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Drone Development and Usage

Written by Michael Lynes

  • What is the latest in drone technology?
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Drone Wars

A long time ago…in a laboratory far, far away…

I was sitting at my lab bench, deep in thought, running the sequential transitions of my latest state machine control loop through my mind, when I felt a sudden stirring in the Force. I glanced up through the haze of solder smoke rising above my prototype as a young digital data engineer (DDE) stumbled in, looking a bit disheveled and out of breath, his hands full of blinking equipment.

“Sit! Sit!” I said, laying my 10X probe down and gesturing to the rolling chair beside me as I pushed my ancient oscilloscope to the side. I watched in silence as he placed his burden on the bench, a sigh escaping his lips as he massaged his hands. “There, that’s better,” I continued, giving him a friendly smile, “You look a little shaken up. And as we all know, the blazing hot August sands of the Jungian Wasteland are not to be traveled lightly.” He glanced in my direction, a puzzled look on his face as he opened his mouth to reply, but I did not give him a chance to interject.

“So, my young DDE, what brings you out this far?” I asked, nodding politely as he began to relate his wandering tale. At last, his flow of words wound down into silence, and I looked up, noting his slightly lost expression.

“Well, that’s quite a story!” I said, “Following a lost droid, did you say? No? Ah, a drone! What’s that? You say it stopped responding to your commands and went rogue, flying on and forcing you to chase it while its FPV camera kept displaying the name of the infamous OG-EE, Obi-wan Lyne-nobi?”

I paused for a beat, letting his words settle into my awareness, and then, following the promptings of my ancient discipline, I raised my gaze, meeting his eyes.

“Obi-wan, hmm. That’s a name I haven’t heard in a long time, a long time. You thought he was dead? No, he’s not dead. . .not yet. Take you to him? Well, that’s easy, he’s me!” I paused again, smiling at his wide-eyed look. “Don’t look so surprised. I haven’t gone by the name Obi-wan since, oh, since before you were born. A drone, though? I can’t say I remember ever owning a drone.” I laughed as his face fell, and then took pity on him once more. “No worries! It just so happens that my current project has led me to do a lot of research on this subject. So, grab a midichlorian-laced energy drink, plug your drone battery into the charger next to that power strip, and sit back and listen while I expound.”

HISTORY

Given that hopefully entertaining introduction, let me slip out of my Jedi robes and begin this missive with some history. Just like me, drones, a.k.a. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), have been around for a lo-o-o-ng time, and over the years they have changed a lot. The drones we are all familiar with—battery-powered, multi-rotor copters with RF remote control, 4k HD streaming cameras, and GPS-guided autonomous flight capabilities—are the most recent generation of UAVs. The origin of these flying craft goes back to the end of World War I—that is, if you restrict your definition to vehicles that operate under powered flight. There is an argument to be made however that the unmanned hot air balloons used by the Austrian army to deliver explosive charges within the city walls during their 1849 attack on Venice would also qualify as UAVs.

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As you can see in Figure 1, one of the driving forces behind UAV development over the past hundred years has been their utility in armed conflict. The advantages of using a UAV during battle are obvious. Attacks can be carried out on remote enemy positions with more precision than contemporary artillery, and without risking the lives of human pilots to do so. Also, the loss of a UAV has little cost to morale, while the damage done to the enemy can be significant.

Figure 1
A timeline of drone usage in military operations. (Source: University of Albany [1])
Figure 1
A timeline of drone usage in military operations. (Source: University of Albany [1])

In line with their focus on wartime applications, the webpage of the British Imperial War Museum [2] has an excellent write-up on the military history of drones. As you can read there, the infamous “buzz bombs” that were used by the Germans during the Blitz of London were a type of crude UAV, and, though their primitive guidance systems made them far less effective as compared to conventional high-altitude bombers, the psychological effect was profound.

Consortiq, a consulting group that specializes in helping their customers develop efficient, simple, and effective ways to use UAVs (more about them and their business later), has a comprehensive section on their website entitled the “A Not-So-Short History of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles” [3]. There, they trace the origin of this technology back to 1783, the year that the French innovators Joseph-Michael and Jacques-Etienne Montgolfier flew a hot air balloon of their own design in the first-ever public demonstration of unmanned aircraft.

