Part Three: First Quadcopter/RC Situation

In part one (Hello world!) and part two (From .40 Nitro Engines and 72 MHz to 4 2212s and Taranis) of this multi-part series, I laid out the background for the desire to start a drone service company here in Bakersfield. This post, part three, will describe how I got to where I am today in terms of my fleet of flying remote-controlled quadcopter, gliders, and flying wings.

Moving to Bakersfield

In mid-2014, my job moved me to Bakersfield. It was hot and something new. I lived a bit away from my college friends who already lived here and didn’t have much going on during the week for the first few months. Despite 10% of my paycheck missing every month (thanks California taxes!), I had some money burning a hole in my pocket to get into something that’s been in the back of my mind since I put together my first RC plane.

With my mind set, I started researching drones, quadcopters, RC technology, transmitters, receivers, first person video (FPV), telemetry, power systems, electronic speed controllers, motors, props, motor/prop/ESC combos, and anything else I could read about the hobby (obsession?). Each individual component was a reasonable price everywhere I looked. However, pre-build unmanned aerial systems (UAS) like the newly-released DJI Phantom 3 were quite expensive. So I decided to do what I usually do when faced with this sort of decision – build it myself and learn a ton in the process.

Quadcopter #1 beginnings – a glider

The most expensive component in the beginning was the transmitter, which is a pretty complicated bit of technology. It looks like this:

taranis X9D
Can I pilot the space shuttle with this thing?

It runs Linux so clearly it is something that I should spend some time setting up properly. Knowing that, I hit buy on Amazon and then buy on Hobbyking for the Breeze Glider with flaps (1400mm) plug-and-fly kit. The purpose of the glider was to reacquaint myself with RC things and figure out how to program the controller. The Breeze had ailerons, flaps, elevator, rudder, and throttle to control for a total of six servos and the ESC for a seven channel set up. I added flaps to switch D (upper right of controller) after playing with the controller a bit and took it up for a spin.

My nerves were a little active for the first flight, so I went over to the wide-open California State University Bakersfield soccer field. I did the radio checks and gave it a good toss and hoped for the best. The beauty of a glider is that it’s slow. It flew! Nicely, too! The battery would last for at least 20 minutes, so I started to bring it down around the 15 minute mark. I started way out, kicked in the flaps, and it landed! I was hooked. That glider got a lot of use – soon I was dialing in “crow”, which was basically using the ailerons in the up direction as speed brakes in conjunction with flaps.

Then I duck-taped a GoPro Hero 3+ Black to the bottom and did my first mapping mission. The results weren’t stellar, but I was even more hooked. It wasn’t a quadcopter, but the images were still workable! The generated 3D point cloud map is below.

3D point cloud from first GoPro mapping experiment.
3D point cloud of farmer’s field from first GoPro mapping experiment.

Quadcopter Beginnings #2 – the Flamewheel F450

I’m going to skip a few steps since this post is already a bit long, but I started researching a simple quadcopter to build. I didn’t want anything too big, heavy, or expensive, so I settled for a Flamewheel F450-clone frame kit. The posts and suggestions I read said I should just keep it simple with some 2216 motors, and 10×4.5″ props.

The complete parts list (and weights) when it first flew is as follows:

  1. Frame – Q450 V3 glass frame – 270g
  2. ESCs – Afro 20A x4 – 91.2g total
  3. Motors – Turnigy Multistar 2216 x4 – 264g total
  4. Propellers – 10″ diameter x 4.5″ pitch x4 – 24g total
  5. Flight controller – APM2.8 running Arducopter – 58g
  6. Receiver – FrSky D4R-II running in PPM mode – 6g
  7. GPS – Ublox NEO-6M – 30g
  8. Battery – ZIPPY 3300mah 30C 3S – 280g
  9. Additional wires + misc – 100g

Total weight was around 1.12 kg. I wired it all up and reviewed the configurations that Mission Planner loaded onto the APM. The documentation said the default PIDs should work well with a quadcopter of the size I constructed. The transmitter also had a few settings to double-check with the APM, like mode settings (I programmed in stabilize, which only keeps the quadcopter level without any GPS support, altitude-hold, which keeps the quadcopter level and at the same barometric altitude, and position-hold, which adds GPS to altitude-hold to keep the quad at the same place in the sky), fail-safes, and telemetry.

Unfortunately I don’t have any videos of the first flight but it worked and I was hooked! The 3S battery (12ish volts) was pretty mild and would do great as a mapping battery. I also bought a 4S battery that really added some pep to the quadcopter’s maneuvers. I got it up to 48 mph in calm wind.

Next Steps – a 3DR Solo

By the time I added a FPV camera, 5.8GHz video transmitter, 915MHz telemetry, a ground-based 8″ LCD screen with video receiver, and a GoPro (attached by a 3D printed part I designed and printed), the price of a 3DR Solo had dropped to $350. When I started putting together the parts list, a 3DR Solo was $1200, which is why I wanted to build my own. With very low price, I finally decided to buy a mass-manufactured quadcopter. So, I got myself a Christmas present December 22nd, 2016. This is where I’ll end this post

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