Author: Kristoffer Richardsson

We have recently released a few products with optical flow sensors (the Flow deck and the Flow Breakout board) without really talking about the concept of optical flow. So we though we would dedicate this weeks post to it.

The most common example of optical flow is probably a computer mouse. Turning the mouse over you’ll see a strong light that’s used to illuminate the surface so that a camera can clearly see the surface. When running, the camera will identify features in the surface below it and track their motion between frames. As you move the mouse to the left, features will move to the right.  

In the example below you can see a feature being tracked over time.

optical flow

The feature is tracked from frame to frame and the output is the distance that the feature moved since the previous frame. 

The functionality of an optical flow sensor of course depends on being able to find features to track, a surface that is very uniform will be hard to track since all the frames will look the same. If you’ve ever tried using a mouse on a glass table or reflective surface you’ve probably seen that it doesn’t work.

The same concept is used in our Flow products. It also happens that the manufacturer of the chip we use, PixArt, is a world leader in optical mouse sensors. They have applied the same concepts as for the mouse but with a different lens that gives the camera the ability to track features further away (80mm – inf). Like the mouse this is dependent on finding features to track, which might be problematic on poorly lit surfaces or on surfaces that are very uniformly colored. On the other hand if the area is too lit up from the ceiling above you when you fly you might start tracking your own shadow on the floor.

One of the issues with using optical tracking from a flying platform is that you need to know the distance to the features. In the case of the mouse you will know that the features are right under the mouse, but in the case of the flying platform you won’t know this from only looking at the image. Think about sitting on a plane and watching the ground move, it’s really slow. But your movement along the ground will actually be really fast. For our Flow products we’ve added the VL53L0x ToF distance sensor to measure the distance to the surface that’s being tracked. This completest the equation so if you’re further away from the features that are being tracked this will be taken into account. Note that the accuracy of the tracking will decrease when the distance increases since the difference between frames becomes smaller and harder to detect.

An optical flow sensor can also be used to track motion of other objects instead. Suppose the optical flow sensor is fixed and pointing sideways, then it will detect objects passing in front of it, for instance counting people passing a doorway, or it could be used as a touch less mouse.

 

We are going to China and Maker Faire Shenzhen Nov 11-12.

Come and meet us in the Seeed Studio stand, we love talking to makers and geeks!

We have started working on a demo and the plan is to show an autonomously flying Crazyflie using the Flow deck for positioning. If you are in the area, drop by at Liuxiandong Campus, Shenzhen Polytechnic and say hi!

See you there!

 

One of the pain points when setting up the Loco Positioning system is to measure the anchor positions and enter them into the system. I wanted to see if I could automate this task and let the system calculate the positions, and if so understand what kind of precision to expect. I have spent a few Fun Fridays playing with this problem and this is what I have found so far.

The problem can be broken down into two parts:
1. How to calculate the anchor positions. What data is required?
2. How to define the coordinate system. To make it useful the user must to be able to define the coordinate system in a simple way.

Anchor and ruler

How to calculate the anchor positions

The general idea of how to calculate the anchor positions is to set up a system of equations describing the distances between the anchors and/or the Crayzflie and solve for the anchor positions. The equations will be non linear and the (possibly naive) plan is to use the Gauss Newton method to solve the system.

To understand how to calculate the anchor positions we must first take a look at the data that is available. The Loco Positioning system can be run in two different modes: Two Way ranging (default mode) and TDoA.

Two way ranging

In the Two Way ranging mode we measure the distance between each anchor and the Crazyflie and to get enough data we must record ranging data for multiple positions. The anchor positions are unknown, and for each new Crazyflie position we add yet a new unknown position, on the other hand we measure the ranges to the anchors so these are knowns. 

The equations used are simply to calculate the distance between the assumed position of each anchor and the Crazyflie and then subtracting it from the measured distance.

