Saturday, June 17, 2017

DJI Phantom 3 Versus Custom Built Camera Drone

Anyone reading this blog (does anyone read this blog?) would know that I have built quite a few camera drones - SK450, SK450 Deadcat, S500, S500 Hexacopter.  Most of them used commercial frames, APM or Pixhawk controller, and Gopro or similar cameras.  They all worked, some of the time, and I enjoyed building them.

But I was tempted by a very low price on a DJI refurbished Phantom 3 Standard and bought it.  What was it like getting a pre-assembled and integrated drone working?  In short, very good.

I will not do a full review but just highlight the big differences between a home built drone and the DJI.

Debugging - no debugging needed, just follow the instructions, watch a few Youtube videos, update the firmware and it was ready to fly.  Contrast that with hours and hours trying to get a DIY drone working well.

Features - The DJI has more features than my homebuilts, although I could add more.  Specifically, the DJI came out of the box with failsafes, FPV, full camera control from the ground, auto takeoff and land, as well as full OSD (on screen display).

Flying - I guess DJI has a lot of experience with people crashing their drones and complaining.  The Phantom is easier to fly and has a beginner mode to keep you safe.  The auto takeoff and land also prevent a lot of crashes.

Camera - The DJI camera is pretty good, maybe not quite as good as the Gopro Hero line, but acceptable.

Accessories - Good and bad things here.  Accessories like carrying cases, landing gear extensions, and props are readily available at reasonable prices.  DJI batteries are proprietary and expensive.

So all in all a very good experience with DJI Phantom 3 Standard for about $300 USD.  If you are more into flying and photography than building and debugging, I definitely recommend it.

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Quadrysteria Mini Mamba Review


Mini Mamba (Final Version)

A while back, I bought a 250 racer style kit from Quadrysteria called the Mini Mamba.  It is high quality in general, with Sunnysky motors, true carbon fiber frame, SimonK ESCs, etc.  The kit included the frame, motors, ESC, integrated BEC/power distribution card, and instructions.

I initially elected to use a Mobius FPV system, spare mini-APM controller, and Lemon DSMX receiver to complete the build.  I started trying to use the instructions, which are well written, but not very useful.  Unfortunately, there are no pictures and you are left wondering which plate is the top, what is the front, exactly what standoff is required etc.  Fortunately, there are video instructions here, and they show you exactly what to do.

In the initial build, I ran into a few problems, some of my own making.

  1. The mini APM may have been defective, it did not consistently stabilize the unit.
  2. The integrated power board from the kit was defective.  It did not supply proper 5V for the receiver and APM.  I had to replace it with a power distribution board and use one of the ESC BECs.
  3. The wiring for the mini-APM and rest of the electronics was not reliable, probably due to the crummy wiring supplied with the mini APM.  The ESC BEC was probably not the best choice as well.
The Mamba flew, but not well, I did crash it badly enough that I had to repair it.  One of the advantages of the Mamba is that will usually just break the props and/or the nylon bolts that hold the motor mounts to the carbon fiber arms, and this is easy to repair.  Previous quads tended to break arms, props, and frame plates, necessitating major repairs that takes hours and hours.

Based on this experience,  I stripped it down and rebuilt it with an Orange receiver that I had used before, a separate BEC, and a Hobbyking mini APM and Hobbyking GPS.  The wiring was much more straightforward as the Hobbyking units came with better cables and I was using a separate BEC. It takes some work to figure out where to stick the ESCs, cabling, BEC between the top and bottom plates.
Side view
Performance is much better but there is still a lot of tuning required as it is very sensitive to pitch and roll, but very insensitive to throttle.  Some other pictures are shown below.
Arm assembly which is set up for easy repair after crashes
Mobius FPV setup with integrated mount and transmitter.  This will be reviewed in future.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Converting the Eachine Racer 250 to APM Controller

A while back I wrote about buying the Eachine Racer 250, which used a CC3d controller.  Well I got tired of trying to figure out this controller and decided to switch the controller over to an APM.  I used the Hobbyking Micro APM, but you can get the same hardware from Banggood.

This started out easily enough, but there were a few hurdles along the way.

Step 1 Disassemble the Eachine

Take the top deck and battery alignment plates off as shown in the figure 1.  Be careful when removing the power connector for the 5.8 GHz video transmitter as it can be easily damaged.  Use an old coffee cup to store the parts while you work on the rest of the project.

Figure 1

Step 2 Mount the Micro APM


The Micro APM will easily go into the CC3D mounting standoffs as shown in figure 2.  Note that you will have to remove one standoff that supports the battery alignment plate as it blocks the USB port.  Figure 3 shows the APM mounted from the top
Figure 2
Figure 3

Step 4 Wire Up the APM

Here is where it gets a little tricky.  The servo wiring from the APM to the receiver is done as per normal.  The Ardupilot.com website shows how it needs to be done.  This is easy.

