An “Exciting” Test Flight

Today was a test flight of the F550 and boy did it turn out to be eventful!

A little background.  A while back I had a minor crash when experimenting with batteries to find out why I was only getting 4 minutes of flight time when I should be getting much more.  Since I had to remove the top anyway I figured this was a perfect time to try move all of the electronics inside to give it a much cleaner look.

IMG_1835I got it all in there but the squishly little balls in the anti-vibration plate were heavily compressed (see picture) and I was worried that vibration would cause the APM Flight Controller (FC) to go a little loopy.

To quote the APM wiki.

High vibrations can lead to the copter rapidly climbing as soon as altitude hold is engaged.

I considered flying in the back yard but, since there was practically a full rebuild, I figured I had better give myself some room and there are lots of overhanging trees.  One of the few smart things I did today!

I set up instead at a local field with plenty of room, confirmed I had a good GPS lock, and decided to launch it in “Position Hold” mode, which should use the barometer to automatically hold altitude and the GPS to keep it in the same location.  the plan was to just let it hover until the battery was low.

I armed the motors, pushed up on the throttle and up she went!

She was climbing fast and at a height of about 30ft I backed the throttle off and it stopped right where I needed it…except…that never happened!  Instead she kept climbing like a rocket and, at the same time, started moving away from me.

By now I had the throttle all the way down and she still climbed, topping off at about 45 meters (almost 150′).

Of course, I did what any self respecting drone pilot would do.  I PANICKED!

After having it spin in place for a while I realized that it had sort of stabilized.  It wasn’t climbing anymore and it was staying in place.  But how to get it down?  I had the throttle at minimum and it was just hanging there laughing at me.

Figuring that vibration was messing with the barometer I switched to manual mode (Stabilize).  Of course…since I had the throttle at minimum that immediately turned all the props off and she dropped like a stone!

I quickly gave it throttle again, got it back up in the air, and after a frantic 30 seconds managed to get it back under control.  I had to keep on top of it all the time but it was flying now and responding to my inputs.  Phew!

It was about this time that I realized I never actually hooked up the little beeper to the battery so that it would beep when it was getting low.  Not worries though I had set it to auto land on a low battery warning so I decided to just let it ride.

Unfortunately the jamming in of the FC seemed to have pushed it off kilter and it took constant backward / left pressure on the controls to keep it in place.

All way fine for a while until, suddenly, it took off for the sky at a great rate of knots with no input from me!, topping out this time at around 100′.

Again I put the throttle all the way down to no avail, and then (stupidly) put it in Stabilize mode again.  And, just like before, it dropped like a stone again!

Tidy

After moving the connections inside

I powered up but this time wasn’t quite fast enough (perhaps because less power was available) and the best I could manage was a crash at a speed low enough to cause pieces to fly off, but not damage anything permanently.

It wasn’t all bad news.  The flight time was better (7 minutes) but still not good enough.  And the gimbal I had mounted to replace the one that went nuts every time the thing took off seems to be working perfectly.

Sadly though it looks like I will be spending a happy evening moving everything back on the top.  Not hard to do…just a PIA.

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Who’s Grass is Greener?

Some time ago I was talking with a friend who was pretty fed up with her job.

grass_is_greenerDespite the fact that her work was intellectually engaging, provided interaction with interesting people, and the autonomy to do things the way she wanted to do them, there were some niggling chronic issues that were bothering her.

She was starting to become disengaged or, as she put it, “The grass elsewhere is looking pretty green these days.”

That reminded me of a quote and so I told her “Your grass would be just as green if you would water it once in a while.”

She looked at me with a mix of shock and surprise, then laughed and said “You know…you’re right!”

She’s still at the same place and every so often I get a ping from her saying “Still watering that grass!”

If you’re starting to feel like a change, look around you.  Is the situation really that bad that you can’t fix it with some care and feeding?  Would the change elsewhere be better than the change you can make in your own back yard?

Keep watering that grass and see what you can grow!

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900 Miles on a Motorcycle – It’s All Dolphins!

I have just spent the past few days enjoying the best scenery and back roads that the Catskills and Adirondacks have to offer with the wonderful folks from Backroads magazine.  

It’s hard to put into words how great this trip was.  The weather was perfect and the ride pace set by my good friend MB was spot on – fast enough to enjoy the roads to the full but without being a hero.  We rode through spectacular scenery and little towns with architecture straight out of a fairy tale.  I spent a good deal of time checking out the beautiful old stone churches with tall spires and thinking how great they would look photographed from the air – my current obsession.

While on the trip I finally came to realize that the bike I bought new in 2001 is now the old girl of the group. Despite that she still rides great and, even though at least 50hp down on most of the bikes we were riding with, can hold her own.  After 15 years the old girl can still fly. 

