Category: Guest-blogger

Hi!

Since the middle of January, Bitcraze has had two additional guests: us! We, Josefine & Max, are currently doing our master thesis at Bitcraze during our final semester at LTH.

Unfortunately, the pandemic means remote working which could have caused some difficulties with hardware and equipment accessibility. Fortunately, for us, our goal with the thesis is to emulate the Crazyflie 2.1 hardware in the open source software Renode. We can therefore do the work at home.

Since this is the first time either of us have tried to emulate hardware it is exciting to see if it will even be possible, especially as we do not know what limitations Renode might have. Thus far, four weeks in, there have been some hiccups and crashes but also progress and success. One example was when we got the USART up and running and it became possible to start printing debug messages and another was when the LED lights were connected and it was possible to see when they were turned on and off. 

Example of output from partially implemented hardware.

If all goes well, the emulated hardware could be used as a part of the CI pipeline to automatically hunt for bugs. Academically, it would be used to further study testing methods of control firmware.

Getting a glimpse into the workings at Bitcraze and the lovely people working here has been most interesting and we are looking forward to the time ahead. Until next time, hopefully with a working emulation, Josefine & Max.

This week we have a guest blog post from CollMot about their work to integrate the Crazyflie with Skybrush. We are happy that they have used the app API that we wrote about a couple of weeks ago, to implement the required firmware extensions!


Bitcraze and CollMot have joined forces to release an indoor drone show management solution using CollMot’s new Skybrush software and Crazyflie firmware and hardware.

CollMot is a drone show provider company from Hungary, founded by a team of researchers with a decade-long expertise in drone swarm science. CollMot offers outdoor drone shows since 2015. Our new product, Skybrush allows users to handle their own fleet-level drone missions and specifically drone shows as smoothly as possible. In joint development with the Bitcraze team we are very excited to extend Skybrush to support indoor drone shows and other fleet missions using the Crazyflie system.

The basic swarm-induced mindset with which we are targeting the integration process is scalability. This includes scalability of communication, error handling, reliability and logistics. Each of these aspects are detailed below through some examples of the challenges we needed to solve together. We hope that besides having an application-specific extension of Crazyflie for entertainment purposes, the base system has also gained many new features during this great cooperative process. But lets dig into the tech details a bit more…

UWB in large spaces with many drones

We have set up a relatively large area (10x20x6 m) with the Loco Positioning System using 8 anchors in a more or less cubic arrangement. Using TWR mode for swarms was out of question as it needs each tag (drone) to communicate with the anchors individually, which is not scalable with fleet size. Initial tests with the UWB system in TDoA2 mode were not very satisfying in terms of accuracy and reliability but as we went deeper into the details we could find out the two main reasons of inaccuracies:

  1. Two of the anchors have been positioned on the vertical flat faces of some stairs with solid material connection between them that caused many reflections so the relative distance measurements between these two anchors was bi-stable. When we realized that, we raised them a bit and attached them to columns that had an air gap in between, which solved the reflection issue.
  2. The outlier filter of the TDoA2 mode was not optimal, a single bad packet generated consecutive outliers that opened up the filter too fast. This issue have been solved since then in the Crazyflie firmware after our long-lasting painful investigation with changing a single number from 2 to 3. This is how a reward system works in software development :)

After all, UWB was doing its job quite nicely in both TDoA2 and TDoA3 modes with an accuracy in the 10-20 cm level stably in such a large area, so we could move on to tune the controller of the Crazyflie 2.1 a bit.

Crazyflies with Loco and LED decks

As we prepared the Crazyflie drones for shows, we had the Loco deck attached on top and the LED deck attached to the bottom of the drones, with an extra light bulb to spread light smoothly. This setup resulted in a total weight of 37g. The basic challenge with the controller was that this weight turned out to be too much for the Crazyflie 2.1 system. Hover was at around 60-70% throttle in average, furthermore, there was a substantial difference in the throttle levels needed for individual motors (some in the 70-80% range). The tiny drones did a great job in horizontal motion but as soon as they needed to go up or down with vertical speed above around 0.5 m/s, one of their ESCs saturated and thus the system became unstable and crashed. Interestingly enough, the crash always started with a wobble exactly along the X axis, leading us to think that there was an issue with the positioning system instead of the ESCs. There are two possible solutions for this major problem:

  1. use less payload, i.e. lighter drones
  2. use stronger motors

Partially as a consequence of these experiments the Bitcraze team is now experimenting with new stronger models that will be optimized for show use cases as well. We can’t wait to test them!

Optimal controller for high speeds and accurate trajectory following

In general we are not yet very satisfied with any of the implemented controllers using the UWB system for a show use-case. This use-case is special as trajectory following needs to be as accurate as possible both in space and time to avoid collisions and to result in nice synchronized formations, while maximal speed both horizontally and vertically have to be as high as possible to increase the wow-effect of the audience.

