The Hype Train presents The Genesis

Photo Engineer: Rob Garland

Photo Engineer: Rob Garland

I'm not sure where the idea came from.  I recall being struck during a whole phase of FPV about soft mounting.  Long story short is that adding a rubber or squishy padding between your motors and your frame made the whole quad feel more "locked in".

Granted, it did take out some oscillations in the gyros, but what struck me were that so many people had opinions, deep, hard fought opinions.  The craze swept the community in less than a week.

All of the sudden all anyone could talk about was soft-mounting.  Something I had glimpsed before became obvious:  this is a passionate, opinionated community full of folks that are not only really smart but ready to get their hands dirty in the nitty-gritty.

There was a second interaction that proved to be important.  I read an article about the untapped potential of the iPad Pro in terms of video editing.  It has a monster graphics processor and a beautiful, vibrant touch screen.  But the software is mediocre compared to the PC and Mac market.

I asked around and Nick Miller, the head honcho of MQC, shared how he uses his iPhone in the field to throw together quick, powerful edits.  But he mentioned that short videos were best.  Robert Carson also shared some tips on optimal settings.

And thus the constraints were set:

  1. The videos must tap the passion of the community (the "hype" if you will)
  2. The videos must be shot and edited as much on the iPhone as possible with an obvious exception of GoPro or DVR footage
  3. For social media purposes, the videos must be a minute or less
  4. Because of who I am, they had better be funny
  5. Per a good friend Sean Byrnes, they must follow a regular cadence

I rolled the idea around in my head for a few weeks and then on a complete whim I made the first.  I satirically said that soft-mounting your controller with an oven mitt led to an extremely "locked in" feel.  I cut in some horrific flight footage to "prove" it.  The entire affair was tongue in cheek.


I dubbed it "The Hype Train".  With an incredible amount of anxiety (for me) I tentatively put it out to the local Drone On community.  The reaction was so swift and immediate I was shocked.  They loved it.  I think Mitchell Adams actually ordered oven mitts on Amazon to keep the joke going.

With that under my belt, I put it out to the MQC community.  It was met with similar hilarity.  I finally put it out on the Rotor Riot community, a community known for tearing the unwary to pieces, but the reactions there were just as the other groups.

It seemed like the idea had legs.

I intended the cadence to be weekly, but I honestly had so much fun making the first one that a second followed that very Sunday, the Building Dive episode.  That set the cadence of two a week.


The very last piece to fall into place was the character "Mike".  "Mike" is angry, dismissive, and talks in a clipped, fast growl.  "Mike" knows more than anyone else and he's out to prove it at all costs.  "Mike" has a catch phrase, "Choo choo!"  It's fun to be "Mike".

At almost the 10th episode I feel like the reception is actually growing.  There have been no outright duds and the Eye Liner episode generated a huge amount of activity.


So long as it stays fun, I'll keep it up.  Like all good things, it will one day end, but right now, there's a whole lot of hype to explore.

Choo choo!


The Path to Racing a Drone: Part 1

So the bug has you?  You want to race drones?  Bravo, you are about to embark on something that is fun, exhilarating and cutting edge.

It's also frustrating, expensive and sometimes very, very dangerous.

Now that we have that out of the way, let's talk about the basic gear.  To start with, we're not talking about camera drones that fly themselves.  We're talking about racing drones.  They stay in the air by virtue of your control of the sticks.  You strap on a pair of goggles and go really, really fast.  Or you fly acrobatically around objects.  Or both.

So, the basic equipment is as follows:

  • A racing drone
  • A controller
  • FPV Goggles
  • Batteries
  • A battery charger
  • A computer
  • Maybe an HD action cam (like a GoPro)

Let's talk about the basic skills you will need:

  • The ability to solder along with some basic understanding of electronics
  • The ability to fly
  • The ability to not suffer from motion sickness (I'm serious, if you suffer from motion sickness, go look at another hobby)
  • Maybe the ability to edit a good flight video

In case you don't realize this, those two primary skills are doozies.  Basic electronics is important so that you don't do things like fry flight controllers at best or turn your batteries into bombs at worst.

Flying turns out to be a hard skill to learn.  There are crutches you can use along the way but ultimately there is no replacement for being in the air in full acro mode.

Lastly, you're going to need money.  This is not a cheap hobby.  It is not the most expensive, but the startup costs are not for the faint of heart.

Are you still with me?  OK, good, let's get you started as quickly as possible.

Basic Entry

I get asked a lot, "How do I start?"  There is one answer I have started leaning towards:  Buy a modern controller and get a good simulator.  The very simple reason for this is that you will get stick time.  You will learn the basics of flight.  It is possible to spend hours in front of a computer with a modern controller in your hand and learn how to not crash.  You can even learn some semi-advanced maneuvers.

So, what are your options when it comes to modern controllers?  There are quite a few and each one wages a holy war against the others.  The two dominant players in the market are FrSky Taranis and Spektrum (I have used both).  There are others, such as the Turnigy Evolution (this is my simulator controller), the TBS Tango, FlySky and Futaba controllers.

If you need the bargain basement it's hard to beat the Turnigy Evolution.  If you want the best of the best, I would look at a Taranis radio with modern innards (so that it can connect easily to your computer).  

Like I said, this can be holy war territory.  But just remember this:  Your first controller will likely not be your last.  So long as you have one that allows you to fly a sim and your first build, you're good to go.

The simulator I would recommend is FPV Freerider.  It's $4.99 and allows you to experiment.  It also runs on very low-grade computers (like my first gen Macbook).

Once you get the controller and the sim set up, what do you do?  You practice.  You do things like run the courses and try to stay low.  You learn throttle control and what yaw, pitch and roll do.  You look up maneuvers on YouTube from guys like Joshua Bardwell (look through is videos, he has "how to" on many tricks).  You practice, practice, practice.

On Apple Removing the Headphone Jack

OK, there's a ton of hulabaloo going around about Apple removing the headphone jack.  Some say it's good, some say it's bad, some don't care, some say it's a money grab.

Let's get pragmatic.

I build drones.  As a matter of fact, I build on a Neato 180 currently, which is a relatively tiny frame, 180mm from tip to tip across the X.  There's not a lot of space.  


The build I'm in the middle of right now is taxing my abilities as a (relatively novice) solderer to cram all of the electronic components into the frame.  There are 5 major parts to the build: the power distribution board; the flight controller; the video transmitter array; the FPV camera; and the receiver for my controller.

