Author: Marcus

During the last year we, like many others, have had to deal with new challenges. Some of them have been personal while some have been work related. Although it’s been a challenge for us to distribute the team, we’ve tried to refocus our work in order to keep making progress with our products.

Our users have of course had challenges of their own. Having a large user-base in academia, we’ve seen users having restricted physical access to hardware and purchasing procedures becoming complex. Some users have solved this by moving the lab to their homes using the Lighthouse positioning or the Loco positioning systems. Others have been able to stay in their labs and classrooms although under different circumstances.

At Bitcraze we have been able to overcome the challenges we’ve faced so far, largely thanks to a strong and motivated team, but now it seems as if one of our biggest challenges might be ahead of us.

Semiconductor sourcing issues

Starting early this year lead-times for some components increased and there were indication that this might become a problem. This has been an issue for other parts like GPUs and CPUs for a while, but not for the semiconductors we use. Unfortunately sourcing of components now has become an issue for us as well. As far as we understand the problems have been caused by an unforeseen demand from the automotive industry combined with a few random events where the production capacity of certain parts has decreased. Together it has created a global semiconductor shortage with large effects on the supply chain.

For us it started with the LPS Node where the components suddenly cost twice as much as normally. The MCU and pressure sensor were mainly to blame, incurring huge price increases. Since these parts were out of stock in all the normal distributor channels, the only way to find them was on the open market. Here price is set by supply and demand, where supply is now low and demand very high. Prices fluctuate day by day, sometimes there’s very large swings and it’s very hard to predict what will happen. To mitigate this for the LPS Node we started looking for an alternative MCU, as the STM32F072 was responsible for most of the increase (600% price increase). Since stock of the LPS Node was getting low we needed a quick solution and found the pin-compatible STM32L422 instead, where supply and price was good through normal channels. The work with porting code started, but after a few weeks we got word that importing this part to China was blocked. So after a dead end we’re back to the original MCU, with a few weeks of lead-time lost and a very high production price.

Unfortunately this problem is not isolated to the LPS Node, the next issue we’re facing is the production of the Crazyflie 2.1 where the STM32F405, BMI088, BMP388 and nRF51822 are all affected with increases between 100 and 400 % in price. These components are central parts of the Crazyflie and they can not easily be switch to other alternatives. Even if they could, a re-design takes a long time and it’s not certain that the new parts are still available for a reasonable price at that time.

Aside from the huge price increases in the open market we’re also seeing price increases in official distributor channels. With all of this weighed together, we expecting this will be an issue for most of our products in the near future.

Planning ahead

An even bigger worry than the price increase is the risk of not being able to source these components at all for upcoming batches. Having no stock to sell would be really bad for Bitcraze as a business and of course also really bad for our customers that rely on our products for doing their research and classroom teaching.

To mitigate the risk of increasing price and not being able to source components in the near future, we’re now forced to stock up on parts. Currently we are securing these key components to cover production until early next year, hoping that this situation will have improved until then.

Updated product prices

Normally we keep a stable price for a product once it has been released. For example the LPS Node is the same price now as it was in 2016 when it was released, even though we’ve improved the functionality of the product a lot. We only adjust prices for hardware updates, like when the Crazyflie 2.0 was upgraded to Crazyflie 2.1. But to mitigate the current situation we will have to side-step this approach.

In order for us to be able to continue developing even better products and to support those of you that already use the Crazyflie ecosystem, we need to keep a reasonable margin. From the 1st of May we will be adjusting prices across our catalog, increasing them with 10-15%. Although this doesn’t reflect the changes we are seeing in production prices at the moment, we believe the most drastic increases are temporary while the more moderate ones will probably stick as we move forward.

Even though times are a bit turbulent now, we hope the situation will settle down soon and we think the actions we are taking now will allow us to focus on evolving our platform for the future.

As many European countries, Sweden is now suffering the effects of the second COVID-19 wave. In line with current local restrictions we’re limiting the number of people at our office, which for us means no external guests and only a few people at a time. Although for customers there won’t be any difference since we’re still keeping our regular shipping (1-2 days after placing the order).

Stock levels

During the next couple of weeks we’re going to be short on some of our products, specifically the Swarm bundle, Loco Positioning deck and AI deck. We’re working hard to get them back into stock, and they are scheduled to arrive first weeks of December.

Lighthouse progress

Lately we have been working on finalizing the support for two lighthouse base stations (V1 as well as V2) in the firmware and python lib, which means that we are messing around with large portions of the lighthouse code. As some of you may have noticed it also means that the code base is unstable from time to time. It is likely that it will take a couple of more weeks before it settles down and it might be a good idea to avoid the latest commit if you are looking for a fully working and documented system. Hopefully we will have a good base for future releases and functionality when we are done.

