The AR.Drone PX4 Conversion Potential for Ecosynth Photo Collection

First of all: an outline of what the PX4 conversion kit for the AR.Drone entails.  The only parts used from the AR.Drone are the frame, motors, motor controllers, and propeller.  There are no AR.Drone electronics left.  The only thing which makes it like an AR.Drone is the shape.  All other aspects of it are like that of an Arducopter.  The convesion does not make it fly any longer or further, it only expands the possibilities of using Arducopter autonomous control.

Pros

  • Design is small and light, less chance of injury or property damage in a crash.
  • Inexpensive: I estimate one AR.Drone PX4 would cost under $500 US.
  • Easy to use: the conversion is fairly easy to do and does not require fine soldering.
  • PX4 runs Arducopter, which is capable of 3D waypoint flying and track following.

Cons

  • The lifting capacity is too low.  According to the Pixhawk page for the PX4 conversion kit, the converted AR.Drone can carry up to 150g of battery.  Presumably, this is near the max weight that the AR.Drone can carry.  With a little over 150 g, the copter can carry a 2000mAh 11.1V battery.  This will keep it aloft for apprximately 15 minutes.  However, this is not counting the required weight of the camera.  The lightest high quality camera possible is the GoPro Hero 3, which weighs 76 g.  That right there uses up half of the AR.Drone's carrying capacity.  With only 75 g left to use for battery, the best battery it can hope to carry is 1000mAh.  This is the same as the stock battery, which keeps the AR.Drone aloft for 12 minutes.  With an additional 76 g of GoPro on board, I doubt that the copter would fly for even 10 minutes.  15 minutes is the bare minimm for a 250x250 meter photo collection.
  • The copter is so small and lightweight that it would have almost no tolerance for wind.  Low winds would cause it to veer off course, and high winds would prevent it from being able to return to the launch site; it could simply be swept away.
  • It would be unable to carry the Garmin Astro dog tracker.  The dog tracker is much too large for the AR.Drone, it would never be able to carry it for any significant amount of time.  So if the copter crashed on the far side of a plot, there would be no way to track it down; its small size would make it a difficult object to find in many landscapes.
  • The Arducopter technology is still under development.  It is not as complete as the Ardupilot Mega.  Some features may not be available until later, and some programming work may be neccesary.

Possible Solutions

  • Better battery technology.  Higher capacity lighter batteries are out there, but they are prohibitively expensive.  As time goes on prices will come down and new technologies will develop, but it is a long process.
  • Lighter cameras.  Lighter cameras do exist, but they do not take pictures at the same quality as a GoPro or Canon ELPH.  Therefore we do not know if they would be suitable for Ecosynth photo collection.  One method would be to test lighter cameras first on heavy duty copters to see if the photo quality and frequency is high enough. 

Conclusion

With current battery technology and assuming that a GoPro or better is required, it is not possible to make a 15 minute flight over 250x250 meters with the PX4 converted AR.Drone.

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