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Building an FPV Racing Quadcopter, Part 2

In the first installment of this series, I assembled most of the frame components of the Strider Mini Quad. I also installed and soldered the motors and ESCs. Although the flight controller was installed in the frame, it still required attachment of the various wires and configuration of the firmware within. Let’s focus on those tasks and keep moving.

Plugging in the CC3D

The flight controller is the nerve center of any multi-rotor. It takes your control inputs and the data from its onboard sensors and translates it all into commands for each of the ESCs. There are several different brands of flight controllers. Considering all that they do, most of these units are incredibly small. The flight controller I chose is the OpenPilot CC3D (CopterControl 3D), which fits perfectly on the Strider’s stock flight controller mount.

THE OPENPILOT CC3D IS A POPULAR FLIGHT CONTROLLER. IT FITS THE STRIDER PERFECTLY.

From a wiring standpoint, the flight controller is situated between the radio receiver and the quad’s ESCs. First I attached the ESCs to the CC3D. The CC3D has a bank of pins that accept the standard receiver plugs found on most consumer RC equipment. The quad’s motors are numbered sequentially as you go clockwise, with the #1 motor being the front left. I attached the plug from this motor’s ESC to the #1 pins on the CC3D and then followed suit with the other ESCs.

To connect the CC3D to my Futaba R617FS receiver, I used the 8-wire harness included with the flight controller. The colors of my wires didn’t match those on the OpenPilot diagram, so I just referenced the pin order. The first two pins are negative and positive power. The remaining pins are signals for channels 1-6 respectively.

THIS VIEW ILLUSTRATES THE BUNDLE OF WIRES FROM THE SPEED CONTROLLERS (ORANGE/RED/BROWN) THAT ARE CONNECTED TO THE RIGHT SIDE OF THE CC3D. THE MULTI-COLORED BUNDLE OF WIRES EMERGING FROM THE LEFT SIDE OF THE BOARD ARE CONNECTED TO THE RADIO RECEIVER.

PPM (Pulse Position Modulation) receivers like the FrSky model shown in the Strider manual, and Sbus receivers like some Futaba models require only one signal wire for all of the channels. The R617FS is a standard PWM (Pulse Width Modulation) receiver. As such, it has three pins for each channel: positive, negative and signal. The positive and negative connections from the CC3D can be connected to any channel on the receiver. The signal wires must be connected to their assigned channels.

In addition to the connections to the CC3D, I made a signal wire connection from the receiver to a pin on the Strider’s frame. This wire allows a 3-position switch on the transmitter to operate the Strider’s built-in LED lights, lost model alarm, and also toggle crosshairs in the OSD function. I used channel 7 for this, since it was already mapped to a 3-position switch on my Futaba 7C transmitter. By going this route, I did not need the channel 6 signal wire from the CC3D.

Testing: Autopilot App for DJI Phantom 2 Vision+

While it was somewhat overshadowed by the announcement of Inspire 1 quadcopter last year, DJI also released an SDK for its Phantom line of consumer quads. This was a big deal--the SDK allows developers to tap into the data feed and capabilities of the Phantoms, including video streams, camera controls, flight telemetry, and most interestingly, flight control. It meant that devs could make apps to serve as alternatives to DJI's own Vision flight app, or apps with specialized capabilities to serve specific user needs. Notable apps that have come out of this program include autonomous mapping and photogrammetry from Pix4D, as well as multiple UAV fleet control from PixiePath. Today, a startup called Autoflight Logic has released its own app using the DJI SDK--one that gives the Phantom the ability to autonomously follow and film a moving subject.

We've discussed this idea on the podcast before--the Phantom technically should have enough information in its telemetry to know where it is relative to any fixed target. It's just geometry: you can use altitude (height) and lateral flight distance (length) information to calculate not only the Phantom's absolute distance (hypotenuse) from you, but the angle at which it would need to aim its camera to center you in its sights. That kind of autonomous tracking gets more complicated for moving subjects, but an autopilot app could tap into the relatively precise GPS information provided by a phone or cellular-enabled tablet. The quad knows where it is, it can know where you are, the rest is math.

