3DR Tech Data and Review

I owned an IRIS+ by 3DR from Jan this year until a couple months ago when I lost it in a large desolate area in South Africa. The search is still on. As a former IRIS+ owner that pushed my drone to the limits of what it can do, I thought I’d post my first impressions of the Solo by 3DR. This is targeted at an advanced audience.

For some context, here’s video I shot with my IRIS+ earlier this year using a Hero 4 Black and the Tarot T-2D brushless gimbal.

I got my first Solo this week. The unboxing experience is awesome – well done 3DR, very Applesque.

The first person video via iPad is awesome. The way 3DR has designed the drone is interesting. With the IRIS+ you had a controller that spoke 2.4Ghz to the drone to control it. Then you had a separate radio that spoke 900Mhz also to another transceiver on the drone which is how you received telemetry. I actually loved this setup on the IRIS+ because the 900 Mhz radio had significantly further range than the 2.4ghz radio and it’s easy to buy high gain directional 900 mhz antennas or antenna amplifiers.

The Solo has a single 2.4 Ghz radio onboard which talks to the controller. The controller acts as a Wifi base station. All devices (like your iPad or android phone) connect to the controller as a wifi base station. As soon as you connect what happens is the controller starts sending your device UDP packets to port 14550. If you have software running that’s listening at that port, the software receives the data from the controller and displays it in the user interface.

So you can have an iPad, Android phone and a PC all connected to the controller at the same time receiving data from the drone.

The Solo has two antennas that are in the legs, diagonally opposite each other. There is a third leg that has a tiny circuit board and I suspect this is a GPS antenna, but I’m unsure at this time.

I disassembled my solo. A few tips on disassembly:

  • The shiny black hood does in fact come off. You need to unclip it from the underside. Look closely under it and you’ll see three tabs. If you push those out with a screwdriver you’ll get it off.
  • Unlike the IRIS+ the main board is harder to get out. You need to unclip most of the electronic plugs that are on the board to be able to see the underside. Then you can slide it out partially. I didn’t go further than that because it looked like I’d need to start unsoldering things to get it completely out of the aircraft.

The two antennas in the legs are MIMO antennas and I haven’t verified this but I’m assuming they’re talking 801.22n to the drone. I suspect what 3DR have done is to have the drone connect to the controller as a base station like other devices have, but I haven’t confirmed this and have no data to support this theory. I used a wifi sniffer to give me the data that I have on how the controller speaks UDP to clients, but my wifi sniffer is only 802.11b/g and I’ve ordered a card that supports 802.11n but am waiting or it to arrive. Once I have that, I will be able to tell if the drone is speaking 802.11n to the controller or if it’s speaking a proprietary protocol.

To use Mission Planner with the Solo, you need to connect to the controller’s wifi as a hotspot. Then launch Mission Planner and select ‘UDP’ as your connection type and hit ‘connect’. You should immediately download the config and start receiving telemetry.

Good news: Even though 3DR have completely hidden away the ability for the Solo to fly a flight plan in full Auto mode, you can still do it. Here’s how:

  • Launch Mission Planner
  • Set up a flight plan with waypoints etc.
  • Upload it to the drone.
  • Arm the Solo.
  • Then go into ‘Flight Data’ and click the ‘Actions’ tab on the bottom left.
  • Select ‘Auto’ from the drop down list and click the ‘Set Mode’ button.
  • The Solo will immediately launch. This is different from the IRIS+ which required you to put the controller into ‘Auto’ and goose the throttle slightly to trigger the Auto program.

It’s funny watching the iPad app show the flight mode switch to “Autonomous” when it doesn’t actually list it as a flight mode, even using the advanced options.

So how about performance. Here’s how you can turn the Solo into a mean machine when flying autonomous programs. If the above didn’t void your warranty, this definitely will.

Go into Config/Tuning in Mission Planner and you can change the following if you dare:

  • Do a search for ‘speed’ and you’ll find many things you’ll enjoy playing with.
  • I changed Waypoint Horizontal Speed Target to 2000 or 20m/s. Verified the Solo can handle this but didn’t try a program that had enough distance to let it fully reach that speed along a track. Note that with the IRIS+ I ran into an issue where using spline waypoints the aircraft would lose altitude if I set the horizontal speed too high because it appeared to give the horizontal speed precedence over maintaining altitude. So careful of setting this high on the Solo. Not sure if the same issue exists.
  • Waypoint Descent Speed. Changed this to 300cm/s or 3m/s. Verified the Solo can handle this and flies fine. However note: Changing your descent speed with any drone is very dangerous because the aircraft is descending into it’s own prop-wash (turbulence created by the propellors). If you make this too high the aircraft can get very unstable and flip or crash. I had my IRIS+ hit snow very hard one night when I set this too high.
  • Waypoint Climb Speed Target. Definitely my favorite if you are doing an auto program and want the aircraft to get to altitude as fast as possible. The max I’ve tried this with the Solo is 1000cm/s or 10 meters per second. It’s awesome – absolutely rockets into the sky.

