Barrel roll into the holidays by landing the Crazyflie Nano Quadrocopter under the tree. This programmable flying electronic board and advanced development platform provides a control theory crashcourse—and lots of fun.
Why We Love It
Like all quadrocopters, the Crazyflie is given life by advanced control theory algorithms that help it ‘think’. It arrives 100% pre-programmed but comes disassembled and requires minor soldering, but shouldn’t take more than 30 minutes for an experienced tinkerer to get everything up and running. Compared to the AR Drone 2.0 we featured a few months back, the Crazyflie may be identical in concept (four-rotor flying banshee), but is built for a very different purpose yet is still equally as fun.
Learning to fly the Crazyflie takes a small dose of patience, so consider yourselves cautioned. You’ll need to control the thrust very delicately to get it to hover, and maybe even tweak a couple settings; once you get the hang of it, it’s an absolute blast to pilot. In fact, this drone is arguably better for novice airmen than the larger drones because it’s hard to inflict damage with something that weighs just 19 grams (about as much as the average piece of mail). But, don’t be fooled into thinking its weak - the Crazyflie can actually lift a payload up to about half of its weight. That being said, the Crazyflie’s miniature design doesn’t allow it to stand up to strong winds, so its preferred environment is indoors or a very calm day outdoors.
Unlike most quadrocopters, the Crazyflie doesn’t come with a controller, instead it is bundled with a 2.4 GHz USB RF transceiver that receives commands and sends telemetry data back to a Windows/Linux computer host within an 80-meter range. This is the conduit for controlling the Crazyflie, and also for sending firmware updates (though a JTAG port is available for advanced debugging). To pilot the Crazyflie, you’ll need either a PS3 or Xbox 360 USB controller, though in theory you could use a keyboard if you didn’t have a controller handy. The host computer software shows you real-time feedback from the Crazyflie sensors and also allow you to modify control settings on-the-fly.
Because the Nano is so tiny (there’s a reason it’s named after a fly), it’s relatively safe and has less destructive potential relative to the larger quadrocopters on the market. This is not to say that the rotor blades don’t hurt (they sting a bit), but the risk of knocking over mom’s antique vase is far lower. While the Crazyflie is robust, you’ll want to avoid ramming it into windows and brick walls (though we certainly did try to beat ours up, and it’s still kicking). If you do manage to damage it, most likely it’ll be in the form of a broken blade which is easy and cheap to replace. If you’re feeling motivated, it is possible to 3D print a protective shell for the Nano.
The no-frills and open-source feel of the Crazyflie is immediately apparent when opening the box. The Crazyflie copter has no pretty plastic shells or fancy controllers, just a lightweight skeleton supporting a 2.4 GHz radio chip, micro-USB port, 170 mAh battery (about 7 minutes flight time), and 32-bit microcontroller unit centered on a tiny PCB with a 2x10 pin expansion header to allow for infinite hacking potential.
Note: We’re offering both the 6-DOF and the 10-DOF. The difference between the two? The 6-DOF includes a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyro and thus capable of auto-leveling, and the 10-DOF comes with everything that the 6-DOF includes, but also is equipped with altitude and heading sensors. Currently, there is no firmware support for these sensors, but it’s coming soon. So if you’re looking toward the future and want to get creative with the hacking, definitely consider the 10-DOF.
The Crazyflie community are a group of hackers, hobbyists, and engineers rallying behind the open-source drone for its ease of use and modability. With over 500 users contributing to their forums, it’s easy to get any of your questions answered and feedback on your own hacks from some grizzled veterans. The Bitcraze team is extremely active as well with their community, and love to help new and novice developers with any issues they may have with your firmware or hardware add-ons. They're even working on a beta for OSX and eventually hope to have Android support.
The Bitcraze team developed the Crazyflie not as a toy, but a platform for open-source development. As a trifecta of hardware, software, and sweet, high-flying, fun, some of the hacks that can and have been done with it include:
Adding new methods of input: Since the Crazyflie runs off an easy to use Python API that allows you to issue high-level commands to the drone, it’s easy to add new ways to control your Crazyflie copter. We’ve already seen two hackers using the Kinect and Leap Motion to control their Crazyflies. The Kinect hack allows the drone to work in an “autopilot” fashion with the help of a colored ball that was picked up by the Kinect’s camera, while the Leap Motion program allows control of the Crazyflie by using hand motion for thrust, pitch, roll, and yaw.
Adding new methods of output: Since the Crazyflie can support 5 to 10 grams of extra weight (which is an impressive payload given the size of this device), and the board contains a 6-pin expansion header capable of UART/I2C and SPI/ADC protocols, it would be relatively simple to attach your own small integrated circuits and sensors to either issue commands or relay new data to your computer interface on-the-Flie! Bitcraze made the Crazyflie software open-source from top to bottom, and they update it in-house while encouraging others to create their own mods for the bootloader and firmware. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can dive deep into the C that drives this little guy and really make it your own.
Make your Drone more powerful! Aside from adding sensors, the Crazyflie can be improved with all sorts of lightweight additions. One user hacked his copter’s motor mounts to allow the attachment of four additional motors, allowing for a bit more thrust to be applied. Other user hacks include the addition of a crane mounted to the bottom of the copter (and operated through an Xbox controller!), and another hack where someone added a small keychain camera that could stream video and sound to an SD card. One of the most useful hacks we’ve seen in the Crazyflie community was an inductive charging plate that was attached to the Crazyflie, so when it landed on the charging pad the copter would charge without even connecting a cable. We can’t wait for everything to have wireless charging built in!
Why We Love It
When we say we love creative technology, this is exactly the kind of thing we’re talking about. The Crazyflie’s open-source design is innovative on its own, but it also allows for endless creative additions, and you can have a hell of a lot of fun in the process! The Crazyflie is limited only by its own hardware, but the Bitcraze team made sure that the protocols and hardware would be able to withstand the test of time, using open and widely used protocols and Python, a powerful programming language. This means that you’ll be able to add, modify, and evolve the Crazyflie yourself for years to come.
We’ve see a lot of drones fly through our office. What makes the Crazyflie stand out, aside from its minimal and powerful design, is how incredibly extensible it is. Whether you just want to tweak a few software settings, possibly add a live streaming video camera, or go crazy and integrate a Kinect for autonomous flight control, the Crazyflie is up to the challenge and you’re guaranteed to have a blast doing it.