Of course, implementing such a system isn't really as simple as that. There are so many factors to consider: the accuracy of the GPS, how often data is sent between Phantom and app, limitations of the SDK, failsafes, etc. There's also the consideration of quadcopter as a cinematography tool--something we've had a little experience with. Automated camera control needs to simulate the steady and graceful pans of manual control, or at least produce footage in predictable way that can be edited later. The video in this promo for Autoflight Logic's Autopilot app ($20) looks promising:

Autoflight Logic claims to have solved for many of these problems, and it's the first third-party autonomous flight app approved by Apple's App Store review team. We were given access to the final build of the app ahead of its release this morning, and spent an afternoon testing it in San Francisco's Golden Gate Park with the help of our friend (and experienced Phantom pilot) Jeremy Williams. Some of our flight footage from the test is embedded below.

Vincent Laforet's AIR Photography Project

We've previously talked about Vincent Laforet's AIR project on Still Untitled, in which the photographer captures cityscapes from thousands of feet in the air. His photos of New York and Las Vegas are breathtaking. And most recently, he visited San Francisco for two helicopter rides for the project, snapping shots of our fair peninsula as we've never seen it. The photos are beautiful, of course, but Laforet's commentary about the logistics and creative opportunities afforded from shooting from high altitudes is the juicy stuff. Every photographic opportunity is framed by its constraints, and there are plenty of considerations he has to juggle up in the air--flight plans, weather, and even which side of the helicopter to shoot out of. I'm definitely picking up his AIR project book when it comes out.

Marketing VR and AR Will be a Challenge

Among virtual reality enthusiasts, there seems to be a conviction that this current wave of VR is destined to succeed. The technology is finally ready; virtual reality as a mainstream platform for computing, entertainment, and digital interactions is inevitable. That's far from the case--regardless of how "ready" the hardware and software experiences are, VR still has to make its case to the public at large. As writer/futurist Warren Ellis points out in this recent Gizmodo Q&A, we should be prepared for the possibility that Oculus and SteamVR will "just turn out be some clunky shit that most people don't want." " Social embarrassment will murder almost anything." It's a reason that John Carmack wants to make sure that the consumer version of Gear VR gets demo stations in phone stores--a little reminiscent of the Virtual Boy rollout twenty years ago.

But as much as good VR demands to be experienced by potential consumers, demo stations and word of mouth aren't going to be enough for public awareness. And neither are YouTube Let's-Plays capturing warped game video and showing users bobbing their heads around. I don't know what a television commercial for SteamVR looks like, but it's something that VR makers will eventually have to figure out. Even if the viewer is familiar with the VR experience, developers will have to find a way to show how their specific games makes use of that interface. The closest I've seen it being done well is this recently-released Eve: Valkyrie trailer, which captures head-tracking footage. Two things help it: undistorting the field of view, and playback at 60fps. But even then, it could be misinterpreted as just a freelook demo using a mouse or joystick.

With augmented reality, the challenge of portraying the technology over video is even more daunting. No one has done it well. Remember Google's original Project Glass concept video? It got a lot of eyeballs (22 million and counting), but failed as a product demo; it didn't adequately convey why someone should use Glass, and the disconnect between what the video promised and the actual Glass experience (social awkwardness included) soured an initially interested public to the device. Microsoft's HoloLens and the mysterious Magic Leap--both which have their own concept videos--aren't faring much better. Early press reports from the HoloLens demo have focused on the differences between what Microsoft showed in the concept video and what's actually experienced in the prototype. The Magic Leap video below looks even more farfetched (hand-recoil, really?). Both companies are making tradeoffs between raising public interest with these concept videos and impressing users. Marketing working against its own product. I'm really curious to see how Facebook, Valve, Microsoft, and Magic Leap overcome that hurdle.

In Brief: Apple's New Transparency

Hey, did you hear? Apple is releasing a watch next month. And unlike past product category launches like the iPad and iPhone, Apple seems to be a bit more open in allowing the press and public to glimpse into its product development process. There was that massive Jony Ive profile in the New Yorker, where writer Ian Parker spent days in Apple's design lab chatting with Ive's collaborators. There are the three craftsmanship videos about Apple watch manufacturing, which Greg Koenig has delightfully dissected. And even Good Morning America recently visited Apple's health testing lab, where dozens of employees are strapped to complex health monitoring systems for study. Just a little bit like the gym in Gattaca. This new approach to transparency as marketing is smart--it doesn't feel like Apple's giving away state secrets, at least, not that any it thinks competitors can reproduce. It's more posturing than anything, more of a "look what we can do with over $150 billion in cash reserves." And like Koenig's analysis of Apple's materials process, I'd love to see context from health companies like Fitbit and Withings to see what kind of rigor they're putting their health tracking technologies through. Or is all of this extra research unnecessary, given academia and the medical industry's current understanding of fitness?

