Dronecode: Linux Foundation, 3D Robotics Create Open-Source UAV Software Platform


Open-source software powers many consumer drones and UAVs today, and now a new initiative will put those applications under one unified platform managed by the Linux Foundation.

The program, called Dronecode, aims to help accelerate and broaden drone software through the deep Linux community. Announced today by 3D Robotic’s CEO Chris Anderson at the Embedded Linux Conference in Dusseldorf, Germany, it will focus on the major drone applications, including 3DR-sponsored APM (autonomous autopilot software for embedded copter, plane, and wheeled controllers), MissionPlanner and DroidPlanner (laptop/Android-based flight-path management), and MavLink (aircraft flight information communiications). It will also take oversight of the PX4 project, a cutting-edge autonomous flight endeavor that is being utilized in the 3D Robotics “Pixhawk” flight controllers.

“…we are entering the consumer and commercial drone age and I’m delighted that an open source platform is helping lead the way,” Anderson writes on dronecode.org. “Now that we have reached this level of adoption and maturity, it’s time to adopt the best practices of other highly successful open source projects, including professional management and governance structures, to ensure the continued growth and independence of these efforts. There is no better organization to lead this than the Linux Foundation.”

Along with 3D Robotic’s inclusion, the program comes with the support of major players in the drone community, including DroneDeploy, jDrones, Walkera, and Yuneec. Anderson also notes the support of Intel, Box, and Baidu for the project.

“By becoming a Linux Foundation Collaborative Project, the Dronecode community will receive the support required of a massive project right at its moment of breakthrough,” says Jim Zemlin, executive director at The Linux Foundation, in a press release. “The result will be even greater innovation and a common platform for drone and robotics open source projects.”

Beyond the Dronecode announcement, it’s been a busy past couple months for 3D Robotics.

Last month, the company announced Richard Branson as their latest investor, bringing considerable business acumen and flight experience to the company through his experience with Virgin Atlantic and America airlines and the space tourism endeavor Virgin Galactic.

In his official welcome, 3DR and Virgin posted a video of the company’s visit to Branson’s private getaway in the British Virgin Islands that demonstrated new flight functions for its aircraft, including their new GPS-powered follow-me mode. The video also includes 3D-rendered shots of the island made from quadcopter-shot footage.

3D Robotics also recently announced the next iteration of their Iris quadcopter, the Iris+, which incorporates many of these new flight functions along with double the flight time of its predecessor, improved landing apparatus, easier spin-on propellers, and direction-indicating lights.

And at the Intel Developer Forum, 3DR disclosed partnership plans to use the diminutive Edison microcontroller in their next-generation autopilot as a computing companion — allowing for more advanced functions like an optical-based follow-me mode (instead of tracking your phone’s GPS). “Our next-generation autopilot will be built around the notion of carrier boards,” Anderson says, explaining that different boards will be used for different functions.

Drones Doing Good

Timothy Reuter, Founder Drone User Group NetworkPhoto: Andrew Terranova

Timothy Reuter, Founder of the Drone User Group Network, speaks with passion about incorporating social responsibility into the use of personal drones.Photo: Andrew Terranova

We’re Not Evil, We’re Just Flown That Way

Timothy Reuter started the DC Area Drone User Group to find people to teach him about flying drones. It wasn’t long, however, before Timothy and other members of the group began to think about the negative connotation the word “drone” was getting in the press, and the potential for the positive impact personal drones could have for society.

So when Timothy created the Drone User Group Network (DUGN), encouraging other regional groups of drone users to join a larger network, the organization was founded on the principle that personal use of drone technology could (and should) be done for the benefit of humanity.


The DUGN established the Drone Social Innovation Award to provide funding for the best use of low cost drone technology for a socially beneficial purpose. The prize garnered financial backing from NEXA Capital Partners and the UAS America Fund. Entries were limited to spending less than $3,000 on their drones, and had to document the positive social impact of their project in a video.

Five finalists were selected, and after a very close decision the $10,000 raised for the prize was split between two groups.

The Winners

Detecting Land Mines

CAT UAV offers aerial observation services using drones. CAT UAV’s project captures imagery of suspected mine fields. Their proprietary post-processing of the images reveals the precise location of mines.

