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Ask Slashdot: Is a Home Drone Feasible? 274

Posted by samzenpus
from the eye-in-the-sky dept.
dargaud writes "I live in an alpine setting and I'd like to be able to remotely view various remote valleys to check for ice formations for winter climbing. I wonder if there are cheap drones that could do that. Requirements would be: GPS guided on a preset route (no remote control necessary, and anyway there's no line of sight), at least 20km autonomy, 1 or 2 cameras on the sides to record valley walls, easy launching and autonomous landing (parachute?) at predefined point, ground detection to avoid crashes (if preset route is wrong or GPS echoes on valley walls as is often the case). Is there anything commercially available cheap enough, or any DIY that doesn't require a year of assembly?"
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Ask Slashdot: Is a Home Drone Feasible?

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  • DIY VS. Time (Score:5, Informative)

    by Osgeld (1900440) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:05AM (#39568473)

    Totally depends on your skill levels in meshing the brains together and fabrication. There is not enough information in your post to determine either, but based on the tone I am getting your best bet is money, and for the features you want with the durability just to survive the terrain while carrying a small load, it aint going to be cheap.

    Off the top of my head maybe model aircraft with telepresence would be the best mix.

  • by Kenja (541830) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:06AM (#39568477)
    Dont see why it wouldn't be possible using Parallax Basic Stamp or another embedded controller that supports a serial GPS receiver. The platform itself may take a little fiddling as you would want something more stable then your standard RC helicopter. Something with coaxial counter rotating blade system or multiple sets of blades.
  • ArduPilot (Score:5, Informative)

    by Mindscrew (1861410) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:14AM (#39568507)
    Have you heard of this? []
  • diydrones (Score:5, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:18AM (#39568535)

    or for other options

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:24AM (#39568575)

    But here is the FAA's take on it...

  • by entropi (2933) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:25AM (#39568577)

    Quadcopters and the like are generally fairly limited on flight time..10-20 min generally from what I've read. For your range, you might want to go with a air wing/rc plane..but diydrones would still be a good place to get up to speed on the capabilities.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:27AM (#39568589)

    There's plenty of projects around that will do what you're after. An ArduPilot in a plane should do all that, although you'll likely have to land and take off under manual control. A hobby helicopter/quadcopter drone will have trouble with the range (20km is a fair way to travel, and i assume it's not a straight path). Sensors can deal with things like terrain avoidance and calculation of true altitude versus barometer altitude (to help prevent controlled flight into terrain).

    But you need to clarify. Just how cheap is "cheap enough"? $500? $10000? Some values are required.

  • here you go (Score:4, Informative)

    by way2trivial (601132) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:35AM (#39568631) Homepage Journal []
    10km range

    only 50k

    (this should tell you are way outta budget line)

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:36AM (#39568633)

    You can only fly them as if they were R/C aircraft, which means line-of-sight only and you must have a link to the ground. There are also ceilings and rules about keeping them away from buildings, people, and especially aircraft.

    The quadrotors that you see people putting cameras on are not UAVs, they are just remote controlled and someone on the ground is flying them in real-time. The FAA is moving very slowly on approving any sort of UAV flights (public or civil) although they are being forced by Congress to finally issue rules about how they might go about approving civil UAVs. Otherwise, right now UAVs can only be flown by the government, government contractors, universities, or in military airspace.

    There are no commercial options that a private citizen can buy, and the DIY options will require lots of work. This is an area of active research in the robotics community, and implementing any one of the features you mentioned would probably be sufficient to get you a Ph.D. right now.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:39AM (#39568649)

    Helicopter avionics is my trade. I also fly stunt rc heli's for fun.

    Just of the top of my head, Your Alpine conditions are pretty much the most unfavorable to your expectations of cheap/simple/all in 1
    - I expect the winds could knock you out. Only powerful collective pitch heli can handle winds, ie not quadrotors (fixed pitch)
    - Heli's do not like high altitudes
    - Li ion batteries do not like cold
    - If you crash, im guessing its gone for good in the snow. im not aware of any consumer drones have tracking yet.
    - Most consumer drones have 1 camera and low to mid level avionics/autopilot. I expect a fair bit of tweaking would be needed to reach your spec

    Even still Good Luck !

  • Re:Define (Score:5, Informative)

    by Xeno man (1614779) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @12:47AM (#39568679)
    He's not looking for a solution just yet. He wants a starting point. You making things too complex too fast. The question is, can you do those things for cheap? Is it possible? If you have a question, the answer is "Ideal conditions"

    What are the typical and maximum wind speeds in the valleys you are looking at? - No wind
    How high above sea level are you, and what is the highest point you want the drone to get to? Sea level to 10 feet
    Are there constraints on noise (ie will a loud engine cause avalanches? - Doesn't matter

    Now build a simple solution. Lets see, GPS, cameras, autonomy, collision detection, 20km range. The cheapest is about $9,000. But it might not meet your needs.

