Multi-Rotors, First-Person View, And The Hardware You Need Part 1 The Jargon, & Flight Controllers

September 10, 2015


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Previously known as

Multi-Rotors, First-Person View, And The Hardware You Need - The Jargon

Part 1 Part 2  Part 3 Part 4

Drones regularly make news headlines, presented as controversial tools of death and destruction by mainstream media. Increasingly evident, however, is the presence of innocent and enthusiastic drone hobbyists. A market explosion is occurring, and the ability to fly and observe from small craft remotely is thrilling indeed. This technology is readily available, so let's dive in and define some of the concepts and components.

Look back a decade or two. Were you ever into model rockets? Remote-controlled aircraft? If you're like us, the same inclination to build and tweak your own PC compels you to geek out over automotive technology, root your phone, and marvel at our achievements in space. Although few of us will ever pilot our own aircraft, we still love to dream about defying gravity.

We enjoyed our time with two-stroke engines, balsa, and epoxy. It was fun flying our first trainer aircraft in patterns from the ground. But now we want to get into multi-rotors, flying from the "cockpit", and more advanced capabilities truly worthy of analysis on Tom's Hardware. It's a great time to get your feet wet with the hobby, and this first story will tell you everything you need to know before you fill a shopping cart with the gear for your maiden voyage.

Let's cover some definitions.

FPV (first-person view) is the umbrella term given to remotely-controlled vehicles piloted via a video feed from the craft itself.
The opposing idiom is LOS (line-of-sight), which refers to more conventionally standing at a distance and manipulating whatever it is you're controlling based on what you can see from there.
The two approaches have unique advantages and challenges, though you obviously have more freedom to roam when you aren't constrained to line-of-sight. Boats, cars, and planes can all be controlled through first-person view. At least for the foreseeable future, however, we're focusing on multi-rotors. 

These are airborne craft supported by more than two propellers (props).
The most common form of multi-rotor is the quadcopter, naturally sporting four props.
Other familiar configurations include tricopters and hexacopters. Usually, rotors are arranged symmetrically and in the same horizontal plane.

When multi-rotors are flown using an FPV system, they are classified as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) or Unmanned Aerial Systems (UASs).
The informal term most commonly used is drones, although the hobby generally prefers avoiding that label to maintain an appropriate disparity with large-scale drones used in combat.

As you shop for your first multi-rotor (and remote-controlled vehicles in general), notice that abbreviations are used to convey the amount of assembly you should expect to do.
RTF means “ready to fly”. Theoretically, you should be able to open a RTF box, connect the power, and go. You should still pay attention to what's included, though, because it's sometimes assumed that you own certain items, such as batteries and a transmitter.
The A in ARTF stands for “almost”; this is used loosely, and may even mean that all the parts are included, but complete assembly is needed.

With this basic knowledge, we can start talking about what it takes to build an FPV multi-rotor, and cover some of the decisions you have to make (along with the corresponding costs). Investment is most definitely required in both time and cash, but the opportunities are seemingly limitless. And being able to fly above the treetops, miles away, seeing sights you never imagined, proves reward enough.

Multi-rotors are unique in the world of R/C hobbyists. Usually, when it comes to controlling a model boat or plane, the pilot has absolute, precise control over the motor. A nudge of the throttle translates to a proportional increase in RPM. The same is true of input to the rudders, ailerons, flaps, and other parts involved in changing speed or direction.

The distinction with multi-rotors, whether or not advantageous, is that no human is capable of controlling the rotational speeds of three or more motors simultaneously with enough precision to balance a craft in the air. This is where flight controllers come into play.

A flight controller (FC) is a small circuit board of varying complexity. Its function is to direct the RPM of each motor in response to input. A command from the pilot for the multi-rotor to move forward is fed into the flight controller, which determines how to manipulate the motors accordingly.

The majority of flight controllers also employ sensors to supplement their calculations. These range from simple gyroscopes for orientation to barometers for automatically holding altitudes. GPS can also be used for auto-pilot or fail-safe purposes. More on that shortly.

With a proper flight controller setup, a pilot’s control inputs should correspond exactly to the behavior of the craft. Flight controllers are configurable and programmable, allowing for adjustments based on varying multi-rotor configurations. Gains or PIDs are used to tune the controller, yielding snappy, locked-in response. Depending on your choice of flight controller, various software is available to write your own settings.

Many flight controllers allow for different flight modes, selectable using a transmitter switch. An example of a three-position setup might be a GPS lock mode, a self-leveling mode, and a manual mode. Different settings can be applied to each profile, achieving varying flight characteristics.

Getting To Know Flight Controllers

DJI, arguably the dominant player in multi-rotors, produces two models. The Naza-M Lite is a high-quality, easy-to-set up unit with GPS and fail-safe capacities. Its Naza-M V2 is virtually identical, but includes a handful of additional features, such as the ability to daisy chain DJI expansions (a Bluetooth module, for example). Also, it allows up to eight motors, rather than six.

DJI Naza Lite flight controller
DJI Naza Lite flight controller Similar to the Naze32

Multiple flight modes are available: GPS lock, altitude lock, orientation mode (moving forward always happens away from take-off point, regardless of craft rotation), and a non-stabilized manual mode.

The Nazas are the ultimate hobby flight controllers, with a multitude of features, optimized ease of use, and relatively straightforward setup. They may, however, no be the best choice for every multi-rotor. Let's get into why.

Most flight controllers do not present the corporate, mass-produced feel of the Nazas. One of the many success stories to arise in the multi-rotor market is OpenPilot, an open-source community dedicated to perfecting flight control algorithms.

There are various OpenPilot flight controller boards available. The CC3D is one of the most favored. Thanks to OpenPilot, it too is relatively easy to set up, leaning on a software wizard to configure the board, step-by-step. It features multiple flight modes, including self-leveling and completely manual input. It lacks the autonomous natures of the Naza, as well as GPS lock.

Lumenier Edition OpenPilot CC3D flight controller

Lumenier Edition OpenPilot CC3D flight controller

Another popular board is the KK2. Cheap and customizable, there's little to say about it, other than it warrants your attention.

Also viable is the MultiWii open source software project, derived from developments related to the motion-sensing Nintendo Wii remote. The software is compatible with a number of different hardware components, but most notoriously associates a Wii Motion Plus and Arduino board. Again, you have a choice between multiple flight modes, support for a gimbal (typically used to mount a camera for recording), camera trigger output, and a full GUI.

At the extreme end of the spectrum, challenge-hungry pilots and capable coders may be interested in programming their own flight controllers. The Arduino platform is the common avenue for homemade or fully programmable FCs, and ArduPilot is the community you'll want to look to for guidance.

There is an abundance of choice when it comes to flight controller options, and there is no right or wrong answer. The features you require depend on the platform you're using, as well as your own appetite for customization. A more complex multi-rotor sporting eight props and expensive camera gear might justify GPS lock and a fail-safe functionality, making a Naza the most sensible path to take. However, a small quad built to fly for fun won't benefit as much from those features. And sometimes, maximizing your enjoyment means using a more manual flight mode anyway.

As a beginner, it’s tempting to buy the board that’s easiest to fly. That's often a regrettable decision in the long run, though. It is far preferable to learn to fly without excessive assistance from a flight controller. By starting with a small setup and a non-locking flight control mode, you're going to get a lot better at flying than someone learning in GPS lock or a similar mode.

With that in mind, my recommendation is to buy a less expensive starter setup, the likes of which this story is focused on, and avoid Naza in all of its feature-filled temptation. Preferred is the CC3D board, a more manual controller with the option of a self-levelling mode that's  perfect for learning comprehensively.



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