  • The PID controller has no cutoffs in its outputs and with the sometimes present large positioning errors in the UWB system controller outputs get way too large. If gains are reduced, motion will be sluggish and path is not followed accurately in time.
  • The Mellinger and INDI controllers work well only with positioning systems of much better accuracy.

We stuck with the PID controller so far and added velocity feed forward terms, cutoffs in the output and some nonlinearity in case of large errors and it helped a bit, but the solution is not fully satisfying. Hopefully, these modifications might be included in the main firmware soon. However, having a perfect controller with UWB is still an open question, any suggestions are welcome!

Show specific improvements in the firmware

We implemented code that uploads the show content to the drones smoothly, performs automatic preflight checking and displays status with the LED deck to have visual feedback on many drones simultaneously, starts the show on time in synchrony with all swarm members and handles the light program and show trajectory execution of the show.

These modifications are now in our own fork of the Crazyflie firmware and will be rewritten soon into a show app thanks to this new promising possibility in the code framework. As soon as Skybrush and Crazyflie systems will be stable enough to be released together, we will publish the related app code that helps automating show logistics for every user.

Summary

To sum it up, we are very enthusiastic about the Crazyflie system and the great team behind the scenes with very friendly, open and cooperative support. The current stage of Crazyflie + Skybrush integration is as follows:

  • New hardware iterations based on the Bolt system that support longer and more dynamic flights are coming;
  • a very stable, UWB-compatible controller is still an open question but current possibilities are satisfying for initial tests with light flight dynamics;
  • a new Crazyflie app for the drone show case is basically ready to be launched together with the release of Skybrush in the near future.

If you are interested in Skybrush or have any questions related to this integration process, drop us an email or comment below.

This week we have a guest blog post from Bárbara Barros Carlos, PhD candidate at DIAG Robotics Lab. Enjoy!

Quadrotors are characterized by their underactuation, nonlinearities, bounded inputs, and, in some cases, communication time-delays. The development of their maneuvering capability poses some challenges that cover dynamics modeling, state estimation, trajectory generation, and control. The latter, in particular, must be able to exploit the system’s nonlinear dynamics to generate complex motions. However, the presence of communication time-delay is known to highly degrade control performance.

A composite image showing our real-time NMPC with time-delay
compensation being used on the Crazyflie during the tracking of
a helical trajectory.

In our recent work, we present an efficient position control architecture based on real-time nonlinear model predictive control (NMPC) with time-delay compensation for quadrotors. Given the current measurement, the state is predicted over the delay time interval using an integrator and then passed to the NMPC, which takes into account the input bounds. We demonstrate the capabilities of our architecture using the Crazyflie 2.1 nano-quadrotor.

Time-Delay Compensation

In our aerial system, because of the radio communication latency, we have delays both in receiving measurements and sending control inputs. Likewise, since we intend to use NMPC, the potentially high computational burden associated with its solution becomes an element that must also be taken into account to minimize the error in the state prediction.

Crazyflie NMPC response without
considering the time-delay compensation.

To tackle this issue, we use a state predictor based on the round-trip time (RTT) associated with the sum of network latencies as a delay compensator. The prediction is computed by performing forward iterations of the system dynamic model, starting from the current measured state and over the RTT, through an explicit Runge Kutta 4th order (ERK4) integrator. Due to the independent nature of this operation, perfect delay compensation can be achieved by adjusting the integration step to be equal to the RTT. Thus, it is assumed that there is a fixed RTT, defined by τr, to be compensated.

Nonlinear Model Predictive Control

The NMPC controller is defined as the following constrained nonlinear program (NLP):

Therein, p denotes the inertial position, q the attitude in unit quaternions, vb the linear velocity expressed in the body frame, ω the angular rate, and Ωi the rotational speed of the ith propeller. The NLP is tailored to the Crazyflie 2.1 and is implemented using the high-performance software package acados, which solves optimal control problems and implements a real-time iteration (RTI) variant of a sequential quadratic programming (SQP) scheme with Gauss-Newton Hessian approximation. The quadratic subproblems (QP) arising in the SQP scheme are solved with HPIPM, an interior-point method solver, built on top of the linear algebra library BLASFEO, finely tuned for multiple CPU architectures. We use a recently proposed Hessian condensing algorithm particularly suitable for partial condensing to further speed-up solution times.

When designing an NMPC, choosing the horizon length has profound implications for computational burden and tracking performance. For the former, the longer the horizon, the higher the computational burden. As for the latter, in principle, a long prediction horizon tends to improve the overall performance of the controller. In order to select this parameter and achieve a trade-off between performance and computational burden, we implemented the NLP in acados considering: five horizon lengths (N = {10,20,30,40,50}), input bounds on the rotational speed of the propellers (lower bound = 0, upper bound = 22 krpm), discretizing the dynamics using an ERK4 integration scheme. Likewise, we compare the condensing approach with the state-of-the-art solver qpOASES against the partial condensing approach with HPIPM, concerning the set of horizons regarded.