This method of detection is much safer and more humane than using animals, and cheaper and less destructive than using ground based robots. It also has the potential to save thousands of lives in countries where un-exploded mines are common. Hard to argue against the social benefits of that.

Helping Disaster Victims

Charles “Chuck” Devaney studied geography and cartography at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. He had experimented with using kites to collect aerial data for mapping, but later partnered with a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering, David Hummer, to build an aerial drone for this purpose. David focused on making a usable drone for about $2,000, while Chuck developed methods to stitch together the aerial imagery and perform analysis.

Linking the World (LTW) is an international organization focused on providing humanitarian aid in over 40 countries. Chuck acts as director for their UAV program. He has also worked with other humanitarian organizations to use drone photography to aid disaster relief efforts, surveying typhoon damage in the Philippines.

Other Finalists

Collecting Whale Snot

Yep… whale snot. Ocean Alliance partnered with Olin College of Engineering‘s robotics lab to create what they affectionately call Snot Bot. Snot Bot is a ruggedized quadcopter that flies over a whale and collects samples spewed from a whale’s blowhole. Though it sounds weird, marine biologists can analyze the samples for all sorts of things, from disease, to stress levels, to genetics.

When a whale surfaces it expels mucus and carbon dioxide from its blowhole. An operator flies Snot Bot over a whale to collect this material without stressing the animal. Ocean Alliance uses data collected from whales to help inform educators and policy makers on the health of our oceans.

Expanding Perspective for Kids with Autism

Kids on the autistic spectrum tend to have difficulty understanding the perspective of other people, which is a huge barrier to social interaction. Paul Braun is giving these kids a chance to see the world through a different perspective by Taking Autism to the Sky.

The kids in Paul’s program participate in a project to build a hexacopter, learning technical skills and teamwork. They learn to fly, plan their flight and shoot high definition aerial video. Long term Paul hopes to help the boys and girls in this program learn skills that will help them find employment.

Monitoring Political Protests

The Drone Lab at Central European University’s School of Public Policy set out to find ways drones could be used as a benefit to society. Students under Professor Choi-Fitzpatrick have come up with a methodology for estimating the size of crowds using aerial drone photography. They developed safety protocols, defined measurement techniques, and then used a drone to verify their methods.

The school’s new Drone Lab is not stopping there. They plan to continue to develop their concepts for using drones for the public good, and become a European leader for the civil use of drones.

Crouching Phoenix, Flying Dragon

Many people “find their tribe” at Maker Faire, and there’s just no end to the variety of interests and backgrounds of the makers you will meet. Last year I met husband and wife makers Caipei and Hanfang Cao, who had come to Maker Faire for the very first time. They brought their quadcopters, some decorated in phoenix and dragon paper craft designs, to perform musical and aerobatic demonstrations. The windy weather conditions limited what they could do outside, and another maker group let them use their premium space just inside the main entrance to the NY Hall of Science on Sunday afternoon.

Caipei and Hanfang really showed their stuff. Caipei had designed spherical frameworks out of lightweight carbon fiber rod, safely sealing the spinning blades of the quadcopters away from unintended contact with the audience. They performed aerial tricks in what they describe as a sort of competitive sport intended to promote health and happiness. I think Hanfang was somewhat ahead of her husband on points. Caipei also flew his beautifully crafted paper creations, serenading the colorful phoenix as he guided it in a graceful dance.


After Maker Faire last year, the couple went on to audition for the television show, “America’s Got Talent”. They successfully passed several local rounds, but in the end were not selected for the live show. They are planning on auditioning for “China’s Got Talent” and seeing how far they can go. Caipei and Hanfang will be back at World Maker Faire in New York this September. They’ve added a flying Jesus, accompanying angel, and a flying wizard (not to be confused with Harry Potter) to their menagerie of creations this year. It sounds a bit crazy and maybe it is, but I loved it last year and I’m sure I’ll love it again this year.

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Cheaper Robotics Through 3D Printing

Humanoid robotics are really cool, but the cost can be prohibitive for a hobbyist. Although it’s hard to get around the cost of the high quality servos typical of a good humanoid robot, Michael Overstreet is out to prove that 3D printing can provide most of the other mechanical parts.

