It was a while since I last updated anything on here. When the winter arrives here in Finland the population goes into hibernation. Not literally of course but our daily activity often changes to something not so active.
First it got dark and it was only raining for a month or two, then it got windy and cold which lasted as well around a month. Now finally the weather has cooled down and there’s even a bit snow around amidst all ice and greyness.
This article is supposed to be about drone building which is a very good hobby to do around this time of the year.
The last article was about my first experiences with multirotors where I started to do some aerial filming with a secondhand DJI Phantom FC40. Pretty shortly after that I started to play around with an idea of modifying the phantom for to being able to use analog FPV (first person view) equipment on it. The FC40 cameras WiFi range is indeed quite impressive but the delay is too horrible to use for orientating and barely good enough for composing fix shots.
This modification would have cost pretty much, at least since I at that time didn’t have a clue what things would work together with each other and I then only stared at these commercial packages from DJI and other manufactures.
After one bad crash with the Phantom I had to open the cover of it to clean away some mud that had entered through the ESC’s ventilation holes. At the same time I started to investigate a bit more around the essential hardware’s that this particular quad is built of and realized that it at least doesn’t look too complicated.
That’s when I started thinking about building my own drone.
My first idea was to scratch build the frame from PVC pipes. I got caught for many days browsing around on the PVC thread at RCgroups and I even went so far to draw up one prototype and bought the pipes. I more or less finished the frame but I didn’t have any electronics for it.
At this time I was still very confused about all the specs, compatibility between modules and the whole electricity thing. (Which I had barley any experience of at all. I soldered last time in elementary school when I was around 10 years old) I was too unsure to buy anything and had too less money to afford buying the “wrong” parts so I postponed it for days and soon weeks.
I frequently browsed around on the online secondhand markets in Finland and once again I found a reasonably priced quadcopter for sale. This was a pre-assembled DJI F450 frame, RTF (ready to fly) with a Open Pilot CC3D flight controller and a Flysky 9 channel radio transmitter.
These kind of assembly packages are quite common and not very expensive to buy as new. However I would not have wanted to buy it as new and assembled it myself. Somehow I felt that it might have been too easy or not enough of a challenge. Winter was starting and time I had, why not make it a bit more interesting? That’s about what my thoughts were at that time.
In the end I still bought that mentioned F450 RTF kit. The price was a bargain and a lot of parts I could use for the “real” build I was suppose to do.
The CC3D is a crazy flightcontroller. It’s an open source software (and hardware?) with a really nice community that is very helpful. By crazy I don’t only mean all the opportunities in the tuning and programming but more the feel of flying something manually. Coming from a DJI Phantom background with the sluggish slow movements and “safe” GPS autopilot features, the first flight with the CC3D felt like a near to zero control rodeo.
Reminder to myself: Don’t fly a new drone, at least not with a new flight controller, without knowing what you really are doing in windy weather conditions as the maiden flight.
Yes, in the air it went. And fast! The sticks felt really too snappy and the gusty wind was throwing it in all directions, even up and down. It took me around a minute trying to land it safely.
I realized that the next step would be to thoroughly read up on this new flight controller. Luckily I had just moved my office to a new location where connected to my room was a pretty big hall, constructed for video and sound recordings. This was now my new place for testing and tuning when it wasn’t in use by others.
This was as well around the times when I got my first aerial filming job offer. I completed it with the Phantom and a zip-tied GoPro 4 since I still hadn’t figured out the CC3D.
Because of that offer and some secret future projects I started to investigate in gimbals. The zip-tie configuration was safe but definitely not very practical. It took me around a week of tests before I was completely able to eliminate the micro vibrations caused by the motors and propellers shaking the camera. This is also known as the jello effect.
Gimbals as the Zenmuse is pretty expensive and seems to be optimized for the DJI Naza flight controllers. I don’t know what the Naza optimization means, if it’s unusable with any other flight controller or just that modifications are needed or what, at least I didn’t want to spend so much money on something I wasn’t even sure if worked.
I found a cheapo DYS Smart 3 axis gimbal on e-bay which I ordered. The DYS came with the Alexmos controller which wasn’t completely new for me. I’ve been using bigger DSLR gimbals with it before and has worked pretty well. The gimbal shipped fast and once I got it I attached a gopro and directly fired it up with my Phantom battery. Like magic it was completely tuned and working like a charm straight out the box.
The problems started once I mounted it to the F450. Still to this day I’m not really sure what the problem was with that particular drone. It was somehow very jerky, unsteady and unreliable. Maybe there was some bad parts or a twisted arm or something. I still use the flight controller and have never had any problems with it since i moved it to another setup so it can’t be that. The problems where a lot of vibrations. even with the gimbals own vibration dampeners it didn’t work at all. Sometimes the engines seemed to shut down in the middle of the flight for a fraction of a second, not enough for it to fall from the sky but still jerk it out of it’s position, causing it to sway.