It's that receiver that's causing me heartburn.  It's not big, but it's a fully digital controller.  It provides 16 channels of input from my Taranis X9D controller.  That's actually going to be important to my plans.

You know what I'm doing right now?  I'm deconstructing it.  I'm taking off those pins you see on the front and I'm going to direct solder my signal wire into the Rx and the flight controller.  There should be 8 pins in that picture, but I've already taken off 2.

That extra space from removing those pins?  It's going to make the whole frame fit together better.  Or, even, fit together.

Those pins are smaller than a headphone jack.  In fact, the headphone jack takes up about as much as 4 of those pins stacked 2 on 2.  That's a lot of space.

Now, my electronics are most definitely designed at a larger scale than Apple's.  Apple may be down to 14 nm dies, but at most 22 nm dies.  That's exceptionally tiny.

Do you know what you can fit inside the space of a headphone jack with 14 or 22 nm dies?  A whole hell of a lot.  (That nm stands for Nano Meters, smaller than most microscopes can see).

So, when Apple says they needed that space, I believe them.  I'm voiding a warranty and making my build less robust in order to fit things in a smaller package.  I get it.

It's not about money, it's not about killing things that need killing.  It's about space.

Things I Learned Today

I learned some valuable things today.

First, I learned that RF interference can be a real thing and can cause random "dead spots".  I experienced this today as I had a complete white-out in the same area of a field twice, both times causing a crash.  Hard to fly when you can't see.

I learned that Xiaomi Yi's can be broken.  Badly.  And yet still take great video.  Seriously, this thing has no right to still be going and yet it's taking great video.  Granted, I now need tweezers to get out the SD card and there's a bit of a gap where the case used to snap together...  But hey!  It still works.

I learned the value of grounding.  I managed to fry my flight controller.  I'm not sure how, really.  I had a gnarly crash and the FC just went away.  When I plugged it directly in to the computer the blue light that indicates "aliveness" was gone.  Poor FC.

I learned that there are other racers around here.  I will get to know them.  I will learn.

The Feeling of Failure

Over the past few weeks, I've been replacing the video transmission system (the FPV system) of my quad.  In the process, I added on a few upgrades, like the bullnose props you see above, which give me more power, as well as bought a few more batteries.

So, the big day was yesterday that I was finally able to take out the new iteration for a spin.  The results were less then awesome.

At the end of yesterday, I had spent more time picking my drone up off the ground than flying, largely due to bouncing it off trees.

Specifically, I kept running into issues when my video would cut out.  As the quad would come around, I'd lose the video signal for a moment (or more than a moment) and just not know what to do.

There was also this auspicious moment:

So, today, I decided to head out to the big field next to the school and see if having more space would make a difference.

The first flight out I simultaneously lost video signal and then had the drone lose all power, tumbling to the ground.  I think I know what's causing that now, but it bears more investigation.

I picked it up and then did some line of sight flying, including a few flips, to make sure that all was well.  My Xiaomi Yi had taken quite the tumble, so I left it off and decided to fly lighter.

I took her up and headed straight out, then decided to turn around.  I happened to be directly over the school.  As I was bringing her about, I lost the video signal again.  I waited a moment, then panicked and stripped off my headset.

By this time, the drone was far from me, and getting further away.  I tried to bring her down slowly by reducing power, but eventually I had to weigh the risk of an escaped drone verse a hard fall right then.

I judged that I might be near the houses beyond the school, so I killed all power.  I wasn't too high and thought I might tangle up in some brush.  I had a visual on the drone the whole time.

What ensued was a mad dash to try to recover the drone quickly followed by a tedious search, including driving around looking for itty-bitty smashed drone parts.

After a good 20 minutes, I went back to where I thought she had gone down and sure enough I could hear the ESCs chirping.  I hopped a fence and found her upside down in a shrub about 6 inches off the ground.

Relieved, I headed home.  

But the feeling that has persisted has not been relief.  It's the feeling of failure.

Despite everything I've learned.  Despite the realization that what I've learned has been hard to learn.  Despite adding a whole new set of skills to my tool bag.  Despite doing it all basically on my own.  Despite all of this, the fact that I'm not flying like a pro has left me feeling like a failure.

It is a completely unwarranted feeling and I know it.  But that doesn't make the sting any less hard to deal with.

Just like everything else in this, learning to fly is going to take time.  It's going to take patience.  It's going to take determination.  I should not let a couple days of challenging circumstances dictate my continued participation in this sport.

But it's tough.  At least right now.  It's tough.  

I should be flying like this already, right?

Oh, looks like he had a rough day, too...

Eritrea Cabbie

I'm in SF.  

One of my cabbies tonight was from Eritrea.  We chatted, as I often do, about what his life is like.  He considered himself blessed that he was here early and that his rent is only $1400/month on rent control.  That is, quite frankly, a bonkers rent in SF, where a 2 bedroom apartment can easily go for $5000/month.

He drives a lot and has been a cabbie for 4 years.  That's a long time, nearly as long as I've been at Flurry/Yahoo.  Our trip was about $7 and lasted about 10 minutes.  I gave him a decent tip.  He gave me some back...

It turns out he was from Eritrea, an African country on the east coast of Africa near the middle east.  As I was getting out, I asked him, "When was the last time you've been home?"

His reply was sobering.  "It's been 10 years."  I wished him a chance to get back home someday soon.  He did not seem hopeful.

I saw my mom less than a month ago.  I see her on a regular basis, a few times a year.  He is a young man, probably in his mid to late 20s.  What must it be like for his mother to not have seen the man he's grown into?

"Blessed" is relative.  As I stepped out onto the curb of one of the nicest hotels in SF, I pondered the differences in our societies.  This man, who considers himself blessed but hasn't seen his mother (assuming she still lives) in 10 years, is ostensibly barely making it.  Or maybe making it, but there's not much left to give, so much so that he hasn't bee home in 10 years.

I'll tell you what, if I hadn't seen my mother in 10 years, I would be sad and do whatever I could to get home to see her.  She's an amazing woman and deserves to see her boys grown.

Is this man's mother any less of a woman?