Figure 2
Some UAV Form Factors (Source: The Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute MDPI [4])
Figure 2
Some UAV Form Factors (Source: The Multidisciplinary Digital Publishing Institute MDPI [4])

Figure 2 provides a neat graphical representation of the different modern form factors for various autonomous and semi-autonomous drones. And, lastly, Wikipedia has a short overview of the “flight stack,” the firmware application at the core of every modern UAV [5].

Figure 3 UAV flight stack block diagram
Figure 3
UAV flight stack block diagram

Regarding the embedded control application, there are three main real-time components to the flight stack, arranged in order such that the most time-critical tasks are lower and closer to the hardware sensors, battery monitor, and motor controls (Figure 3). Let’s take a quick look at each of these.

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Figure 4
Flight Control Vectors
Figure 4
Flight Control Vectors

Attitude Control: The attitude control section, meaning the algorithm that reacts to changes in the spatial orientation of the UAV (Figure 5) is typically the most time-critical. The aircraft must sense and react to external forces, maintain level flight, and potentially modify certain control structures in real time to sense and avoid obstacles.

Figure 5
UAV Components arranged in an exploded view (Source: Ebrary [6])
Figure 5
UAV Components arranged in an exploded view (Source: Ebrary [6])

Velocity Control: The second most time-critical section is velocity control. Depending on the complexity of this subsystem, the UAV may be able to sense its airspeed and groundspeed, as well as attain and maintain a set velocity, or a desired climb or descent rate, in the presence of adverse or favorable winds aloft.

Position Control: The least time-sensitive subsystem in the flight stack is position control. This subsystem can include GPS sensors and interfaces, radio ranging altimeters, and Attitude and Heading Reference System (AHARS) devices, all used to keep the UAV on course and at the proper altitude. This subsystem may interact directly with the user interface, providing feedback to the operator regarding the status of the UAV, and allowing the operator to fly the instrument remotely much as they might as a pilot in command of a manned aircraft.

Many companies make flight stack software, and these days it is not worth the effort to “roll your own.” Later in this article, we’ll discuss some of the best providers of this UAV component.

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Speaking of components—modern UAVs have a lot of them. Figure 5 shows the basic hardware subsystems of a typical UAV, arranged in an exploded view. In this type of quad-copter form factor, there are four rotor blades, constructed of either high-impact plastic or carbon fiber impregnated with resin. Also shown in this view are the four DC motors along with their associated speed controller boards, as well as the embedded flight controller main board and the power distribution board. All the components are mounted to the UAV airframe, typically made of plastic or carbon fiber, along with the battery. The total weight of all components is minimized as much as possible. The power-to-weight ratio is an important factor that determines how long/fast/high the drone can go before its power source is depleted and it must return to base.

The antenna, control receiver, and First Person View (FPV) transmitter all work together to receive command information from your phone-based or stand-alone controller, as well as send back images and status data over the same wireless link. The RF transmission power, as well as the uplink and downlink speeds, are typically asymmetrical as far more bandwidth and signal strength is required for the downlink channel (UAV-to-controller), than for the uplink direction.

As a side note, the world of drones comes with a whole bunch of new (to me) jargon and acronyms. To understand what enthusiasts mean when they refer to FPV (First Person View), ARF (Almost Ready to Fly), or CoG (Center of Gravity) I found a good resource dictionary on Oscar Liang’s hobbyist website [7]. Oscar also has a lot of tutorials on how to build your own FPV drone [8].

MARKET PLAYERS

As mentioned above, the world of UAV drones is vast. The UAV market has exploded in popularity, and the number and types of drones have kept pace. You can find extremely inexpensive off-the-shelf drone systems sold as toys in almost any store, with semi-autonomous operation, automatic leveling, return-to-home (RTH) capability, and even built-in cameras.

Force1 RC: The company Force1 RC [9], in business since 2012, has a full line of RC toys, with several types of drones in stock. For less than twenty dollars you can purchase the Force1 Scoot, a mini drone that can hover, avoid obstacles, soft land, and respond to either RF or hand gesture commands. For under $100, it also has the Blue Heron and Blue Jay, larger toy drones with cameras, live streaming video, 120-degree FPV capability, and long-lasting lightweight lithium batteries.

