I went to the Houston Mini-Maker Faire in January 2013 and for some reason seeing all the Star Wars droid replicas, electric cars, and 3D printers made me want to do something with the Arduino and/or Raspberry Pi I had sitting in my desk drawer. I was charmed by the 3D printers but I honestly couldn’t figure out why I should build one. But it was while looking at that hobby project that I found all the work being done on quadcopters and I found myself more interested in that than printing. And then I happened to see a Nova special titled Rise of the Drones that captured my imagination in a big way.
I’ve always been a fan of RC planes having had them since I was a kid. I’ve had several in my life including a gasoline powered control line model that was more scary than it was fun and a great park flyer that I still have. And while I like them I’ve also had trouble with the speed and how fast it can get out of control. RC helicopters on the other hand, were always more interesting to me but suffered from being more expensive and harder to fly. At least that is how it used to be. With modern micro-controllers, digital cameras, and cheap parts like accelerometers and gyros (thanks to the Wii, Sony Move, etc.) this has gotten a lot safer, easier, and opened up a whole new world of possibilities.
I have to admit, it got me dreaming of an autonomous copter flying around the area taking photos and providing a live video feed of its flight as it goes. All that is possible, but I’m going to take a more measured approach and ease into it. Sort of.
I know that I want an Arduino-based flight controller. I like Arduino because it is a powerful modern micro-controller that is relatively easy to code to. It is designed from the ground up as a real-time control system and that seems perfect for a helicopter. After checking into it, there are several options that seem very viable.
One that holds great appeal is the MultiWiiCopter. This project option combines a very inexpensive Arduino board with the insides of a Wii Motion Plus controller. The Wii component is a very cheap way to get a set of gyros and acceleromters connected to your Arduino. You can build one for about $50 which will act as the perfect platform for an RC-controlled quad as long as your comfortable soldering the parts (or you can order a board with all the pieces assembled for $93). However, it isn’t really designed for autonomous flight. You can add on a GPS/compass and other things but that isn’t what it was designed for. I might get one of these at some point in order to learn how it works compared to others.
The project I ultimately decided to make is based on a project named ArduPilot. Specifically designed for quadcopters now, ArduCopter is a robust solution with lots of enthusiast assistance in the form of blogs/forums/etc. It also comes in a great physical package with all the components and easy-to use connectors. With that in mind, I’ll create another post with all the details of what I have purchased so far, why (at least what my thinking was) and how it is going.