RogerBW's Blog

A Drone of My Own 20 August 2014

I've started playing with my drone. It's a Micro Drone 2.0 from Extreme Fliers, also available from Micro Drone and Amazon, with the camera module. With images; cc-by-sa on everything.

It's reasonably "micro", all right: diagonal wingspan including rotors is a shade over seven inches. To be honest, without the camera I'd call it a "toy quadrotor" rather than a "drone"; there's no command automation here. It's supplied with a conventional-looking four-channel remote control handset which runs on four AA batteries. The manual is basic, probably translated from the Chinese, and gets things wrong, specifically about which control mode is which; I have it set up helicopter-style, with the left stick giving "collective" (throttle) and "rudder" and the right stick giving "cyclic".

One gets a nominal 6-8 minute flying time from an hour's charge of the drone's lithium polymer battery, slightly less with the weight of the camera on board, and of course one could have multiple batteries if one were feeling keen. The charger's a USB device, the latest wheeze to avoid worrying about different mains voltage standards; I'm using a high-current mains to USB adaptor that I got with a 3G-to-802.11 bridge. For the moment I'm leaving the battery in place between flights, since it's tricky to work in and out with the camera in place and its position in the battery cage has a distinct effect on trim.

On startup, the drone initialises its internal IMU, then waits for the controller. When flying, it sounds like a quartet of elderly wasps, or perhaps one of those cheap and nasty motorcycles that seems as though it should run on a sewing-machine engine; it's rather quieter once it gets out of ground effect.

Flying is quite fiddly, as the thing's very lively, and of course susceptible to wind. (I'm a novice remote-control pilot, though I've done quite a lot of flight simming.) Yaw, pitch and roll hold are all reasonably solid, but actually hovering in place requires constant fiddling with the controls even once one has trimmed the thing for minimal drift. The weight of the camera certainly settles it down a bit, but any sort of fine manouevre will take plenty of practice. Fortunately the thing's built reasonably toughly, and it's got soft grass to land on.

There's a perceptible lag in response to control inputs, which can lead to pilot-induced oscillations, especially vertical ones. When descending vertically, the unit is quite prone to vortex ring stall, where applying power simply churns up the air above the drone rather than producing useful thrust. The solution to this, as on a larger aircraft, is move away from the vortices into clean air, usually by tilting it to get some lateral movement.

You can see the camera module at the bottom of the main body in the photo above; it's a little smaller than a generic USB stick. It takes basic 640x480 still pictures (probably less in video mode; I haven't tried that yet, as my flying skills are too embarrassing) and does decently well out of doors. It's not so great in low light indoors, for example in the poolhouse, but it's not really designed for that. It records to a MicroSD card. The trickiest thing about it is moving a finger on the control box to hit the shutter release, since flying is a two-handed job much of the time.

Not the most stable of platforms, but with enough light it manages not to blur too badly even when moving quite fast. (No Exif data so I don't know actual exposure times.)

The roof of my office, and my neighbours' garden over the fence. (That's not what I got it for!)

Over the pool-house roof.

Going a little higher.

Up from the garden, peeking onto the stoop.

Looking down onto the stoop.

Solar panels on the annexe roof.

Inspecting the roof and the solar panels there. (That is what I got it for! Also for fun.)

So: fun, yes. Useful, moderately, and I'm getting better at flying it. The obvious alternative would be a Parrot AR drone, but that needs a tablet or smartphone with consequent privacy implications; all right, I don't get GPS tracking or a full 720p camera with this, but for less than a fifth of the price of the Parrot I'm really not complaining. I suspect the logical next step is not to buy a bigger drone but to build my own, ideally with a bit more on-board intelligence. That could be a very long-term project.

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