Quickstart guide to innovating with drones

May 29, 2014 | Mountain View, CA

One of the most important but poorly understood developments in connected device technology is the widespread adoption of drones for a variety of applications. For some, the specter of their presence hovering above us represents the latest assault on personal privacy. For others, drones are identified as the next step in the mechanization of warfare. Or they inspire the dream of same day Amazon deliveries. But drones should be thought of as a new platform technology, enabling a novel approach to a staggering number of existing activities. The challenge, and opportunity, is to consider the next application rather than the most recent.

What are drones?

In the broadest sense, drones are robots with the ability to accomplish unscripted tasks on their own. They may be autonomous - operating using their own articial intelligence and array of sensors - or remotely controlled by a human operator. There are drones for exploring the oceans, drones for mapping cities, and drones for disarming bombs on the battlefield. Typically they look like miniature versions of their human occupied equivalents: mini submarines, mini tractors, or mini airplanes, though military grade unmanned areal vehicles (UAVs) can be enormous.

The most common option for an average consumer (or would be drone entrepreneur) is what’s called a quadcopter.

The Worlds Most Versitle Drone

Quadcopters are aerial drones that look like helicopters with four rotors instead of one. They’ve quickly become the favorite among average users due to their perfect mix of capabilities and simplicity. There are also Y-copters (tricopters), hexacopters, and octocopters. The term “multirotor” describes all of these, and they represent the best place to start thinking about the challenges and potential of drones.

A Stable Leap Forward

The essential characteristics of a multirotor drone compared with their predecessors, radio-controlled airplanes and helicopters, is their combination of stability in air and agility while in flight.

Airplane designs move efficiently through the air, but they need space to take-off and land, as well as room to maneuver at high speeds to maintain flight. Imagine a small plane trying to navigate the corridors of Manhattan to make pizza deliveries, or whizzing past a wedding to take a video for the bride and groom. Airplane drone designs, a favorite of the US Air Force, may be useful spying on the enemy or launching missile strikes in foreign airspace, but their applications in a domestic urban setting are more limited.

Multirotors, on the other hand, have a much broader range of motion and maneuvers. While they can race across the skyline, they’re equally at ease hovering in place, or making exact, slow maneuvers in any direction. They’re agile, reacting instantly in any direction, and can respond immediately to any change in surroundings. Unlike a helicopter, their multiple rotors create a safer, more stable platform. The result is a floating shelf in the air, which can be moved precisely and safely from one location to another, along an exact route, adapting to conditions as they change. That shelf in the air is the opportunity. Place sensors on it to make a 3D map of an unexplored cave, or maybe hang a camera and race after a criminal down a dark alley. Use drones to identify people in a burning building, or just use it to deliver beer to cold ice fishermen.

The Smallest Big Idea

While it seems drones can be used to perform a variety of tasks, there are two important limitations, and they’re related. Multirotors require a large supply of power to stay in the air, and even with brick sized battery packs, their flight times are typically measured in minutes; their payload capacity in grams. Amazon may want to make delivers with drones, but don’t expect your new LCD TV to be flown in anytime soon. While improvements in battery technology or the future use of multiple drones coordinating with each other will offer improvements, for the time being you’ll have plan carefully for weight and power consumption, or deploy clever ways to recharge your drone along the way.

Where to Start

Quadcopters can be tricky to fly, and it is best to learn on something cheap. Micro-quadcopters are fun, great for learning to fly, and don’t represent a huge investment (here’s a good one). Once you’ve mastered the basics of flight, you can move on to a more powerful option. For something that works out of the box, look into the DJI Phantom, which performs well and can be equipped with a GoPro camera. The Parrot AR.Drone 2.0 is even cheaper and can be controlled with an iPad. These are often labeled “ready to fly” (RTF), and require little more than a fresh charge. Many are offered as “bind and fly” (BNF), which means they come with everything but a controller (called a “transmitter”) which needs to be added and then “bound” to the drone.

To really dig in though, I decided to go with DIY and built my own. Going this route allows you to customize - start with a frame and select all your own components, from the flight controller to the motors and speed controllers. If that’s a little overwhelming, a better option may be an “almost ready to fly” (ARF) kit, which contains all the basics but requires full assembly. Keep in mind, these aren’t your childhood lego set. In many cases these kits require extensive wiring, soldering, and some software configuration. I spent 10 - 20 hours building my DJI F450 ARF Kit, and most of that was spent on YouTube trying to learn a whole range of new skills (it may not be as easy as a lego set, but it is way more fun). Once complete, you’ll have a proper platform that you can add to and upgrade as you experiment with new things. Add a heater to keep that pizza delivery warm? Just solder it in to your power circuit and you’re good to go.

Some Stops Along the Way

If you decide to build your own (and I definitely recommend going with an ARF kit if you’re up for the challenge), you’ll find an enormous amount of support online. I constantly consulted a few sites in particular while going through my build:

RC Groups Extensive forum discussions on every build, kit, part, and option out there. A few great beginners guides as well, and recommendations on which kits to start with. I selected my kit based on the advice here.

Facebook Groups I discovered a huge, extremely active group on Facebook dedicated to the particular build I was working on. No better way to get a quick answer to questions that a little post on a Facebook group.

YouTube A quick search revealed dozens of videos covering the build I was working on, as well as specific questions (er, how to modify the wires to fit a Spektrum receiver) and tutorials on more basic skills (e.g. how to solder a circuit board).

Manufacturers Website DJI’s documentation is limited, but they have a wiki with a number of important instructions which were critical in getting off the ground. Most kits don’t actually come with a ton of guidance, but you’ll want to consult what’s offered.

Full Build

DJI F450 ARF Kit
- DJI F450 Frame
- DJI Motors
- DJI Propellors
Naza Lite Flight Controller with GPS Module
Spektrum AR6210 Receiver
Spektrum DX6i Transmitter
Turnigy 3S 3000mAh Battery


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