[ Tara and I are currently in Boulder, CO at Sparkfun. This is the first post looking at what we’re working on.]
We’ve been thinking about personal drones and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) a lot recently. Both in the context of how these devices could be useful around a house or neighborhood, as well as how they can help with volunteer projects like Safecast – and if these use cases might apply elsewhere. When Sparkfun invited us to help kick off their new ‘Hacker In Residence’ program exploring this drone question a bit more seemed like the ideal project to work on. There are a number of personal drone options available on the market, but for the most part they are either difficult to work with or limited in functionality. Weight restrictions and limited flight time is a big issue with most commercial options. We wanted to see if we could easily hack an out of the box platform like the Parrot AR Drone to add extra functionality or if it made more sense to approach this problem from another direction entirely.
Mary Meeker announced in her recent Internet Trends report that we are entering a third computing cycle of ‘Wearables/Drivables/Flyables/Scannables.’ As founders of member-driven community spaces, Crash Space and LA Makerspace, we see these technologies being used first-hand and hacked on by both hobbyists and experienced hardware engineers. The scope of where they are headed is infinite.
In the days leading up to our arrival we had to seriously think about the use cases. Sparkfun carries a wide variety of environmental sensors (temperature, humidity, barometric pressure), Safecast has high quality compact radiation sensors… but would this appeal to a less scientific or less niche group of people? And what about the device itself – do we want something with extreme maneuverability? Or something with autopilot? The options were really unlimited.
We decided that the focus for our two weeks of prototyping should be to add a much better downward facing camera to a device that could remain airborne for a period of time well beyond the normal battery life. This would enable high-res event documentation from a previously unreachable aerial view or new avenues for personal security surveillance. We thought if we could solve this first use case, then it would be easy to swap out the camera for any number of other sensors.
We received a wonderful welcome when we arrived in Boulder. In addition to providing us with a place to sleep while in town, Sparkfun gave us a dedicated room to work from at their offices. Upon arrival we got the full tour of the building – from Engineering to Shipping – everyone was super welcoming and it was awesome to see where all the red box magic happens.
The team at Sparkfun have been incredibly friendly, helpful and accommodating every step of the way, especially considering we’re pretty much making this up as we go. They also provided us with everything from a shopping list we gave them filled with parts from their catalog as well as bits and pieces from all over the web. We’d like to give an extra special shout-out to Sparkfun’s Director of Education, Lindsay Levkoff for setting this whole gig up!
TWO PRONGED APPROACH
Two weeks isn’t a terribly long time to solve a problem like this from scratch, so it’s lucky that we’re not starting entirely from scratch having messed around with some of these devices before and relying on some already ready to go solutions like Dropcam which we hoped would save us some time, rather than spending a week (or months) reinventing the wheel.
In anticipation of things not working out exactly perfect the very first time we decided that a two pronged approach would keep things moving in the event that we ran into any major hurdles. The breakout looks like this:
Quadcopter as platform.
We are using a Parrot AR Drone as the base because it just works right out of the box with no tinkering and is something that pretty much anyone with $300 to blow can get ahold of. Having spent time with several other brands of quad and hex copters, we knew that not having to spend a week calibrating and fine tuning balance was crucial to making this work in our 2 week window.
We hypothesized that removing the battery and adding a tether for power might give us more weight to play with as well as extended flight time. For the camera we decided on using a Dropcam because of similar out of the box instant functionality and the bonus of live video over wifi. Combining the power source for both of these devices which have different requirements would be the main trick. For very specific movement control, this plan definitely comes out ahead.
The Parrot works great as is, but is perfectly balanced for it’s own weight, and we want to add more to that. By stripping off the top hull entirely we save some weight, and luckily the Dropcam that we’re adding is fairly light on it’s own. There’s also a good bit of space between the circuit board and the plastic bottom of the Parrot, so by cutting out a small circle and sliding the Dropcam behind it we were able to attach the camera without any additional materials.
After we confirmed that the Parrot was able to lift the Dropcam and it’s own battery, we quickly moved onto attaching the power cord so we could extend the time in the air (battery life maxes out at about 15 mins). After stripping wires, soldering, hot glue gunning and zip tying, we got the power cord split into 11v (Parrot) and 5v (Dropcam) and were ready to test.
The Parrot turned on and we heard the sweet sound of the initialization tones, then the propellers started going and we thought we’d see lift. Unfortunately after it draws power and goes into lift mode a brownout occurred. We’re currently attaching things to a scope to see what is going wrong.
Balloon as platform.
Quadcopters are cool for sure, but they require effort to actually fly. We wondered if removing that concern entirely might be a successful approach. Using the hardware from a microblimp as the drive controls and a weather balloon filled with helium for the lift, we thought perhaps this would just stay up on it’s own, allowing us to spend all the time on perfecting the payload. We decided to mount a Hack HD camera to the bottom for our improved visuals, though logged to a card rather than live (a problem we’d need to address later). As a bonus, both the camera and motors run off 3.7v which we hoped would simplify things. While the balloon approach lacks the fine tuned movement of a quadcopter, it completely solves the “how do we keep this up in the air for a long time” problem without even trying.
HackHD – 1080p Camera Module Test:
We’ve been trying to use components that anyone can get their hands-on so we bought some helium used for party balloons but quickly found out that it’s not even close to being pure and the tank we got didn’t come close to filling the 5 ft in diameter, 100g weather balloon. The weather balloon barely floated and thus the cardboard case with the HackHD Camera and Microblimp didn’t lift off the ground. We spoke to a company that sells helium and they said that they would sell some to us if we were using it for scientific purposes and it would cost about $100 to fill our balloon. At this point we are reconsidering the balloon platform and how to fill it without having to purchase a gas. Maybe hot air?…of course that will lead to a whole other set of tests.
We have 6 working days left at Sparkfun and we will continue to hack away at our prototypes. We already have some possible solutions in the works but would love to get any feedback or ideas from the Interwebz on how to solve our issues!
To be continued…
In 2010 Sean co-founded the first hackerspace in Los Angeles, Crash Space. Sean is co-founder and director of Safecast, a nonprofit environmental monitoring company. They have been prototyping a number of drones for Safecast that will carry radiation and air quality sensors to hard to reach locations.
Tara is co-founder and Chief Encouragement Officer at LA Makerspace, a family friendly hackerspace in Los Angeles, and co-created Represent.LA to connect and promote the Los Angeles tech startup community. Tara has been working with youth on DIY skill building and following their passionate interests through the LA Makerspace and MacArthur funded Digital Media Learning Research Hub. She is a Forbes Contributor where she writes about Women in Technology and other tech tidbits.