Why six years?

It probably took a years at the beginning to get the system working at a basic level, and a couple of years at the end adding cool features like GPS location tracking, object-avoidance, human remote-control, custom cool lids etc.  So what happened in the intermediate three years?

The biggest timer-killer was drift in a hover: the accelerometer measures gravity and real acceleration along three perpendicular axes.  At the start of a flight, it reads a value for gravity before takeoff; during the flight, integration of new readings against the initial gravity reading provides velocity.  In a calm summer’s day, all worked well, but in other conditions, there were often collisions with brick-walls etc.  Essentially, the sensors say they weren’t moving whereas reality said it was.  It took years to recognise the correlation between winds, weather and crashes: lots of iterative speculation spanning the seasons were required to recognise the link to temperature variations*.

There are two factors: first, the IMU has been optimised to operate above 20°C – below that and small temperature changes lead to significant drift in values; secondly, once in flight, weather- and prop-breeze cools the sensor compared to the ground measurement of gravity.  I tried lots of ways to handle the temperature changes; at one point, I even bought a beer-fridge for mapping accelerometer gravity values against temperature!  It’s back to its intentional purpose now.

Digging back, it’s clear how others have coped:

  • DIY RC drones used synchronising the IMU and RC each flight along with sheltering the IMU from the wind.  The pilot wasn’t interested in static hover and is part of the feedback loop for where it to go.
  • at the bleeding edge, the DJI Mavic has a dynamic cooling system embedded in the depths of the frame keeping the IMU at a fixed temperature, along with two ground-facing cameras and GPS to long-term fine tuning.
  • All videos I saw were from the California coastline!!!

But I did it my way, the DIY experimentation way resulting ultimately with passive temperature stability by wrapping the IMU in a case to suppress wind cooling, combined with a Butterworth low-pass filter to extract gravity long-term, and the LiDAR / RPi camera to track the middle ground.  I perfected reinvention of the wheel!

Hindsight is wonderful, isn’t it!


*My apologies for the complexity of this sentence, it represents the frustration and complexity I encountered working this out over years!

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