TDoA

In TDoA we measure the Time Difference of Arrival, that is the difference in distance to two anchors from the Crazyflie’s position. It is probably possible to use this information, but I was looking for a different solution here. In our new TDoA implementation that we have been playing with a bit, we get the distance between all anchors (calculated in the anchors) as a side effect. 

In this case the Crazflie is not really needed and the equations describe the distance between assumed anchor positions versus measured distances.

How to define the coordinate system

To get a useable positioning system, the coordinate system must be well defined and oriented in a practical direction. For example when writing a script you probably want (0, 0, 0) to be at some specific spot, the X-axis pointing in a certain direction, the Z-axis to point up and so on. My initial idea was to use the anchors to define the coordinate system, use anchor 0 as (0, 0, 0), let the X-axis pass through anchor 1 and so on. Just by looking at our flight lab I realised that this would be too limiting and decided that the coordinate system should be completely disconnected from the anchor positions, but still easy to define. I also realised that a really good way to tell the system about the desired coordinate system would be to move the Crazyflie around in space to show what you want. The solution is to place the Crazyflie at certain positions and click a button to record data at these positions. The steps I have chosen are:

  1. Place the Crazyflie at (0, 0, 0)
  2. Place the Crazyflie on the X-axis, X > 0
  3. Place the Crazyflie in the XY-plane, Y > 0
  4. Move the Crazyflie around in the space with continuous recording of data

In this scheme the XY-plane is typically the floor.

Results

I have written basic implementations for both the Two Way ranging and TDoA modes and they seem to work reasonably well in simulations. I have also tested the Two Way ranging algorithm in our flight lab with mixed results. The solution converged in most cases but not always. When converging the estimated anchor positions ended up in the right region but some were off by up to a meter. Finally I did run the algorithm and fed the result into the system and managed to fly using the estimated positions which I find encouraging.

I will continue to work on this as a Friday Fun project and maybe it will make its way into the client code base at some point in the future? There are probably better ways to estimate the anchor positions and more clever algorithms, feel free to share them in the comments.

 

 

We announced the release of the Flow breakout board yesterday and we were happy to finally get it into the store. A few hours later we got some samples of the first production batch to the office and we discovered that we have messed up a bit.

First of all there has been a mixup when the pin headers were packed into the plastic bag, there are only 4 pins instead of the intended 10. We are sorry about this and if you get a bag like this, it is a standard pin header and the best way to fix it is to buy it in your local store.

The second problem is only cosmetic, the print on the bag states “Crazyflie Flow Breakout”. The Flow breakout is not intended for the Crazyflie but can of course be used with virtually any other hardware such as an Arduino for instance.

We were very eager to get the Flow Breakout, with its awesome functionality, into the store as quickly as possible, but maybe we were a bit too fast. The problems will be fixed in the next batch and for those of you who get a bag with the wrong pin header, we are really sorry! We hope it will not be too much of an inconvenience.

 

We have had an implementation of a Time Difference of Arrival algorithm (TDoA) in the Crazyflie 2.o and the Loco Positioning System for quite a long time. The coolest feature of the TDoA algorithm is that it can be used to position virtually unlimited number of Crazyflies concurrently as opposed to the standard Two Way Ranging algorithm that is limited to one (or very few Crazyflies). The original implementation is working pretty well but contains some flaws that we are not completely happy with, hence we have not released it officially and are still calling it experimental. Since support for tracking multiple objects is a requirement for flying swarms and we like swarms, we have started to iron out the problems. 

A small swarm using the old TDoA algorithm, from February 2017.
 

In the current implementation each anchor transmits the time of the transmission and the times of the latest reception of transmissions from all other anchors about every 16 ms. From this information it is possible to calculate the difference in time of flight for the radio waves from two anchors to the Crazyflie. When we know the difference in time of arrival, by multiplying with the speed of light we get the difference in distance and can calculate the position of the Crazyflie. This all sounds fine and dandy but the set up has some problems, the biggest one being error handling. If one or more packets are lost, either from anchor to Crazyflie or anchor to anchor, there is no deterministic way to detect it in some cases. The current algorithm relies on sanity checking the calculated result and discarding data that looks suspicious, which is usually easy as the distances quickly gets unrealistic (several thousands of meters!). We suspect that some erroneous values slip through the check though and we would like to be able to really understand when data is valid or not.