Next, you need to supply power to the APM so you will need to make up a cable that goes from the Eachine 5V and ground power pads (green arrow Figure 4) to the power input connector of your APM (magenta arrow, Figure 4). You will need a 6 pin connector to attach to the APM.

Then, we come to the tricky part.  The connections to the motor speed controls are shown by the red arrow in Figure 4.  You have to make a new cable here.  The motor numbering IS NOT THE SAME for APM and CC3D.  The cable will need to be set up as follows:

APM            Eachine
5V                5V
Gnd              Gnd
Motor 1        Motor 2
Motor 2        Motor 4
Motor 3        Motor 1
Motor 4        Motor 3
Figure 4

Step 5 Reaasemble the Eachine

Now you can reassemble the battery alignment plate, top deck, and secure any loose wires.  You are ready to fly again after the usual ESC calibration, radio, compass, gyro calibration are done.

Figure 5 Reassembled Eachine Racer 250



Saturday, December 26, 2015

Hexacopter First Flight

I managed to get the Hexacopter to fly after a few flips on takeoff.  It turns out that the motor configuration and wiring for a Pixhawk is not intuitive or well documented.


  1. You have to search through DIYdrones forums to find the information here.
  2. Connect motors 1 to 4 to Pixhawk inputs 1 to 4, same as a quadcopter.
  3. Connect motor 7 to Pixhawk input 5
  4. Connect motor 8 to input 6
Bingo!

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Quad to Hex

I decided to go further and build a hexacopter.  I was able to use my existing 550 quadcopter parts and purchase an inexpensive hex frame from Banggood.com, two more motors, two more ESCs, and use some extra landing gear parts.  Here is what I have so far:







Saturday, December 12, 2015

Flysky i10 PPM

A while back I reviewed the Flysky i10 radio.  It is a great radio for the price, but I needed PPM output from the receiver in order to feed my Pixhawk.  PPM is a single wire interface for all channels, in place of the one-cable-per-channel PWM interface, which is about 40 years old.

The manual tells you nothing about how to do this, but the online forums were filled with people saying it could be done.  I tried everything, and could not find a way to do it.

Finally, I found a bunch of postings about a very helpful fellow at Diamond Hobby, Jim Ogorek, who might be able to help (email: jim@diamondhobby.com).  In spite of the fact that I bought the radio through another retailer, Amazon, he helped me by sending me the update software for the radio.  Note that there are two versions, US and China.  I needed China because my radio showed up as a "CN" device on windows.

After running the software on my PC and connecting up the radio, I was able to update the transmitter, and it then updated the receiver, and bingo, I had PPM!  You go to the receiver menu on the transmitter and there is a simple check box for PPM and it enables PPM output on ch1 of the receiver.  Works like a charm.

Friday, December 11, 2015

Eachine Racer 250 - How Does Openpilot Compare to APM/Pixhawk


I saw a good deal on Banggood.com for a small ARF (Almost Ready to Fly) Quad called the Eachine Racer 250 and went ahead and purchased it.  It is a 250 sized unit with the FPV built in, includes a battery, and charger, and cost around $125.  I added a spare Orange DSMX receiver and a Spectrum DX4e transmitter and was up and running!  It sends video to my 5.8 GHz integrated receiver-monitor and works like a charm.  Build quality is good for the price, packaging was good, and it is designed well.  As usual, there are NO INSTRUCTIONS from the Chinese manufacturer in the box and you have to hunt around on the web to find out how to set it up.  I found a few good Youtube videos and they guided me through setup without a problem.

The only thing that was challenging was my lack of knowledge of the flight controller, the CC3D, an open source flight controller that is somewhat different from the APM or Pixhawk.  I again queried the web and found the ground controller for Openpilot, which supports CC3D hardware.  I downloaded the software, installed it, connected USB to the quad, and followed the instructions in the video.

The quad flew, but was very sensitive to control inputs, too much for my flying skill.  I again went to the web, found some tutorials, and tried to fix the settings.  The tutorials were out of date so I went to the wiki, which seems to be permanently down.  I then posted a question on RCgroups.com and got some information.

Unfortunately, there seems to be a schism in the Openpilot community and it has split into three factions: Taulabs, Librepilot, and Openpilot.  While Openpilot works, it does not seem to have as much support as it used to.  The other 2 options seem to be works in progress.  APM and Pixhawk/PX4 are definitely better options if you have a choice.

But I did figure out how to desensitize the quad using the current Openpilot and it flew well in a couple of outdoor test flights.  Stay tuned for more info.