Left: closed-loop trajectories comparing different horizon lengths.
Right: average runtimes per SQP-iteration
for different horizon lengths considering two distinct QP solvers.

As qpOASES is a solver based on active-set method, it requires condensing to be computationally efficient. In line with the observations found in the literature that condensing is effective for short to medium horizon lengths, we note that qpOASES is competitive for horizons up to approximately N = 30 when compared to HPIPM. The break-even point moves higher on the scale for longer horizons, mainly due to efficient software implementations that cover: (a) Hessian condensing procedure tailored for partial condensing, (b) structure-exploiting QP solver based on novel Riccati recursion, (c) hardware-tailored linear algebra library. Therefore, we chose horizon N = 50 as it offers a reasonable trade-off between deviation from the reference trajectory and computational burden.

Onboard Controller Considerations

How the onboard controllers (PIDs) use the setpoints of the offboard controller (NMPC) in our architecture is not entirely conventional and, thereby, deserves some considerations. First, the reference signals that the PID loops track do not fully correspond to the control inputs considered in the NMPC formulation. Instead, part of the state solution is used in conjunction with the control inputs to reconstruct the actual input commands passed as a setpoint to the Crazyflie. Second, a part of the reconstructed input commands is sent as a setpoint to the outer loop (attitude controller), and the other part is sent to the inner loop (rate controller). Furthermore, as the NMPC model does not include the PID loops, it does not truly represent the real system, even in the case of perfect knowledge of the physical parameters. As a consequence, the optimal feedback policy is distorted in the real system by the PIDs. 

Closed-loop Position Control Performance

Our control architecture hinges upon a ROS Kinetic framework and runs at 66.67 Hz. The Crazy RealTime Protocol (CRTP) is used in combination with our crazyflie_nmpc stack to stream in runtime custom packages containing the required data to reconstruct the part of the measurement vector that depends on the IMU data. Likewise, the cortex_ros bridge streams the 3D global position of the Crazyflie, which is then passed through a second-order, discrete-time Butterworth filter to estimate the linear velocities.

To validate the effectiveness of our control architecture, we ran two experiments. For each experiment, we generate a reference trajectory on a base computer and pass it to our NMPC ROS node every τs = 15 ms. When generating the trajectories, we explicitly address the feasibility issue in the design process, creating two references: one feasible and one infeasible. In addressing this issue, we prove through experiments that the performance of the proposed NMPC is not degraded even when the nano-quadrotor attempts to track an infeasible trajectory, which could, in principle, make it deviate significantly or even crash.

Overall, we observe that the most challenging setpoints to be tracked are the positions in which, given a change in the motion, the Crazyflie has to pitch/roll in the opposite direction quickly. These are the setpoints where the distortion has the greatest influence on the system, causing small overshoots in position. The average solution time of the tailored RTI scheme using acados was obtained on an Intel Core i5-8250U @ 3.4 GHz running Ubuntu and is about 7.4 ms. This result shows the efficiency of the proposed scheme.

Outlook

In this work, we presented the design and implementation of a novel position controller based on nonlinear model predictive control for quadrotors. The control architecture incorporates a predictor as a delay compensator for granting a delay-free model in the NMPC formulation, which in turn enforces bounds on the actuators. To validate our architecture, we implemented it on the Crazyflie 2.1 nano-quadrotor. The experiments demonstrate that the efficient RTI-based scheme, exploiting the full nonlinear model, achieves a high-accuracy tracking performance and is fast enough for real-time deployment.

Related Links

This research project was developed by:

Bárbara Barros Carlos1, Tommaso Sartor2, Andrea Zanelli3, and Gianluca Frison3, under the supervision of professors Wolfram Burgard4, Moritz Diehl3 and Giuseppe Oriolo1.

1 B. B. Carlos and G. Oriolo are with the DIAG Robotics Lab, Sapienza University of Rome, Italy.
2 T. Sartor is with the MECO Group, KU Leuven, Belgium.
3 A. Zanelli, G. Frison, and M. Diehl are with the syscop Lab, University of Freiburg, Germany.
4 W. Burgard is with the AIS Lab, University of Freiburg, Germany.

Modular robotics implies in general flexibility and versatility to robots. In theory, you could design a modular robot basically on the way you would want it to be, by simply adding or removing modules from the already existing robot. Changing the robot configuration by adding more individuals, generally increases the system redundancy, meaning that now, there are probably many different ways to achieve a specific goal. From a naive standard point of view, more modules could imply in practice more robustness due to this redundancy. In fact, it does get more robust by the cost of becoming more complex, and probably harder to control. Added to that, other issues may arise when you take into account that your modular robot is flying, and how physical properties and actuation scales as the number of modules grow.