Turning Point

The current form of the Ugly Duckling

The current form of the Ugly Duckling

Now that I've realized what I've built (some kind of crazy acrobatic Frankenstein) I've started to ponder exactly what I want a drone for.  I realize that this seems kind of crazy, but there are actually a lot of applications for drones and quite a few of them are very interesting.

  • Aerial Photography and Cinema Photography
  • Aerial Acrobatics
  • Action Camera Follow Buddy
  • Pre-planned Flight Pathing Including Delivery of Goods (requires exemptions from the FAA)
  • Agriculture (probably requires exemptions from the FAA)

These are just a few uses and each one is a specialization.

What I have right now is more fit for Aerial Acrobatics, which is pretty fun.  There's something satisfying about flipping and rolling in the air, doing maneuvers that wow and delight by-standers and potentially induce nausea in anyone watching the video.

Typically, acrobatic flight requires a first-person view from the front of the craft.  As you can see above, I have the camera (a recent upgrade to a Xiaomi Yi) hard-mounted (with an ingenious system of zip ties!) to the nose.  The result is that every move of the craft is translated to the video.

If you roll left, the horizon rolls left with you.  If you pitch forward, the camera is looking at the ground.  If you pitch back, you're looking at the sky.  Here's an example:

Now, this is great!  It's fun!  It's also really, really hard on your drone as you basically are relying on your ability to recover the maneuver before you turn your drone into a plummeting and flailing bring with rotors.  Even in this video if you look at the end, you see me take a hard landing (in which I broke an arm).

As well, conditions have to be near perfect for successful flight.  You have a strong 12 mph cross-wind?  Sorry, it's going to be hard to fly.

Then, sometimes, you just want to take pretty pictures and video.  Turns out that an acrobatic, nose-mounted camera doesn't provide you really great video.

Take this shot here, of Carolina Beach, NC at sunset on March 10, 2016:

Gotta say, that's a great shot.  But it was almost literally the only useable frame from this video here:

Now, that's not really a great video.  There was a strong cross-wind, forcing me to roll left to compensate.  You can see the drone getting tossed around by the wind.

Now, the way to fix that is to add a gimbal.  The gimbal counter-acts the roll, pitch and sometimes yaw of the craft so that you get stabilized video.  In this case that would have made for a much better video.

However, that adds weight, and it also changes the balance of the craft.  This may make it unsuitable for acrobatic flight.

At any rate, I'm now pondering what to do, which way to progress.  Pretty pictures or flips and rolls.  Both are fun and provide great entertainment, but each is different.

Setting: Extreme Difficulty

I have fallen down a rabbit hole.  A few months ago, I took over a half-completed drone project and started working on it.  I crashed the drone more times than I can count before I had an hour's worth of full flight time.

Recently, I've been getting more aggressive with my flying, attempting and mostly completing flips and rolls.  I've learned some incredibly valuable lessons and have become a journeyman drone builder.

And through the whole experience, I have been having more fun than any one person has a right to have.

Each crash was an engineering exercise in how to make it better, more stable, more air-worthy.  I learned which parts to keep on hand and how to deconstruct and then reconstruct the entire craft in short orders of time.  I learned how to find and flash better and more capable firmwares for the flight controller I'm flying.

I've learned rudimentary electronics in terms of what volts and amperage are and how they go together.  I've learned how not to fry expensive electronics.  I look at the devices I hold in my hands on a regular basis (iPhones, etc) with different eyes now, eyes of awe and wonder, not for their physical beauty, but for the sheer genius of what it must take to design electronics of this caliber.

But, make no mistake:  Every step has been a fight.  Simply keeping the drone in the air has been a challenge, one that I have relished.  The heart pounding moments when you narrowly avoid a catastrophic crash and the crushing despair as you realize that you have blasted the precious pieces of your drone all over the ground.

Yesterday saw both of those experiences come back-to-back.  I got so aggressive with my acrobatics that I overwhelmed the gyro and turned the drone upside down while it was in a mode that should have prevented that.  I popped off auto-level and turned her back over, keeping her off the dirt.  It was exhilarating.

Then, a few minutes later, I witnessed a crash that, quite frankly, I'm surprised didn't completely destroy the drone.  If you want to go find it on Instagram, feel free, but I'll not post it here.  It was epic.

Start the engineering process, I tracked down one of the issues that caused the crash and believe I have narrowed in on the second issue.  She was back in the air, albeit unsteadily, today.

So, imagine my shock when I went flying with a buddy today.  I flew first and offered him the controls and he stepped back like I was handing him a snake.  "I don't want anything to do with that!"

I was kind of shocked.  Granted, there was a nasty yaw issue but at lower throttle it was manageable.  I took her back up and completed a roll for him, then stepped back so that he could show me his craft.

His was a GPS-enable QA350 paired with a Spektrum DX6i (similar controller to what I have).  He fiddled with a few buttons and nobs, waggled the yaw and the craft came to life.  It sat on the ground locking in GPS then took off and hovered at about 6 feet, waiting for his input.

He showed me the flight modes, one of which can only be called "idiot-proof mode", then brought it back down and offered me a chance to fly.

I eagerly took the sticks, put her in the air, and was dumbfounded.  It was easy.  Way easy.  The craft didn't pitch and roll like a ship in a hurricane.  There was not a constant fight to keep her in the air.  At one point, while he was showing me how she flew, he actually took his eyes off the craft, turned around and faced me, and the drone stayed in the air!

While I was flying this tame beast the enormity of what I had done settled in.  I had had glimpses of it previously, but this was a pure epiphany.  I had built, and re-built, and re-built (and re-built again) a craft that was more like a rocket ship than a plane.  The difference in the feel of the flight was enormous.

With the Ugly Duckling, every second in the air feels like a fight for mastery and survival, but the results when you achieve that mastery, when you attain that survival, are incredible.  Working backwards from a pile of parts into a working understanding of electronics and flight has been amazing.

But I literally did it in the most difficult way possible.  Quite probably, that's what drove me on and made me determined to clear the next hurdle.  But, man, when experienced drone pilots tell you they don't want to fly your aircraft, that says a lot (my friend today is not the only experienced pilot to tell me this).

In contrast, the DJIs and ready-to-fly drones out there are incredibly easy to fly within certain parameters.  There is absolutely nothing wrong with this and for most people, this is a safer way to enter this hobby.

But, I guess for me, the challenge of it all drove me, and it drove me hard.  And I loved every second.