The latest official stable release is 2020.09 and this is also what we recommend for now.

Back in 2014 a friend of ours dropped by our office to chat a bit about how things were going for Bitcraze. During the conversation we got a few questions that we should have been able to answer, but we couldn’t. Things like “How many Crazyflies have you sold?” and “To which countries do you mostly sell?”. We realized that we need some way of keeping track of things like this. Since I was mostly handling economics and admin, and also like developing things, this became the start of our internal “do a bit of everything” system.

At this point in time we were only selling our products though Seeedstudio, so the system was mostly used to keep track of the stock levels there. But as things at Bitcraze started to change, so did the system. Later that year our Crazyflie 2.0 was heading into production and we wanted a better way to keep track of production, so we modified the production scripts to upload the production test results to our servers. Now we had production stats and could trace returns from the field trough production using serial numbers.

Fast forward to 2016 and we’ve decided to start selling our products in our own E-store. We found a 3PL partner in Hong Kong to do our packaging and shipping. It was a big step for us and something we really liked since we got direct contact with our customers. But the amount of work quickly started to increase. Our main issue was that some customers were not keeping track of their shipments and the shipments would end up sitting in customs awaiting questions from the customers and would eventually be returned to us, and this was a big hassle. So the tracking of orders were added to our internal system, now it would keep track of the shipment progress and warn us if there were any issues.

Apart from the E-store we also had orders though our invoicing software. In order for us to get a unified picture of what was happening our internal system started to merge information from the different systems: our E-store, invoicing software and Seeedstudio.

At this point the system had grown so much that the architecture was a bit out of hand and we re-wrote the system from scratch to be able to handle more changing requirements. In hindsight was a good decision, since the next big change change was around the corner. In 2018 everything was running smoothly but our 3PL partner was suddenly moving the warehouse from Hong Kong to Shenzhen (blog post), something that was supposed to take a week and run smoothly. Unfortunately the move was everything else than smooth and after battling for months trying to get the operation back up again, we finally pulled the breaks and started to re-route newly produced units to our office in Sweden instead.

Now we had an office full of products and an E-store were things were being sold. But we didn’t have any solution for actually taking the orders and shipping them. At first we were booking everything manually, but as order counts increased this quickly became a problem. We looked at a few solutions but didn’t find anything that matched well for integrating all our systems. So our internal system once again got expanded to handle the warehouse part, print packing lists, book shipments and print labels (blog post).

As time passes (and more challenges pop up) we’ve been adding more and more functionality and have been able to quickly adapt to what’s been happening. While developing the system over the years, my overall goal has been to automate as much as possible of the admin/logistics in order to keep the workload the same even though sales increase. So far this has been successful!

Today we use this system for a wide range of administration, logistics and production tasks. Below is a list of some of the things it handles:

  • E-store and sales
    • Live shipping quotes during checkout
    • Requesting order quotes from the basket
    • It handles all of the accounting from the E-store
    • GMail plugin for easily accessing information
  • Logistics
    • Warehouse functionality (stock, incoming products etc)
    • Printing picking/packaging lists
    • Warnings for shipments that are stuck or lost
    • Booking and printing of shipping labels
  • Manufacturing
    • Keep track of all tested units with all data from the tests
    • Production planning and warning if things will run out of stock
  • Analytics
    • Various harmonized business analytics from our different sales systems
    • Harmonized data that is used for various analysis
  • Reminds us about various things like unpaid invoices

So have we made back the time we spent building the system? Probably not, but we will. There’s a lot of good solutions for similar systems out there, but the decision to make our own system came from not finding a solution where all our pieces fit. In order to minimize the work I’ve tried to use various external services to speed up development. In the end the list of systems that are used together is quite long:

  • Our production test software
  • Shopify (E-store SaaS)
  • Fortnox (Bookkeeping, invoicing and quoting SaaS)
  • Easypost (shipping API)
  • Riksbanken (for exchange rates)
  • Our printing station software for label/document printers
  • Slack for notifying us about various issues
  • Sendgrid for sending emails
  • Mondido (our payment gateway)
  • Google docs
  • Seeedstudio

We have been traveling a lot this Autumn and have been talking to many Crazyflie users. It is always great to talk to our users and to get feedback about how what we make is being used.

