Technical Analysis of Drone Platforms
Look! Up in the sky! It’s a bird! It’s a plane!
No, it’s a dynamic quadcopter, more commonly known as a drone.
The technology of consumer drones has expanded the landscape of industrial business operations through its monitoring and data gathering functions, as well as its cinematography capabilities.
As the drone revolution continues to move at a rapid pace, let’s take a look at the technology that allows these machines to fly, and where that technology is headed.
The ready availability of easy-fly, easy-buy hardware has dramatically transformed the industry. Over the past year, drones have become capable of doing more than just taking pictures of weekend getaways. Thanks to affordable hardware from manufacturers in China and elsewhere, making a stable, simple-to-fly drone has become far easier.
Most drone platforms we see are Quad Copters: DJI Phantom and Inspire Series, Yuneec Q500, 3DR Solo, and the Parrot Bebop. Hex Copters are also available; Yuneec Typhoon H and DJI’s M600. For commercial use, there are also Octo Copters like the DJI S1000 and MG1.
The brain of the drone is its Flight Controller. Flight Control Systems are many and varied. From GPS-enabled autopilot systems flown via two-way telemetry links to basic stabilization systems using hobby grade RC hardware, the technology of flight control systems today have sensors such as GPS, barometrs, acceleromenters- the list goes on and on!
All of these features come together to make flying a drone easy and enjoyable.
DJI’s Naza and Wookong Series, 3DR’s APM, MultiWii and Auto Quad were once popular flight controller systems among DIY users as well as on ready-to-fly models. 3DR’s PixHawk and DJI’s A3 are the latest controller systems released, with the A3 boasting expanded features and safety redundancy above its predecessor, the A2.
Flight Controller software determines not only the flight performance of the aircraft, but also the tenacity of the pilot. The propulsion system and sensors (i.e. IMU, GPS, and Vision) deliver accurate data to the controller, which is then used to control the motors based on a pre-programed algorithm. A fine-tuned propulsion system instantly reacts to command with precise force to drive the drone.
Essentially, the controller’s software is a large feedback loop of data. It senses and reacts to ensure the drones stability in flight. Simply allowing the drone to hover can test this, as there is no manual command input hovering; therefore the system is operating on its own.
Environment, especially wind disturbance, is unpredictable to the drone, so how fast and how precise the drone reacts (or holds its position) is the determining factor of the quality and performance of the flight controllers technology. If the drone roams, in lieu of hovering with no manual command, it is a sign that the controller’s software is over and/or undershooting when controlling the motors, experiencing signal delays, and has inadequate communication between the propulsion system and the controller.
Why is this important?
To fly a drone is a learning process and there is nothing more reassuring than having the ability to let go of the controls and take a second to think about your next step knowing the drone will stay right where you left it until you are ready to move. In real world operation, this is beneficial to experienced pilots multi-task as the drone can autonomously hold its position.
DJI’s Computer Vision Positioning technology, raised with the Phantom 4, lends the ability to hold itself in one location in space. For example, if you takeoff and hover the drone eight feet off the ground, you can let go of the controller and the drone will hold that altitude and location while compensating for any external factors that might try and move it, such as wind.
This is just one facet of what it takes to make a fully functional quadcopter. As the technology improves, so will the abilities of these wonderful little machines
Yunhong Liu is the founder of We Talk UAV, a new drone community and news site launching later this year.
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