It had been an amazing day.  I had stepped on stage in San Francisco and spoken to a thousand people.  I made them laugh, I told them great things.  I hung out all day with my coworkers, both old and new.  We settled the affair with a great party.

I caught an Uber back to the hotel.  I'll not tell lies, I was quite intoxicated.

As I stepped out of the Uber, I heard a small voice ask me for a dollar.  I walked three steps, shrugged my shoulders and pulled out the $4 I had in my pocket.  I turned around, walked back to her, and suddenly reality came unglued.

I stared into this young girls eyes and all I saw was pain buried in the back of a hoody.  She was so small, so frail, so skinny.  Her eyes were huge and they ate my soul.  I placed my hand on her shoulder and handed her my $4.

"I hope it gets better."  I told her.

"It just hurts too much today."

And, suddenly, I was looking at my sister.  Same face, same eyes, same frailness.

I turned away and went into the hotel.  But as I rode the elevator up to my floor the walls that I have built over the last few years began to crumble.  I was crying before I reached my room.  When I got inside, I was sobbing.  Some dam had burst and all of the pain and worry and fear came exploding out in a violent torrent.

All I could see was my sister.

I bawled for a couple minutes then rushed out.  I must have looked like a madman.  The elevator couldn't go fast enough.  I ran through the lobby and nearly ripped the door off the hinge.

"Oh my Lord, I can feed her, I can do something, please let me do something!" was the prayer screaming in my head.

But, she was gone.  I could help her no more.  I sent her on her way with a paltry $4.  $4 to hold away the pain that ravaged her, to defend her from whatever demon was destroying her.

I am the oldest of 5.  Addiction has claimed 3 of us, including me.  I come from a family of addicts: grandfathers; cousins; brothers; sisters; we are riddled with addiction.  

Our demons take many forms.  Mine was amphetamines.  At one point in my life, my whole world revolved around taking more and more adderral.  I took doses that would kill most people and I raged for days like a madman.

I almost lost everything.  My wife and my brand new son left me alone in a cave of an apartment to reassemble my life and my sanity.  The walls dripped misery and hate as I battled myself and my body.  It was the most horrible 9 months of my life.  

I still cringe in fear thinking about that time.

My wife would later describe it like this: "When you had pills, you were so wonderful, you were the man I married.  And then you'd run out and you'd be horrible."  She dealt with me like that for years.  She is a saint for not abandoning me and I honestly don't deserve her.  What I put her through...

But, I escaped.  Somehow, largely by the grace of God and by the fact that my wife refused to let me die but knew that she couldn't stick around, I made it.  I beat the odds on a cold-turkey, but it hurt.

It took my body two years to recover.  After years of abusing a stimulant, my body had no idea how to stay awake naturally.  It was almost like having narcolepsy.  I was always in a constant state of falling asleep.  It was brutal.

But, I made it.  I escaped.

I never set out to be an addict.  If you want to know the truth, I'm better than that, right?  All these family problems don't pertain to me because I'm OK.

Then, as I was in senior year of high school, they labeled me as ADHD.  I started taking ritalin in college and it made such an amazing difference.  I actually had a legitimate need for it.

I eventually swapped to adderall.  Ritalin made me a bit mean, but with adderall, everything was great.  I did really well in college (except o-chem...) and went on to grad school for computer science.

I was on a moderate dose, nothing major.  But school was tough.  I remember the day I took two.  I was in a Barnes & Nobles studying and on a whim took two.  That day, I discovered how good it could feel to take two.

As grad school progressed, I'd be in the computer lab into the wee hours of the night, popping adderall and coding away.  It was perhaps one of happiest times of my life.  Or, so I thought.

But it was OK, cause it was for a good cause and I was being super productive.

It took a while, but it eventually got out of control.  The wheels started to come off the bus.  I started running out sooner and sooner.  By this time, I was out of school and looking for a job.  I finally found one, along with a new doctor, and that doctor was more than happy to prescribe me more.  And more.  And more.

"I just don't feel like it's effective enough, can we up my dose?"

My mouth would water as I walked into the Walgreens just down the road from her office.  The anticipation was incredible.  The shame made me walk with my eyes lowered.  These people knew me, they knew I had a problem.  But the doctor said it was cool, so here we go again.

I walked into one of those pharmacies recently to have something else filled and one of the techs behind the counter remembered me.  It had been nearly a decade.  She smiled at me and called me by name.  I asked her if she remembered me or if she was just looking at my script.

"Oh, no, I remember you."  There was a sad shadow in her eyes.  "But it seems like it's a better time now."

It is.

Addiction is a terrible disease.  And make no mistake, it is a disease.  People don't choose to be addicts.  They just find there way there.  It's like ambling through the dark and falling off a cliff by accident.

Can these people make better choices?  Sure.  But most folks don't realize the danger until the demon has sunk its claws deep.

Once the demon has you, nothing else matters.  Only the demon holds your regard.  It is all you think about, all you want, all you need.  It consumes you whole.

That poor, sweet girl, she was fighting.  She was fighting as hard as she could.  I could see it in her eyes and it echoed in my soul.  I remember that battle, I walked that battle for a long, long time.  As I handed her money she was closer, maybe there, and she hated it.  She didn't want to do what she was trying to do.

But she was going to do it.

"It just hurts too much today."

How do you fight yourself?  How do you deny your body and your mind?  

The greatest enemy is the self.

Can't Stop Stupid...

This seems so simple...

The next iteration of the Ugly Duckling will come together tomorrow.  Targeted test flight the day after (assuming it doesn't come together before sundown).

I think I'm going to try to flip again...

Oh, on another note, I figured out that, with my props and battery, I can sport a max thrust of around 2.8 kilos, or about 6 pounds of carrying weight.  I'll probably weigh the quad before I start flipping, just to make sure I'm not near that threshold.

Here's the data sheet on my motors.  I'm running 8045 (or 8 inch, 4.5 pitch) props with a max output battery of 80A at 11.1 volts (4000maH * 20C = 80A).  So, at max draw, each motor can pull at most ~20A which does not exceed my total safe battery draw.  I also have 30A ESCs so I'm good there.

Rolls are easy...

So, you've just attained your first truly air-worthy flights.  You can now capture some cool FPV footage.  Maybe you should take it out and do some laps around the field to get yourself comfortable with the speed and power of what you've built.  You should probably do this on a day that is perfect, in case you have some kind of complete system failure.  You know, no wind, no rain, dry ground...  Maybe not in a swamp, I would say.

