DIY Drones give RC vehicles autonomy

DIY Drones is a community site for amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicle pilots. If you're looking for a new geek hobby, check out the site's newbie guide to UAVs.

It's pretty safe to assume most Geekend blog readers have operated a remote control (RC) car, plane, or helicopter in their lifetime -- we're a gadget-loving crowd, and RC vehicles definitely fall under that category. The need to operate RC vehicles manually, however, might soon be a thing of the past.

Getting started on your RC drone

Thanks to a website called DIY Drones, amateur RC pilots can throw away the controllers (or, at least, set them aside during flights) and become Amateur Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) pilots (or the equivalent for ground- or water-based RC vehicles - UGV/UWV?). DIY Drones has a thriving community of more than 24,000 members throughout the United States and the world with local fly/meet-up groups in many U.S. states and other countries.

DIY Drones also provides information on how to get started with your own drone in its newbie's guide to UAVs. According to that page, amateur UAVs still fit within the "recreational" exceptions to the FAA regulations as long as you keep to a limited altitude and range, which is probably somewhere near what you could do with fully-RC.

Next, you need a UAV (or UGV or UWV). This can be accomplished by either using a vehicle you already have and retrofitting it with an autopilot board, like the APM 2 autopilot made by 3D Robotics, and making use of GPS Mission Planner software and autopilot software (plane, copter, ground and water) or purchasing a Ready-to-Fly UAV from a site like uDrones. The APM 2 is $199.95 and all of the software is open source and free to use, so it's pretty inexpensive to get started if you have your own RC vehicle. If you need an RC vehicle, you can use almost anything as long as it meets the requirements for inputs and outputs in the autopilot software manuals found at the device-specific links above.

DIY Drones founder Chris Anderson (who is also editor in chief for was recently interviewed on NPR's Science Friday about this project. The interview covered costs and commercial uses of UAVs, as well as the legal and privacy concerns about the use of drones. You can read the transcript of the interview or listen to it on the NPR page.

There are a lot more details about how to get started on the DIY Drones site. The basic information I have provided will at least help direct you as to where to begin looking for instructions and resources. You can see some of the hobbyist's creations by looking at the videos on DIY Drones, which include this one from Jeff Scholl:

Here are two photos from DIY Drones user Jean-Louis Naudin:

Photo credit: Jean-Louis Naudin

Photo credit: Jean-Louis Naudin

Does this geek hobby interest you?

What do you think about having your own UAV? Have you tried out the techniques and software featured on this site or another site? Share your thoughts and experiences in the comments.

HAL 9000
HAL 9000

I can't see anyone trusting their expensive Fuel Powered Aircraft to something like this and to be perfectly honest they wouldn't suit the purpose. However saying that this is something new for me to try so maybe a Solar Cell Covered Glider with a small electric motor is my next build. :D Col


The main reason we don't use fuel aircraft isn't about cost - some of our electric aircraft way exceed the cost of a fuel equivalent. We use electric because of convenience, noise levels, and complexity. UAV stuff adds a lot of complexity to an otherwise "normal" RC aircraft, and so we don't want to add the complexity of an engine on top of that. We also don't need the noise. However, I am currently working on a fuel-powered UAV - purpose: longevity - I can design a fuel-powered aircraft with up to 2 hours of flight time and it's easier and cheaper than designing that feature into an electric - the power to weight ratio of batteries just isn't there yet.

johny bizaro
johny bizaro

@jasmine2501 Yet, where is the research to solve this problem? We are going to be with this problem for alone time. Yet. You will be dead and bones bleached before it is solved. This difficult problem is a problem everyone else wants to be solved. NASA decided to waste the money on failed shuttle instead of solve it. Solar does not have the energy density to power flight but prolong it. If you get unfavorable winds, Good bye drone. 

Thorium power is a possible solution but has not been developed or Miniaturized. Fusion is a pipe dream and we have the wasted cash on particle science to know where. Quantum computing is another scam. I know the banksters are not the only scamers out there.

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