The DIY Drone!

So you’ve looked around at a few drones and you just can’t find one that offers all the features that you’re looking for, that or the price is outrageous.

Why don’t you build your own? It will save you a little money, but it’s still a pricey affair. But you can add all the features you want, program it to fly exactly the way you want it to, and you’ll learn a lot about the mechanics in the process.

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[Image by fpvracer.it]
For this post, I’ll go over a basic build from parts to flight. I will follow up with an “extras” post next week.

Before we jump into all the electronics and cool tech-ery, lets start off with possibly the most important part of your drone…

The Frame or body, this will be the chassis of your drone, and it will define the overall look of the final product. The frame will also be a deciding factor in the power-plant i.e. the motors, props, and so on.

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[Image by amainhobbies.com]
You can get frame of every different size, they are measured in millimeters diagonally from the farthest motor mount positions. This is a 450 size above, but you can buy frames as small as 150mm or up to 900mm or more. They generally are either plastic, a composite material or carbon fiber and some frames actually house a PDB (power distribution board) inside them. Prices for these can range $10-$300+ for some brand name frames.

Next you’re going to need to get fancy with some electronics for powering and controlling your drone.

Lets talk motors and ESC’s (electronic speed controllers), you’ll need four of each but it’s not a bad idea to keep a few spares on hand in the event of a crash or malfunction. When you’re looking for a motor, you’ll be looking mostly at the KV rating which a round-a-bout measurement of thrust output. The lower the KV number is, the more torque it will output, while a higher number will supply more speed.

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[Image by robomart.com]
In this build, I would go with a trusty ole’ DJI 920KV motor because I have very little issues with these motors and they are really well made.

Moving down the line is the electronic speed controller a.k.a. ESC. These little guys power the motors as well as keep them all timed. They are rated in amps, lower amp esc’s are reserved for low output power systems. This doesn’t mean that if you have a small drone, you should slap on a set of low amp esc’s. It’s all about power here and many small racing drones will use esc’s found in larger drones. For this build, I would go for a trusted name again and rock the Turnigy Plush 30 Amp esc’s.

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[Image by hobbyking.com]
Now that we have the power-plant all figured out. We need something to control them.

That’s where the Flight Control Board comes into play. Refereed to as a FC in the lands of forum speak, this small computer chip is the entire brains of the operation. All the motors and escs are connected to the FC, as well as pretty much everything else. There are tons of different FC boards. Choosing one is very important though so take your time with this. Any “extra” add-on you might like to install might be reliant on this board. For example, if you want to install GPS on your drone, make sure that the FC supports GPS input. Another thing to watch is, while many might allow GPS input, if you plan on using GPS guided flight, the board must support it. There are so many options here, so once again, just read carefully. For this build I’m keeping it simple, I’ll use a CC3D board, because I am familliar with it, and when calibrating it, I can connect it to my computer or phone and easily configure things.

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[Image by banggood.com]
You’re also going to need a reciever…which with either be bundled with a transmitter (Remote controller you’ll use to fly) that you buy, or you’ll buy an upgraded one. The receiver will be mounted on the drone and it is what receives your commands from the ground. There are too many options here, and this will depend on the frequency you want to transmit from, and the type of communication. I wont delve too far into this but match things up, if you buy a transmitter that operates on 2.4Ghz and uses DSMX, then make sure your receiver is also 2.4Ghz and uses DSMX. To play it safe and save yourself a lot of trouble, just buy bundled.

 

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[Image by hobbyking.com]
Ok so now you need to bring the drones power system to life. And what better way to do that than with a Lithium Polymer battery, or LiPo for short. These batteries will have tons of different numbers on them when you start looking around.

What the heck is a 2-cell 7.4V 30C 2200mAh? Ok I’ll try not to get too deep here. Batteries will have a certain number of cells. With drones youll be somewhere between 1 cell and 6 cells. The number of cells and the “V” voltage are one in the same. a 1 cell battery is 3.7 volts, and a 2 cell is 7.4 volts, and the voltage continues to progress with cell numbers. The 30C in the above example refers to the discharge rate, a higher discharge number will be able to output a LOT of power in a short burst but will drain quicker. This comes into play with the ESCs from before, if your “C” rating is too much for your esc to handle, they will likely blow. The 2200mAh refers to the capacity or the “fuel tank” of the battery. A high number will give you more “fuel” but simply adding a battery with 6000mAh isn’t going to make it fly all day, the added weight of a battery that size will make the drone spend more energy keeping its self in the air. For my purposes Ill use a 3-cell 11.1V 3000mAh 30C battery.

 

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[Image by droneshop.biz]
You’ve slapped all your parts together, you’ve configured the flight control board, and you’re ready for the maiden flight of your first DIY drone. Power that bad-boy up and give ‘er full throttle. The motors scream at full speed but it doesn’t go anywhere…

Well we haven’t gone over propellers yet! You were just going to put some one there and go for it weren’t you!?