MB and I were joined by Jeff, an honest to goodness private detective sadly minus the obligatory fedora.  Hanging out with Jeff and MB was a blast.  Their irrepressible charm and quick wit turned even the mundane items such as ordering lunch into a laugh fest for all concerned.  My cheeks ached from laughing so much.

Over lunch on Friday we talked about how sad it is that so many people are afraid to enjoy life.  When I told people I was going away for several days of motorcycle riding many assumed the worse.  As Jeff put it “People are afraid to go in the water because of the one in a million possibility of being eaten by a Great White when they are far more likely to encounter Dolphins.”

This led to the catch phrase “It’s all dolphins” being used for the rest of the trip.  This caused a few raised eyebrows with the wait staff:

  • “How was dinner guys?”
  • “It’s all dolphins!”
  • “?”

Backroads motorcycle magazine

On Backroads rides most of the riding is done in your own group, and at your own pace, with everyone meeting up at the end of the day for some lively chat and a few drinks.

If this is your first time with Backroads the first thing you will notice is just how friendly people are.  Everyone is family. People will walk up to you, shake hands and start chatting as though you have known each other for years.  Brian and Shira somehow know everyone personally and have great stories of their own but, as hosts, are in much demand.

Sadly our little troop all had things to do and couldn’t stay so we headed home early on Saturday morning.  I followed MB down as far as Lake George where we ate breakfast and then went our separate ways, with him blasting home on the highways while I took a more meandering route down through the Catskills and Bear Mountain.

I arrived home mid afternoon on Saturday after about 900 miles of amazing back-road riding in near perfect weather.  My BMW performed flawlessly and now needs to be rewarded with a service and a new rear tire, which is completely shot.

It’s a shame that many people will never experience something like this because of fear of the unknown.  Yes, things can go wrong.  But more often things go right and, personally, some of the most amazing times I have started out as a disaster and ended with the making of life long friends and memories.

I once heard the quote “Everyone dies, but not everyone lives” and that resonates with me personally.  Don’t be afraid!  Get out there and enjoy life.  It’s all dolphins!

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Who knew it had been so long?

I don’t write as often as I would like…but I do still blog and have enjoyed (almost) every minute of it.

Capture

I often find myself sending links to older posts because they were relevant to a conversation.  I’ve received many compliments…and a few rants.  It’s all good.

For the people that have followed, commented, complimented, joked, argued, and complained on my blog over the past 5 years – thanks!

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Building an F450 Quadcopter – She’ll no take the strain Captain!!

I added a gimbal, larger battery, FPV TX and LED lights to Gerry (my daughter’s name for the quad).  But what happens when you add too many farkles to your quadcopter build?

When flying around on a perfectly calm day it was OK, but still lost altitude on runs and would occasionally stall and twitch.  But anything more than a breeze and Gerry was all over the place and a constant assault of wind would actually cause it lose so much altitude that it would crash.

Why is this so?

This picture from the log tells an interesting story – at least it is interesting to me.

TooHeavy

Red line is Throttle In (what I’m doing). Green line is Throttle Out (what the flight controller sends to the motors).
Blue line is altitude (graphed on the right).  Time (min) can be seen across the top.

The flight controller has a value (THR_MID) that adjusts the throttle so that the middle on the controller provides enough power to hover.  For example if the quad is heavy then it might take 60% of throttle to actually maintain a hover and this allows the user to still position the throttle in the mid point.  These can be graphed showing the Throttle In (from the transmitter) and Throttle Out (how much power the flight controller is sending to the motors).

The problem is that if the THR_MID is way off then switching between modes that automatically adjust (Loiter, Pos. Hold, Alt. Hold) and ones that don’t (Stabilize) can cause a sudden change in the throttle being applied.

At the 1 minute mark on the graph we can see the throttle is between 40-60% in Pos Hold mode and the quad should be holding altitude.  But on this day it was windy and we can see as the altitude goes up and down and the throttle is bouncing off the 100% mark.  Clearly it is struggling to keep the quad at the right altitude.

Just before the 3 minute mark I switched to stabilize, the Throttle Out drops to the same value as Throttle In and the quad starts to fall…FAST!

I immediately give it full throttle but it’s not enough to stop it hitting the deck in what can best be described as a ‘hard landing’.

sadwalkI tried again and the quad was really struggling to maintain altitude – you can see Throttle Out bouncing off 100% repeatedly. Despite the APM putting out near 100% the 5 min mark it continues to lose altitude and my desperate application of full throttle does nothing. It hits the deck again and I decide it’s time to go home.

If you were to place a ruler on the green throttle out line and draw a straight line that best fit the data; you will see that it has an upward slope. The reason for this is that the battery voltage is dropping as the battery runs down.  Since motor speed is a function of voltage fewer volts = less lift.  Basically the quad is under powered for the weight it is carrying.