Once you’ve tweaked a few of these settings you’re probably still wondering why your Solo is a little sluggish. Here’s how you make her zip:

  • Again on the Config/Tuning Standard Params page, do a search for ‘accel’
  • Waypoint Acceleration. I’ve set this to 500 (default for the Solo is 100)  which is the max and tested the Solo doing laps and it handles it fine without crashing.
  • Waypoint Vertical Acceleration. I’ve tested this at 200 (default is 100) and it works great.

So what do I think of the Solo by 3DR? The one issue I’ve found is that GPS signal around my house is a little glitchy. The Solo reacts to this by accelerating hard in a certain direction when I have it in beginner “Fly” mode which is what every newbie will use when they fly for the first time. This is probably going to be a disaster. I had to use every ounce of my skill as a drone pilot to not crash the Solo when it did this. It has so far done this 3 times to me over 2 days of flying. When it happened the aircraft was definitely going to crash into an obstacle and the only way to avoid it was to climb and give full opposite joystick – so unless you do that when this happens to you, you’re going to be wearing a frowny first-time drone pilot face as you send your smashed Solo back to 3DR and wait weeks or more for a replacement. Very worrying. I suspect 3DR will fix this by cross-referencing the data from the gyros with what the GPS is claiming and maybe not accelerate so hard to try to correct any GPS position errors.

I also had a landing where the drone ended up in a rhythmic bounce with the engines racing and I couldn’t shut them down even though I had full negative throttle. I just held it down, thankfully it didn’t flip and eventually go the idea.

I’m unsure how the 2.4 Ghz radio is going to work out. I already have a set of dual high gain antennas I bought from http://fpvlr.com/ (Thanks Tony for the awesome fast shipping) and haven’t tried them out yet, but they look solid. I think if I can get an antenna tracker working with the Solo with dual high gain antennas, it’s probably feasible to get telemetry, control and video over 3+ miles which is going to be amazing.

The drone itself is a nice improvement. Design is really polished, the battery life is now 20 minutes with a full payload and it seems to fly better than the IRIS+ but I’d like to check how it flies with a Gimbal.

Speaking of Gimbals, they don’t actually exist. 3DR is still figuring out how to get them manufactured and posted this blog entry 3 days ago saying the first Gimbals for the Solo will be coming off the line at the end of July. (!!!) Wow, guys, taking just-in-time shipping to a whole new level of I’m-not-sure-what-ness.

So don’t expect to be playing with the Solo Gimbal any time soon.

Bottom line: I’m a huge fan of 3D Robotics, even though this post was written a little tongue in cheek. I think the Solo rocks but I’d say this is a Beta release based on the GPS glitching that I’ve seen and the landing issue. For guys like me who love voiding warranties, it’s fun to get early access to a platform like this. I can’t wait to play with the Python Dronekit API and I’m enjoying pushing the aircraft to it’s limits and playing with my packet sniffer to see what’s happening under the hood. However I wouldn’t recommend the platform for newbies until say October/November this year when the Gimbal has been out a few months, there have been a few software updates and the platform has had a chance to breathe.

The FAA needs to get their hands dirty to enable UAV innovation

In the 1970’s and much of the 80’s, passengers on commercial aircraft would occasionally experience the joy of the ‘holding pattern’. Having their plane stacked with other planes circling in a spiral due to a delay at a destination airport. Planes would circle sometimes for hours, with priority given to those about to run out of fuel.

Then in 1981 the FAA used a ground delay program (GDP) for the first time during an air traffic controllers strike. The advantage of keeping airplanes on the ground at their departure airport was immediately obvious: passengers are just as unhappy, but they’re safer and the aircraft isn’t burning fuel at 161 lbs per minute (or 73kg per minute for the 767) in a holding pattern. Today the ground delay program is run by the  Air Traffic Control System Command Center, in Warrenton, Virginia which coordinates commercial flights around the USA and Canada and implements a GDP for destination airports if their arrival rate drops below a threshold.

The FAA is catching a lot of heat for their delay in implementing UAV (or drone) legislation. The drone pilot part of me sympathizes with the public and I think what is particularly frustrating is that a small handful of commercial operators have actually been granted licenses to operate giving them an unfair advantage over other operators. The article in the Denver Post today probably stung a bit among unlicensed operators when one of the already-licensed operators described the FAA’s pace as “about where it should be”. Sure, it works for them.

But the private pilot part of me – and the aviation history enthusiast part of me is sympathetic towards the FAA’s plight. Make no mistake, I think we should bringing as much public pressure to bear on them as we can. In the legislative environment we’ve inherited that’s the only way anything will get done. But this country has a long and storied history in traditional aviation and we have achieved a remarkable improvement in safety by creating well engineered solutions for specific problems. A glance at the chart below showing safety from the 70’s until 2012 illustrates that. [Source: The Economist on air safety and MH370]

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The FAA is not asleep at the switch – they are continuing to innovate and improve safety and efficiency with the rollout of the Next Generation Air Transport System which started in 2012 and is due to complete in 2025. Part of this rollout was support for ADS-B which is just about complete. This remarkable system gives everyone including hobby pilots like you and I the ability to buy an $800 transceiver, attach it to our iPAD and get real-time traffic and weather data as we fly anywhere in the USA while sharing our own position with other pilots and air traffic control. Previously you had to buy expensive avionics systems and a subscription to a commercial provider’s satellite feed.