The Swarm bundle

One particular subject that stood out was the Loco positioning system (LPS): the LSP seems to be used by a lot of people and we have gotten quite some feedback about it, some are about things that work but also some things that could be improved. This is interesting because we normally do not get that much feedback from people using the LPS.

We released the LPS about 2.5 years ago with Two-Way-Ranging single Crazyflie support, and it has been improved regularly since then among other things by adding 2 TDoA modes that supports multiple Crazyflies as well as releasing the Roadrunner board, a standalone LPS tag.

If you are using the LPS, it would be great to have some feedback about what you are using it for, what works, what does not work and (even better ;) if you have any improvement that can be pushed to the community. Do not hesitate to post in this blog post, on the forum or by posting issues or pull request in the LPS-node or Crazyflie-firmware github projects.

Many of our users are flying larger and larger swarms and we’ve been getting some feedback that there’s communication issues when connecting to many Crazyflies. So during the last weeks we’ve been looking at this. Among the things we’re doing is building a test rig where we can automate the communication testing (last weeks blog post). We’ve also fixed a few communication issues listed below.

One of the issues causing problems is dropping packages coming in to the Crazyflie. If the flow of packages was too high to one CRTP port these would start dropping. This has now been fixed by increasing the length of the queues for each port. (GitHub issue)

Another issues has been logging data piling up after disconnect. The detection for the radio disconnection was boken so logging data would continue to be generated and pushed into the communication stack. This has now been fixed so logging will be reset which should clear up he congestion on the next connect. (GitHub issue)

Lastly we also fixed the USB communication issue with dropped packages and crashing when the USB was disconnected. (GitHub issue)

We’ve already noticed a few other issues when using the rig so there should be more fixes coming soon. In the meantime test out the new firmware and let us know if there’s still issues.

We’re happy to announce that the Multiranger and the STEM ranging bundle are now available! The Multiranger deck gives lots of exciting new possibilities when it comes to navigation and classroom activities. One of the features is that you can work with the Crazyflie more without getting into the hardcore control algorithms. Some ideas we’ve had are:

  • Working on algorithms for autonomously driving obstacle courses
  • Scanning rooms and environments and mapping them out (like below)
  • Creating fun applications like airhocky or ping ping where you can play around with the Crazyflie

We’re still working on a nice video for presenting the product (like the STEM bundle video) but until it’s finished here’s a screenshot of using the STEM ranging bundle to map out a small course.

If you want to try out some of the Multiranger deck demos they are available in the example directory of the crazyflie-lib-python project (note they require the Flow deck as well):

  • multiranger_push.py: When the application in launched the Crazyflie will take off and hover. If anything is getting close to the right/left/front/back sensors the Crazyflie will move in the opposite direction. 
  • multiranger_pointcloud.py: When the application is launched the Crazyflie will take off, hover and a 3D-plot will be shown of what is detected by the Multiranger deck sensors. By default the left/right/front/back/up sensors will be plotted, but you can also add the Crazyflie position and the down sensor if you like. The Crazyflie can be moved around by using the arrow keys on the keyboard and w/s for up/down and a/d for rotating CCW/CW. For more info see the documentation in the example.

If you have any other ideas that might be cool to try, make sure to leave them in the comments below!

During the fall there’s been a lot of things going on in production. Like we wrote a couple of weeks ago we’re releasing lots of new hardware during the fall and in the meantime we’re of course continuing to manufacture batches of the previous products. Unfortunately things don’t always run smoothly as one would hope. We’ve hit a few bumps in the road and we wanted to share the latest status so you know what’s going on. As always the times stated below are our current best estimate, but we’re expecting the current issues to be sorted out within a couple of weeks.

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash

Crazyflie 2.0 / Battery charger kits (with battery)

Due to an issue with battery sourcing the last batch has been delayed for some time. This has now finally been solved and a both of these products should be available within a few weeks, and with them the bundles that depend on them (like the Swarm bundle).

Flow deck v2

Shortly after shipping the first units customers noticed issues due to the deck connector not fully connecting all the pins. After investigating this with our manufacturer we’ve found the source of the problem: The test rig where the final testing is done was actually deforming the metallic connectors inside the female connector on some of the units. Right now the factory is re-working the effected units and as soon as they are finished we will stock the deck again. Unfortunately there’s no update yet to when the re-worked decks will be available, but we’re estimating a couple of weeks. We will contact the customers that have gotten faulty boards shortly and organize a replacement.

Multi-ranger

Finally the multi-ranger deck has been manufactured and is undergoing final testing. The deck should be available within a couple of weeks.

 

 

The last couple of weeks has been really intense since we’ve been busy preparing for IROS. Finally it’s here, and with it we’re releasing a few new products!