Using the right props is key to a good flight. Props come in different materials, which at first seem like a flashy “bling” statement. But those different materials have major differences in flight characteristics. Don’t be “that guy” and buy carbon fiber props because they look “sweet” , especially if you are a new pilot. Do yourself a favor and get some cheap plastic props to begin with and make sure to get multiple sets. Spend time researching props before you buy expensive ones. Ok so now to the prop size. You’ll likely come across adds that say something like 9050CW/CCW and with props the first two numbers are related to total length of the prop in this instance the “90” stands for 9-inches, the last two numbers are related to pitch and in this instance the “50” stands for a 5-inch pitch. The easiest way to describe pitch would be, if you were to turn the prop one full cycle it would travel “X” number of inches through a piece of wood or foam.  The lettering may be obvious to you, but CW stands for Clock-wise, and CCW stands for Counter Clock-wise. You will need two CW and two CCW props for flight.

Your props will depend on the size of your drone, as well as the motors you chose. If you chose a higher KV motor, you may want to consider a 9-inch prop. Conversely if you chose a motor with a lower KV rating feel free to try 11 or 12 inch props. For my build I will use a set of 1045CW/CCW props. 10-inch length and 4.5-inches of pitch.

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[Image by rcgroups.com]
Alright, now you should be ready to fly! You’ve got a frame, motors, escs, flight control board, receiver, a battery, and props!  Be cautious of your surroundings and try not to lose it. Get some practice in with it and enjoy flying it, because my next post will be about the upgrades that can make your flight experience amazing!

Making money with your Drone!

If you’ve bought a drone and flown it, one of two things have happened by now. You’ve wrecked it nearly every time you’ve flown it and completely given up on flying one, in which case, you likely are not reading this post. But there are a few of us who wrecked and kept flying, we’ve honed our beginner skills to the max. You tried a few flips and crazy turns and wrecked again. But after a waiting a week for the postal guy to deliver more props, you were back at it! Congratulations!

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[Image by http://victoriaairphotos.com/%5D
If you’re like me,  you were flying one day and though to yourself, “Can I make money with this some how?” At the time when I first looked into it, it was legal to make money with drones…but you literally had to hold a manned pilots license to be able to do it. For the guys that hold a manned pilots license today,  you simply have to take an online course and have a current flight review.

For the rest of us who don’t own private planes, we too can now fly drones commercially. It requires a safety course/test on the FAA’s website, followed by an Aircraft General Knowledge test which is to be taken in person at a IACRA or CATS testing center. After that you only have to retest every two years to keep current.

So what can you do with that new sUAS license?

If you’ve got the “mad skills” to fly high speed with the utmost precision, why don’t you become a drone racer? A 15 year old kid just won $250,000 at a championship drone race in Dubai recently! Just think of how much money you could make!

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[Image by http://www.gopromagazine.com/%5D
 Not everyone has the skills to race drones or the money to replace busted parts every time they race. So what else could you do?

Shooting Real Estate and Commercial building progress photos could be a very good way to make money, in fact, I plan on doing this myself. Getting amazing shots from the air will really showcase a home and the land that it sits on. The same can be said for commercial building progress.

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[Image by terrytheissphotography.com]
You’ve never been good at lining up shots, you say? Well what else could there be? Well you could spend some extra money on getting a thermal imaging camera to slap on your drone and inspect pipelines, towers, or even better you could fly over crops and help determine their health! As long as you can get the entire field in view, that’s all you need!

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[Image by geovantage.com]
There are so many more options than the few I’ve listed. Maybe you can find a new and innovative way to use a drone to make money.

Even if you don’t want to make money flying a drone, or you think its too much of a hassle. You can still shoot pictures for yourself and share them with others. Maybe in an emergency situation you could help with search and rescue(provided you aren’t hindering manned aircraft from doing so). We live in an amazing time where technology is booming, and instead of fearing its quick progression, we should embrace and harness the many possibilities it has to offer!

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[Image by Me at John Stiff Park]

Take my money!

Are you interested in buying a drone? Have you browsed around online or in electronics stores and noticed the huge differences in price? Why buy the one behind the display case that’s $1,200 when you can get that one laying on its side on the shelf in a paper-thin cardboard box for $40? What extra “stuff” are you getting for all that extra money?

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[Image by gearbest.com – http://des.gearbest.com/uploads/2014/201409/heditor/201409111004185308.jpg%5D
This is a Syma X5C-1, one of the lower end drones sitting right at the $40 mark. So what features do you get out of this thing? Well…it flies, oh and it’s got a camera. But for $40 you can’t be expecting that much. Really though, for what it is and the price point, it is actually a solid drone. It runs on a 1 cell 3.7V battery and has a surprisingly long battery life in my personal experience it will stay in the air around 8 minutes or so which is longer than some in this price point offer. The camera shoots sub-par videos and pictures but you do have the ability to control the camera from the supplied remote which is pretty cool. I have flown this drone many times and it always flies well. I’ve also never seen a motor burn out, unlike a few others with brushed motors that I’ve owned. At one point my brother-in-law decided he would fly this over his rottweiler, who then bit it out of the air and chewed on it. After cleaning the drool off and counting the tooth marks, the Syma was still able to fly!

