Autonomous drones based on Raspberry Pi, building from scratch | Robotics

I suffer from “terminal boredom syndrome”; I always need a challenging hobby to keep me sane. In 2012, the was launched just as my previous hobby had come to an end. After six months of playing (including a Raspberry version of a BBC Micro Turtle robot I did at school 30+ years ago), I was looking for something really challenging. DIY were emerging, so I set out making one with a Raspberry and Python, from absolute ignorance but loads of motivation.  Six years later, with only one fire (at the Raspberry 4th Birthday Party, no less!), the job is done.

Here’s smaller Zoë, larger Hermione and their remote-controller, Ivy:

Zoë (as in “Ball”), the smallest drone, is on a Pi ZeroW, supporting preset- and manual-flight controls. Hermione (as in “Granger”) is a Pi3 drone, supporting the above along with GPS and obstacle-avoidance.

Penelope (as in “Pitstop”), not shown above, is a B3+ with mix of the two above.

Development history

It probably took four years(!) to get the drone to simply hover stably for more than a few seconds. For example, the accelerometer (IMU) tells gravity and acceleration in 3D; and from sum math(s), angles, speed and distance. But IMU output is very noisy. It drifts with temperature, and because gravity is huge compared to the propeller changes, it doesn’t take long before the calculated speed and distance values drift significantly. It took a lot of time, experimentation and guesswork to get accelerometer, gyrometer, ground-facing LiDAR and a Raspberry Pi camera to work together to get a stable hover for minutes rather than seconds. And during that experimentation, there were plenty of crashes: replacement parts were needed many many times! However, with a sixty-second stable hover finally working, adding cool features like GPS tracking, object avoidance and human control were trivial in comparison.

In passing, I’m a co-founder and assistant at the Cotswold Raspberry Jam (cotswoldjam.org). I’m hoping to take Zoë to the next event on September 15th – tickets are free – and there’s so much more learn, interact and play with beyond the piDrone.

Finally, a few years ago, my goal became getting the piDrone exploring a maze: all but minor tweaks are now in places. Sadly, piDrone battery power for exploring a large maze currently doesn’t exist. Perhaps my next project will be designing a nuclear-fusion battery pack?  Deuterium oxide (heavy water) is surprisingly cheap, it seems…

More resources

If you want to learn more, there’s years of development on Andy’s blog at https://pidrone.io, and he’s made considerable documentation available at GitHub if you want to explore things further after this blog post. Thanks Andy!

Also, a historical video of drone caught on fire:

Source: Raspberry Pi blog, by Andy Baker and Liz Upton.

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