    Now the poster sees that and think 1 of two things.
    1. Oh damn, I was hoping for something between $1,000 - $2,000 so I'm not going to find something that will work in my price range. I'll give up searching for now. Or
    2. Sweet, That is well below what I'm willing to spend. Lets do some more research and ask more questions about what I really need now I know that this is feasible.
  • Short Answer: No (Score:5, Informative)

    by introcept (1381101) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @01:07AM (#39568763)

    I'm in the middle of writing my EE thesis is on embedded control systems for UAVs and this is as good a distraction as any, so here goes:
    The kind of specs you're talking about you'd be lucky to get for high-end military and commercial (mini) drones. You'll either be spending tens(hundreds?) of thousands on an off the shelf model or a lot of time developing, testing, crashing and fixing your DIY solution. There are hundreds of DIY drones on the net but I doubt any of them have the kind of reliable autonomy you're talking about.

    Autonomy is especially difficult, you'll need to learn a lot of control theory, kinematics, Navigation/AI and possibly computer vision. Then rememeber that you need to fuse sensor data from gyroscopes, acceleromters, GPS, compass, altitude and airspeed sensors, and that all of these sensors are unreliable/error prone. You need to be able to deal with loss of GPS link which means you need to have an alternate means of localisation(which is very difficult). Also, every commercial system I've seen requires an always on downlink and manned base-station for control, even if this isn't technically necessary, it's pretty much mandatory for safety.

    Making an autonomous UAV only makes sense as a learning exercise or for R&D but it's not a good way to get any work done. If your goal is to get aerial photos, stick a camera on an RC plane, get some video goggles, a long range radio and some flying lessons.

  • Re:Define (Score:5, Informative)

    by ozmanjusri (601766) <> on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @01:31AM (#39568845) Journal

    He's not looking for a solution just yet. He wants a starting point.

    Then DIY Drones would be a better starting point than Slashdot. []

    "Convert any RC airplane into a fully-autonomous UAV! Just add the APM 2 autopilot to any RC aircraft and it becomes a fully-programmable flying robot with a powerful ground station and Mission Planner. APM 2 is an open source, Arduino-compatible, pro-quality autopilot. It is the most advanced IMU-based open source autopilot available today, and provides an entire UAV control system with scriptable missions with 3D waypoints, in-flight uploading of commands and powerful ground station software. "

    Features include:
    Return to Launch with a flick of your RC toggle switch or a mouse click in the graphical Ground Station
    Unlimited 3D GPS waypoints
    Built-in camera control
    Fully-scriptable missions
    One-click software load, and easy point-and-click configuration in the powerful Mission Planner. NO programming required!
    Replay recorded missions and analyze all the data with a graphing interface
    Supports two-way telemetry with Xbee wireless modules.
    Point-and-click waypoint entry or real-time mission commands while the UAV is in the air
    Fly with a joystick or gamepad via your PC--no need for RC control!
    Built-in failsafe will bring your aircraft home in the case of radio loss

  • by element-o.p. (939033) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @01:31AM (#39568847) Homepage
    DISCLAIMER: IANAL, so this is not legal advice.

    Having said that, I am rather interested in DIY drones, and therefore, I have been following technical and legal aspects of amateur drones/UAVs/UAS' for a couple of years. I don't see any *technical* reason why what you want to do isn't possible. However, if you live in the USA, I don't believe what you want to do is legal. As I understand, the FAA requires amateur operated drones to be under line-of-site control at all times. Here are some links to help you figure out the legal restrictions for what you want to do:

    DIY Drones Regulatory FAQ []
    FAA Advisory Circular 91-57 []
    Electronic Code of Federal Regulations []

  • Not legal to fly (Score:4, Informative)

    by erice (13380) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @01:38AM (#39568863) Homepage

    The lack of line of sight is the killer. From one of many articles on the subject: FAA regulations developed in the 1970s to cover the amateur use of radio-controlled planes, which also apply to today's DIY drones. Those rules include restricting their altitude to 400 feet (120 meter), requiring them to always be in view of their controller on the ground and prohibiting them from being flown over built-up areas. []

    You could ask for a specific waiver. That is how researchers have been able to fly their drones. I am skeptical though that the FAA would be willing to issue a waiver for something is just a hobby.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @02:44AM (#39569077)

    Actually, that is Trappy's world record run, so:

    It had 2 cameras (A GoPro and a low res security cam).
    It has a GPS, return to home (self maneuvering), and a transmitter to send a live video signal back to someone on the ground
    He flys in a valley between two mountains. And can handle moderate wind.

