First flight with Finwing Penguin

Finwing PenguinYesterday I got my first flight with the Finwing Penguin we put together in my drone class. It’s an ugly airplane but it sure flies good. I think that had a lot to do with the Pixhawk acting as autopilot. In old style RC, if you got in trouble you let go of the sticks and hoped the airplane had enough altitude to recover on its own. With the Pixhawk, you let go of the sticks and the autopilot puts it straight and level immediately. I kept thinking back to all the planes I might not have crashed if I’d had that feature…

Flying the Finwing Penguin

Flying was almost a non-event. The instructor took it off, took it to altitude, then handed the controller to me. The Pixhawk was in fly-by-wire mode. If I wanted to turn, I just moved the aileron stick in the direction I wanted to turn. The Pixhawk adjusted the elevator automatically to keep the Penguin at the same altitude. If I wanted to change altitude, I just climbed or dived until it was high as I wanted and let go of the stick. The Pixhawk automatically leveled the plane.

After flying it for awhile I gave the controller back to the instructor. Next, he demonstrated something really cool – auto pilot mode. He had a route (“mission” in drone parlance) programmed into the Pixhawk. As soon as he put the Penguin in autopilot mode it started flying the programmed mission. He let it fly the route a few times and turned off the transmitter. On a regular RC airplane, this would have caused the plane to crash. Not this time…

Failsafe

Another nice feature of the Pixhawk is something called failsafe mode. You can program it to make the airplane do things based on certain conditions. In our case, the instructor had programmed the Pixhawk to fly back to the starting (takeoff) point and then fly circles at 50′ altitude if radio signal was lost.

Sure enough, as soon has he turned off the transmitter the Penguin turned itself around and flew until it was directly overhead. Then it started flying in circles. After proving that failsafe worked as intended, he put the Finwing back in manual mode and landed it because the battery was getting low. He knew it was low thanks to telemetry, but that’s another post…

My own Finwing Penguin

I liked it so much that I ordered my own Finwing Penguin kit. You have 2 choices if you want one. You can order direct from Finwing or from Ready Made RC. It costs a little more to order from Ready Made RC but shipping is faster. I chose faster shipping. If you do order from ready Made RC, make sure to specify the M2815 motor and 60 amp ESC. The M2220 motor with 40 amp speed controller is underpowered for the Penguin in my opinion.

The other fixed wing I looked at was the Volantex Ranger EX. It’s about the same size as the Finwing Penguin and costs about the same. It’s better looking than the Penguin and has an ABS fuselage instead of foam like the Penguin. I decided on the Finwing because I figure the foam will be easier to modify or repair than ABS plastic.

It only took 3 days to arrive and I can’t wait to get started on it (still need to finish my F450 first…)

Building a drone with my son

building a drone with my sonFor Christmas this year, my son wants a cell phone. He’s not getting one. I decided to get him a learning opportunity instead. Two years ago he wanted a drone, so we got him a Holystone Universe Explorer. He likes flying it but it’s kind of worn out only after a few hours. It’s OK for a cheap drone but there are some things that aren’t so great. Flight time is only 5 or 6 minutes. It has a camera, but there isn’t a video down link so shooting pictures is shooting blind. It uses brushed motors that wear out after about after only 4 or 5 hours. At least with the short flight times that makes about 50 flights. It won’t hold a steady hover, I think because one of the motors is starting to go. So I decided for Christmas this year, I’ll be building a drone with my son.

Another F450 drone

I decided we’re going to build an F450. I already know how to build an F450 thanks to my drone class. It’s big enough to be easy to work on. Lots of companies make F450 parts and kits so repairs are cheap. It can lift enough to haul a decent camera or an LED bling kit. It’s easy to mount an FPV system. Flight times are about 12 minutes with a 5000 mAH battery. The best part is there’s room for an APM flight controller and GPS so we can fly autonomous missions.

The other kit I looked at was a 250 class quad. It was pretty tempting because it came with a camera and it’s small enough to fly inside. OK, border line small enough… It was also cheaper than the F450 kit I picked. For this project, the advantages of the F450 won out.

The half priced drone…

My F450 is a DJI kit. It was $190 for the kit and another $204 for the Pixhawk with GPS and telemetry. The F450 clone kit I bought for my son was only $122. It comes with an APM 2.8 flight controller (predecessor to the PixHawk) and an earlier GPS module. It doesn’t include a telemetry system, so that was another $39 from HobbyKing. Total cost for DJI F450/PixHawk set: $394. Total cost for clone F450/APM 2.8 set (including telemetry): $161. That’s actually a lot less than half price compared to the DJI…

Building a drone with my son

I chose the clone lit on purpose. I know that the DJI kit goes together without any problems. For all I know, the clone kit will, too. If you read through drone reviews on Amazon though, you find lots of complaints about problems with clone kits. Some people think that’s a problem, but it’s why I got my son a clone F450 instead of the DJI kit. No, I’m not heartless…

I figure if the clone kit gives us problems, it will be an opportunity. He can learn about troubleshooting. I can show him how to resolve issues with a vendor. I can teach him about cheapness vs. quality. We can learn problem solving skills. He can learn patience. In fact the more I think about it, the more I hope we DO have problems. Either way my kid will have a good flying drone when we’re done. And anything is better than getting him a cell phone. He already spends too much damn time online…

First day of drone class…

Today was the first day of my drone class. We’re building the DJI F450 quadcopter first, then a fixed wing. We’re working in teams of 3, and each team also has a mentor. I’m pretty sure I’m not going to get along with our team mentor. I won’t get into that though. It also turns out I didn’t need to buy my own kit because the school has kits for us to build.

Don’t tell my wife!!!

We don’t get to keep the school’s kit, so maybe I really did need to buy my own. The school’s F450 is a little different than mine. My kit came with 4 identical motors with normal threads on the prop shaft, with a nut to hold the prop. The school’s kits have 2 motors labelled CW (for clockwise) and 2 labelled CCW (no, not concealed carry CCW, counter-clockwise). The only difference is the CW have left hand threads on the prop shafts, and the props are threaded (no separate nut). School version is more idiot-proof, but mine is more flexible – especially if I decide to use the parts in other projects.

Radio – and more radio…

The school has Futaba 8 channel radios for us to use. I’m a big fan of Futaba, but for my radio I chose the Taranis X9D. I also ordered an L9R receiver for my fixed wing drone. Then I got to thinking about really long range and decided to get an EzUHF Tx module and matching Rx. Now I wish I could afford a second Taranis Tx to make a dedicated 433 MHz system. School avionics is all DJI but I chose the PixHawk for mine.

One thing at a time? No Way!!!

Now that I’ve barely started work on the F450 I’m already thinking fixed wing. At first I wanted a Great Planes J3 Cub, but after a lot of – ahem – research I’ve decided to go with a CrashTestHobby Storm Chaser. It’s big, flies easy, and the epp foam is bomb crash proof. It’s ugly, but easy to fly is more important right now. I can always build a better looking fuselage later. Those are easy, it’s wings that are hard. Of course I’ll need to get a second PixHawk for it…

Back to reality…

There is so much cool stuff for drones/RC planes that it’s easy to get carried away. Since I can’t really afford another Tx and PixHawk, I’ll really just be moving the radio and avionics to the Storm Chaser when the time comes. But I do have a second radio…

While I was cleaning out the garage this weekend, I managed to find all the pieces of my old JR 631 system. It’s FM, which means potential interference and a long string Rx antenna, but heck, it’s a working radio system. I won’t put it in anything expensive, but I have an almost finished Airtronics Q-Tee and a huge box of balsa. Now if I could just get my son interested in this stuff…