Send In the Drones! Small Flying Robots are Getting Cheaper, Lighter, Smarter
By Alessondra Springmann
What would you do with a plane that weights 10 grams? Or with a $300 iPhone-controlled quadrotor aircraft that weights just a few ounces? Would you impress your friends, do aerial photography, or would you just fly it for fun? Several DIY groups and academic researchers are making it easier to build and fly inexpensive, light-weight planes controlled with smartphones and infrared transmitters.
Sites like DIY Drones let drone pilots share plans and aerial triumphs, giving more and more would-be builders access to information on hardware and software development for remote-controlled planes. Rather than just building remote-controlled aircraft, DIY Drones encourages its members to construct autonomous planes and functioning autopilots made from Arduino boards, GPS systems, and other sensors. DIY autopilots don’t come cheap: They’ll set you back around $200 just for a board plus sensors. However, you’ll get the satisfaction of crafting your own autonomous aerial vehicle.
Using balsa wood and plastic, a group of Japanese aeromodelers have created several incredibly light aircraft weighing in at about 10 grams (less than half an ounce). To save weight further, galvanometers rather than servo motors are used to move the planes’ control surfaces. Amazingly, these tiny planes are controllable!
At MIT, professor (and former Navy fighter pilot) Missy Cummings and her students are developing an inexpensive quadrotor vehicle about the size of a bike wheel that costs roughly $300. While not totally autonomous yet, you can control this hovering aerial platform with an iPhone in a process similar to playing a video game.
While the Federal Aviation Administration has some restrictions on who can use drones in the US as The Wall Street Journal notes (right now, only the government can fly drones, and even then, there are a few restrictions), you can fly remote-controlled planes below 400 feet and away from populated areas, airplanes, and airports. There is some hope that the FAA will ease some of these restrictions and give remote control plane pilots more freedom in where their aircraft fly, but until then, drone builders aren’t holding their breath and are flying their planes at low altitudes.
What would you use a smartphone-controlled flying drone for? Do you think the military and security applications for these aerial robots will be more heavily used than for more mundane, everyday use? Let us know in the comments.