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#sideproject: The Making of an Easy-Build FPV Racing Drone

About a year ago, I discovered the world of drone racing. I had been into RC aircraft since I was a kid but when I learned about FPV, or First Person View, I was immediately hooked.

With FPV, you put a camera on your aircraft and wear goggles that display the camera’s image to give you the feeling you’re flying. Much like the Oculus Rift, the low latency video stream creates an experience so immersive that spectators have been known to take Dramamine to combat motion sickness. Almost everyone agrees it’s the perfect mix of virtual reality and physical reality: you get all the thrill of cliff-diving without the safety risks or cost of sky-diving.

First-Person-View (FPV) Drone Racing

FPV pilots typically fly multirotors – aircraft with anywhere from three to ten propellers in a variety of different configurations. These drones can be used for everything from aerial photography and mapping to autonomous package delivery. These rigs are like the Cadillacs in the world of drones. With every amenity available, pilots can let go of the controls and let the autopilot do all the work.

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Racing drones, on the other hand, are like Mustangs or Corvettes. Sheer power allows them to reach speeds of up to 90+ miles per hour. Racing pilots need quick reflexes and accurate judgment to pilot their aircraft through a three-dimensional maze of obstacles as quickly as possible. Crash your quad and you’re likely out for good, as races are won by the thinnest of margins. With prize pots of up to $1,000,000, pilots have been working hard to push the limits of their racing rigs and skills.

FPV pilots also perform dizzying acrobatics, as seen in the sudden growth of YouTube videos demonstrating everyone’s latest trick or devastating crash. Go ahead, run a quick search. You’ll find a plethora of drones flying through small holes in buildings and abandoned warehouses or even through dense forests like the speeder bike chase from “Star Wars: Return of the Jedi.” Many of these vehicles carry GoPros and wear strips of bright LEDs to help others find and chase them.

A High Barrier of Entry

The explosion in popularity of FPV aircraft has led to an equally explosive growth in product development. Buy something now and it will likely be outdated by the end of the next month. High demand coupled with relatively low prices often lead to product outages as retailers and manufacturers struggle to provide the latest and greatest before the next big thing comes along. Naturally, not all products that are made are designed well; even fewer prioritize user experience.

One thing I’ve noticed about building multirotors is that a good understanding of electronics and mechanics is paramount. Anyone who builds or fixes his own quad needs to know how to solder, how to program the little computers called flight controllers, and how to adjust error correction algorithms and PID (proportional-integral-derivative) control loops. It’s a very complicated and delicate system.

One thing I’ve noticed about building multirotors is that a good understanding of electronics and mechanics is paramount.

Just like cars, one out-of-spec part can mean the difference between a smooth ride and breaking down on the side of the road. Almost everyone I know has accumulated a box of broken parts, and for good reason: the process of assembling a working multirotor is wrought with easy-to-make mistakes if you’re not paying attention or don’t have experience.

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Designing the Über Design Ü180

Working at Bresslergroup has taught me the importance of usability. Not everyone is an engineer, so designing something with the end user in mind – while not compromising on performance – seemed like a good side project and the next logical step for the multirotor space. l like the idea of leveraging intuitive design to address the sport’s relatively high barrier of entry, to let more people in on the fun and into the multirotor community.

After many hours of CAD, FEAs (finite element analysis), and prototyping with parts printed by my friends’ 3D printers, the Über Design Ü180 was born. Weighing in at an AUW (all up weight) of 370g, it’s one of the lightest, smallest, and least expensive frames you can get on the market. Having a thrust-to-weight ratio of 11:1 also means it’s a real-life jetpack – I point the quad where I want to go and before I know it, I’m there.

The design strays from typical planar carbon fiber and capitalizes on the natural strength and weight savings of tubular carbon fiber. All the parts fit together without conventional fasteners and emulate (I hope) the intuitive spirit of Tinker Toys. Being able to pop the parts together in two minutes without tools is a huge improvement over other frames that require Allen keys, nuts, and screws. Repairs no longer become headaches if disassembly is as easy as 1-2-3. (Literally: 1. Remove tube 2. Replace tube 3. Assemble zip ties.)

All the parts fit together without conventional fasteners and emulate (I hope) the intuitive spirit of Tinker Toys.

To design the Über Design Ü180, I drew on my own experiences as well as on user research data obtained from my racing team, Safety Third. I identified the biggest headaches associated with assembling a quad, such as dropping fasteners in the field, replacing expensive carbon fiber parts, and not having easy access to critical components. Then I sketched a quick layout that would address most of these problems. Making the design work required multiple rounds of prototypes and gathering feedback from a few beta testers. Breaking the frame during testing was always a little disappointing, but on the other hand it afforded me the opportunity to improve the design even more.

Fixing another broken rotor.

Fixing another broken rotor.

Go Fly a Drone!

Earlier this month I launched the Ü180 and today it’s freely available to anyone who wants to build one. Just head over to RCGroups, download the parts, and print them out with your own printer or online printing services like Shapeways or MakeXYZ. Or you can buy the kit here: http://uberdesign.us.

When people tell me this is their favorite frame to fly and build, it’s confirmation that prioritizing usability pays off. Running with something tried and true to make a quick buck would have required considerably less effort, but seeing the user research and human factors folks at Bresslergroup work their magic put me in the mindset that good design doesn’t have to be hard to use.

Happy Flying!