TDoA 2.0

What we are working on now is to add a sequence numbering scheme to enable the receiving party to understand when a packet has been lost. With this information it will be possible to discard bad data as well as use the available information better. While we are re-writing the code we are also moving a part of the algorithm from the Crazyflie to the anchors, after all there is a CPU in the anchors that is not fully utilized. The idea is to let each anchor continuously calculate the distance to all other anchors and add this information to the messages it transmits, which will reduce the work in the Crazyflie.

This is work in progress and we are not completely sure where we will end up, but we are aiming at making the TDoA mode part of the official release at some point.

Sensor fusion

Related to the Loco Positioning system is our line of other positioning sensors; the Z-ranger deck and the Flow deck. The Flow deck has really good precision at low altitudes but can not provide absolute positioning while the Loco Positioning system does not have the same precision but absolute position capabilities. So what if we fuse the information from the Flow deck with the Loco Positioning system? We have tried it out and it works pretty well, we can get the best of two worlds! The Z-ranger can also be used in the same way to improve the Z component of the estimated position when flying bellow ~1m.

Even though it works using multiple positioning sensors at the same time, there is room for improvements and some tweaking will be required to make it rock solid.

 

 

As we announced recently, the Flow deck for the Crazyflie has been released. There was a high demand the first days and we were unfortunately out of stock in the store for a short time, but now we are restocked and the deck is available again. We also got a shipment of a few production Flow decks to the office, and of course we wanted to play a bit with them to find the limits. During development of the deck we only had one or two working prototypes at a time, but now there were manny, so what could we do?

Swarm with the Flow deck

Swarm with the Flow deck

Aggressive flying

So far we have flown slowish when using the Flow deck and we know that works, but what about more aggressive manoeuvres? We modified the flowsequenceSync.py script in the examples directory of the crazyflie-lib-python library. The original script flies a figure 8 at 0.5 m/s, and we spiced it up to do 1.5 m/s instead.

Link to video

It works pretty well as you can see in the video but we get a drift for every finished figure 8 and we have not really figured out yet the origin of this error. There are a number of potential error sources but it needs further investigation to be fully understod.

Flying one Crazyflie above another

What if one Crazyflie flies above another? How will that affect the performance of the Flow deck? The optical flow sensor is in essence a camera detecting the motion of the floor, a Crazyflie passing through the field of view could potentially confuse the system.

We set up two Crazyflies to fly on a straight line in opposite directions, one 0.5 m above the other. The result was that the top Crazyflie was almost not affected at all when the other passed under it, just a small jerk. The lower one on the other hand, passed through the turbulence of the top one and this caused it to swing quite a lot, though it managed to more or less continued in the correct direction it was decidedly out of track. As expected, flying above another Crazyflie is not a good idea, at least not too close.

Flying a swarm with the Flow deck

When flying with the Flow deck all navigation is based on dead reckoning from the starting position, is it possible to fly a swarm using this technique? We thought that by putting the Crazyflies in well known starting positions/orientations and feed them trajectories that do not cross (or pass over each other) it should be possible. The start turned out to be critical as the system is a bit shaky at altitudes under 10 cm when the sensors on the Flow deck are not working very well yet. Sometimes the Crazyflie moves slightly during take-off and this can be a showstopper if it rotates a bit for instance, as the trajectory also will be rotated. It worked pretty well in most cases but sometimes a restart was required.

We were inspired by the Crazyswarm from USC and decided to fly 5 Crazyflies with one in the center and the other 4 spinning around it. Note the center Crazyflie turning but staying on the spot. 

