Friday, August 1, 2014

Atmel Microcontroller Powers Kickstarter Sci-Fi Hoverbike

According to a recent post titled "Hoverbikes may soon become a reality," the futuristic hoverbike featured in an in-progress Kickstarter campaign is controlled by an Atmel ATmega32U4 microcontroller (MCU).
Cyborg Buster on scale model hovercraft

The Atmel post explains that the Kickstarter campaign supporters don't get a full-size human-carrying hovercraft, but rather a 1/3 size model of the airborne 'motorcycle' current design.
"Hoverbikes may not be ready for your daily commute just yet, but thanks UK-based Malloy Aeronautics, we’re now a step closer. Debuting just days ago on Kickstarter, the firm is producing a one-third sized version of its design to help fund the full-sized prototype. “This drone was originally built as a proof of concept for our latest full-sized Hoverbike prototype...After testing the one-third Hoverbike, we realized that it had lots of features that made it a fantastic drone, not only this — selling this scale Hoverbike to the public would allow us to raise funds to continue the development of the manned version.”...the 1.15-meter-long mini replica can carry payloads of around 1.5kg and weighs in at 2.2kg unladen. The 3DR Pixhawk flight controller allows for it to be controlled remotely, as well as follow predetermined flight paths — or the pilot themselves — automatically. The mini-hoverbike also comes equipped with a third-scaled, 3D-printed humanoid ‘pilot’ complete with a space on its head specifically-designed for a GoPro camera."
Hovercraft folds up
There are several aspects of this MCU project and Kickstarter campaign worth remarking on, some of which come from my recent immersion in the world of MCUs and others from my years of covering aviation innovations for the Experimental Aircraft Association in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. The aspects of interest are:
  1. The MCU controlling the scale model is a relatively low-powered 8-bit AVR unit, the ATmega32U4. It would be interesting to know what their criteria was for choosing that specific MCU.
  2. It's kind of cool that the hoverbike project has spun off the Macro Micro Arduino-compatible board that can be bought for $50 from the Malloy Aeronautics hovercraft website. That's an opportunity made possible by the open source concept of the Arduino ecosystem.
  3. The hovercraft folds up for transportation.
  4. I like the Cyborg Buster 'rider' designed for and shown in pictures of the Kickstarter hovercraft. It will be 3D printed by people who want the lifelike figure, and it has a cavity in its head for a Go-Pro video camera. Creating an appealing 'cyborg' which really has nothing to do with whether this
    Cyborg Buster
    is an airworthy hovercraft is an excellent marketing strategy.
  5. The quadcopter design of the hovercraft is unusual in that the two front props appear to partially overlap, as do the two in the rear. I'm not an aeronautical engineer or pilot, but it would be interesting to know how that impacts the aerodynamics of the craft.
  6. The Kickstarter campaign page combines two stories -- one about the full-size hovercraft and one about the scale model quadcopter. Mixing the two stories like that may leave the reader somewhat unclear as to exactly what they are funding when they contribute to the campaign.
  7. The radical departure from traditional aircraft paradigms mean that the hoverbike Kickstarter supporters should not expect a commercial model of the full-size flight-ready hoverbike for quite a few years. Check the history of the Terrafugia Transition and the Martin Jetpack -- you'll see what I mean.
With respect to the Atmel MCU and the scale model hoverbike quadcopter, the Kickstarter website says:
"If you have never flown a multicopter before, we highly recommend purchasing a small drone to practice with first (the Hubsan X4 is great to start with).  We designed this 1/3rd scale Hoverbike to be safe and robust, however without rc experience you will be sure to fly your brand new Hoverbike into the ground on the first day and there are practical limits to how strong we can make this!...Our MAcro Micro is an Arduino Micro compatible microcontroller that is easy to program, with 3A inputs and outputs, up to 30V in, analog out, and has hundreds of uses in robotics and home projects, including stepper motor driver, LED strip light controller, servo actuator, fan speed controller, brew kit controller, electric car window conversions...We designed this tiny board to drive the multicolor LED's on the Hoverbike, and to allow owners of our 1/3rd Hoverbikee to do more with their drone than just look passively from the sky, by switching and actuating levers, release pins, spot lights via their radio or program."
UMaine Hover
Atmel MCUs have been used in the drone ArduPilots for quite a few years, but this hoverbike Kickstarter campaign shows the expanding non-engineering use of MCUs. In this case, the MCU is really being used as a marketing tool to raise R&D money, rather than just being the brains of the quadcopter autopilot.

On a related note for those readers interested in this type of personal aircraft, here are links to two other hoverbike projects. The first is for the 'UMaine Hover,' a senior design project for a group of University of Maine students. Here's a link to the UMaine Hover website. The second project was the Aerofex 'hover
Aerofex hover bike
bike' from a couple years ago. The LA Times article has a video of that's worth watching of a test run on the airborne personal sportcraft. Looks like it would have fun to pilot. Aerofex apparently made it clear that they weren't planning to sell the 'aircraft' as a human-piloted craft, but were rather using it as a drone development tool.

If the Humboldt Microcontrollers Group wanted to get involved with quadcopters, I'd be all for that. My recommendation, though, would be to get some flying experience with a well
Parrot AR.Drone 2.0
tested one like the Parrot AR.Drone. I've flown that a little, and it was both fun and relatively easy to keep in the air. One of the participants in a recent meeting of the MCU group had interesting stories to tell about his adventures with drones and MCUs. If you have built or flown an MCU-controlled quadcopter, consider coming to an upcoming meeting of the MCU group. The next meeting is on August 7th. Hope to see you there!


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