Flapper Drones and positioning systems

This week’s guest blogpost is from Matěj Karásek from Flapper Drones, about flying the Nimble + with a positioning system. Enjoy!

Flapper Drones are bioinspired robots flying by flapping their wings, similar to insects and hummingbirds. If you haven’t heard of Flappers yet, you can read more about their origins at TU Delft and about how they function in an earlier post and on our company website.

In this blogpost, I will write about how to fly the Flappers (namely the Flapper Nimble+) autonomously within a positioning system such as the Lighthouse, and will of course include some nice videos as well.

The Flapper Nimble+ is the first hover-capable flapping-wing drone on the market. It is a development platform powered by the Crazyflie Bolt and so it can enjoy most of the perks of the Crazyflie ecosystem, including the positioning systems as well as other sensors (check this overview). If you would like to get a Flapper yourself, just head to the Bitcraze webstore, where there are some units ready to be shipped! (At the time of writing at least…)

Minimal setup

The minimal setup for flying in a positioning system is nearly identical as with a standard Crazyflie. Next to a Flapper with a recent firmware, a Crazyradio dongle, a positioning system (in this post we will use the Lighthouse), and a compatible positioning deck (Lighthouse deck) you will also need: 1) a mount, such that the deck can be attached on top of the Flapper, and 2) a set of extension cables. You can 3D print the mounts yourself (models here), the extension cable prototypes can either be inquired from Flapper Drones, or can be soldered by yourself (in that case, the battery holder deck, standard Crazyflie pin headers and some wires come handy). Just pay attention to connect the cables in the correct way, as if the deck was mounted right on top of the Bolt. The complete setup with the Lighthouse deck will look like this:

Lighthouse deck installation on a Flapper Nimble+. Make sure the extension cables are well secured (e.g. by using the additional cable mount) such they don’t get caught by the gears.

For the Lighthouse, as with regular Crazyflies, the minimum number of base stations (with some redundancy) is 2, but you will get larger tracking volume with more base stations. 4 base stations mounted at 3 m height will give you about 5 meters time 5 meters coverage, which is recommended especially if you want to fly more than 1 Flapper at a time (they are a bit larger than the Crazyflies, after all…).
From now on, it is exactly the same as with standard Crazyflies. After you calibrate the Lighthouse system using the standard wizard procedure via the Cfclient, you can just go to the Flight Control Tab and use the “Command Based Flight Control” buttons to take-off, command steps in xyz directions and land. It is this easy!

Flapper Nimble+ in Lighthouse flown via Command Based Flight Control of cfclient

Assisted flight demo

We used this setup in February for the demos we were giving at the Highlight Delft festival in the Netherlands. This allowed people with no drone piloting skills (from 3-year-olds, to grandmas – true story) fly and control the Flapper in a safe way (safe for the Flapper, as the Flapper itself is a very safe platform thanks to its soft wings and low weight). To make it more fun, and even safer for the Flapper, we used a gamepad instead of on screen buttons, and we modified the cfclient slightly such that the flight space can be geofenced to stay within the tracking volume.

Flight demo at Highlight Delft festival, using the Lighthouse and position hold assistance

If you would like to try it yourself (it works also with standard crazyflies), the source code is here (just keep in mind it is experimental and has some known bugs…). To fly in the position-assisted mode, you need to press (and keep pressing) the Alt 1 button, and use the joysticks to move around (velocity commands, headless mode). Releasing the Alt 1 button will make the Flapper autoland. Autoland will also get triggered when the battery is low. You can still fly the Flapper in a direct way when pressing Alt 2 instead.

Flying more Flappers at a time

Again, this is something that works pretty much out of the box. As with a regular crazyflie, you just need to assign a unique address to each of the Flappers and then use e.g. this example python script to run a preprogrammed sequence.

With a few extra lines of code, we pulled this quick demo at the end of the Highlight Delft festival, when we had 30 minutes left before packing everything (one of the Flappers decided to drop its landing gear, probably too tired after 3 evenings of almost continuous flying…):

Sequence with 3 Flappers within Lighthouse positioning system

Other positioning systems

Using other positioning systems is equally easy. In fact, for the Loco Positioning system, the deck can even be installed directly on the Flapper’s Bolt board (no extension cables or mounts are needed). As for optical motion tracking, we do not have experience with Qualisys and the active marker deck, but flying with retro-reflective markers within OptiTrack system can be setup easily with just a few hacks.

When choosing and setting up the positioning system, just keep in mind that due to its wings, the Flapper needs to tilt much more to fly forward or sideways, compared to a quadcopter. This is not an issue with the Loco Positioning system (but there can be challenges with position estimation, as described further), but it can be a limitation for systems requiring direct line of sight, such as the Lighthouse or optical motion tracking.

Ongoing work

In terms of control and flight dynamics, the Flapper is very different from the Crazyflie. Thus, for autonomous flight, there remains room for improvement on the firmware side. We managed to include the “flapper” platform into the standard Crazyflie firmware (in master branch since November 2022, and in all releases since then), such that RC flying and other basic functionality works out of the box. However, as many things in the firmware were originally written only for a (specific) quadcopter platform, the Crazyflie 2.x, further contributions are needed to unlock the full potential of the Flapper.

With the introduction of “platforms” last year, many things can be defined per platform (e.g. the PID controller gains, sensor alignment, filter settings, etc.), but e.g. the Extended Kalman filter, and specifically the motion model inside, has been derived and tuned for the Crazyflie 2.x, and is thus no representative of the Flapper with very different flight dynamics. This is what directly affects (and currently limits) the autonomous flight within positioning systems – it works well enough at hover and slow flight, but the agility and speed achievable in RC flight cannot be reached yet. We are planning to improve this in the future (hopefully with the help of the community). The recently introduced out of tree controllers and estimators might be the way to go… To be continued :)

Thanks Matej ! And for those of you at home, don’t forget that we have our dev meeting next Wednesday (the 5th), where we’ll discuss about the Loco positioning system, but also will take some time for general discussions. We hope to see you there!

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