Link to video

We used the Swarm class in the python library to control the 5 Crazyflies. The code used to connect to the Crazyflies one by one which takes quite some time, we changed it to a parallel connect while we were at it and got a significant speed up.

The code for the swarm is available as an example in the python library.

It is a lot of fun playing with the Flow deck and scripting flights. I know it might be silly, but we laugh the hardest when we fail and crash, the more spectacular the crash the more happiness!

The Flow breakout

For other robotics projects that don’t use the Crazyflie, remember that the same functionality as the Flow deck delivers soon will be available in the Flow breakout board. It is compatible with Arduino and other hosts.

There have been a few requests from the community for a brushless Crazyflie and we blogged about a prototype we are working on a few weeks ago. The most common reason for wanting brushless motors is to be able to carry more load, in most cases a camera. A camera could be used for FPV flying or open up various image processing use cases like understanding the would around the drone using SLAM. Image processing on-board requires quite a lot of processing power and the CPU in the Crazyflie could not handle that, so more processing power would be required for a scenario like that. It is summer time (with a slight touch of play time) so we wanted to see what we could do with the CF Rzr and if it would be a useful platform for these types of applications. We hope that we might get some insights on the way as well.

We set the goal to try to add a camera, a small “computer”, the Flow deck for assisted flying, FPV capabilities and support for a standard RC controller.

We chose the Raspberry pi zero-w in order to get video processing and video streaming from the quad as well as more computing power. The Raspberry pi zero is not the most powerful board our there but it has a couple of advantage for our prototype:

  • It has a readily available, good quality camera and good software support for it
  • It has an analog video output and hardware streaming support, which means that the quad could be flown FPV using the Raspberry pi camera
  • It has hardware JPEG and H264 encoders that will enable us to save and stream images and videos if we want to

Raspberry pi and camera mounted on the top part of the frame

For assisted flight and improved stability, the XY-part of the Flow deck works fine outdoors but the laser height sensor on the deck has a maximum limit of 1-2 meters, and further more it does not go well with direct sunlight. We decided to add an ultrasound sonar distance sensor to measure the height instead. The ultrasound sonar connects via I2C and was simply soldered to a breakout deck that plugs into the CF Rzr.

Crazyflie Rzr with ultrasonic sonar, breakout deck and flow deck mounted on the lower part of the frame

The first step is to see if we can physically fit everything on the frame. With some 3D printed mounts for the camera and the Raspberry pi, we think it starts to look pretty good. Next step will be to squeeze in the FPV video transmitter board, the RC receiver board and finally connect everything together.

The current setup with everything mounted

We are far from done but it is a good start, and it is fun.

We exhibited at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore a couple of weeks ago.

We had a booth where we demoed autonomous flight with the Crazyflie 2.0 and the Loco Positioning system, without any external computer in the loop. The core of the demo was that the Crazyflie had an onboard trajectory sequencer that enabled it to fly autonomously along a path, based on the position from the Loco Positioning system.

We had a pre programmed path that we used most of the time, since it enabled us to start the demo and the leave the Crazyflie without any further manual interference from our side (except changing battery). The other option was to manually record a path for the Crayzflie to retrace by moving it around in the flying space. When we dropped it (detecting zero gravity) the onboard sequencer and controller took over to replay the recorded path. This mode was very useful when showing the accuracy and performance of the system by recording a short sequence of one point and just leaving the Crazyflie to hover. We had mounted a deck with two buttons on the Crazyflie that we used to chose which mode to use.

The code used for the demo is available at github for anyone to play with.

Optical flow

We also showed our brand new Flow deck that we will release soon. It is a deck that is mounted underneath the Crazyflie with a downwards facing optical flow sensor. The sensor is in essence what is used in an optical mouse but with a different lens that enables it to track motion further away. The output from the deck is delta X and Y for the motion of the Crazyflie and can be used by the onboard controller to control the position. We will publish more information in this blog soon.