Michael has been experimenting with 3D printing parts for his robots for several years. Lately he’s been working on Robby, his clone of the Robotis DARwin-OP humanoid robot. Although he could have high quality parts printed by a service like Shapeways, Michael strives to get as many parts as possible printed on affordable 3D printers that an individual might own.


Micheal will be at World Maker Faire in New York this September giving demonstrations of his humanoid robots to show just what a hobbyist can accomplish in this field with 3D printing. Michael will also let kids play soccer with his robots, or control them by voice and cue card commands.

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You can follow along with Michael’s developments on his blog: I, Bioloid.

The ChalkJET Writing Machine


“Way back” in 2009, students in the UC Berkley “ME 102” class came up with this excellent automatic chalk-spraying machine. It uses 8 cans of spray-chalk to spray the message of your choosing onto the sidewalk or street as you push it along. This device is controlled by two Arduino Duemilanove boards, which apparently base the chalk “dot” timing on encoders sensing movement in the two wheels that the cart rides on. I suppose it could be done without the encoder, but based on the consistency of the print, these students are either extremely steady walkers, or have some mechanized help.

As this is an “ME” class, the mechanism that causes the chalk spray is quite clever as well. A piece of wood forms a lever arm, which is linked up to the activating servos by a bent piece of wire. This seems to work quite well, and can easily be adjusted by screws. Also, the handle is made out of PVC pipe, which I can definitely appreciate.

Be sure to watch the video of it in action all the way to the end to see some strange text produced by it. Maybe that will make you feel better about your puny freshman engineering project. Sure, you passed the class, but your project probably wasn’t quite as “epic” as this one. At least mine wasn’t!

Resistance is Futile: Harvard’s Kilobot Swarm Keeps Fellow Robots in Line

Credit: Harvard SEAS via Harvard Gazette

If you’ve ever made your own Bristlebot, you can appreciate how pared down and elegant is the category of artificial life know as vibrating robots, or vibrobots. Well, it turns out that when it comes to vibrobots, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

In 2011, researchers at Harvard came out with the Kilobot, a tiny, inexpensive ($50 or less) open source research robot that could be controlled en masse using infrared signals. Last week, in the most recent edition of Science (the same journal that featured self-folding walking paper robots), lead author Michael Rubenstein, a research associate in the lab of Radhika Nagpal at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, described programming a swarm of Kilobots a thousand strong to arrange themselves in predetermined shapes.

The Kilobots, which resemble a stack of quarters perched on three needle-thin legs, are not that easy to control one on one. Driven by two vibrating motors on opposite sides of their body, they tend to veer off course and misjudge distances.

But when you put 1024 Kilobots in a room (the number corresponds to the number of bits in a kilobyte of information), they work together to complete the assigned task. For instance, to self-organize themselves into a particular shape, four robots mark the origin of a coordinate system, and the rest use primitive behaviors such as following the edge of a group and keeping track of their relative location to wiggle into position. If any stragglers wander away, or a bottleneck forms, other Kilobots step in to bring their fellows back into line.

As the speeded-up video above shows, it can take up to 12 hours for the swarm to whip itself into shape. What makes this newsworthy is the sheer size of the Kilobot collective. While just one of many studying robot swarm behavior, the Kilobot project is the first to include more than just a hundred or so individuals.

You can order your own mini-swarm of pre-assembled Kilobots from K-Team, or construct your own under a Creative Common Non-Commercial (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0) license.

Coleman cooler robot opens and delivers cold beverages on-demand

Bruce Strauss’ Colebot robotic cooler will open and deliver your favorite bottled beverages

Bruce Strauss’ Colebot robotic cooler will open and deliver your favorite bottled beverages

Outdoor activities usually involve a cooler on-hand loaded with frosty bottled beverages. Whether it’s relaxing on the beach, playing in the park or digging trenches for new sewer pipes, everyone loves having something cool to drink. Sometimes… that cooler is ‘way out of reach’ and our arms can’t possibly stretch the foot and a half span between the cooler and us. Sure, you could yell for someone to get that beverage for you but that requires significant vocal effort on our part and could have negative consequences. To overcome those obstacles, Bruce Straus and his son Jason designed the ‘Colebot’ robotic robot Coleman cooler to not only bring us the cold bottled drinks, but opens them, and delivers them into our lazy, self-absorbed hands as well.

