Hackaday Links: January 3, 2021

Last week we featured a story on the new rules regarding drone identification going into effect in the US. If you missed the article, the short story is that almost all unmanned aircraft will soon need to transmit their position, altitude, speed, and serial number, as well as the position of its operator, likely via WiFi or Bluetooth. The FAA’s rule change isn’t sitting well with Wing, the drone-based delivery subsidiary of megacorporation Alphabet. In their view, local broadcast of flight particulars would be an invasion of privacy, since observers snooping in on Remote ID traffic could, say, infer that a drone going between a pharmacy and a neighbor’s home might mean that someone is sick. They have a point, but how a Google company managed to cut through the thick clouds of irony to complain about privacy concerns and the rise of the surveillance state is mind boggling.

Speaking of regulatory burdens, it appears that getting an amateur radio license is no longer quite the deal that it once was. The Federal Communications Commission has adopted a $35 fee for new amateur radio licenses, license renewals, and changes to existing licenses, like vanity call signs. While $35 isn’t cheap, it’s not the end of the world, and it’s better than the $50 fee that the FCC was originally proposing. Still, it seems a bit steep for something that’s largely automated. In any case, it looks like we’re still good to go with our “$50 Ham” series.

Staying on the topic of amateur radio for a minute, it looks like there will be a new digital mode to explore soon. The change will come when version 2.4.0 of WSJT-X, the program that forms the heart of digital modes like WSPR and FT8, is released. The newcomer is called Q65, and it’s basically a follow-on to the current QRA64 weak-signal mode. Q65 is optimized for weak, rapidly fading signals in the VHF bands and higher, so it’s likely to prove popular with Earth-Moon-Earth fans and those who like to do things like bounce their signals off of meteor trails. We’d think Q65 should enable airliner-bounce too. We’ll be keen to give it a try whenever it comes out.

Look, we know it’s hard to get used to writing the correct year once a new one rolls around, and that time has taken on a relative feeling in these pandemic times. But we’re pretty sure it isn’t April yet, which is the most reasonable explanation for an ad purporting the unholy coupling of a gaming PC and mass-market fried foods. We strongly suspect this is just a marketing stunt between Cooler Master and Yum! Brands, but taken at face value, the KFConsole — it’s not a gaming console, it’s at best a pre-built gaming PC — is supposed to use excess heat to keep your DoorDashed order of KFC warm while you play. In a year full of incredibly stupid things, this one is clearly in the top five.

And finally, it looks like we can all breathe a sigh of relief that our airline pilots, or at least a subset of them, aren’t seeing things. There has been a steady stream of reports from pilots flying in and out of Los Angeles lately of a person in a jetpack buzzing around. Well, someone finally captured video of the daredevil, and even though it’s shaky and unclear — as are seemingly all videos of cryptids — it sure seems to be a human-sized biped flying around in a standing position. The video description says this was shot by a flight instructor at 3,000 feet (914 meters) near Palos Verdes with Catalina Island in the background. That’s about 20 miles (32 km) from the mainland, so whatever this person is flying has amazing range. And, the pilot has incredible faith in the equipment — that’s a long way to fall in something with the same glide ratio as a brick.

Transforming Drone Can Be A Square Or A Dragon

When flying drones in and around structures, the size of the drone is generally limited by the openings you want to fit through. Researchers at the University of Tokyo got around this problem by using an articulating structure for the drone frame, allowing the drone to transform from a large square to a narrow, elongated form to fit through smaller gaps.

The drone is called DRAGON, which is somehow an acronym for the tongue twisting description “Dual-Rotor Embedded Multilink Robot with the Ability of Multi-Degree-of-Freedom Aerial Transformation“. The drone consists of four segments, with a 2-DOF actuated joint between each segment. A pair of ducted fan motors are attached to the middle of each segment with a 2-DOF gimbal that allows it to direct thrust in any direction relative to the segment. For normal flight the segments would be arranged in the square shape, with minimal movement between the segments. When a small gap is encountered, as demonstrated in the video after the break, the segments rearrange into a dragon-like shape, that can pass through a gap in any plane.

Each segment has its own power source and controller, and the control software required to make everything work together is rather complex. The full research paper is unfortunately behind a paywall. The small diameter of the propellers, and all the added components would be a severe limiting factor in terms of lifting capacity and flight time, but the concept is to definitely interesting.