We’re excited to announce that during the fall we will be releasing the following new products:

  • Crazyflie 2.1: The Crazyflie 2.0 was released almost 4 years ago now. Over the years there’s been thousands of users and lots of feedback on the product. Most of it great, but there’s been a few things we’ve wanted to fix. Now with the updated 2.1 version we finally have the chance to do it. Here’s a quick list of the updates:
    • Better radio performance and external antenna support: With a new radio power amplifier we’ve improved the link quality and added support for dual antennas (on-board chip antenna and external antenna via u.FL connector)
    • Better power button: We’ve gotten feedback that the power button breaks too easily, so now we’ve replaced with a more solid alternative.
    • Improved battery cable fastening: To avoid weakening of the cables over time they are now run through a cable relief.
    • Improved sensors: To make the flight performance better we’ve switched out the IMU and pressure sensor. The new Crazyflie uses the drone specialized sensor combo BMI088 and BMP388 by Bosch Sensortech.
  • Flow deck v2: The Flow deck has been upgraded with the new ST VL53L1x which increases the range up to 4 meters
  • Z-ranger deck v2: The Z-ranger deck has been upgraded with the new ST VL53L1x which increases the range up to 4 meters
  • Multi-ranger deck: Finally the Multi-ranger deck is currently in production and will be available during the fall!
  • Mocap deck: The motion capture deck with support for easily attaching markers
  • “Roadrunner” (alpha): With TDoA3 to be included in the next firmware release we’re happy to release one of our LPS tags code named “Roadrunner”. The hardware is basically a Crazyflie 2.1 without motors and up to 12V input power.

In the upcoming weeks we’ll post more details about the products and when they will be available, so stay tuned!

We should also mention that we will showing off some awesome prototypes of products that are planned to be released next year, among them:

  • “RZR”: The long awaited Crazyflie + BigQuad stand-alone combo code-named “RZR” is making it’s way into production and we are aiming to release it during the beginning of 2019. Basically it’s a Crazyflie 2.1 where instead of motors you can directly connect ESCs to build bigger quads up to around 0.5kg.
  • Lighthouse deck: Our current prototype is now flying with both Lighthouse 1.0 and 2.0 and the performance is awesome! This is definitely the next product out the door after the list above and we’re aiming at having it available during the spring.
  • Raspberry Pi Zero power deck: This deck allows you to add a Raspberry Pi Zero to the Crazyflie 2.x and the “RZR”.
  • LPS tag: We’ve shown this tag before but now we’ve updated it to use the Crazyflie 2.1 IMU and to have proper mounting holes. We’re getting closer to release and this will hopefully be available during the spring.

During IROS this week we will be showing off all the products above (including the prototypes). So if you want to be one of the first to check them out drop by our booth nr 91.

E-store

Like we’ve mentioned a few times before it’s not always easy shipping batteries. Due to this we’ve unfortunately had to switch off checkouts containing batteries to some countries (like Canada, Australia and India). We’ve finally found a workaround for this, so today we’ve switched from using DHL to using FedEx in our E-store. As a positive side-effect of this most customers will also benefit from lower shipping rates on their orders. As always if there’s any issues with shipping or ordering please let us know and we’ll do our best to sort it out.

Loco node Rev.E

After receiving feedback from some customers that the micro-USB connector on the Loco nodes broke we’ve decided to update the design. So in the coming weeks we will start phasing in the new revision (Rev.E) of the Loco node and phasing out the old one (Rev.D). Aside from the updated micro-USB connector we’ve also connected more spare pins to the expansion connector on the board. For full details on the schematic changes have a look at the the Rev.E schematics over on the wiki. As a side-note it’s worth mentioning that the first batch of Rev.E Loco nodes have a dark blue silkscreen instead of the standard Bitcraze black silkscreen, this will be updated in future batches.

After a couple of chaotic months of warehouse and logistics issues we’re now almost back on track! As noted before we’re now shipping orders from our E-store directly from our office in Sweden and we’ve now restocked all the products (except for old CF1 spare parts which are coming).

One of the few issues we have left to solve is with shipping orders containing batteries to Canada, India and Australia. Unfortunately we’ve had lots of issues so we’ve temporarily had to block orders containing batteries to these countries. So during checkout if you have products containing batteries and the shipping country is one of the above, you will not get any shipping quotes and will therefore be unable to check out. Orders without batteries, like LPS products will pass the checkout just fine. We have found a solution for this and we’re working on implementing it, so bare with us it should soon be fixed!

Photo by frank mckenna on Unsplash