    Total cost is less than $2000 on the plane, maybe $3000 counting ground equip.
    Of course, that is a world record... not an easy thing to duplicate. But the main difficulty is in the "live video signal back to the ground". If you remove that requirement, things get a lot easier. And scarier, since you won't have feedback on what your flying mass of money is currently doing.

    What it does not have, and what you will not find on ANY light plane right now is ground avoidance. Most of the rest is easy, even the preset route. (My $800 glider can do that). Even 20km total ground covered isn't too absurd... although 20km out and back with meandering is getting into "you'll have to work REALLY hard" territory.

    Hmm, also, auto-landing is something that is not fully matured. Some systems have it, but usually mean for it to be a failsafe.

    Finally, and this is really the only nail in his coffin, is that it sounds like he wants to do this with minimal work (Easy launch, easy landing, no control, etc makes me suspect this). And right now, while this can all be done, it requires a LOT of work and manual interaction with the plane.

  • Re:Define (Score:2, Informative)

    by Anonymous Coward on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @04:13AM (#39569365)

    You forgot the last point: except for military use, autonomous drones are illegal in most countries.

    Most things called "drones" that are accessible to the average consumer are nothing more than remote controlled aircraft and can only be operated legally when in line-of-sight and below a certain height limit (400ft is common, particularly near airfields).

  • by Jane Q. Public (1010737) on Wednesday April 04, 2012 @05:06AM (#39569521)
    I was rather encouraged to see other people following my own earlier train of thought. 20km puts a quadrotor out of the running, even if wind velocity did not.

    Also, for mountainous terrain, you would not want a glider-style wing plan. A flatter, more slippery design such as used for "slope soarers" would seem to fit the bill most appropriately. For the kind of fuel capacity needed, I will make a rough guess and say you would probably want something in the 1.5 meter wingspan range. X-country flight competitions in the 2-meter range have been around for years.

    The big obstacle here is the control of flight dynamics. There is plenty of open-source software out there for quadrotors, but I don't know about fixed-wings. I have seen some very expensive navigation implementations in the industry rags, but I suspect that if DIYers can do a quadrotor, they can do a fixed-wing as well. I suspect the main issue is that you need to make your craft steer toward the programmed flightline, more aggressively the larger the deviation, with buffering and without exceeding the design requirements of the craft. That last part is probably the trickiest.

    If this is really mountainous country then you probably need very accurate, 3-axis GPS (for altitude), or some kind of ground-sensing scheme to keep from running into a hillside. I suspect the more sophisticated GPS is probably the way to go. But that also requires carefully planned routes. You will want to stay away from hillsides, preferably routing it straight along the valleys between mountains or mountain ridges.

    The equipment is out there. Modern liquid fuel model engines are definitely available in any size you may want. They even make radial
    And finally: autonomous navigation via GPS is already out in small drones that are on the market, but they probably aren't in your price range. Not that they could not be... I think the current commercial builders are taking advantage of the topic's fledgeling status to gouge people.

    So what that all leads me to is, I would:

    (1) consider a fixed-wing plane in the 1.5m to 2m wingspan range.

    (2) Make sure it's a style and plan that can accommodate an engine large enough to make the range you are talking about. Keep in mind that you are working against the law of diminishing returns to a certain degree: the larger the engine you put on, the more fuel you will need for it, which requires a larger engine, which requires more fuel. In practice, there are solutions to such things, but I suggest always getting an engine that is at least a little more powerful than you think you'll need. Not a lot, but some. Otherwise you will end up with a sudden gust of wind slamming it against a hillside.

    Also, what I call the "Land Cruiser" effect can occur: if it is underpowered, the engine will struggle too hard to perform the way you want and thus use more fuel than an engine designed with that torque and rpm in the center of its range. (I hereby officially christen this effect after the old-school Toyota Land Cruiser, which had a huge 6-cylinder engine that struggled to do things that were well within the design parameters of the rest of the vehicle. But with a 3rd-party kit, the stock 6-cylinder could be replaced with a V-8 of close to the same displacement, which was not only physically smaller than the original, but actually had quite a bit more horsepower and ALSO got significantly better gas mileage. It was a win-win. The original Toyota engine was designed such that common U.S. off-road scenarios were at the fringes of its performance curve, rather than the middle where it was most efficient.)

    (3) You don't want realtime telemetry at a 20km range. That would be (a) way too heavy, and (b) too expensive. Instead, you will want your on-board cameras to record the video to storage for retrieval and viewing later. And there are ways to overlay not just the clock on the video, but on-board sensor readouts, as well.

    So y

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