All of that sounds like wisdom to me.

Thank God I chose to ignore all of it!

After watching a few YouTube videos on doing rolls and flips, I decided it was time to give it a shot.  I recalibrated the controller so that I could switch auto-level off and on via the flaps switch.  The first flight is with auto-level on, so it's pretty stable.

The second flight, however, is with auto-level off, and you can see how it's much harder to fly, especially on take-off.

So, the basic gist for rolls and flips is that you get some altitude (everyone said at least 30 feet, which I had), give it 100% throttle, then pull back to 50% and throw the stick in the direction you want to roll or flip.  Simple, right?

Oh, there are some settings you should probably set up in the KK2.1 flight controller...  I thought I was good.

If you listen closely, you can see that I give it the throttle, jump up, then reduce the throttle and throw the stick right.  Unfortunately, the quad went to about 135 degrees, then stalled.  In the split second I had to think, I upped the throttle, thinking that might pull it around.  

Instead, it just turned it into a rocket, straight into the ground...

Sadly, the field I was flying in that day was more of a swamp due to a few days of rain.  The flight controller immediately shorted, but not before the props all dug divots in the ground.

That's a dirty board...

That's a dirty board...

As the first motor to impact dug in, the rest of the quad bounced over.  This sheered off the drive shaft on that motor.  This is, apparently, rather hard to do!  I feel accomplished.



Oh, and all the props snapped.

Two new motors and a new flight board are on their way.  I think I'm going to get comfortable in auto-level mode and then do some more experimentation with flips and rolls.

SUCCESS! Complete Air Worthiness

I finally got it!  The last piece of the puzzle was that I had the rear motors with reversed spin and reversed rotors.  Once I got those motors set up correctly, she took off and landed on my test flight like a dream.

Then, I snagged a few minutes to run up to the local school and shot three videos.  This was the last, once I had mastered some of the touch on the controller.

There's still a lot of room for improvement.  For instance, all of my flights were with auto-level on.  Smart, at first, but you can do acrobatics if you don't have that on.  The great thing about these motors is that they should be able to turn this sized quad over (and back right-side) without an issue.

Keep your eyes peeled.  I've got some plans for some panoramic shots, as well as a few attempts at stunts.

Near Stable Flight

Looks like it was, indeed, the firmware.  Specifically, the default firmware wasn't calibrating the ESCs correctly.  

In case you're not familiar with the term ESC, it stands for Electronic Speed Control.  You can think of them as gates for the voltage that goes to the motors.  The power is distributed to the ESCs which then feed it into the flight control board.  There is also a signal wire that goes from the flight control board back to each ESC, and this signal tells the ESC when and how much to open the throttle on a given motor.  There is always an ESC per motor.

When I switched to the custom firmware, one which is basically the default with a lot of necessary bug fixes, I was able to calibrate the ESCs.

As a result, when I took the drone out for a quick test flight today (and one that was not more than 5 feet off the ground) I was able to achieve near stable flight.  "Near" stable because it seems like there is a yaw setting that is off.  As I flew more and more the quad would start to rotate counter-clockwise.  Pushing the yaw clockwise did little to improve this.

However, all the props lit off at once.  That's a huge improvement from what it was doing.

The only thing that concerns me is that, on one of the previous hard "landings" (perhaps controlled crash is a better term...) I buried motor 3 (back right in an "X" config) pretty hard.  There is a visible amount of dirt crammed in the motor.  I'm not sure how to get it out.  This is a clockwise spinning motor, so if it's not turning at the appropriate RPMs the whole craft could rotate counter-clockwise.

I think...  Gotta go look at that motor layout again...

It's the board, Jim!

After obsessively watching the few videos I've shot from the drone, I nailed down that a lot of the flight issues are coming from the props not all lighting off at the same time.  There is a setting to control this, but it did little good.

I decided to dive deep into this part of the interweb and came across a forum post from mid-2014 describing my issue.  The basic gist is that the firmware that ships on the KK2.1x is buggy and most folks flash a new ROM.

Diving deeper still, I found the tool to do it with (after installing Java 6, yuck) and a rather long video showing the nuts and bolts (I mainly needed to know how to plug in the USBasp I have for the board).

I have to recalibrate the board, but that's not a big deal.  My new set of props arrives tomorrow, this time with many, many backups.

So, hopefully, we'll have the Ugly Duckling Too in stable flight in a day or so.


Well, the Ugly Duckling Too can fly!

But she's pretty unstable in the air, or perhaps I should say on take-off.

All of my props are not lighting off at the same time and this is causing take-offs to be... this way or that!

This was her last flight yesterday.  When I took off, the aft props lit off with much more thrust than the front.  That threw her forward fast.  She was hurtling for the soccer goal, and with horror in my mind about cutting a drone out of a soccer goal, I threw the stick back.  That stood her on her tail (after being basically on her nose).  I reduced throttle and that dropped her to the ground.

She broke both her rear props and with no replacements that was the end of the day for flying.

There seems to be some kind of setting in the KK2 board for this, but I haven't messed with it too much.  I will today!

All in all, I had 5 flights yesterday, albeit brief, and the only thing I lost were some props.  I consider that a success.

So You Want to Build a Drone?

The Ugly Duckling Too

The Ugly Duckling Too

One thing that surprised me is that the actual cost to build a rather large, capable drone is not as great as I thought it was.  There is a wealth of information out there to tell you the actual how of the process.  But, very few places actually list builds.  So, here you go.  This is the build of the Ugly Duckling Series.

One note you should know:  Some of these parts are at least two years old.  There are better options now, but you'll have to find them.

Ugly Duckling Drone ($162)

  • Flight Controller:  KK Mini 2.1.5:  $20
  • Air Frame:  F450 Quad Frame:  $20
  • Electronic Speed Controls (x4):  SimonK 30A ESC:  $24
  • Battery:  2200 maH 3-S (or 3 cell) LiPo 20C battery:  $25
  • Motors (x4):  Angel A2212-9:  $52
  • Power Distribution Board:  XT60 20A board:  $11
  • Props:  8x4.5:  $10

Controller and Receiver ($160)

Spektrum DX6i + AR610 Receiver:  $160

So, to build what I've built here, you'd need an initial investment of $322.  Now, there are a few things missing, such as solder, wire bullets, heat shrink wrapper, etc.  I've also left off things like zip ties, sticky tape and nylon spacers, some of which you may need.  But, you may have that laying around.

