Developing The Ultimate Open Source Radio Control Transmitter

While we’ve come a long way in terms of opening up the world of radio control to open source software, a good deal of the hardware itself is still closed up. You can flash a cheap RC transmitter with a community developed firmware, in fact there’s a decent chance that’s what it ships with, but the hardware itself is still an immutable black box. That might be fine if you’re just flying an RC plane or quadcopter, but what if you’ve got something a bit more advanced in mind?

An in-development version of the hardware.

To address this issue, [Alireza Safdari] has spent the last several years working on a truly open source RC transmitter that can be modified and augmented to meet the user’s needs, called the Alpha V1. With the hardware and software nearing completion, he’s looking to get some community feedback on the system before the planned crowdfunding campaign kicks off.

From his personal experience, [Alireza] found that traditional RC transmitters have their limits when you start using them for robotics. You’ll often want input schemes or devices which would never occur to the remote’s designers, and you’ll almost certainly want to have more channels and functions than the original hardware will allow. One of the big advantages with the Alpha V1 is that the front and back of the controller are simple acrylic panels, meaning you can easily cut openings or drill holes in them to add more hardware without having to deal with the (relatively) ergonomic shapes of a traditional transmitter.

Of course, that’s only one half of the equation. When you add new hardware, you’ll need to make the software aware of it. To that end, [Alireza] says he and his team have developed a library of adaptable firmware modules which should make it very easy to add in new components without having to get bogged down with software configuration. In fact, he says the goal is to allow the user to add new hardware to the Alpha V1 without requiring them to write a single line of code.

The Alpha V1 communicates at 2.4 GHz using either XBee or Murata DNT24 radios, and supports as many as 72 individual channels as well as two-way telemetry. If your requirements aren’t quite so high, we recently covered a significantly less intimidating attempt at building an open source RC transmitter that might suit your needs.

HD Video and Telemetry Link Uses Standard WiFi Hardware

[GlytchTech] decided to implement his own Digital Data Link (DDL) for his drone experiments, and by using a Raspberry Pi Zero and some open-source software, he succeeded in creating a mostly self-contained system that delivers HD video and telemetry using an Android phone as a display.

USB tethered Android phone used as a display and touch interface.

The link uses standard WiFi hardware in a slightly unusual way to create a digital data link that acts more like an analog system, with a preference for delivering low latency video and a graceful drop-off when signal quality gets poor. A Raspberry Pi Zero, Alfa NEH WiFi card, external antenna, battery, and a 3D printed enclosure result in a self-contained unit. Two are needed: one for each end of the link. One unit goes on the drone and interfaces to the flight controller, and the other is for the ground station.

A companion android app allows for just about any old Android phone to serve as video feed, on-screen display of telemetry data, and touchscreen interface.

The software is DroneBridge (GitHub repository) and it implements Wifibroadcast which uses WiFi radios, but without the usual WiFi functionality. A Raspberry Pi is the usual platform, but there’s also an ESP32 port. The software is capable of even more, but so far suits [GlytchTech]’s needs just fine, and he was able to refine his original Watch_Dogs-inspired hacking drone with it.

Radiosondes: Getting Data from Upstairs

Ever since I first learned about radiosondes as a kid, I’ve been fascinated by them. To my young mind, the idea that weather bureaus around the world would routinely loft instrument-laden packages high into the atmosphere to measure temperature, pressure, and winds aloft seemed extravagant. And the idea that this telemetry package, having traveled halfway or more to space, could crash land in a field near my house so that I could recover it and take it apart, was an intoxicating thought.

I’ve spent a lot of time in the woods over the intervening years, but I’ve never seen a radiosonde in the wild. The closest I ever came was finding a balloon with a note saying it had been released by a bunch of schoolkids in Indiana. I was in Connecticut at the time, so that was pretty cool, but those shortsighted kids hadn’t put any electronics on their balloon, and they kind of left me hanging. So here’s a look at what radiosondes are, how they work, and what you can do to increase your chances of finding one.

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Sub-$20 Arduino-Based Telemetry System

[William Osman] set out to prove that unlike expensive commercial data logging rigs, he could get the same results for under twenty bucks. He wanted to build a wireless three-axis accelerometer for a race car project, allowing engineers to make modifications to the suspension based on the data collected.

The hardware consists of an Arduino Pro Mini connected to a three-axis accelerometer, and an nRF24L01 wireless module. Power is supplied by the race car’s 12 V, changed to 5 V by a linear regulator with the Pro Mini in turn supplying 3.3 V. The base station consists of an Arduino and another nRF24L01 module plugged into a laptop.

The telemetry system is based on COSMOS, an open-source, realtime datalogging platform put out by Bell Aerospace. COSMOS consists of fifteen separate applications depending on how you want to view and manage your telemetry. You can download [William]’s COSMOS config files and Arduino sketch on Google Docs.

