(This post is not really Mozilla-related, so if you’re not interested in open source flight-controllers and software, you can stop reading here. There are some parallels though and I draw a connection later on, so I did decide to push this to planet.mozilla.org.)

A few weeks ago, a friend said, “hey, 3D Robotics has a sale on two of their drones right now.” This is exactly the kind of thing friends shouldn’t say to friends who are of a certain disposition – a highly-suggestible technology geek with a love of flying things and photography.

So I did a little research. And a little more research. And then a little more research… I did a lot of research and ultimately decided that the drone I wanted was not one of the two drones 3DR had on sale. The deal was a free GoPro Hero 3+ Black camera or 200 dollars off, I think. I looked hard at the Y6, but being a multicopter noob, it was a bit intimidating as a first vehicle. The drone I wanted was the IRIS which was still in “Developer Preview” mode but shipped ready to fly and promised to be a good platform to learn on. They’ve since closed orders on the machine and are shipping the consumer version sometime in December.

That weekend I bought a Heli-max 1SQ Vcam and proceeded to begin crashing it around inside the house. I nearly lost it after an exhilarating 10 minute flight around the park that terminated in crashing into a tree.

I was totally hooked.

I ordered my IRIS that Sunday night. Astoundingly, it arrived direct from the assembly plant in Tijuana that Thursday. I was all set for a 2-4 week waiting period, but was denied the wait. Unfortunately, the weather would force me to wait before I could take it out for its maiden flight. Since getting my quadcopter, I’ve become even more obsessed with the weather and frequently ping Billy Bishop airport for METAR weather codes since they’re nearby.

First flight happened on a blustery Wednesday afternoon. We went to Woodbine park in some pretty windy conditions, but I was dying to get some airtime with this thing. I did a few quick test launches before boxing everything back up and hurrying to the car because of the wind. First flight was a success!

That weekend the weather cleared and we had a really nice day on Saturday. That’s when I did my first real test flight.

A word about setup. There is a fairly lengthy bit of documentation on diydrones.com and the instructions pages on ardupilot.com.

The one thing you really have to do before you can make use of autopilot is calibrate your compass! Mine was still carrying the calibration from the factory in Tijuana.

If you watch the first video above, I go onto autopilot around the 56 second mark and it has a hard time hitting the waypoint (I later learned that you need to set a reasonable acceptance radius on each waypoint in the flight planning software). At 2:45 it flew out of bounds over some trees. At 4:50 it did a slingshot spiral out over the pumping station which was pretty spectacular. Each time I was able to cancel autopilot and manually control it back to ground.

So that was educational. I spent the rest of the weekend calibrating and then recalibrating. The onboard flight software is particularly sensitive to this calibration and if you do it incorrectly as I did the first time, it won’t even let you arm the craft for take off and will just flash a yellow warning light at you. The documentation is not exactly helpful in figuring out what the problem is, so I had to go back to initial configuration to guess what had gone wrong. Since calibrating it properly, control has improved and waypointing works flawlessly.

I’ve also learned a bit about using a GoPro camera. The Hero 3+ now has a “protune” option for video that drastically improves stability and rolling shutter. It takes pretty excellent video now. I’ve posted a couple of other videos showing my first successful auto-piloted flights including landing.

This stuff is a lot of fun, and I’m experiencing some of the “developer preview” speed bumps along the way which I’m more than happy to absorb. I find the documentation is pretty good, though the flight planning software screenshots (either Mission Planner on Windows or APM Planner on Mac) rarely match what’s in the instructions.

I also experienced a bit of deja vu trying to figure out which site to find the right documentation on. Feels a lot like Mozilla in some ways where you have a bunch of inputs and a bunch of outputs and its up to the user to figure out how it all fits together. Programming the radios and PIDs is still a bit of a mystery though the presets the IRIS came with are excellent right out of the box.

The other gem in all of this is the Android flight planning software. There are two of them, but I’ve been running Droid Planner and am pretty happy with it. The other option is called AndroPilot. They both seem to have different capabilities and are both on github.

I still have a lot of learning to do to optimize the controls to my liking. Fortunately, the software is all open source. Now if the wind would just die down I can go out for a flight.