Which really brings us to a very important point:  Knowing how to solder makes a lot of this much, much easier.  I've soldered a few things, but my friend had done most of the soldering (before I took over).  That greatly sped up the project.

That is not to say that I could not have done it myself, but that is definitely my weakest area in this whole process.

A few tips.  First, order more than one set of arms for the frame and more than one set of props.  You're going to break both.  Maybe a lot.

This is also a starter build.  A lot of it can transition to your next build, but the frame, and perhaps the power distro board, will go away with your next, hopefully more sturdy, frame.  But, I'd debug your system with cheap frames before you invest in a $150 carbon fiber frame (minimum).

Lastly, there's one sticking point that I'm not sure is really an issue.  All of the main power components (the battery, the power distro board and the motors) are all 20A.  But the ESCs can draw 30A.  I'm honestly not sure if this is really an issue or not.  Time will tell, but I don't think that I'm going to burn anything out.

She crashed...

Weird birds here in Virginia...

Weird birds here in Virginia...

As I mentioned before, today was the maiden flight of the Ugly Duckling, the first drone that I've ever built (with some help).  Today also marked her third and final flight.  The good news is that the only thing that has to be replaced is the air frame.  All other components seem intact, though the receiver took a beating.

In other good news my son, who was watching, thought the crash was pretty awesome.

There were a lot of things that contributed to this crash and I'll detail what I know.  But first, maybe I should give some of the background.

About two weeks ago, I walked into a buddy's garage and saw a half-finished drone sitting on his shelf.  Turns out he had started the project three years ago but abandoned it two years ago due to lack of time.  I asked if I could take it over, he agreed, and I walked out with something in my hands I barely understood.

What followed was a solid two weeks of research and experimentation mixed with quite a few Amazon purchases.  Yesterday, we fully assembled the Ugly Duckling and today I took her up three times, the third of which she did not survive.

Who's parts are these, anyways?

So, these parts were second-hand to me.  But, uh, they were also partially second-hand to my buddy...

I know that the controller was second-hand and I think perhaps the flight control board was, as well.  He purchased the motors, ESCs and receiver.  The frame was a cheap $13 frame from eBay, which is part of the reason it didn't survive so long.

So, the first factor to all of this is that some unknown portion of the parts were second-hand with non-factory-default settings.

The Controller

The controller is a very nice, rather expensive and very capable Spektrum DX6i.  It is also solely Mode 1.  Mode 2 is what most folks in the US fly with and that is what I learned on.  Let's talk about the basics.

On any flight controller, there are two sticks, each of which moves up and down, and left and right (Oxford comma!).  On a quadcopter, these control:

  • Throttle:  How fast the rotors are spinning (consider this equivalent with speed, power and height)
  • Yaw:  Turning clockwise or counter-clockwise
  • Pitch:  Going forwards or backwards
  • Roll:  Going left or right (but not moving the nose of the quad)

In a Mode 2 controller, pitch and roll are on the right stick while throttle and yaw are on the left.  With a quad, at least so far in my experience, yaw is where things get tricky.  When you start playing with yaw, you end up changing the orientation of the quad and have to do some brain dancing in terms of your spatial relation to the quad.

In the Mode 2 setup, though, you can basically fly without yaw unless you need to.  So, you throttle the quad into the air and you can then move it in any direction with only the right stick using pitch (forward/back) and roll (left/right).

Now, of course I used yaw, but it wasn't strictly necessary.  I could kind of ignore it.

One last note, the stick that has throttle does not have a spring on the up/down portion.  This allows you to move the stick and set it, leaving it as it is, instead of having the stick auto-recenter.

In Mode 1, however, the setup is very different.  In Mode 1, the right stick controls throttle and roll, while the left stick controls pitch and yaw.  

My first two flights, I didn't know this.  I thought that Mode 1 was just the mirror of Mode 2.  So, as I took off, when I thought I was pulling the craft to the right, I was actually spinning it clockwise!  My first two flights were up and down, less than 20 feet traveled and probably no more than 20 feet in the air.  I wasn't confident.

On the third flight, though, I was more confident.  I gave it a lot more throttle and the quad darted forward and to the left.  I tried to correct for this with the appropriate stick movements, something that would have been without thought on a Mode 2 controller, but instead, I sent her hard right, then hard left, then upside down...  And, well, landing quads on their rotors from 30 feet is not well-advised.

However, this is not the whole story.

Unfamiliarity with the motors


I learned to fly on a Hubsan X4.  This is a tiny, tiny quad with tiny, tiny motors.  The Hubsan X4 is very spry for what it is, but if you want to go right, you throw the control full right.  If you want to go forward, you throw the control full forward.  There's just not a lot of headroom for max, if you will.

On the Ugly Duckling, my buddy had purchased 4 Angel A2212-9 motors.  Now, to put this in perspective, let's say that you had been drag racing with some kind of electric scooter and all of the sudden you sat down in a Ferrari and slammed the pedal to the floor.  My instincts to throw the sticks all the way over, while minimal at best on the Hubsan, were disastrous with the Ugly Duckling.  

All I really needed to do was twitch the controls!  As a result, I turned the quad over without even knowing I could do that.

The Kicker

After I collected everything, I went in to see if I had damaged any parts.  I did a quick receiver test and much to my horror I found out that pitch and roll were reversed.  I didn't have enough time with the quad to question it, but I kept pulling the pitch back and it kept going forward.  I thought I wasn't pulling hard enough, so I pulled back more.  What I was actually doing is sending the craft forward faster!  

Same thing with the roll.  I thought I was going right, but was actually going left...


There were also some funny artifacts with the board setup, but I'm not sure if this is an artifact of my testing, or some kind of weird motor config.

I'm still trying to diagnose what is reversing the pitch and roll.  It may be the controller, or it may be the flight board.  Not knowing if the flight board is second hand is not helping, so I'll likely do a factory reset.  I'm also going to try to convert the controller I have to Mode 2 some way.

But Wait...

Lest you think I took some dude's hobby project and slammed it into the ground from 30 feet, we decided yesterday to make a trade.  I gave him a MacBook Pro I had sitting around so he could learn iOS and I took the quad.