I tried using a smaller battery to cut weight but it still lost altitude, was still twitchy (where it would periodically stop to correct itself) and near the end of battery life it started going up and down in a very odd fashion.

Baphomet-pentagramFrankly it felt possessed and I started to wonder about exorcism as a real option!  I later figured out this was because it was starting to start the auto land because the battery was low, but then as it dropped the voltage would climb and back up it would go. 

At home more googling and chatting with friends on Quadcopters (yes, I now consider many of these folks friends) and a possible solution emerged.

The PILOT_ACCEL_Z value is used to tell the APM how fast it can climb.  By bringing this down from 250 cm/s to 50 cm/s it should mean that the APM flight controller won’t ask for more than the quad can give and that should stop it getting confused.  I also properly calibrated the battery so that the auto land didn’t kick in too early, as it was consistently under reading the actual voltage by about 1v.

I took Gerry out for a fly and…what a difference!  Smooooooth flying.  None of the crazy jerkiness that it had before and almost no altitude loss.  It did eventually start to lose altitude but it was now controllable and could be recognized for what is was – a battery that was getting low.  Sure enough each time the altitude loss started to occur the low battery beeper would go off.  I ran through three batteries and walked away with a smile on my face.

So, there we have it.  I now have a quad that flies beautifully and is no longer possessed.  With the smaller batteries flight times are short but the future plan is to upgrade the battery to a 4S  (which can output up to 16.8v) which should mean the quad has enough power that I can start to increase the PILOT_ACCEL_Z rating to give it a little more zip.

IMG_1653

*** Pro Tip ***

If you want to know what value THR_MID should be set to, fly in stability mode for a couple of minutes, land and then check the value being displayed in TRIM_THROTTLE.  If it is over 700 you have a seriously underpowered copter.  Under 300 and you are massively overpowered.  

Adjusting your THR_MID value to the same as TRIM_THROTTLE will make transitions between manual and automatic (atl. hold, pos. hold etc.) modes much less troublesome.

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Building an F450 Quadcopter – Adding a Mobius Camera and Gimbal

Sheraton_top

Sheraton Mahwah

Multirotors are amazing tools for capturing stunning video and photos from angels and locations that would previously have been impossible.  But spend any time watching aerial video and you will quickly realize that image stabilization is a must if you want keep your audience from feeling seasick.

Some of this can be done with software but, while this helps, it does so at the expense of quality. If you are really serious about it you are going to need a stabilized gimbal.

For those not in the know a gimbal is a piece of equipment that will keep your camera stable regardless of what the platform it is on is doing.  I’m sure there’s a good explanation involving sensors and things but I prefer to think of it as magic.

Here’s what one looks like in action.

And here’s what it looks like in the natural world

Gimbals are so important that the first drone film festival, held in New York on March 7th, wouldn’t accept submissions that were not shot using a gimbal.

Mobius

For the camera I opted for the Mobius Actioncam. This little sturdy camera has proven itself to have comparable quality to a GoPro but at about 1/3rd the cost and weight.  Having already lost one GoPro while filming I didn’t want to risk that kind of money again.

Of course the GoPro is practically a standard and so there are many more gimbal options to choose from if you go in that direction.  For the Mobius there was only one gimbal that fit and reviews of that were mixed, but I decided to go for it anyway.

mobius1

What did I get myself in to?

The HobbyKing video said that the gimbal could be assembled in 10 minutes.  

As soon as I opened the pack and saw all the little pieces I knew that wasn’t going to happen, but it really wasn’t that hard to do and with some patient following of the instructions I had it all together in a little over an hour.  One thing that helped was downloading the PDF version of the instructions so that I could zoom in and save my poor old eyes from unnecessary strain.

IMG_1610To power it I made a special lead which could go in between the power lead and the battery with pigtails coming off and used JT connectors so that I can disconnect the gimbal easily.

Now it was time to flash the firmware which was achieved by following the instructions in this video.

By far the longest part of this was that I had to downgrade my kids laptop from Windows 8 to Windows 7, since the software provided only runs on Windows 7 or XP.  Why the gimbal isn’t provided pre-flashed is beyond me.  

APM Config

APM Configuration

I wanted to be able to control the tilt of the camera by remote and just two wires are needed to set this up.  I was a bit confused initially because all the pictures I saw showed the 9 pins with the wire going to the top.

Only when looking at the gimbal under a magnifying glass did I discover it was upside down and I really needed to be hooking up the bottom pin.  I configured the APM to use pin 11 on the for control (off of channel 6 from the controller) and as soon as I did that everything magically worked.

That left the last task of finding a good place for it on the quad.  I wanted it to be placed forwards so that there would be less chance of legs showing in the pictures.  That meant moving the battery (previously slung underneath) to a new location inside but positioned towards the back of the quad and moving the receiver from the top of the platform to the bottom.  Nothing too difficult and the use of a few well placed zip ties and we were good to go.