We had a great time talking to all you interesting, bright and awesome people. Thanks for all feedback, sharing ideas and telling us about your projects!

We are going to the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation in Singapore. The exhibition is open Tuesday May 30 to Thursday June 1 and we will have a booth, number C08, where we will show demos and discuss our work, positioning technologies and quadcopters.

We have not finalized our demos yet but they will include autonomous flight with the Crazyflie and the Loco Positioning system. We also hope to show our brand new optical flow expansion deck that will enable positioning and autonomous flight when on a tight budget. We also plan to show integration with external computers running ROS or our own python library. If we are lucky there might even be a small swarm, even though the space is very limited.

We love to talk to people that are using our products or just interested in our technology, if you are at the conference please drop by and say hi and tell us what you are working on. We will arrive in Singapore on Saturday morning May 27, and if you want to hook up and say hi and have a coffee during the weekend, drop us an email.

See you in Singapore!

Early on when we started to work on the Loco Positioning system, we came up with an idea of a Crazyflie autonomously flying into a light box, positioning it self for a few product pictures and then flying out again. The positioning system is now pretty mature and close to leave Early Access and this Friday we finally got around to do it. In this blog post we will share what we did and it also doubles as a brief howto on how to set up the system and fly a simple autonomous sequence.

We used a Crazyflie with a Loco Positioning Deck and eight Loco Positioning Anchors in our setup. Six anchors would have been fine too, but we happened to have eight in our flight lab.

When working with the Loco Positioning system the first step is always to make sure the anchors are set up correctly. We had an experimental version of the anchor firmware so we started out by pulling down the latest stock version of the source code and compiled it into a .dfu file. After that we fired up the brand new lps-tool that is used to flash firmware and configure the anchors. The anchors must be connected with a USB cable to the computer but the lps-tool reduces the flashing and configuration into a few clicks. When all anchors were updated we were ready for the next step.

The positions of the anchors are stored in the anchors them selves and the position is transmitted to the Crazyflie as a part of the ultra wide band messages used for measuring the ranges to the anchors. This way, the Crazyflie gets both anchor positions and ranges in the same process and has all the information needed to calculate its position. The second step is thus to store the positions in the anchors. In our “flight lab” we have fixed mounts for the anchors with known positions, so we could skip measuring the physical positions of the anchors.

We are working on making it possible to remotely configure the anchors to reduce the need to physically connect to them, and the position can now be set from the Crazyflie Client. We simply opened the “Loco Positioning” tab in the client, connected to a Crazyflie (with a Loco Positioning deck mounted), entered the anchor positions and hit the “Write to anchors” button. A few seconds later the anchor positions in the graphs were updated to indicate that the positions have been written to the anchors and then subsequently sent back through the ultra wide band messages to the Crazyflie.

Step three is to verify that the system is working as expected. First thing is to check that we did not mix the anchors up when configuring or placing them. In the “Loco Position” tab in the client, click the “Anchor Identification” button. In this mode anchors are lit up in the graphs when the Crazyflie gets close to them in the physical world. We went from anchor to anchor with the Crazyflie and checked that the correct anchor lit up on the screen. When confident that all was good we changed to “Position estimate” mode and verified that the estimated position matches the physical position of the Crazyflie. We have found that it can be very hard to understand, for instance that two anchors have been mixed up, by looking at the estimated position and that the “Anchor Identification” step simplifies the setup.

At this point we had a fully functioning Loco Positioning system ready for autonomous flight!

Now it was time to script a sequence. The easiest way to script a sequence is to start from the autonomousSequence.py example. Our intern Alfred took over at this point, he updated the uri to the correct settings and crafted a sequence to take off, fly into the light box, wait a while and then fly back out for a stylish landing in his hand!

Now we were ready for the actual photo shoot and Björn came down with the camera to shoot the product pictures. We hope you enjoy the results!