I am safely certain that, had I dropped the MacBook from 30 feet, it would be in worse shape.




Up, up and to the side!

Up, up and to the side!

I'm ecstatic to announce that, with the help of my good friend Tobe Greider, the Ugly Duckling took her first (and subsequently second) flight today!

The project started out in Tobe's garage, where he had abandoned her in a pre-assembled state a few years back.  A few weeks ago, I offered to take it over and complete it, as I've been drone crazy for the longest time.  I have a micro Hubsan X4, which is fun to fly but I wanted the experience of a real machine.

The surprising part is that the cost of components is not all that much.  The Angel A2212-9 motors are around $12, the KK2.1 flight board is around $20.  Everything else but the battery, the controller and the receiver are similarly priced.

The controller, a rather nice Spektrum DX6i, is great but it's Mode 1 (not convertible to Mode 2 without a LOT of pain and a few parts), and that lead to a lot of confusion while in the air.  I've only flown with Mode 2 controllers (this is very typical in the US), so when I got her up, about all I had nailed was how to control the throttle.

There is also a LOT more power behind these motors then the tiny Hubsan X4 motors.  As a result, during her second flight, she zipped off to the left and I had to bring her down hard.  This snapped the landing peg on the front left strut.  However, being that the frame itself was the cheapest part of the whole project, this was kind of expected.

There are two things I will take away from this.  First, a thirst to fly more.  But, most importantly, the sense of accomplishment in actually assembling my own quadcopter is incredible.  Now I understand why people make.

Because they can!

For the Love of a Dog

Logan, what you really want is an animal that you can love, and that can love you back.
I believe I'm as cute as my ball, thank you very much!

I believe I'm as cute as my ball, thank you very much!

I love animals.  I always have.  They delight in so many unanticipated ways.  And yet, I've spent the last 15 years avoiding almost all contact with them.

Turns out that I have allergies.  Bad allergies.  Like, you put me in a room full of cats and I near about go into anaphylactic shock.  I'm not kidding.  There was a period where I didn't go to my mom and dad's for over a year because they had so many cats.

Dogs are just about as bad.  Get me around a short-haired dog like a boxer or a lab and I go crazy.  Snot everywhere!  It's no fun, and the exhaustion of the allergy attack lasts for days.

I've gotten to a point where I will not sit on upholstered furniture or hang out in the pet's room if I go somewhere where there are animals.  I will look lovingly at the animal, and talk to it, but I will keep my hands close to my body lest they accidentally brush my fingers and I should then inadvertently touch my face.

But then Logan, this little boy who shares so much of my soul, who in so many ways is so much like me, started trying to get pets that were OK.  There were fish.  There were Guinea Pigs (pregnant ones that left us with quite an issue on our hands...).  There was an attempt at a lizard.

Each time it didn't work out, the anguish in his heart was too much for me.  I knew that hurt, that loss.  So, one day I told him we would get a dog.  I also told him I didn't know how, or what kind, and that it would not be quick, but that we would get a dog.

We were getting a dog for the kids.  I was a grudging, albeit willing, participant.  Dalynn researched hypoallergenic dogs and she found really good things about Shih Tzus.  We went to a breeder (with all my heart, I wish I could go to the SPCA, but I literally cannot step foot in there).  I sat on her fabric sofa, I held some tiny dog in my hands, I pet it, rubbed it, then handed it to Logan (who was wearing an enormous grin).

Then, against 15 years of experience and suffering, I took off my glasses and rubbed my eyes.


Not a thing.  It looked like this might actually work.

Then Jasmine walked in.  I'm not quite sure what happened.  She ran across the room, jumped immediately into my lap, an idiot, ear-to-ear grin broke out across my face and I looked at Dalynn and said "This is the one!"

Folks, I have fought hard throughout my life to suppress the sentimental, soft side I have.  I mean, really soft.  I care about things and people deeply but I try not to let it come to the surface.  And here, with a dog jumping in my lap, all self-control broke down.

I was smitten.

And I will say, after 15 years, it felt so good to hold a dog.  To love it and pet it and be loved by it.  Somewhere, some deep part of me that had been grieving for so long was being soothed.  Some gruff, hard corner was being reshaped.

Jasmine has come home with us.  She is now a part of our family.  She brings us immense joy.  I have seen her soothe broken and hurt children.  She has been my shadow for weeks now and wakes me at dawn to go out.

Have I mentioned that I am not a morning person?  But all of the sudden I am...  It is very hard to sleep while there is a very ebullient 10 lbs weight jumping on you and licking you in the face.

And her joy is contagious.  It has healed some of this last year of hurt.  If a kid is having a hard time, a little puppy therapy goes a long way.

It is, of course, not all roses.  She likes to poop on rugs...  But we're working through that.

Strength and Weakness

The Void

"The world is mine, in all but fact."

I cannot tell you where they were.  It is a place that is beyond a place.  You could say there is nothing, but to have nothing, you must also have something.  There was neither of that here.  It was a place beyond and these two great beings had come together to discuss the fate of the world.

To look on either would be to invite destruction.  Not just physical or mental destruction, but pure annihilation.  Terrible in their beauty, they shown brighter than any galaxy within the whole expanse of the universe.

And here they were, talking about one small world.  A world among many, with souls among many manies.  A pivotal world.  A special world.

A smile spread across the others face.  Though, smile is but the beginning of the expression this being wore.

"You believe so?  Why do you feel so confident?"

The first, a creature of beautiful darkness, rushed forward, anger and hot hate brimming to the surface.

"They have forgotten you!  They no longer worship you!  They worship all the trappings of this poor, pitiful world, thinking it the best they can ever have.  And in their palatial squalor they no longer consider you."

The other shrugged.

"These times have come and gone, what makes this different?  The people will turn their faces back to me and all will be well.  How would you propose an ending to this before the allotted time?"

The creature of beautiful darkness circled the other, much as a cat stalks its prey, biding it's time to attack when the opportunity is perfect.

"I propose a competition, one which the people will see and understand, one that is in the vernacular that they now speak."

"You mean blood, anger, violence, greed...  Power?" asked the other.

"Yes, exactly.  Here is what I propose.  Three champions.  Three competitions.  You choose your best, I choose mine, and they meet in a way that the world will understand."

The other seemed to ponder.  Time, here in this place, is without meaning, so it is hard to say how long the other pondered.  Finally, he spoke.