The Christmas sale started. A lot of priced dropped everywhere but mostly in the Finnish shops. I accidentally stumbled upon this nano quad copter in the local electronic shop. It cost under 50€ and was ready to fly with radios, batteries and everything you would need. I couldn’t resist buying it as a Christmas present for myself =P
I must say that I’ve been surprisingly happy with that little drone. It’s actually not really the exact same as the one I first bought. It only lasted 5 days before one engine broke of. Luckily I got a new one on warranty from the shop since that looked more like bad parts from the factory than an accident. Now the second one has been almost in daily practice use for over a month and only one prop has broken so far.
If you are interested in drones or other similar UAV’s then I can’t recommend these small ones enough as the first one or even as a inside practice one for a more seasoned pilots. They are just so fun to fly and have very similar characteristics as the big ones which will come handy once you get to fly one of those.
At this time I had been flying almost everyday (as long as the weather allowed) with the Phantom and almost every evening struggling with the CC3D. The Phantom is relatively small but already the F450 is a bit bulky to move from place to place. It’s pretty fragile equipments so you usually want to protect them in some case or fasten them well in the car which can be problematic when the drone is big and the car is small. And what do we usually do with more ordinary things in these kind of situations? We try to fold them.
I started to slowly realize what i actually really wanted. I made up a list of 3 criteria what a drone should have for being usable for me.
1. I need to trust it. (electronically and operationally wise)
2. I need to be able to shoot vibration free gimbal stabilized videos with minimum a Gopro camera.
3. The whole kit must be portable. (fit in a small space or bag and not weight too much)
After some researching I stumbled on the ImmersionRC XuGong foldable quadcopter. This was sold as only the frame without any electronics. It was pretty expensive considered it’s a quite small frame (450 size) but the reviews were good.
Luckily I found one of these frames (the 10″ version) on Christmas sale in Finland. It was about half the price cheaper than from other shops. At this same Christmas sale and in the same shop I found a DJI 550 hexacopter set on 75% sale.This came with 6 motors, 6 ESC’s some wiring and of course the hexa frame.
To have 6 of everything, although I only needed 4 seemed like a good deal since I’m surely going to wreck something either way soon. The hexa was as well a lot cheaper than the F450 quad kit and the electronics were identical.
I was thinking of taking my Phantom in parts and use it’s Naza v2 flight controller on the XuGong but in the end I got too fascinated about the CC3D and used that instead.
The build was pretty easy and I didn’t really have any problems with it. The manual of the Xugong was not very good but I got the essentials of it at least. The only problem was with the post service. I had a lot of parts, FPV gears and Bec’s on their way but they got stuck in the Christmas traffic. A build that would have taken around a day ended up taking almost 3 weeks because of that.
The XuGong has pretty good damping systems what I started to try out. I just zip-tied a Gopro on a custom built aluminum plate mounted on top of the drone but still under the dampening rubbers. This worked very good… Until I Changed the battery wires to a bit thicker ones. The old ones were not really long enough and the only wires I had at that moment was so thick that they hit the both the bottom and top plate simultaneously which then started to vibrate the whole set. And again I had jello effect everywhere.
I bought new cables and mounted the DYS gimbal in the front of the drone. It took a while to figure out a good way to mount it without drilling new holes in the frame. By using the DYS mount and some custom made spacers i was able to safely attach it to the drone. the DYS controller i loosened and attached to the bottom plate of the drone with double sided tape.
So far I only have around one hour flying behind me with this setup but it seems to work well.
I’m still using the Phantoms 3s 2700mAh batteries which are a bit too small and powerless for this heavy setup. My biggest concern was if 3s would be enough to lift both the drone, the gimbal + camera and FPV setup.
To my surprise it easily lifted it. Hoover is around 65% throttle and it still have quite much lift and agility. However it’s not perfect. The flight times are around 6-8 minutes depending on the flying style and the thrust is not really efficient. I’m thinking now on upgrading to a 4s system with 4000mAh batteries, which as well is recommended by the ImmersionRC.
With that setup I think I would come as close as possible to those 3 criteria I listed earlier. Now it’s just time to wait for better weather.
In the meantime I found a complete cheap 250 size quad kit what I started to build yesterday. This one I will use for practicing FPV flying. The Xugong with cameras and gimbals is already so heavy and expensive to crash that I thought it would be better to crash something a bit cheaper instead. Since crash i certainly will, over and over again.
At the time writing this I have already crashed the XuGong 4 times. 2 really bad ones which resulted in 3 broken safety locks and a bent gimbal arm. Everything is of course now already fixed but I don’t want to take stupid risks with this anymore. This one will hopefully bring me some jobs or more serious filming while the mini will be the one to practice and play with. The mini will be equipped with a CC3D board as well which means that they should be very similar to fly.
As a reward for those who has taken their time and read all the way down here I offer you a short crash video of selected crashes in different locations since I started flying last autumn. =)
I’m surprised how well they still last. Enjoy!