Unfortunately we are stuck, while we wait for formal FAA legislation, using an FAA advisory circular (91-57) that applies to radio control model aircraft as our legislative guide. It says, don’t fly near populated areas, don’t operate near spectators until you’re sure your aircraft works, don’t fly above 400ft, don’t fly near an airport without notifying them, give way to full scale aircraft, ask the FAA for help if you need it.

Comparing a model aircraft to a drone is like comparing the Wright Flyer to a 767. One has wings and an engine. The other has GPS, avionics, autopilot, gyros, accelerometers, real-time ground station connectivity, real-time logging for later analysis and flight modes ranging from fully-autonomous to the pilot having an advisory role with the computer taking over when needed – to fully manual. (I am comparing most newer commercial long range aircraft with the IRIS+ by 3DRobotics for $750).

Most drone innovators are very excited by the prospect of being able to fly their aircraft out of sight autonomously. Whether it’s Amazon wanting to do package delivery, a survey company wanting to offer services to farmers or me wanting to deliver beer to my friend a few blocks away. Autonomous flight is the most useful aspect of drones and they are very very good at it. I can go outside right now and get my IRIS+ to fly 3 miles away at 390 feet, descend to 60 feet, point the camera on gimbal at my friend’s house, circle the house in a smooth spline navigation path as it films the home, ascend back to 390 and return to me and I can get telemetry via an excellent 900 mhz transceiver from the drone the whole way and even take over manual control if I feel the need. But that’s not allowed because the FAA won’t let us fly out of sight until they make laws which may simply formalize the fact that hobby drones can’t fly out of sight.

The USA is filled with tech innovators that are salivating at the prospect of trying out new things with drones – things that may drastically improve our quality of life and safety. I’m reminded of the horrific King5 news chopper crash a few years ago in Seattle which killed 2 and burned a third victim. Today that job can be done by a drone costing under $2000 – filmed in 4K video, gimbal stabilized with real-time first person view as film is being shot. With an amateur radio FCC license the operator can legally boost the drone telemetry and video signal from 0.2 watts to 10 watts with a high gain antenna and increase range to the point where battery life is the only issue.

But autonomous flight innovation of that kind is banned and the only laws we have to guide us right now are an advisory circular relating to model aircraft and public statements by the FAA. Some operators are saying “to hell with it, we’re flying” as is the case with Texas EquuSearch. The search and rescue operator was issued a warning by the FAA, they then turned around and sued the FAA and a federal court threw out the case saying that the email the FAA sent EquuSearch did “not represent the consummation of the agency’s decision making process, nor did it give rise to any legal consequences.”. EquuSearch have interpreted this as the FAA having no jurisdiction and so they have decided to continue flying.

In my view the FAA must be very careful to not treat drones like manned aircraft because they risk band-aiding the situation and crippling innovation. They need to look at the modern air space systems and innovations that have worked there and then assess drones as unique and completely different entities that happen to exist within their jurisdiction. I think giving everyone from hobbyists to commercial and government operators the ability to perform out-of-sight autonomous flights is a very important and necessary goal if they are to be an enabler of innovation rather than being a crippling force that ensures we aren’t competitive in this new arena of aerospace.

It is essential that this country (the USA) maintains its dominance in aerospace and we worked incredibly hard to get to where we are today – from the Wright Flyer to breaking the sound barrier, to getting our asses kicked by the Soviets when they made it to space first, but we regained the lead by getting to the Moon first. Then on to Stealth technology and military UAV’s. We’ve managed to stay out in front. To do this we need to enable the private sector to conduct research into autonomous flight and the private sector includes individuals and small groups of entrepreneurs. We need to enable them and we need to do it as fast as possible.

To allow autonomous flight I would propose a system similar to DUATS which pilots today use to file flight plans. The FAA should create a system whereby drone operators at defined levels of competence and commerciality are able to file a flight plan before flight. The plan would include waypoints with latitude, longitude and altitude. The flight plan would be filed an hour before flight and define a window for the flight. It would also be approved on the spot or rejected due to a conflict with another plan, temporary flight restrictions (TFR’s) or an airspace conflict.

I would suggest that a system like this could be used for autonomous flights under 400 ft in open areas. With additional licensing operators should be able to enter our national airspace system which starts at 500ft and this may include additional equipment like an ADS-B transceiver. And with further licensing, as with the current pilot requirement of an instrument rating, pilots may be able to complete autonomous flights above 18,000 feet.

To truly enable innovation in autonomous flight, the FAA can’t simply bandaid the existing system. They need to be an enabler and create new products and services to support drone operators and ensure that, as we have with manned aircraft systems, innovators are able to improve safety, efficiency and quality of life with unmanned aircraft.