"Yes, we could do this.  The prize is the world, and with it all of creation.  The three competitions will be Strength, Speed and Power.  In the end, the people will choose."

The one of beautiful darkness laughed aloud in delight.

"You have sealed your fate, and the fate of those wretches you so love!  They will be mine, and their torment will never end!"

The other nodded.

"It remains to be seen, pick your champions and they shall meet at the allotted time.  But there is one more condition.  Each winner will be granted boons."

"So be it!"

The Arena:  Strength

The World  Coliseum was enormous, perhaps the largest such structure ever built.  It could not, of course, hold the billions of the world's population.  Only the ultra-rich were there in person.  But the entire event would be televised across the entire world.

Such a spectacle was not to be missed!

The announcers soothing, modulated tones swept the crowd.

"The first of today's events will be the event of Strength.  May the champions come forth!"

From one side of the arena a pair of doors crashed open and a man well known to most in this world strode forth.  He walked tall, back straight, head held high.  He was Darius Kel, the single most successful prize fighter in the world.

Darius was known not only for his speed, strength and skill, but also for his cruelty.  He typically went out of his way to cripple and humiliate his opponents, assuring they would never face him again.  To say he was feared would be an understatement.  He was loathed.

But he was also the darling of the masses.

From the other side of the arena, seemingly nothing was happening.  Darius, his voice amplified for all to hear, spoke:  "It would appear my opponent is too afraid to face me.  Rightly so!"  And with a fist pumping in the air the masses screamed their adulation.

Just then, one of the two doors moved.  It was a timid movement.  The door slowly crept open and a man emerged, but little by little.  He blinked in the light and seemed to be carrying something under his arm, his body bent around it.

The man didn't really walk towards Darius, it was more of a shuffle.  He had not a whit of hair on his head and his face was misshapen, almost like a face of wax that had melted just a bit.  One ear lower than the other, one eye drooping.

He was, however, enormous, easily topping Darius by head and shoulders.

As he approached the center of the ring, the announcer spoke.

"There are no rules in this confrontation.  The first to yield... or die... loses.  BEGIN!"

Darius immediately jumped forward, snapping a front kick into the middle of the giant.  The giant crumpled around kick and found himself on one hand and his knees.

Darius, not wasting any time, immediately rained several blows to the back and sides of the giants head, then kicked him square in the side.

The giant curled into a ball, that thing under his arm now at the center of him.  His face was a mask of blood.  His rib was likely broken.  The match was all but over.

Darius took a step back, surveying his handiwork.

"This?!?!  This is the champion sent to fight me?  This imbecile?  This moron?  This freak of nature?  He is hardly worth the effort I just expended to break a sweat!"

Darius began circling the fallen giant, occasionally prodding him with a toe or landing a sharp, hard kick to some delicate spot.

Strangely, all this time, the giant had uttered not a sound.  It was as if his voice was locked away somewhere in his misshapen body.  The crowd, ever a blood-thirsty animal, almost pitied the poor soul.  But most just despised him.

As Darius completed his circuit around the fallen giant, he bent closer.

"What is this you have here?  What is this thing you seem to be so careful of?"

Like a snake, he darted in and plucked the object out of the giants grasp.

Holding it aloft, Darius began to laugh.

"A teddy bear!  You came to a fight to the death with a teddy bear?!?!  What kind of idiot are you?"

At this, the giant uttered his first sound, "No..."

Taking on a mockingly sweet voice, Darius crooned, "Do you want me to give it back?  Do you want me to take care of it for you and make sure it's all safe and sound and doesn't come to any harm, you giant imbecile?"

The giant again uttered a word:  "No."

"Well, I'll tell you what I'm going to do, I'm going to take your little teddy bear here and choke you with his stuffing!"

And with that, Darius ripped the teddy bears head off.

The giant, the poor creature that he was, saw several things all at once.

First, he saw a beautiful woman, crying, placing Teddy Bear in his arms and turning away, never to be seen again.

The next thing he saw were nights of misery, nights of pain and loneliness, where Teddy Bear had been his only friend in the midst of cruel and angry children, children who taunted him, hurt him, hated him.

Last, as Teddy Bear's head was ripped from his tattered little body, the giant saw a life without comfort, without a friend, without solace from the hate that filled the world.


Before anyone had time to gasp a breath, the giant was on his feet, hand on Darius' neck, lifting him off the arena floor.  This shambling, pitiful creature moved with lightning speed and with a single arm lifted the greatest prize fighter the world had ever known off of his feet by his neck.

The shock on Darius' face quickly gave way panic, and then to a purple tinge as he slowly strangled.  He gave a few feeble kicks but had no leverage and could not make them count.

The giant, now suddenly a beast of immense strength and rage, screamed at the top of his lungs while he choked the life out of his opponent.  For minutes, he just stood there, grasping his dying opponents neck.

As Darius' head lolled and his tongue swelled out of his mouth, as his face turned purple and then black and his eyes rolled back even as they bulged out of his head, the giant glanced down and saw the torn remains of Teddy Bear.

With one last immense display of strength the giant slammed Darius into the ground.

Falling to his knees, he gathered up the pieces of Teddy Bear, each and every bit of stuffing, brushing the dirt and grit from Teddy Bear's face and eyes, his body and limbs.  Slowly, he curled in on himself and began to weep, heedless of the shocked and stunned silence around him.

A voice, not that of the announcer, spoke.

"The giant has won.  Giant, what boons would you ask?"

The giant looked up, tears leaving streaks on his face, the etchings of grief plain for all to see.  At first he was confused.  Then, with a dawning of hope, he asked, "Teddy Bear... better?"

The new voice spoke again.

"So be it!"

The giant suddenly whooped with joy and held Teddy Bear aloft.  Not a hint of the damage that Darius had caused was left and the giant danced a caper around the body of Darius.

"Are there any other boons you would wish granted?"

The giant, once he had controlled his excitement, stuck his tongue out as he thought.  It took a while, but the crowd was so shocked that no one grew impatient or restless.

"This man, make him nicer.  Make him happy."

As it turns out, the giant had stopped just shy of strangling Darius to death.  Darius gave a sudden, harsh and guttural cry, his eyes opening wide in shock.

From that day forward, Darius never fought again.  His spirit had been broken and in its place something new, something terrifying, welled up.