The next rung above the toy drones is the hobbyist-level UAVs, ranging in price from around $200 up to about $1,500. These devices are available from a huge number of suppliers, though there are a small number of industry leaders such as DJI [10] and Autel Robotics [11].

DJI: I found a PC Magazine article listing the best drones of 2023, many of which were either the DJI or the Autel Robotics brand [12]. In the “Creators on a Budget” category, I found the DJI Mini-3 (Figure 6). This drone is about $400 complete and comes with extended battery life, 4K HDR video, digital zoom, GPS navigation, 32Gb of onboard flash storage, and a 10-km controlled flight range. This device, along with many others, can be flown using the DJI Universal Drone Controller in combination with your Android or iOS-based smartphone. The controller itself has a large battery pack and can last up to six hours between charges, even while providing power to your smartphone.

Figure 6
DJI Mini-3
Figure 6
DJI Mini-3

DJI also has high-end drones for photography, such as the Air 2S model. Priced at just over $1,000, this is a folding quad-prop UAV, with a built-in 3-axis gimbal-stabilized 5.4k streaming video camera, obstacle sensing, a 256Gb storage card, and a 31-minute flight time.

Autel Robotics: Autel Robotics has a wide range of UAV offerings. The EVO Lite+ seen in Figure 7 is a long-range UAV that comes equipped with a one-inch CMOS sensor that has been optimized to film in low light, moonlight, or nighttime conditions. Costing just under $1,500, this model can provide 6k/30FPS streaming video, 20-megapixel still photos, and up to 24km of flight range. Autel has many other UAVs as well. On its website the company acknowledges that DJI is the true market leader, so it tries to differentiate itself on features and specialized applications.

Figure 7
Autel EVO Lite+
Figure 7
Autel EVO Lite+

APPLICATIONS

Speaking of applications: The popularity of UAV for hobbyists has led to the adoption of UAVs for use in many types of industries—everything from full-scale enterprises like Amazon and Walmart to SMEs like Grub Hub and Zipline.

Allerin: Allerin is a software solution provider that specializes in Internet-of-Things (IoT), blockchain, data sciences, and artificial intelligence (AI). It has several offerings in the IoT-UAV crossover space, developing sophisticated networked applications to run on and control UAV devices. On Allerin’s website I found a list of UAV applications (Figure 8) for various industries [13]. Some of those listed are:

  • Aerial photography—Airborne Studios: Founded in 2017 by Eddie Graham and Brandon Hower, the company bills itself as “drone camera experts,” listing Exxon Mobile, the band Leonard Skynyrd, and the New York Stock Exchange among their clients.
  • Shipping and delivery—Amazon: The largest online retailer in the world is building a massive drone fleet to accomplish its goal of creating a sophisticated sense-and-avoid system that will enable drone-powered deliveries at greater distances while avoiding other aircraft, people, pets, and obstacles.
  • Geographic and archeological mapping—Lidar USA: Lidar USA worked with Josh Gates of Expedition Unknown to make a 3D map of the lost city of El Mirador using their UAV-mounted Snoopy HD-LiDAR. Over the course of two weeks, they created a bare-earth model of the Pyramid despite the dense jungle vegetation that covered the site.
  • Search and rescue—DSLRPros: founded in 2012 by filmmaking enthusiasts, DSLRPros specializes in search and rescue (SAR) drones and related technologies. They can provide cost-effective FLIR thermal UAVs that can be deployed in minutes.
  • Agriculture—The University of Florida: IFAS extension provides guidance to farmers in the use of drones for precision agricultural spraying, surveying of crops, and photogrammetry to measure crop growth and harvesting criteria. Various technologies, including IR imaging, hyper-spectral analysis, and laser-reflected imaging are used.

Figure 8
UAV Applications (Source: Allerin)
Figure 8
UAV Applications (Source: Allerin)

Consortiq: Consortiq, mentioned above, provides consulting services for industries that want to explore the use of UAV tech. Originally founded as the company Cloud 12 in 2012, their initial focus was helping the film and video industry transition from manned aircraft for aerial shots to UAVs. Since then, they’ve expanded to training various industries on UAV technology, including oil and gas mining concerns, live broadcasting and news organizations, electric power generation companies, NASA drone pilots, and wireless phone providers such as Verizon. They also have trained operators of specialized UAVs for delivering critical medical supplies to remote areas. To date, they have trained over 1,800 candidates on UAV tech, and they’re a good resource partner to look up if you need information on using UAVs in your specific industry.