The Colebot was designed using an Arduino Mega board and two Adafruit motor shields that power a stepper motor, two servos and three linear actuators along with an electromagnet. The beverages are pushed along a trough until it gets to into position of the robotic arm that pries off the bottle cap. The cap is captured by the magnet and dropped into a bin (keeping the area clutter free), after which a platform then raises the beverage out of the cooler.

The robot is controlled with an RC-like controller that lets the user/consumer pilot the robot anywhere they need it. The father/son team even made a couple of ‘accessories’ (add-on cart/coolers) that provide music and even lighting for nighttime activities! These too are also built into coolers and are powered by car batteries, which act like a roving party train when connected together.

When the Colebot turns the corner the first time in the following video… I feel proud to be in the USA! Mantras may begin!

A $100 Origami Robot That Folds Itself Up and Walks Away

A self-assembling robot from researchers at Harvard and MIT.

Photo: Harvard’s Wyss Institute

I have a thing for low-tech robots, especially when they’re made from everyday stuff. The body of this new little robot bug from MIT and Harvard, described last week in the latest issue of Science, is made from a five-layer sandwich of copper traces, paper, and shape-memory polymer — the stuff you know as Shrinky Dinks. With batteries, motors, and microprocessor, it uses about $100 worth of materials. And when you plug in the battery, it folds itself into shape and scurries away.

The origami robot is a conglomeration of earlier work at MIT, Harvard, and elsewhere. Its laser-cut composite body is reminiscent of Dash, the robot bug from Berkeley. The heat-activated self-folding polymer sheets have been studied at North Carolina State University. The origami structure — which opens up the possibility of multiple configurations, customized for on-the-go robotic needs — is based on research by MIT’s Erik Demaine and Daniela Rus, part of the team that wrote about the current robobug in this month’s Science.

But what’s particularly exciting is the fact that the building techniques and materials to make a self-folding robot are probably within reach of the average DIY fan, with or without access to a laser cutter. Watch Harvard’s Rob Wood talk about the genesis of the self-folding origami robot, and check out more videos at The Creator’s Project.

Better Tea Brewing with DIY Robotics


I’m surprised that I haven’t already seen a tea-brewing robot in an issue of Skymall, because I think it’s just the sort of luxury item that would really appeal to someone on their second or third bloody mary. Luckily, you can just go ahead a make yourself one in less than 10 minutes with this ingenious tutorial project called LittleTea from Taipei Hackerspace.

Whenever I’m trying to brew some tasty tea (and that happens quite often) I always miss the right amount of time needed for the brew. Talking to someone, reading a book, watching a bit of YouTube, browsing Instructables while I’m waiting, and suddenly the 5 minutes becomes 15, and my tea is not as good as it could have been.

Make sure your tea is the best it can be by simply programming an arduino to control a servo and a buzzer, then just mount it on cardboard, attach a stick to the servo, and voilà, perfectly brewed tea!

On second thought, this project is way too useful for SkyMall.

The Mantis Rideable Hexapod


Hexapods, mechanical creatures with six legs, can be one of the easier ways to make a walking robot. A hexapod was one of my first robotics projects, and it turned out great. Great for being around 4 inches tall that is! If you’d like inspiration to build something much bigger, and admittedly more awesome, check out Matt Denton’s rideable hexapod, the Mantis.

The video below shows a good demonstration of what this monster can do, but there’s a lot more on Matt’s Youtube page, so be sure to check that out if you’d like to see more of what he’s been up to.

The robot weighs in at 1900 kilograms, and is powered by a 2.2 liter turbo-Diesel engine. Standing, it’s 2.8 meters tall, so it is definitely bigger than anything I’ve ever even tried to build. On the other hand, this beast took 3 years to get to its first successful test drive, so something like this takes a huge commitment.

Jokes aside, this is a really incredible machine. As you might suspect, this isn’t Matt’s first robot rodeo; Make featured his somewhat smaller “Stunning Spiderbot” in 2007.  It may be small, but the way it is able to track someone’s face, and its fluid motion is really worth seeing!