Ready, Set, Drone!

14 July 2015

Interview with

Simon Vans-Colina, London Hackspace

With current technology the sky really is the limit - and advances in software and Dronedownsizing computer chips have allowed drones to really "take off". Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles, which can be flown autonomously, or via remote control from the ground. Drones are now so cheap to make and build that they can be owned by just about anyone - and with these fast little flying copters a new sport has been born: drone racing. Georgia Mills went to see a man about a drone: Simon Vans-Colina is one of the founders of the London Aerospace Group and also a drone pilot...

Simon - Drones themselves, as a thing that you can buy, a commercial product are only a few years old. But as mobile phone technology made chips available that are fast and good accelerometers, that's made possible smaller and smaller drones. At some point about 2 years ago, people realised that you could build these small carbon fibre drones with good quality lithium-polymer batteries and they were really, really fast, and then people just started racing them.

Georgia - How did you get into racing?

Simon - I saw a video on YouTube when I was snowboarding once and somebody just like absolutely flying through the trees and it reminded me of Star Wars, the pod racing or like flying speeders through the forest and I was like, "I just have to do that." So, I think I ordered all of the bits on that first weekend and then built my first one.

Georgia - How do you go about building a drone?

Simon - You watch a lot of YouTube videos. Everybody who flies drones at the moment also builds them. There aren't really any off the shelf, ready to buy racing drones yet, although they're coming. Even if you buy one off the shelf, the first time you crash it, you're going to have to rebuilt it and crashing and rebuilding is part of the hobby or part of the sport so far.

Georgia - Is there any element of software to it?

Simon - The drones will have a little computer chip called a flight controller. That runs an algorithm called the PID loop and there's a few different implementations of the PID loop. The one that we all fly is called cleanflight. It's built by a British programmer called Dominic Clifton. So yeah, you can download the source code for this. They're all open source. If you know programming, if you know a little bit of C, you can download the source code and just hack on it and make it do what you want.

Georgia - I see you've got some here laid out on this table. There are a variety of sizes, all of them have 4 sticky-outy propellers on them. Can you tell me a bit about these guys?

Simon - This is the Thug 180. It's made by thug frames. This one here, I call The Nerd because I kind of designed it myself and it looks like it's got glasses on and the camera in the front of it is the nerd-cam.

Georgia - The Nerd is the one that can see in 3D. I'm quite excited to see one of these in the air. Can we have a go?

Simon - Yup, let's do it. So, you'll put these goggles on here.

Georgia - What are these goggles for?

Simon - This receive the picture from the drone so you see what the drone sees.

Georgia - Wow! So we get a drone's eye view of the flight.

Simon - Yup, exactly.

Georgia - And I see you've got a spare. So you're going to take me along for a ride.

Simon - Yup, absolutely. So, you'll see the same thing that I'm seeing.

Georgia - Oh wow, that's so weird! So, I'm can see myself through The Nerd vision, as it were, with the goggles.

Simon - So, what I'm going to do is, I'm going to fly for you now and you can just sit back and enjoy the 3D vision.

Georgia - So we're just hovering in the air now, taking a look at - it's looking at Simon as he's got the controller and going really low. You can see almost each blade of grass coming towards you. This is quite frightening. I wouldn't recommend doing this on an empty stomach to be honest. Can I trust that you're not going to fly this thing into me? It's coming very close. Almost felt the breeze there as it flew past. Really picking up speed now, zooming along the ground. Oh! It had a 3D crash. Let's go and see if it's okay. Is it alright?

Simon - Hit the grass and rolled.

Georgia - Avatar's got nothing on this. A live 3D drone crash - it's amazing!

Simon - Yeah.

Georgia - When is drone racing going to be in the Olympics?

Simon - Soon, I hope. It's so much fun. There are so many leagues starting up. There's a big one in the US called the Drone Nationals which is bringing together the best pilots in the world and it's an amazing spectator sport too because everybody brings their goggles and everybody watches everybody else's race from the first person. So, it's like - imagine going to the Formula One races, but everybody can see the view from the driver's cockpit the whole time. So, it's really fun.

Georgia - Is it all fun and games with these drones? Are there any other applications people have been looking into?

Simon - We know people that are putting infrared cameras on drones to do search and rescue, so if there was somebody, a hiker, lost in the forest. Amazon is talking about using drones to do deliveries. I personally can't see how that's going to work. I don't think it's going to work in London. It's very hard to find somewhere you can safely drop a package off in London.

Georgia - Is there any chance that people could hack in to drones?

Simon - Sure, absolutely. I mean, I saw a tweet the other day that one day, we'll see a news drone chasing a police drone that's chasing a pirate drone that ripped off an amazon drone. Like we use frequency hopping an encrypted radio already so that we don't have to worry about people taking over our drones. But our video signals are still analogue. When we're flying, anybody can pick up our video signals.

Georgia - I was in very competent hands when we flew around but say, I don't know, someone who'd had a bit to drink when they're flying and there's nothing...

Simon - You don't drink and drone. It's one of the rules.

Georgia - Well, there's nothing to stop a nefarious or drunk person flying into someone or even just spying through someone's window.

Simon - People always say like, "Are you worried about people using drones to spy on people?" but my drones have never snuck up on anybody. They're so loud and they're so obviously in the air. There's a great device that's been invented that protects people from being spied on by drones. It's called curtains. So yeah, I don't think that's a real issue. I think that being hit on the head by a half kilo flying brick with spinning blades on the front is more of an issue than being spied on by something that's really, really loud and obvious. There are risks to them and it's a pretty unregulated industry or pretty unregulated hobby right now and everybody is very, very careful to make sure that we only do it safely and stuff, but like society is going to have to adapt.

Georgia - So, can you program a drone?

Simon - Yeah. So, there's a piece of software called NodeCopter which lets you send commands to the drone using the same programme and language they use on the web. So, if you know Javascript, you can basically programme a NodeCopter to take off, hover, turn right, turn left. It doesn't give it the sort machine vision, obstacle avoidance, or way pointing or anything like that. But for just like really basic controls, you can have a computer control a drone really easily.

Georgia - I saw a video on YouTube of someone I think they had coded it to follow red and someone was running around with a red flag and the drone was chasing them. Is that possible?

Simon - Yeah, absolutely. But the thing is, the image recognition stuff, you have to send a video back to a computer at the moment. As computers get faster, we're hoping to move more and more of those smart algorithms onto the microprocessor on the drone which will make them a lot more autonomous. If Moore's Law keeps holding and microprocessors get faster, we'll be able to move all sorts of interesting algorithms onto the drone. Like all of those crazy things like image recognition and face recognition and like following a particular car and all of that stuff will be able to be done on the drone once the processors are fast enough.

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