RC rotercraft UAVs (multicopter, quadcopter) market overview

Posted on July 27, 2012

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UPDATE: This article is not up to date anymore and also doesn’t give a very good overview. Further research has shown, taht there are more than 6 active, powerful autopilot projects. I want to create an article focused on that sometime in the future. As for hardware: this information is also outdated. There are more and more, very affordable systems on the market.

A small web research based market overview on small and lower price RC rotorcraft UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles).

Since quadcopters are becoming cheaper, smaller and more and more popular there are a lot of different systems available, ranging from ready to fly to completely DIY. The first main classification is into systems that have to be flown manually and systems with an autopilot. Autopilots enable the system to fly autonomously according to a prepared mission plan using e.g. GPS way points. In this article I will concentrate on the autopilot systems only mentioning the AR.Drone, since it is a pretty cool device for a killer price and needs basically no setup. For further information about manual flight only systems this article gives an overview over some available copters.

If you want to go to the next level with an autopilot there are mainly three projects to choose from. As far as I can tell the flexibility of Paparazzi and ArduCopter is comparable. One difference is that there are some ready-to-fly ArduCopter kits available getting you in the air a bit faster. On the other hand the Paparazzi community actively develops a lot of additional software modules and drivers for sensors and additional gear which is handy if your counting on playing with e.g. meteorological data.

mikrocopter is the third project. It seems to offer less flexibility than ArduCopter and Paparrazi, so its mentioned for completeness reasons, but will not be covered in more detail. There is a podcast in German covering the mikrocopter.

AR.Drone – ready to fly

This is your best choice if you want to start quickly. Nearly no setup, everything well explained, video from the drone working out of the box. The cost is really low if you already have an iDevice (iPhone, iPad, iPod touch).

  • price: $299.99 on amazon.com (+ iDevice if you don’t have it – $199.00 minimum)
  • website for version 2.0 (HD Video)
  • unfortunately the amazon comments on customer service – and rarely technical problems – are not very positive currently, probably those guys have a problem keeping up with the demand

Autopilot systems

If you want an autopilot you often have to buy the parts from different suppliers and assemble the copter on your own. Usually basic soldering skills are required. You can generally combine many airframes with the different flight controllers, but going with recommended combinations or kits might save some headache and the need for ugly fixes.

Both ArduCopter and Paparrazi have a huge set of features in common. Those are listed here. The differences will be mentioned in the following sub chapters.

  • stabilization modes for fixed-wing planes and rotorcraft (quad, hexa …)
  • selectable flight mode: stabilized (manual) vs flight plan mode
  • flight plan:
    • scriptable flight plan
    • way points
    • in flight update of flight plan
    • simulation
  • automatic take off, landing support
  • support of telemetrics, live video, maps location, …  for the Ground Control Station (GCS)
  • RC backup connection

ArduCopter

This project is an Arduino based flight controller originally developed by the DIY Drones community.

Paparazzi

The Paparazzi software works on several hardware platforms that were developed as parts of the project. Both hardware and software are open source. Paparazzi systems are further developed by different universities and keep scoring good results in UAV competitions. Furthermore the systems are used for commercial and academic projects. Being originally developed for fixed-wing airplanes the project supported rotorcraft rather early. The name of the sub project for copters is Booz.

  • paparazzi.enac.fr, rotorcraf subproject: Booz
  • cheapest available kit (though not exactly a quadcopter): The Quadshot $400 (including radio, no XBee yet)
  • additional information:
  • Ground Control Station software for Linux, Mac OS X (Windows port in progress)

This article will be further updated, as I dive into the details of one or more implementations.

UPDATE: I just found one more autopilot system (OpenPilot) that seems to offer again about the same features as ArduPilot and Paparrazi.

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