We’ve published a bunch of pieces on telemetry, like this ESP8266 telemetry project, a rocket telemetry rig, and open sourcing satellite telemetry.

[Thanks, Dennis Nestor!]

Low-cost Drift Buoy Plies the Atlantic for Nearly a Year

Put a message in a bottle and toss it in the ocean, and if you’re very lucky, years later you might get a response. Drop a floating Arduino-fied buoy into the ocean and if you’ve engineered it well, it may send data back to you for even longer.

At least that’s what [Wayne] has learned since his MDBuoyProject went live with the launching of a DIY drift buoy last year. The BOM for the buoy reads like a page from the Adafruit website: Arduino Trinket, an RTC, GPS module, Iridium satellite modem, sensors, and a solar panel. Everything lives in a clear plastic dry box along with a can of desiccant and a LiPo battery.

The solar panel has a view through the case lid, and the buoy is kept upright by a long PVC boom on the bottom of the case. Two versions have been built and launched so far; alas, the Pacific buoy was lost shortly after it was launched. But the Atlantic buoy picked up the Gulf Stream and has been drifting slowly toward Europe since last summer, sending back telemetry. A future version aims to incorporate an Automatic Identification System (AIS) receiver, presumably to report the signals of AIS transponders on nearby ships as they pass.

We like the attention to detail as well as the low cost of this build. It’s a project that’s well within reach of a STEM program, akin to the many high-altitude DIY balloon projects we’ve featured before.

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Easy DIY Telemetry Goes the Distance

[Paweł Spychalski] wrote in to tell us about some experiments he’s been doing, using cheap 433 MHz HC-12 radio units as a telemetry radio for his quadcopter.

In this blog post, he goes over the simple AT command set, and some of the limitations of the HC-12 part. Then he takes it out for a spin on his quadcopter, and finds out that his setup is good for 450 meters in an open field. Finally, he ties the radio into his quad’s telemetry system and tethers the other end to his cellphone through a Bluetooth unit for a sweet end-to-end system that only set him back around $20 and works as far out as 700 meters.

The secrets to [Paweł]’s success seem to be some hand-made antennas and keeping the baud rate down to a reasonable 9600 baud. We wonder if there’s room (or reason?) for improvement using a directional antenna on the ground. What say you, Hackaday Antenna Jockeys?

Also check out this very similar build where an ESP8266 replaces the Bluetooth module. And stashes it all inside a nice wooden box! Nice work all around.

PicoRico Hacks String Encoder for Bike Suspension Telemetry

It’s simple, it’s elegant, and it works really really well. The PicoRico team built a telemetry system for a downhill bike. Off the top of your head how would you do this? Well, telemetry is easy… just add an IMU board and you’re golden. They went beyond that and have plans to go much further. In fact, the IMU was an afterthought. The gem of this build is a sensor that may go by several names: string encoder, draw wire sensor, stringpot, etc. But two things are for sure, they planned well for their hackathon build and they executed on that plan. This landed them as first-runners-up for the top award at the 2015 Disrupt Hackathon in New York, and the winners of the top Hackaday award at the event.

picorico-thumb[Chris], [Marek], and [Dorian] wanted to log all the telemetry data from [Chris’] downhill bike. One of the biggest challenges is to measure the force absorbed by the suspension on the front fork. The three had seen a few attempts at this before. Those used a retractable wire like what holds keys to a custodian’s belt, mated with a potentiometer to measure the change. This is where the term stringpot comes from. The problem is that your resolution and sensitivity aren’t very reliable with this setup.

That is a sensor problem, not a mechanical problem so they kept the retractable reel and replaced the pot with a much more reliable part. In its place an AMT203 absolute position sensor provides an epic level of sensing. According to the datasheet (PDF) this SPI device senses 12 bits of rotation data, can be zeroed over the SPI bus, and is accurate to 0.2 degrees. Unfortunately we didn’t get a good up-close shot of the installation but it is shown in the video. The encoder and retractor mount above the shocks, with the string stretching down to the skewer. When the shocks actuate, the string extends and retracts, turning the absolute encoder. Combine this with the IMU (and two other IMUs they plan to add) and you’ve got a mountain of data to plot and analyze. The videos after the break show a demo of the string encoder and an interview with the team.

picorico-packing-heavyThey came to play

It’s worth noting that the PicoRico team were in this to win it. They packed heavy for the 20-hour hackathon. Here’s a picture of all the gear they brought along with them to the event… in addition to the bike itself.

We see a solder station, Dremel (with drill press), impact driver, tap and die set, extension cords, boxes full of electronics, and more. This type of planning breaks down barriers often faced at hardware hackathons. You can download a software library; you can’t download a tool or building material that nobody has with them. This is the same lesson we learned from [Kenji Larsen] who, as part of his mentoring at the event, brought a mobile fabrication facility in a roller bag.

If you start getting into hackathons, and we hope you will, keep this in mind. Brainstorm as much as you can leading up to the event, and bring your trusted gear along for the ride.

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