Big News! We have moved to Colorado!

I haven’t spent much time updating this site recently due to some major life changes, primarily moving back to Colorado! I grew up in Steamboat Springs, Colorado and went to college at the Colorado School of Mines, so it feels like moving back home. We are finally getting settled in and I’m starting to direct my free time back towards more productive ventures. I’ve started a job with a radio communication device manufacturing company and plan to see how I can help test their products in aerial applications.

This shot was from a hike ~3 miles from where we live:

a scenic view of the mountains west of Boulder, Colorado
The famous Flatirons of Boulder, Colorado.

The 3DR Solo is still alive and well, and will soon have a little brother – the Mavic Pro. The Mavic is a great blend of portability and capability. There are no shortages of beautiful scenery in Colorado, so I plan to keep it very near by at all times. Sadly, we live within the Broomfield Class C, so it will be a bit until I can get an approved Part 107 Controlled Airspace Waiver.

Until next time!

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

From .40 Nitro Engines and 72 MHz to 4 2212’s and Taranis

This second post will be a brief history of my RC experience (my first Hello World-style post can be found here – link). When I was much younger (8? 9?), my grandfather bought a Thunder Tiger 40 Trailer kit. He always loved aviation and passed that passion along to me. Building an RC plane is obviously much cheaper than full-scale aviation so that’s the route we took. My mom told me the story goes that I had actually forgot the kit existed for a while. In the meantime, I was becoming hooked on RC plane magazines and finally said something about it.

My mom then told me I had an unassembled kit sitting in my grandparent’s basement. We ordered a few parts and got started on the assembly. I wish I had pictures of the process (inquiries are out) but it took a long time and I like to think it was quite satisfying. I do specifically remember gluing the two wing halves together. We mixed up the epoxy and set the wing tip ends on top of two soda cans to generate the correct dihedral (the angle the wings are bent up from horizontal – it helps with stability). When it was done, the completed plane looked something like this:

Thunder Tiger Trainer 40
Thunder Tiger Trainer 40

This aircraft had a nice four channel Hitec radio, four servos to control the throttle, aileron, elevator, and rudder, and a 0.40 cubic inch Thunder Tiger 40 nitro powered engine.

Hitec Focus 4 Radio, very 90’s
Hitec HS-300 servos for control

I was probably 11 when the plane was complete, and my grandfather had some made some friends (he’s very good at that) at the local flying club in Butler, Pennsylvania. We packed everything up and made the trip up the hill and shortly got started with some flying lessons. I had used flight simulators quite a bit so knew the basics of flying. The instructor didn’t let me take off or land, but did have me fly around the field until the engine quit. I did loops, rolls, basic turns, some slow(ish) flight and some high speed runs. We went up a few more times but I never actually got to the point where I could take off or land due to the club’s policies. I didn’t get to practice enough because it was an hour away from where we lived.

Regardless, my interest in the hobby was thus cemented. It was pretty expensive for a pre-teen, so I put it in the back of my mind for a very long time. My next post will detail moving to Bakersfield, California in 2014 and the numerous RC creations I’ve built since then. My first quadcopter was completed in mid-2015 and there was probably more technology in a single motor controller than in the entire Thunder Tiger Trainer 40 that got me started on this path. For reference, below is the transmitter I now use – a Taranis X9D 16 channel radio with telemetry. I very much enjoy technology, which is part of the reason I picked the name Sierra Sky Tech.

taranis X9D
Taranis X9D

Note: I have asked my family if they know where any pictures of the RC plane are, so the images of the trainer in this post were borrowed from AllModesR/C here.


Part One: Hello world!

After much brainstorming, Sierra Sky Tech is the name I settled on for potentially starting a UAV/drone business here in California. This first post (July 21, 2017) will be the beginning of a journey I hope to take you on from some of my earliest fascinations with aviation, to the process of starting this business, and onwards through the (hopeful!) successful operation of Sierra Sky Tech.

Goals for founding a business

At the moment, there are a few key items I’m working through before I can begin any commercial operation:

  1. The FAA Part 107 Remote Pilot Certification. There are two ways to obtain this certification: 1) study, pay the FAA $150, take & pass the FAA exam, and receive the certification or 2) obtain a full private pilot’s license and then do a simple add-on to get the Remote Pilot certificate. I’m currently working my way down the second route, and I’m pretty close to getting my pilot’s license. I have all the hours I need, so I just need to schedule a practice checkride, review any areas of improvement with my certified flight instructor (CFI), and take the real checkride. Goal #1 is to do the checkride by the end of August 2017.
  2. I still have a full time engineering job here in Bakersfield/McKittrick. My company is going through yet another round of layoffs and the culture/workforce isn’t moving in a good direction. I’m quite confident I won’t be laid-off, but I don’t think I’d want to stay anyways. That means I’ll need to save some cash. I’ve estimated the costs required to start up a UAV/drone business and I already have enough capital, but more is always better. Goal #2 is to be fully funded by December 2017.
  3. The general business aspects that need to be addressed by any new company. These include: forming a LLC, opening business banking accounts, ensuring the web presence is working (email, website, blog, social media, etc.), getting clients, doing quality work, and growing. At least that’s the plan. Goal #3 is to be ready to launch at the beginning of 2018. The stretch goal is November, but an earlier start somewhat conflicts with #2 above.

Click this link to view the second post in the series – From .40 Nitro Engines and 72 MHz to 4 2212s and Taranis.