Welcome to the Drone Wars

DroneClash” is a competition to be held on December 4th (save the date!) in a hangar at Valkenburg airfield in the Netherlands. The game? Teams try to destroy each others’ quadcopters, navigate through a “Hallway of Doom, Death, and Destruction”, and finally enter a final phase of the game where they try to defend their “queen” drone while taking out those of their opponents.

This sounds like crazy and reckless fun. Surprisingly, it’s being sponsored by the Technical University of Delft’s Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) lab. The goal is to enable a future of responsible drone use by having the ability “to take them out if necessary”.

Drone development has grown hugely in recent years, and you can see the anti-drone industry growing too. Ideally, these developments keep each other in check and result in a safe and responsible incorporation of drones in our daily lives. We are organising DroneClash to generate new ideas in order to encourage this process.

We do have to ask ourselves why anyone would want to use another quadcopter to take out illegally operated quadcopters — there must be a million more effective means from a policing standpoint.  On the other hand, if we were re-shooting “Hackers” right now, and looking for a futuristic sport, we would swap out rollerblading for drone combat. Registration opens this week. Gentlebots, start your engines.

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Autonomous Delivery and the Last 100 Feet

You’ve no doubt by now seen Boston Dynamics latest “we’re living in the future” robotic creation, dubbed Handle. [Mike Szczys] recently covered the more-or-less-official company unveiling of Handle, the hybrid bipedal-wheeled robot that can handle smooth or rugged terrain and can even jump when it has to, all while remaining balanced and apparently handling up to 100 pounds of cargo with its arms. It’s absolutely sci-fi.

[Mike] closed his post with a quip about seeing “Handle wheeling down the street placing smile-adorned boxes on each stoop.” I’ve recently written about autonomous delivery, covering both autonomous freight as the ‘killer app’ for self-driving vehicles and the security issues posed by autonomous delivery. Now I want to look at where anthropoid robots might fit in the supply chain, and how likely it’ll be to see something like Handle taking over the last hundred feet from delivery truck to your door.

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I’m BatBot

How would you like a bat bot for your next pet drone? Researchers from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign’s Coordinated Science Laboratory and from the California Institute of Technology, created a bat drone. This is not your regular drone; it’s not a styrofoam, bat-shaped, four-propeller kind of drone. It’s a drone that mimics not only the shape but the movement of the bats wings to achieve flight.

The biomimetic robotic platform, dubbed Bat Bot B2, is an autonomous flying robot. The wing mechanics are controlled by a brushless DC motor for the wing flapping along with four wings actuators to provide linear motion that allows the wings to further change shape in flight. The wings are made of a 56-micron, silicone-based membrane (thinner than an average condom), which for sure helps with their elasticity as well as reducing overall weight, which is only 93 grams.

The bat has only made twenty flights so far, ranging up to 30 meters with some rough landings. It’s not much yet, but the prototype looks pretty slick. We covered another bat bot back in 2012 but the original information is no longer available, and we don’t know what happened to that project. There was also no video. In contrast, you can watch Bat Bot B2 glide.

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Cheap DIY FPV Micro-Drone

FPV drones are a fun but often costly hobby for beginners. Opting for a smaller drone will reduce the chance of damaging the drone when one invariably crashes and the smaller props are also a lot safer if there are any innocent bystanders. YouTuber and Instructables user [Constructed] wanted a cheap FPV capable drone that they could comfortably fly in-and-out of doors, so of course they built their own.

Once the drone’s frame was 3D printed, the most complex part about soldering four small-yet-powerful 8.5 mm motors to the Micro Scisky control board is ensuring that you attach them in the correct configuration and triple-checking them. A quick reshuffling of the battery connections and mounting the FPV camera all but completed the hardware side of the build.

Before plugging your flight controller into your PC to program, [Constructed] warns that the battery must be disconnected unless you want to fry your board. Otherwise, flashing the board and programming it simply requires patience and a lot of saving your work. Once that’s done and you’ve paired everything together, the sky — or ceiling — is the limit!

