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    Flying FPV Multi-Rotors with Team Blacksheep

    We met up with Team Blacksheep pilot Raphael Pirker (AKA Trappy) to talk about his FPV flying exploits, videos, and new ready-to-fly hexacopter. Pirker talks frankly about his dealings with the FAA, views on multi-rotor safety, and the newly proposed guidelines for RC flyers. We also do some flying and racing!

    Building an FPV Racing Quadcopter, Part 3

    Through the first two articles of this series, I assembled the bulk of the Strider Mini Quad frame, installed the propulsion system, and configured the flight controller. This time around, I will concentrate on the components of the First Person View (FPV) system, as well as the camera used to record in-flight videos.

    The FPV System

    The components that I chose for the Strider’s FPV system are quite common. The camera is a PZ0420 with a 2.8mm lens and IR filter. It mounts directly to the camera mounting plate that is provided in the Strider kit. The mounting plate is then sandwiched between the center plate and top plate of the frame. Since the center plate of the Strider frame features an integrated Power Distribution Board (PDB) there are 5-volt and 12-volt power taps for the camera located directly behind the camera mount. There are also inputs for the video and audio (if your camera has it) signal wires from the camera.

    The camera I used does not have audio capability. It includes a 3-wire pigtail for power, ground, and the video signal. I shortened the pigtail considerably to reduce unnecessary wire on the airframe. The camera can accept 5-17 volts, so I plugged the pigtail into the 12-volt tap of the Strider.

    My video transmitter (VTX) is a TS832 5.8GHz 600mW unit. Like most VTXs for FPV, it requires a FCC amateur radio license to operate. I attached the VTX to the bottom side of the top plate using self-adhesive Velcro. The rear end of the Strider center plate includes another set of power taps and nodes for connecting the video and audio signals. I again used the 12-volt tap and video signal.

    I upgraded the stock VTX antenna with a circular polarized model. I also added a 7cm long extension between the VTX and antenna. The extension provides a flexible link between the antenna and its mount on the VTX. This isolates the VTX from the hard knocks that the protruding antenna is bound to endure.

    When you are shopping for VTXs, antennae, and accessories, be sure to pay close attention to the gender of the connectors. Some components use standard SMA connectors, while others use reverse polarity (RP-SMA) connectors. You want your equipment to have the minimum number of connections and adapters, so get equipment with compatible connectors from the start.

    Test Driving the BMW i3 Electric Car

    Will's on a quest to to find a new car, and is considering an all-electric vehicle. This week, he test drives the BMW i3, a unique hatchback that can run for 80 miles on a full charge. We take the i3 on the freeway, on San Francisco's steepest hill, and test its self-parking feature.

    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.

    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?

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    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.

    Testing the New Apple Force Touch Trackpad

    Apple recently updated its MacBook Pro and MacBook Air laptops with a new trackpad system it's calling Force Touch. We've always maintained that Apple makes the best trackpads, but we were concerned about losing the ability to "click". So here's our test of the new Force Touch system, comparing it to the previous trackpad.

    How To Get Into Hobby RC: Starter FPV Quadcopters

    I’ve written countless times that I think beginning multi-rotor pilots should learn the ropes with a small, inexpensive quad. More and more of those small quads are now being offered with built-in First Person View (FPV) systems. Although they’re not quite as inexpensive as their non-FPV cousins, they can do a little more. If flying via FPV is one of your goals in the hobby, these machines can serve two useful purposes:

    1. Provide a stress-free way to learn the basics of multi-rotor flight

    2. Provide a stress-free transition to the challenges introduced by going FPV

    Today, I will look at four FPV starter quads that take different paths to the FPV destination. My goal is not to rank these models, but rather to illustrate the choices that are available, so that you can decide what suits you. All of the models are available as complete ready-to-fly packages. Also, none of the included FPV systems require an amateur radio license for operation.

    WITH ALL FOUR QUADS POSITIONED TOGETHER, YOU CAN SEE THE RELATIVE SIZE DIFFERENCES. THEY ALL DO FPV WELL…JUST DIFFERENTLY.