So why would you max out your brand new 21% interest rate credit card on an expensive drone when cheap ones like the Syma seem to do just fine?

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[Image by blessthisstuff.com – http://www.blessthisstuff.com/stuff/technology/misc-gadgets/dji-phantom-3/%5D
This is the Phantom 3, the drone that everyone thinks of when they hear the word “drone”. It looks very similar to the Syma but why is it so much more expensive?

To start the list off, it has FPV (First Person View) so the image that the camera sees is sent real-time to your tablet or smart phone, the 4K camera is mounted on a stabilized 3-axis gimbal for ultra stable video/pictures and you can even tilt that camera up and down from the remote. The Phantom 3 has built-in GPS as well as GLONASS, the Russian equivalent of GPS. This allows the Phantom to hold its position in the windiest conditions and reduce human failure. The GPS feature also allows a user to set autonomous way-points. The Phantom also has built in fail-safes such as a “Return to Home” button which will fly the drone back to its original take off position and land its self. The Phantom 3 is an amazing drone and works great, the video is insanely stable and flying it is a DREAM…literally because I’m a broke college student, and if I ever saw $1,200 I would buy 120,000 packets of ramen-noodles instead.

Ok, so now you know a little bit about the Phantom 3,  looking back at the Syma X5C-1 you’re thinking “how amateur” but with the Phantom’s price tag you could get a fairly decent used car. Isn’t there anything in the middle of the road? Of course there is!

I forfeit about 60,000 packets of ramen-noodles or roughly $600 USD a few weeks ago to purchase a Xiro Xplorer V.

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[Image by dronomania.ru – http://dronomania.ru%5D
The Xiro has  FPV to a smart phone or tablet, a stabilized 3-axis camera gimbal, and even the GPS/GLONASS and “Return to Home” features found in the Phantom. Going through the list is has everything the Phantom does at half the cost.

This is video I shot with the Xiro at John Stiff Park a few days ago, no modifications required.

Before you decide to buy one, ask yourself. Have you ever flown one before? Do you just want to try one out? Are you going to use it for fun, aerial photography, or drone racing? Are you going to be required to register it with the FAA? The list goes on!

Do you still want one?  You don’t have to limit yourself to the drones in my list, these are just a few that I think are worth the price. There are hundreds of options out there at every price point from the micro toy quads for $20 up to high quality, carbon fiber frame, heavy lift DSLR drones which can run $20,000 and up. You can even build your own if you spend the time doing research. No drone is perfect, they all have issues here and there, just remember to enjoy flying whatever you decide to get!

 

Drones are spying on you!!!

But are they really? A few weeks ago I was visiting my father-in-law in Colorado. His condo is perched right on the edge of a sheer drop off that is covered with thorns and prickly bushes. Past the 100 ft. drop is an amazing view, the likes of which you would only dream of in a movie. And I immediately knew I had to unpack my drone and fly over it!20160722_183137 I got up into the air, terrified of losing signal and losing my drone into the vast expanse of trees down below. I decided before hand that this would be a short flight.

Before flying I vaguely recalled my father-in-law mentioning a neighbor….and she was crazy or something. Well on the way into my final pass, this crazy neighbor is alerted to my presence by her little yappy dog. I slightly notice her moving around on her balcony with my peripheral vision, trying to stay glued to my ground station screen. She then noticed me and yells “are you flying that thing?”. I’m trying to bring this drone in while shes quizzing me, “yes ma’am”. “Ugh I though someone was trying to come spy on me again, there is always someone trying to spy on me with those things!”. I managed to bring the drone down without breaking anything, though it was a sloppy landing, then I look over at her…wondering why she thought people were spying on her…maybe the 25 year old doctors wife two houses down…but not this lady. She’s just super paranoid.

The truth about the situation is that almost everyone flying a drone is using a 5.8 Ghz video transmitter at 50 watts(if they are complying with FCC regulations) which is attached to a HD video camera, set up to display TV-out. While the camera it’s self IS recording HD video, the TV-out is being sent to the 5.8 Ghz video transmitter then to a video receiver on the ground and finally displayed on (normally) an 8 inch or similar size screen. The video is received in somewhat grainy standard definition with occasional blips in the connection.

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I have a small 8 inch screen that I use for convenience, but I also have the luxury of a 19 inch screen that I pulled from a laptop computer and wired it up to a controller board which makes it act as a TV so I can use A/V cables from my transmitter. Even on my 19 inch screen the picture is not clear enough to search out a small target from long distance and by the time I was close enough to be able to track someone, they would surely spot it, if they didn’t hear it first.

HD live video is just now becoming feasible through $500+ video systems and it won’t become more streamline until prices drop significantly. So in short drones likely aren’t spying on you. The amount of money people put into this hobby isn’t so they can fly around creeping on people. I mean I didn’t spend an ungodly amount of money on my drones so I could spy on people. I’ve been enthralled with flight ever since I was a small child and this is the closest I will get, shy of getting a pilots license. However if drones ARE spying on you, it’s probably the government. ‘Cause those guys are spying on everyone, maybe even through your webcam as you’re reading this?!