fate of the 850 year old Parisian icon hung in the balance, and for a time it looked like the worst was inevitable.

The fires have been fully extinguished, the smoke has cleared, and in the light of day we now know that the heroic acts of the emergency response teams managed to avert complete disaster. While the damage to the cathedral is severe, the structure itself and much of the priceless art inside still remain. It’s far too early to know for sure how much the cleanup and repair of the cathedral will cost, but even the most optimistic of estimates are already in the hundreds of millions of dollars. With a structure this old, it’s likely that reconstruction will be slowed by the fact that construction techniques which have become antiquated in the intervening centuries will need to be revisited by conservators. But the people of France will not be deterred, and President Emmanuel Macron has already vowed his country will rebuild the cathedral within five years.

It’s impossible to overstate the importance of the men and women who risked their lives to save one of France’s most beloved monuments. They deserve all the praise from a grateful nation, and indeed, world. But fighting side by side with them were cutting-edge pieces of technology, some of which were pushed into service at a moments notice. These machines helped guide the firefighters in their battle with the inferno, and stood in when the risk to human life was too great. At the end of the day, it was man and not machine that triumphed over nature’s fury; but without the help of modern technology the toll could have been far higher.

Continue reading “The Drones And Robots That Helped Save Notre Dame”

Hands-On: Flying Drones With Scratch

I’ll admit it. I have a lot of drones. Sitting at my desk I can count no fewer than ten in various states of flight readiness. There are probably another half dozen in the garage. Some of them cost almost nothing. Some cost the better part of a thousand bucks. But I recently bought a drone for $100 that is both technically interesting and has great potential for motivating kids to learn about programming. The Tello is a small drone from a company you’ve never heard of (Ryze Tech), but it has DJI flight technology onboard and you can program it via an API. What’s more exciting for someone learning to program than using it to fly a quadcopter?

For $100, the Tello drone is a great little flyer. I’d go as far as saying it is the best $100 drone I’ve ever seen. Normally I don’t suggest getting a drone with no GPS since the price on those has come down. But the Tello optical sensor does a great job of keeping the craft stable as long as there is enough light for it to see. In addition, the optical sensor works indoors unlike GPS.

But if that was all there was to it, it probably wouldn’t warrant a Hackaday post. What piqued my interest was that you can program the thing using a PC. In particular, they use Scratch — the language built at MIT for young students. However, the API is usable from other languages with some work.

Information about the programming environment is rather sparse, so I dug in to find out how it all worked.

Continue reading “Hands-On: Flying Drones With Scratch”