    For a few months, it looked as if FPV would soon become an illegal activity. The FAA made known that they intended to outlaw any form of FPV used by the pilot. More recent communications from the FAA have taken a much more relaxed stance, except in regard to over-the-horizon FPV activities. FPV is still legal as pending regulations are still being ironed out, yet the outlook for the future of FPV flying is once again promising. The uncertainty is moot with these indoor-oriented models, however, as indoor airspace is not regulated by the FAA. As long as you’re under a roof, you can fly FPV all you wish.

    The FPV “Problem”

    The first challenge posed by FPV is the limited situational awareness that it affords.

    Before introducing the models, I’d like to talk a little bit about some of the hurdles that I’ve faced while learning the nuances of FPV flight. I consider myself a fairly competent pilot, but there have been times that I was completely flummoxed by FPV. I wouldn’t say it’s like learning to fly all over again, but the transition has been tougher than I expected.

    The first challenge posed by FPV is the limited situational awareness that it affords. Your only perspective comes from a single camera. Having your camera on a gimbal with the ability to pan and/or tilt, helps somewhat, but those actions take time are a distraction from actually flying the vehicle. It’s like driving a car with no rearview mirrors…while wearing a neck brace.

    Tested In-Depth: Samsung Gear VR Innovator Edition

    Consumer-ready virtual reality is still at least half a year away, but Samsung's Gear VR Innovator Edition gives us a first glimpse at what the first apps and games for mobile VR could look like. We discuss the headset's hardware, Oculus-made interface software, and demo some of the first games being sold on this platform. Plus, weird Gear VR eyes! (Thank to B&H for providing the Note 4 for this review. Find out more about the phone here.)

    Hands-On: Virtuix Omni Treadmill + GearVR at GDC 2015

    At GDC 2015, we got to test out the near-final build of the Virtuix Omni, the virtual reality treadmill that's headset agnostic. We use the Omni with a GearVR running Dreadhalls, and then share our thoughts on how walking around can enhance a VR gaming experience.

    HTC Vive vs. Oculus Crescent Bay: My 10 VR Takeaways

    Palmer did it. Virtual reality isn’t vaporware. It’s going to change the way we think about home gaming and media, and consumer-ready products are coming out before the end of the year. That’s super exciting, but also a little bit scary. Holiday 2015 is still nine months away, and there’s a lot we still don’t know about when it comes to VR. There’s a language that we, even as enthusiasts, have to learn when talking about virtual reality products and evaluating them.

    At Tested, Will and I have been privileged enough to be one of the first people to use and test hardware in this latest iteration of VR, all the way back to the first Oculus dev kit shown at CES 2013. Since then, we’ve used every public prototype from Oculus and other manufacturers, leading up to the HTC Vive at last week’s GDC. And with every demo, we’re not just thinking about how hardware and software has iterated or how new technologies will feed into a consumer product--we’re learning a new lexicon for virtual reality that we never had to seriously consider before. Display persistence, chromatic fringing, fresnel diffusion, foveated rendering, positional tracking, etc. Walking out of the HTC Vive demo of Valve’s SteamVR system, the important thing learned wasn’t if it was better than Oculus’ Crescent Bay prototype, but how the systems are different, and what those different approaches inform us about the potential of virtual reality experiences.

    Coming out of GDC, here are my big takeaways about the state and near future of virtual reality.

    Hands-On: Sixense STEM VR Lightsaber Demo

    We've tested many virtual reality headset prototypes, but VR needs a controller solution for games and a better sense of presence. We try Sixense's lightsaber demo at GDC 2015, using their STEM motion controllers. It's some of the most fun we've ever had in VR!

    Hands-On: Razer's OSVR Hacker Dev Kit at GDC 2015

    Razer's approach to the virtual reality headset space is interesting: they're not making the best VR HMD, but one that can be modular for developers to experience with different features like augmented reality and third-party controller compatibility. We try the latest dev kit prototype at GDC 2015, and chat with Razer about why they're making a VR product at all.

    Hands-On: Sony's New 'Project Morpheus' Prototype VR Headset

    We go hands-on with Sony's new Project Morpheus prototype being shown at GDC 2015. As you'll see, the demos we played this time feel more like PlayStation 4 games, and playing a shooter with VR is a great experience. We also chat with Sony's Director of Research and Development about the headset and their goals for a consumer release next year.