ROLLING YOUR OWN DRONE

Last but not least are the many UAV DIY kits that are available today. Building and customizing your own drone has never been easier, with many companies large and small providing UAV components for the drone builder. As previously mentioned, Oscar Liang’s fine website has a comprehensive explanation of his own bespoke FPV drone build. As seen in Figure 9, Oscar’s tutorial gives the finer points of drone fabrication, including parts lists, a wiring and assembly guide, detailed fabrication tips, a firmware programming guide, and insider tips and tricks to help the reader have a satisfactory drone building experience. Please note that this is an advanced project, but still well within the skill set of most Circuit Cellar readers.

Figure 9
DIY Droning
Figure 9
DIY Droning

Modal AI: Based in San Diego California, Modal AI was spun out of Qualcomm in 2018. Modal specializes in AI-enabled flight stacks and control platforms. Its VoXL line of drone development kits and tools, combined with their Blue UAS Framework environment, provides a powerful customizable platform for advanced drone research and development [14]. Modal also provides design and consulting services, helping you realize your vision and grow your in-house drone expertise. For UAS Autopilot software development it has the PX4 open-source flight core that can be paired with VOXL for obstacle avoidance and indoor or outdoor GPS-denied navigation [15]. Flight Core can also be used independently as a standalone, high-performance, secure flight controller.

Chetu: Chetu is a software development consultant partner with over 2,800 in-house development personnel. Chetu specializes in world-class software solutions, including full-featured drone software development kits [16]. It provides SME and enterprise-class drone management software solutions based on popular drone adapters, payload managers, connectivity managers, and APIs. Developers can also purchase and leverage their off-the-shelf toolkits and framework packages for their UAS/UAV implementation projects.

NXP: NXP also has a presence in the UAV space with their HoverGames drone kit [17]. As outlined in Figure 10, this kit features the mechanical, electrical, and other components needed to evaluate the RDDRONE-FMUK66 drone, adding BLDC motor control capabilities, and a platform to which it can be mounted. Designed with the HoverGames coding challenges in mind, it is to be noted that the kit is intended for the professional developer and does not include software. This NXP hardware package will work with popular third-party software stacks, like the PX4 from Modal AI mentioned earlier.

Figure 10
NXP HoverGames kit block diagram
Figure 10
NXP HoverGames kit block diagram

HolyBro: HolyBro is a multivendor distributor of drone components, including development kits from most major vendors [18]. They have many of the PX4 development kits in stock (Figure 11). The popular PX4 Vision kit is available from them for under $2,000.

Figure 11
PX4 Vision Dev Kit
Figure 11
PX4 Vision Dev Kit

ESCAPING TATOOINE

“So,” I said, looking up and catching his eye, “That’s enough talking from me. You look a bit tired, and I can see that your drone battery is fully charged.” I watched his face, noting his confusion as I folded his drone in one smooth motion and stood, gesturing toward the door of the lab.

“Gather the rest of your equipment, we should be going.” I smiled inwardly, and then continued answering his unspoken question, “Yes, I will be coming with you. It’s getting late, and though the sand people are easily frightened, they will be back, and in greater numbers. I think I should come along and see you safely back to your cubicle.” I paused for a moment, holding the lab door open and allowing my grin to show.

“I like you, young DDE, and I can sense your potential. It’s time you learned the ways of the Force, if you are to become a Jedi like your father before you.” Without a backward glance, I strode out the door, smiling at his belated laughter as he, at last, got the joke.

CONCLUSION

All kidding aside, UAV technology, and its associated impact on our society, is still in its early stages. The confluence of drones, robotics, and artificial intelligence is already producing breathtaking advances on multiple fronts, too many in fact to delve into in this one article. I find the topic fascinating, and I hope you do as well. As always, this is only one old Jedi’s opinion. You should do your own research, and may the Force be with you…always. 

