How To Time Drone Races Without Transponders

Drone racing is nifty as heck, and a need all races share is a way to track lap times. One way to do it is to use transponders attached to each racer, and use a receiver unit of some kind to clock them as they pass by. People have rolled their own transponder designs with some success, but the next step is ditching add-on transponders entirely, and that’s exactly what the Delta 5 Race Timer project does.

A sample Delta 5 Race Timer build (Source: ET Heli)

The open-sourced design has a clever approach. In drone racing, each aircraft is remotely piloted over a wireless video link. Since every drone in a race already requires a video transmitter and its own channel on which to broadcast, the idea is to use the video signal as the transponder. As a result, no external hardware needs to be added to the aircraft. The tradeoff is that using the video signal in this way is trickier than a purpose-made transponder, but the hardware to do it is economical, accessible, and the design is well documented on GitHub.

The hardware consists of RX508 RX5808 video receiver PCBs modified slightly to enable them to communicate over SPI. Each RX508 RX5808 is attached to its own Arduino, which takes care of low-level communications. The Arduinos are themselves connected to a Raspberry Pi over I2C, allowing the Pi high-level control over the receivers while it serves up a web-enabled user interface. As a bonus, the Pi can do much more than simply act as a fancy stopwatch. The races themselves can be entirely organized and run through the web interface. The system is useful enough that other projects using its framework have popped up, such as the RotorHazard project by [PropWashed] which uses the same hardware design.

While rolling one’s own transponders is a good solution for getting your race on, using the video transmission signal to avoid transponders entirely is super clever. The fact that it can be done with inexpensive, off the shelf hardware is just icing on the cake.

A Custom Built FPV Monitor to Keep the Fans Happy

If you’re going to be flying around a FPV-capable aircraft, be it a quadcopter or a fixed-wing plane, you shouldn’t be surprised if bystanders want to take a turn wearing your googles. Of course we hope that you’re good enough flying line of sight that you don’t need to be wearing the googles to stay airborne, but it does make it harder to pull off the sort of tricks and maneuvers that your audience wants to see. So if you want to put on a good show, the audience really needs their own display.

Unfortunately, as avid FPV flier [Michael Delaney] discovered, even the “cheap” ones will run you at least $100 USD. So he did what any self-respecting hacker would do, he set out to build his own. Using a collection of off the shelf components he was able to build a very impressive monitor that lets the viewer see through the eyes of his quadcopter at less than half the cost of commercially available offerings. Though even if he hadn’t manged to beat the cost of a turn-key monitor, we think it would have been more than worth it for this piece of highly customized gear.

At the heart of the monitor is a Boscam RX5808 5.8 GHz receiver, which is controlled by an Arduino Pro Mini. The video output from the receiver is sent to a 4.2″ TFT screen intended for the Raspberry Pi, and on the backside of the laser-cut wooden enclosure there’s a 128 x 64 I2C OLED to display the currently selected channel and diagnostic information.

An especially nice touch for this project is the custom PCB used to tie all the components together. [Michael] could have taken the easy route and sent the design out for fabrication, but instead went with the traditional method of etching his own board in acid. Though he did modernize the process a bit by using a laser and pre-sensitized copper clad board, a method that seems to be gaining in popularity as laser engravers become a more common component of the hacker’s arsenal.

We’ve previously covered using the RX5808 and Arduino combo to create a spectrum analyzer, in case you want to do more than just watch your friends do powerloops.