The idea of shape shifting robots has been around for a while, and can become even more interesting when the different segment can detach and reattach themselves to become modular robots. The 2016 Hackaday Grand Prize winner DTTO is a perfect example of this, although it did lack the ability to fly. Continue reading “Transforming Drone Can Be A Square Or A Dragon”

Federal Aviation Administration Announces Major Drone Rule Changes

If new rules from the FAA regarding unmanned aircraft operations in the US are any indication, drones are becoming less of a niche hobby and more integrated into everyday life. Of course, the devil is in the details, and what the Federal Aviation Administration appears to give with one hand, it takes away with the other.

The rule changes, announced on December 28, are billed as “advanc[ing] safety and innovation” of the drone industry in the United States. The exciting part, and the aspect that garnered the most attention with headline writers, is the relaxation of rules against night operation and operating above people and moving vehicles. Since 2016, it has been against FAA regulations to operate drones less than 55 pounds (25 kg) at night or over people without a waiver. This rule can be seen as stifling innovations in drone delivery, since any useful delivery service will likely need to overfly populated areas and roadways and probably do so at night. The new rules allow these operations without a waiver for four categories of drones, classified by how much damage they would do if they were to lose control and hit someone. The rules also define the inspection and certification regimes for both aircraft and pilot, as well as stipulating that operators have to have their certificate and ID on their person while flying.

While this seems like great news, the flip side of the coin is perhaps less shiny. The rule changes also impose the requirement for “Remote ID” (PDF link), which is said to be “a major step toward full integration of drones into the national airspace system.” Certain drones will be required to carry a system that transmits identification messages directly from the aircraft, including such data as serial number, location and speed of the drone, as well as the location of the operator. The rules speculate that this would likely be done over WiFi or Bluetooth, and would need to be receivable with personal wireless devices. The exact technical implementation of these rules is left as an exercise to manufacturers, who have 30 months from the time the rules go into effect in January to design systems, submit them for certification, and get them built into their aircraft. Drone operators have an additional year to actually start using the Remote ID drones.

For the drone community, these rule changes seem like a mixed bag. To be fair, it’s not exactly unexpected that drones would be radio tagged like this, and the lead time allowed by the FAA for compliance on Remote ID seems generous. The ability to operate in riskier environments will no doubt be welcomed by commercial drone operators. So who knows — maybe the rules will do what they say they will, and this will stimulate a little innovation in the industry. If so, it could make this whole thing a net positive.

Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020

If development platforms were people, Google would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history. Android Things, Google’s attempt at an OS for IoT devices, will officially start shutting down on January 5, 2021, and the plug will be pulled for good a year later. Android Things, which was basically a stripped-down version of the popular phone operating system, had promise, especially considering that Google was pitching it as a secure alternative in the IoT space, where security is often an afterthought. We haven’t exactly seen a lot of projects using Android Things, so the loss is probably not huge, but the list of projects snuffed by Google and the number of developers and users left high and dry by these changes continues to grow. Continue reading “Hackaday Links: December 20, 2020”

The Gatwick Drone: Finally Someone Who Isn’t Us Asks Whether It Ever Really Existed

It’s taken two years, but finally it’s happened. Finally a respected national mass-media outlet has asked the question Hackaday were posing shortly after the event: what evidence was there that a drone was actually present in restricted airspace?

The Guardian newspaper in the UK is the outlet looking into the mystery of the Gatwick drone. It was the worldwide story of the moment around this time back in 2018 when the London airport closed down for several days in response to a series of drone reports. The assumption being put forward was that bad actors in the drone community were to blame, but there was significant disquiet in those ranks as the police and media story simply lacked credibility to anyone with knowledge of drones. At no point could they point to evidence that held water, the couple they arrested turned out to be innocent, and eventually a police officer admitted that there might not have been a drone after all. The damage had by then been done, as Received Opinion had it that irresponsible drone enthusiasts had put lives in danger and caused huge economic damage by closing an airport for several days.