Norman 2
Building an FPV Racing Quadcopter, Part 1

Racing quadrotors have captured the interest of a lot of people. They’re fast, nimble, and tough. Best of all, having a First Person View (FPV) system installed lets you get a sense of what it’s like to be onboard your speed machine. In the past, we’ve presented a video of Norm building a racing quad with the help of Carlos Puertolas (Charpu). We’ve also given you a buyer’s guide that outlined all the equipment you need for your own racing quad. This week, I’ve prepared a four-part series that will cover each aspect of getting a racing quad built and flight-tested:

  • Part 1: Frame Assembly
  • Part 2: Flight Controller Setup
  • Part 3: Configuring the FPV System
  • Part 4: Flight Testing and Tuning

A friendly reminder: if you are new to multi-rotors, racing quads are a horrible place to start. Get yourself something a little more sedate to help you learn the basics. Once you’ve honed your flying skills, racing quads are much more practical and enjoyable.

Frame Assembly

The quad that I’ll be building for this series is a Strider Mini Quad provided by Red Rotor RC. The Strider is a 250mm-class ship with a carbon fiber frame. There are a few features on the Strider that negate purchasing some of the common components found on racing quads. The Power Distribution Board (PDB), lost-model alarm, and On-Screen Display (OSD) are all integrated into the frame itself. This saves you the cost of buying those components separately, as well as the hassle of installing them.

THE STRIDER FROM RED ROTOR RC IS A 250MM RACING QUAD WITH A CARBON FIBER FRAME. AS YOU CAN SEE, THERE AREN’T MANY PARTS. THE INCLUDED HARDWARE HAS BEEN SORTED IN AN ICE TRAY FOR EASY IDENTIFICATION.

Red Rotor provides an online assembly manual, so make sure you are using the latest version. In addition to what’s provided in the kit, you will need a few basic tools and supplies: metric Allen wrenches, zip ties, heatshrink tubing, soldering iron, etc…pretty basic stuff. To prepare for the build, I sorted all of the included hardware in a plastic ice tray. There are four different length screws in the kit and this helped me keep them all distinct.

The first few steps of assembly are very straightforward. They involve fastening the bottom plate of the frame to the center plate. They’re simple assembly tasks with nuts, bolts and spacers. All of the parts lined up perfectly, so things progressed quickly.

Marty Cooper's Aug(de)mented Reality 3

Talented animator and friend of Tested Marty Cooper (aka Hombre McSteez) just released the latest of his Aug(de)mented Reality compilations. This batch features the animation he made for our live show last year with Adam! My favorite is the one with the sink sponge. You can follow Marty's work on Instagram, where he often posts previews of animations in progress!

Google Play App Roundup: Tinkerplay, X-Men: Days of Future Past, and Boss Monster

Android devices do a lot of neat stuff out of the box, but you can always load it up with new apps to make if do more stuff. And maybe some games for good measure. This is the Google Play App Roundup where we tell you what's new on Android. Just hit the links to head to the Play Store.

This week we finally put that 3D printer to use, visit the past, and become a boss monster.

Tinkerplay

In my day we didn't have any choice in the design of our action figures. We took what we were given and we liked it. Also snow, uphill both ways, and so on. With the advent of 3D printing, it has become possible to make real world objects dreamed up on a computer from the comfort of your own home. Autodesk's new Tinkerplay app lets you create characters from a plethora of interchangeable parts, then export a file to have it 3D printed. The future is now.

All the parts are available in the arc-shaped menu in the top right corner. From here you can choose any of a number of torsos to use at the starting point of a design. There are also categories for arms, legs, hands, weapons, and other miscellaneous parts. To attach something new, simply drag it from the list and to the general vicinity of the connection point. The app will display an arc of electricity to show where it will snap on if released at that moment.

You can start from scratch and build whatever you like, but the app also comes with some complete advanced models that can be tweaked to your liking. However you decide to use the app, you can move the parts around to pose your creation by tapping and dragging. If you need to precisely position a single component without affecting everything it's attached to, you can double tap to get a 3D rotation interface. You might want to zoom in to do this more effectively.

Tinkerplay also has full support for adding colors and textures to your models. This is all reflected in the final file export as well. Speaking of the file export, you can select the type of printer you're using to get the proper format, but all you really need to worry about is getting a .stl or .thing file. You can change the scale of the parts, separate by color, and more. The app also gives you an approximate printing time.