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.

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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.

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Frankendrones: Toy Quads With A Hobby Grade Boost

If you’re not involved in the world of remote controlled vehicles, you may not know there’s a difference between “toy” and “hobby” grade hardware. For those in the RC community, a toy is the kind of thing you’ll find at a big box store: cheap, works OK, but lacking in features and build quality. On the other hand, hobby hardware is generally considered to be of higher quality and performance, as well as being more modular. At the risk of oversimplification: if you bought it ready to go from a store it’s probably a toy, and if you built it from parts it would generally be considered hobby grade.

But with the rock bottom prices of toy quadcopters, that line in the sand is having a harder time than ever holding some in the community back. The mashup of toy and hobby grade components is giving rise to the concept of “frankendrones” that combine the low cost of toy hardware with key upgrades from the hobby realm. Quadcopter blogger [garagedrone] has posted a roundup of modifications made to the Bayangtoys X16, a $99 quadcopter which is becoming popular in the scene.

Some of the modifications are easy enough for anyone to do. Swapping out the original propellers for ones meant for the DJI Phantom 3 increases performance and doesn’t even require tools. If you want to go a bit further down the rabbit hole, you can cut off the X16’s battery connector and replace it with a standard XT60. That lets you use standard 3S LiPo batteries, which are cheaper and higher capacity than the proprietary ones the toy shipped with.

If you have a 3D printer, there are also a number of upgraded parts you can print which will bolt right onto the X16. Payload adapters, landing gear, and GoPro mounts are all just a few clicks (and some filament) away. This library of 3D printable parts is made possible in part because the X16’s frame is itself a clone of another toy quadcopter, the popular Syma X8C. So anything listed as compatible with the Syma X8C should work with the X16 (and vice versa).

Finally, if you really want to take the X16 to the next level, you can swap out the flight controller with an open source and better supported hobby grade model. Some of these flight controllers and associated new receivers can end up costing about half as much as the X16 did to begin with, but the vast improvement in performance and capability should more than make up for the cost.

We’ve covered previous efforts to increase the performance of low cost quadcopters in the past, as well as builds that put frugality front and center. It seems that no matter what your budget is a screaming angel of death is available if you want it.

Thanks to [Calvin] for the tip.

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Drone License Plates: An Idea That Won’t Stave Off the Inevitable

As more and more drones hit the skies, we are beginning to encounter a modest number of problems that promise to balloon if ignored. 825,000 drones above a quarter-kilo in weight were sold in the U.S. in 2016. The question has become, how do we control all these drones?

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Drones Are Getting A Lot Smarter

[DJI], everyone’s favorite — but very expensive — drone company just announced the Manifold — an extremely capable high performance embedded computer for the future of aerial platforms. And guess what? It runs Ubuntu.

The unit features a quad-core ARM Cortex A-15 processor with an NVIDIA Keplar-based GPU and runs Canonical’s Ubuntu OS with support for CUDA, OpenCV and ROS. The best part is it is compatible with third-party sensors allowing developers to really expand a drone’s toolkit. The benefit of having such a powerful computer on board means you can collect and analyze data in one shot, rather than relaying the raw output down to your control hub.

And because of the added processing power and the zippy GPU, drones using this device will have new artificial intelligence applications available, like machine-learning and computer vision — Yeah, drones are going to be able to recognize and track people; it’s only a matter of time.

We wonder what this will mean for FAA regulations…

Upgrading DJI Flight Controllers

DJI, the company that gave us the far too popular Phantom line of quadcopters, doesn’t just make the most popular line of FPV quads. Their top of the line flight controller, The Naza V2, is very good, able to connect to flight planning software that will set waypoints, talk to peripherals over a CAN bus, and has improved flight algorithms. On the other hand, their ‘reduced price’ model, the Naza Light, can’t connect to these nifty CAN bus peripherals and has a bit of a problem with drifting the quad from one side or another.

The Naza V2 sells for around $300, and the Naza Light sells for about $170, both with a GPS module. The hardware inside the V2 and Light is exactly the same. We all know how this is going to go down, right?

[udnham] over on the RC Groups forum figured out a way to load the more capable Naza V2 firmware on the Naza Light, giving the cheaper flight controller features that were, until now, only found in the more expensive V2 hardware. The upgrades include better algorithms for GPS position and altitude hold, the ability to connect to DJI peripherals including the Bluetooth module, the iOSD, and camera gimbals, Octocopter support, the DJI datalink modem, and a bunch of other features.

Even though DJI is using the same hardware in the $170 Naza Light and the $300 Naza V2, upgrading the firmware requires an Internet connection to the DJI servers. [udnham] wrote a utility that modifies the /etc/hosts file on your computer, runs a service, and allows you to upgrade your firmware on the Naza Light. It’s basically a $130 firmware upgrade for a DJI flight controller that’s a single download away.

[udnham] set up a site where you can download the firmware flashing tool with a few videos showing the upgrade process and the improvement over the stock firmware. You can check those out below.

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