The Guardian piece paints a fascinating and detailed picture of the events surrounding the investigation, by bringing the investigative journalism resources of a national newspaper into tracing and interviewing people involved from all sides. They talk to former Gatwick employees, off-the-record police officers with knowledge of the case, a drone specialist journalist, and the drone community including some of its members with significant professional experience in the world of aviation. It talks about the slow drip-feed of freedom of information requests revealing the machinations behind the scenes and furthermore the continuing lack of tangible proof of a drone. It’s very much worth a read, and we hope it will prompt further investigation of the events without the focus being on a non-existent drone.

We’d like to invite you to read Hackaday’s coverage from a few days after the event, and for an overview of the subject including the later Heathrow event, watch the CCCamp talk I presented on the topic in 2019. Then as now, our wish is for competent police investigations, responsible media reporting of drone stories, and credible official investigations of air proximity reports surrounding drones.

Header: Lucy Ingham, CC BY-SA 4.0.

Tracking Drone Flight Path Via Video, Using Cameras We Can Get

Calculating three-dimensional position from two-dimensional projections are literal textbook examples in geometry, but those examples are the “assume a spherical cow” type of simplifications. Applicable only in an ideal world where the projections are made with mathematically perfect cameras at precisely known locations with infinite resolution. Making things work in the real world is a lot harder. But not only have [Jingtong Li, Jesse Murray et al.] worked through the math of tracking a drone’s 3D flight from 2D video, they’ve released their MultiViewUnsynch software on GitHub so we can all play with it.

Instead of laboratory grade optical instruments, the cameras used in these experiments are available at our local consumer electronics store. A table in their paper Reconstruction of 3D Flight Trajectories from Ad-Hoc Camera Networks (arXiv:2003.04784) listed several Huawei cell phone cameras, a few Sony digital cameras, and a GoPro 3. Video cameras don’t need to be placed in any particular arrangement, because positions are calculated from their video footage. Correlating overlapping footage from dissimilar cameras is a challenge all in itself, since these cameras record at varying framerates ranging from 25 to 59.94 frames per second. Furthermore, these cameras all have rolling shutters, which adds an extra variable as scanlines in a frame are taken at slightly different times. This is not an easy problem.

There is a lot of interest in tracking drone flights, especially those flying where they are not welcome. And not everyone have the budget for high-end equipment or the permission to emit electromagnetic signals. MultiViewUnsynch is not quite there yet, as it tracks a single target and video files were processed afterwards. The eventual goal is to evolve this capability to track multiple targets on live video, and hopefully help reduce frustrating public embarrassments.

[IROS 2020 Presentation video (duration 14:45) requires free registration, available until at least Nov. 25th 2020.]

One Wheel Is All We Need To Roll Into Better Multirotor Efficiency

Multirotor aircraft enjoy many intrinsic advantages, but as machines that fight gravity with brute force, energy efficiency is not considered among them. In the interest of stretching range, several air-ground hybrid designs have been explored. Flying cars, basically, to run on the ground when it isn’t strictly necessary to be airborne. But they all share the same challenge: components that make a car work well on the ground are range-sapping dead weight while in the air. [Youming Qin et al.] explored cutting that dead weight as much as possible and came up with Hybrid Aerial-Ground Locomotion with a Single Passive Wheel.

As the paper’s title made clear, they went full minimalist with this design. Gone are the driveshaft, brakes, steering, even other wheels. All that remained is a single unpowered wheel bolted to the bottom of their dual-rotor flying machine. Minimizing the impact on flight characteristics is great, but how would that work on the ground? As a tradeoff, these rotors have to keep spinning even while in “ground mode”. They are responsible for keeping the machine upright, and they also have to handle tasks like steering. These and other control algorithm problems had to be sorted out before evaluating whether such a compromised ground vehicle is worth the trouble.

Happily, the result is a resounding “yes”. Even though the rotors have to continue running to do different jobs while on the ground, that was still far less effort than hovering in the air. Power consumption measurements indicate savings of up to 77%, and there are a lot of potential venues for tuning still awaiting future exploration. Among them is to better understand interaction with ground effect, which is something we’ve seen enable novel designs. This isn’t exactly the flying car we were promised, but its development will still be interesting to watch among all the other neat ideas under development to keep multirotors in the air longer.

[IROS 2020 Presentation video (duration 10:49) requires no-cost registration, available until at least Nov. 25th 2020. Forty-two second summary embedded below]

Continue reading “One Wheel Is All We Need To Roll Into Better Multirotor Efficiency”