    RC Battery Guide: The Basics of Lithium-Polymer Batteries

    With appealing attributes such as low weight, high energy density, and ever greater discharge rates, Lithium-Polymer (LiPo) batteries have transformed all facets of RC. The emergence and continual improvement of these batteries has provided a significant performance boost for RC cars, boats, airplanes, and helicopters, while also paving the way for new vehicles such as multi-rotors. All of this electric goodness does not come without a cost. If not handled and utilized properly, LiPo batteries can quickly become damaged or even catch on fire. Today, I'm sharing some of the basic things you should know about making the most of LiPo batteries. I will also provide techniques to mitigate the risks that these batteries pose.

    LITHIUM-POLYMER BATTERIES COME IN ALL SIZES. IF PROPERLY USED, THEY PROVIDE A TREMENDOUS PERFORMANCE ADVANTAGE OVER OTHER BATTERY TYPES.

    Understanding the LiPo Lingo

    When talking about a LiPo, the primary characteristics to understand are the battery’s voltage and capacity. This is typically noted in a shorthand such as “4S-2200”. In this example, “4S” denotes that the battery has four cells in series. The nominal voltage of each cell is 3.7 volts (4.2v fully-charged), so the total pack voltage is:

    4 cells x 3.7v = 14.8v.

    When talking about a LiPo battery, the primary characteristics to understand are the battery’s voltage, capacity, and discharge rate.

    The second number denotes the capacity of the battery in milliamp-hours (mAh). A fully charged 2200mAh pack is rated to provide a current of 2200 milliamps (2.2 amps) for one hour before it is fully discharged. This capacity value is completely independent of how many cells are in series. In simple terms, the capacity value allows you to estimate how long a battery will provide useful power in a given application. In practical terms for RC use, the capacity rating is typically only helpful for rough comparisons of different batteries. i.e. a 2S-5000 battery will provide about double the run time of a 2S-2500 lipo in the same RC car.

    While it was quite common 10 years ago, is now rare to find a RC LiPo battery that uses cells in parallel. Let’s look at an example in case you happen across one. A 4S2P-2200 battery would consist of two 4S-1100 batteries wired in parallel to provide a total 2200mAh capacity. All other things being equal, you would care for and use this battery the same as you would the previous 4S-2200 example (which is really a 4S1P-2200, but we ignore the 1P). There may be a difference in physical size, but a 4S-2200 and a 4S2P-2200 are functionally equivalent. The differences will really only matter to the guy at the factory who has to assemble the battery.

    The Smart Highway Project Prototype

    Vice Motherboard interviews designer Daan Roosegaarde about his collaboration with a Dutch construction company to implement a Smart Highway prototype in the Netherlands. The project is actually a set of 20 systems to assist drivers and tap into the potential of electric cars, including inductive charging lanes and contextually illuminated roads. Read more about Smart Highway here.

    SteamVR (HTC Vive) Prototype Hands-On + Impressions

    We test the most talked about virtual reality demo at this year's Game Developers Conference: Valve's SteamVR prototype. Made in collaboration with HTC, the Vive VR headset will be released later this year and features an incredible positional tracking system. We chat with Valve's engineers about the technology in the headset and share our demo impressions. This is the real deal.

    In Brief: More Details on Sony's New Morpheus Prototype

    At Sony's GDC press conference, the company announced and showed off a second public prototype of its Project Morpheus virtual reality headset, which will ship to consumers in the first half of next year. The PlayStation 4 accessory now uses a 5.7-inch 1080p OLED display with an RGB subpixel arrangement, running at 120Hz. That's a big upgrade from the 60Hz LCD panel we saw in last year's prototype, and 120Hz should allow for low persistence. While 120FPS is the target framerate for the device, developers will be angle to render at 60Hz and output to the HMD at 120Hz. The PS4 uses HDMI 1.4, which can drive 1080p at 120Hz, but not 1440p at that refresh rate. Field of view is listed at 100 degrees, and positional head tracking is assisted by nine IR LEDs. Sony says that latency is under 18ms, which they claim is good enough for the sensation of presence. We'll be trying the new prototype and the four demos built for it at the GDC show floor tomorrow.

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    A Brief History of Net Neutrality

    Short and to-the-point primer about the history of net neutrality from The Verge: "In the wake of net neutrality's victory, we look back at the history of its fight in this visual history explainer." For more reading about the history of the fight for net neutrality, visit the Electronic Frontier Foundation's landing page on the topic. (Support those electrons!)