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Frankenquad takes to the air

Modern quadcopter flight controllers perform a delicate dance of balancing pitch, yaw, bank, and throttle. They can do this thanks to modern MEMS gyros and accelerometers. The job is easy when the motors, propellers and speed controllers are relatively well matched. But what if they’re not? That’s the questions [SkitzoFPV] set out to answer by building Frankenquad.  Frankenquad is a 250 sized FPV quadcopter with 4 different motors and 4 different propellers. The props are different sizes from different manufacturers, and even include a mix of 3 and 4 blade units. If all that wasn’t enough [SkitzoFPV] used 3 different electronic speed controller. Each speed controller has a micro running different firmware, meaning it will respond slightly differently to throttle inputs.

Keeping all this in check was [SkitzoFPV’s] branded version of the Raceflight Revolt R4 flight controller. The Revolt is powered by an STM32F4 series ARM microcontroller. Most of these controllers run variants of the cleanflight open source flight control software. The question was – would it be able to handle the unbalanced thrust and torque of 4 different power combinations?

The flight tests proved the answer was a resounding yes. The quad hovered easily. As the video shows [SkitzoFPV] went on to burn a few holes in the sky with it. Admittedly [SkitzoFPV] is a much better pilot than any of us. He did notice a bit of a bobble and a definite yaw toward the smaller propeller. Still, it’s rather amazing how easily a modern flight controller was able to turn a pile of junk-box components into a flying quadcopter. You can learn more about flight controllers right here.

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The ARRL Raises A Stink About Illegal FPV Transmitters

We have all been beneficiaries of the boom in availability of cheap imported electronics over the last decade. It is difficult to convey to someone under a certain age the step change in availability of parts and modules that has come about as a result of both the growth of Chinese manufacturing and Internet sales that allow us direct access to sellers we would once only have found through a lengthy flight and an intractable language barrier.

So being able to buy an ESP8266 module or an OLED display for relative pennies is good news, but there is a downside to this free-for-all. Not all the products on offer are manufactured to legal standards wherever in the world we as customers might be, and not all of them are safe to use. We’ve all seen teardowns of lethal iPhone charger knock-offs, but this week the ARRL has highlighted an illegal import that could take being dangerous to a whole new level as well as bring an already beleaguered section of our community to a new low.

The products the radio amateurs are concerned about are video transmitters that work in the 1.2GHz band. These are sold for use with FPV cameras on multirotors, popularly referred to as drones, and are also being described as amateur radio products though their amateur radio application is minimal. The ARRL go into detail in their official complaint (PDF) about how these devices’ channels sit squarely over the frequencies used by GLONASS positioning systems, and most seriously, the frequencies used by the aircraft transponders on which the safety of our air traffic control system relies.

The multirotor community is the unfortunate recipient of a lot of bad press, most of which is arguably undeserved and the result of ignorant mass media reporting. We’ve written on this subject in the past, and reported on some of the proposals from governments which do not sound good for the enthusiast. It is thus a huge concern that products like those the ARRL is highlighting could result in interference with air traffic, this is exactly not the association that multirotor fliers need in a hostile environment.

The ARRL complaint highlights a particular model with a 5W output, which is easily high enough to cause significant interference. It is however just one of many similar products, which a very straightforward search on the likes of AliExpress or eBay will find on sale for prices well under $100. So if you are concerned with multirotors we’d urge you to ensure that the FPV transmitters you or your friends use are within the legal frequencies and power levels. We’re sure none of you would want an incident involving a manned aircraft on your conscience, nor would you relish the prospect of the encounter with law enforcement that would inevitably follow.

In the past we’ve taken a look at some of the fuss surrounding reported drone incidents, and brought you news of an Australian sausage lover in hot water for drone-based filming. It’s a hostile world out there, fly safe!

Autonomous Delivery: Your Impulse Buys Will Still Be Safe

I heard a “Year in Review” program the other day on NPR with a BBC World Service panel discussion of what’s ahead for 2017. One prediction was that UAV delivery of packages would be commonplace this year, and as proof the commentator reported that Amazon had already had a successful test in the UK. But he expressed skepticism that it would ever be possible in the USA, where he said that “the first drone that goes over somebody’s property will be shot down and the goods will be taken.”

He seemed quite sincere about his comment, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he was only joking to make a point, not actually grotesquely ignorant about the limitations of firearms or being snarky about gun owners in the US. Either way, he brings up a good point: when autonomous parcel delivery is commonplace, who will make sure goods get to the intended recipient?

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