With the weather finally starting to warm up I’m looking forward to getting back out there and capturing some nice shots of the area. 

Only thing left to do on the quad now is add FPV!

 

Note:  An alternative that I considered was a kit that transforms the Mobius into a GoPro form factor – affectionately known as a “Gobius” – which allows for a much wider range of gimbals.

Gobius

 

 

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Building an F450 quadcopter – Removing the Wobble

With plenty of flight modes now available it was time to address the wobble I noticed on the first flight. 

Some Googling pointed to the most likely candidate for wobble and the copter sounding “angry” was that the P-gain was too high.  I don’t know what that means but I figured that this would be easy to take care of.  Take off in Altitude Hold, run Auto Tune and, voilà!  Problem solved.  

Unfortunately it turned out to be more difficult than that.

With my new-found knowledge of how to set up the controller I was able to configure one of the options to be Altitude Hold, and set up a switch to start Auto Tune and I set off to get it done.

It was a somewhat windy day so I chose a local school (it was Saturday) that had a nice square protected on three side by buildings thinking this would give me some protection.

I took off in stabilize, stopped at about 15′ and switched to altitude hold.  Immediately the quad shot up about another 20′.  It was now high enough that it was no longer protected by the low buildings and it started to drift fast!  I immediately pressed down on the throttle and it came down, but much slower than I hoped.  I switched back to stabilize as it got near the ground and it dropped very fast, bounced once and landed up side down.  Bummer!

A quick check and things seemed OK, or so I thought.

I sent her back up again and exactly the same thing happened.  This time I had left myself more room and tried to leave it in alt. hold, but now it was really acting oddly.  Pressing the lever to make it go forwards caused it to climb more each time and, with the wind, it was now high up and drifting over the top of the school buildings.  I was convinced it was going to end up on the roof and, in a last desperate act, pushed forwards all the way.  Finally it responded and shot away from the school.  Bringing it down again was, once again, very slow and with the lever all the way down I switched back to stabilize.  Unfortunately the throttle all the way down in stabilize basically means turn the props off and the quad drop out from the sky like a brick.

Time for some self-analysis and to find the culprit of the problems with altitude hold.

vibrationMore Googling revealed that altitude hold issues are often caused by vibration.  Fortunately the APM captures logs every time you fly and I was able to download those into Mission Planner and (after some experimentation) view the vibration logs. This proved to me that this wasn’t the problem. 

flight_mapIt also showed me that this little APM flight controller is super cool. If you have time it is well worth looking into the logs and what they can tell you.  You can even upload these into Goole Earth and get a 3D picture of your flights complete with color coding to show you which flight mode you were in.  Nice!!

Since Auto Tune was off the cards until I could figure out what was wrong with the altitude hold it was time to start asking for help.  Someone on the Quadcopters group provided me with the settings they had that worked and, in comparing those, I noticed that a TRIM_THROTTLE value of 33% seemed much too low compared with his settings.  This is APM’s estimate of the throttle required to maintain a level hover calculated automatically from the pilot’s throttle input while in stabilize mode.  Mine was way too low and actually outside of the 40-60% that is the mid point for altitude hold.

On a hunch that I hadn’t flown in stabilize mode enough for it to get a good reading I went into the back yard and ran through two fully charged batteries doing nothing but trying to keep it in place in stabilize.  Then it was off to a large open area and, voilà!  Alt hold was now working without any crazy behavior!  I was losing altitude on long runs, but for the most part it was well-behaved.  Checking later I found the  TRIM_THROTTLE value of was now a much more sensible 43%.

While working on identifying the Alt hold issue I had also found out that I could assign a knob on the controller to Ch 6, and set that up such that I could adjust the P-Gains while in flight.  I did that, used the knob to back off the Rate Roll and Rate Pitch P gains until it calmed down.  When I got home I found out I had dropped from .15 to .13 so I locked those values in and saved the configuration file to my hard drive as a baseline.

Oh, and for the record, let me just say that testing altitude hold while tying the quad down to a table gives the barometer false readings and doesn’t work, so don’t try this :)

But what about Auto Tune?  Now that I had a copter that could stay in the air I went out the next day with a fully charged battery and ran it.  It is very odd watching your quad do it’s dance with no input from you, but it finished without incident.  The results?  Terrible!  It was back to being funky again and very difficult to control.  The good news – remember above when I said I saved my working results as a baseline?  Well, I just restored those.  My old developer habits still keep me honest.

I still have a problem with the craft losing altitude when flying forwards.  I think I might have improved that by stuffing the APM with cotton wool, since I had lost the little piece of foam.  Sadly that was three weeks ago and I have not had a chance to fly since then when it wasn’t raining, snowing or blowing 35mph winds.  I’ll keep you posted on how that goes.

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