REFERENCES
[1] Drone History—University of Albany: https://www.albany.edu/~hk923418/dronehistory-external.html
[2] Imperial War Museum – Short History of Drones: https://www.iwm.org.uk/history/a-brief-history-of-drones
[3] Consortiq Consulting – A Not-so-short-history of UAV: https://consortiq.com/uas-resources/short-history-unmanned-aerial-vehicles-uavs
[4] MDPI website: Investigation of Autonomous Multi-UAV Systems for Target Detection in Distributed Environment: Current Developments and Open Challenges – https://www.mdpi.com/2504-446X/7/4/263
[5] Wikipedia:UAV – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unmanned_aerial_vehicle
[6] Ebrary: A Historical Overview of Drone and UAV Technologies: https://ebrary.net/182376/health/needs
[7] Oscar Liang: Jargon webpage: https://oscarliang.com/fpv-dictionary/
[8] Oscar Liang: Drone DIY build webpage: https://oscarliang.com/how-to-build-fpv-drone/
[9] Force1 RC: https://force1rc.com/products/scoot-hands-free-hover-drone-red
[10] DJI: https://www.dji.com/
[11] Autel Robotics: https://www.autelrobotics.com/product/evo-ii-pro.html
[12] PC Magazine: Best Drones of 2023:  https://www.pcmag.com/lists/best-drones
[13] Allerin: Blog: https://www.allerin.com/blog/10-stunning-applications-of-drone-technology
[14] Modal AI – Drone development kits: https://www.modalai.com/pages/development-kits
[15] PX4 – Open-source Autopilot – Drone Software: https://px4.io/
[16] Chetu – Drone Software Development: https://www.chetu.com/aviation/drones.php
[17] NXP – HoverGames drone kit: https://www.nxp.com/design/designs/nxp-hovergames-drone-kit-including-rddrone-fmuk66-and-peripherals:KIT-HGDRONEK66
[18] HolyBro – Drone Dev Kits – https://holybro.com/collections/multicopter-kit/products/px4-vision-dev-kit-v1-5

SOURCES
Whitepaper: Drone Development using IoT https://www.allerin.com/white-papers/drone-development-using-iot
Photography: Airborne Studios – https://www.airborne-studios.com/about
Logistics/shipping and delivery: Amazon Prime Air – https://www.aboutamazon.com/news/transportation/amazon-prime-air-prepares-for-drone-deliveries
Mapping: Lidar USA – https://www.lidarusa.com/
Search and Rescue: DSLR Pros – https://www.dslrpros.com/sar-drones.html
Agricultural: University of Florida – https://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/publication/AE565
Accessories— UAV Flight Map: https://www.uavflightmap.com/en/?gclid=Cj0KCQjwj_ajBhCqARIsAA37s0z1qz0z95s7xZ0Osw9zAunlrQoVFFrxod_To4wM0RdMP1y45QMydb4aAgKwEALw_wcB
MathWorks – AR Drone Simulink Development Kit: https://www.mathworks.com/matlabcentral/fileexchange/43719-ar-drone-simulink-development-kit-v1-1
Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MxrySx1m8VQ
DroneZon – Drone Newsletter: https://www.dronezon.com/latest-uavs-news-drone-uses-research-innovation/

PUBLISHED IN CIRCUIT CELLAR MAGAZINE • AUGUST 2023 #397 – Get a PDF of the issue

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Michael Lynes is an entrepreneur who has founded several startup ventures. He was awarded a BSEE degree in Electrical Engineering from Stevens Institute of Technology and currently works as an embedded software engineer. When not occupied with arcane engineering projects, he spends his time playing with his three grandchildren, baking bread, working on ancient cars, backyard birdwatching, and taking amateur photographs. He’s also a prolific author with over thirty works in print. His latest series is the Cozy Crystal Mysteries. Book one, Moonstones and Murder, is already in print, and book two is on its way. His latest works include several collections of ghost stories, short works of general fiction, a collection called Angel Stories, and another collection called November Tales, inspired by the fiction of Ray Bradbury. He currently lives with his wife Margaret in the beautiful, secluded hills of Sussex County, New Jersey. You can contact him via email at mikelynes@gmail.com.

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Drone Development and Usage

by Michael Lynes time to read: 14 min