In the GRASP Laboratory at the University of Pennsylvania, one of our focuses is to allow robots to achieve a specific task. In this work, we present ModQuad-DoF, which is a modular flying platform that enlarges the configuration space of modular flying structures based on quadrotors (crazyflies), by applying a new yaw actuation method that relies on the desired roll angles of each flying vehicle. This research project is coordinated by Professor Mark Yim , and led by Bruno Gabrich (PhD candidate).

Scaling Modular Robots

Scaling modular robots is a very challenging problem that usually limits the benefits of modularity. The sum of the performance metrics (speed, torque, precision etc.) from each module usually does not scale at the same rate as the conglomerate physical properties. In particular, for ModQuad, saturation from individual motors would increase as the structures became larger leading to failure and instability. When conglomerate systems scale up in the number of modules, the moment of inertia of the conglomerate often grows faster than the increase in thrust capability for each module. For example, the increase in the moment of inertia for a fifth module added to four modules in a line can be approximated by the mass of the module times half the distance to the center squared. This quadratic increase gives us the intuition that the required yaw actuation grows faster than the actuation authority.

Yaw Actuation

An inherit characteristic of quadrotors is to have their yaw controlled by the drag moments from each propeller. For ModQuad as more modules are docked together, a decreased controllability in yaw is noticed as the structure becomes larger. In a line configuration the structure’s inertia grows quadratically with the distance of each module to the structure center of mass. On the other hand the drag moments produced scales linearly with the number of modules.

The new yaw actuation method relies on the fact that each quadrotor is capable to generate an individual roll enabled by our new cage design. By working in coordinated manner, each crazyflie can then generate structure moments from moment arms provided by the propellers given its roll and its distance from the structure’s center of mass.

Cage Design

The Crazyflie 2.0 is the chosen platform to enable thrust and attitude to the individual modules. The flying vehicle measures 92×92×29 mm and weights 27 g while its battery lasts around 4 minutes for the novel design proposed. In this work the cage performs as pendulum relative to the flying vehicle. The quadrotor is joined to the cage through a one DOF joint. The cages are made of light-weight materials: ABS for the 3-D printed connectors and joints, and carbon fiber for the rods.

Although the flying vehicle does not necessarily share same orientation as the cage, the multiple connected cages do preserve same orientation relative to each other. With the purpose of allowing such behavior, we used Neodymium Iron Boron (NdFeB) magnets as passive actuators to enable rigid cage connections. Docking is only allowed at the back and front face of the modules, and each one of these faces contains four magnets. Those passive actuators have dimensions of 6.35 × 6.35 × 0.79 mm with a bonding force of 1 kg.

Structure Flying Performance

Conclusions

ModQuad-DoF is a flying modular robotic structure whose yaw actuation scales with increased numbers of modules. ModQuad-DoF has a one DOF jointed cage design and a novel control method for the flying structure. Our new yaw actuation method was validated conducting experiments for hovering conditions. We were able to perform two, four and, six modules cooperatively flying in a line with yaw controllability and reduced loss in thrust. In future work we aim to explore the structure controllability with more robots in a line configuration, and exploring different solutions for the desired roll angles. Possibly, with more modules in the structure, only a few would be required to roll in order to maintain a desired structure yaw. Given that, we could explore the control allocation for each  module in a specific structure configuration, and dependent on its desired behavior. Further, structures that are not constrained to a line will also be tested using the basis of the controller proposed in this work.

Detailed Video Explanation (ICRA 2020)

This work was developed by:

Bruno Gabrich, Guanrui li, and Mark Yim

Additional resources at:

https://www.modlabupenn.org/
https://www.grasp.upenn.edu/

Autonomous Robotics at UW Seattle

Our team’s Crazyflie quadcopter was equipped with Bitcraze’s Optic Flow deck and Multi-ranger deck. A BH-1750 light intensity sensor was soldered to a Bitcraze Prototype deck to complete our hardware.

The Crazyflie 2.1 was the perfect robotics platform for an introduction to autonomous robotics at the University of Washington winter quarter 2020. Our Bio-inspired Robotics graduate course completed a series of Crazyflie projects throughout the 10 weeks that built our skills in:

  • Python
  • Robot Operating System (ROS)
  • assembling custom sensors
  • writing new drivers
  • designing and testing control algorithms
  • trouble shooting and independent learning

The course was offered by UW Mechanical Engineering’s Autonomous Insect Robotics Laboratory, headed by Dr. Sawyer B. Fuller. The course was supported by PhD candidate Melanie Anderson, who has done fantastic research with her Crazyflie-based Smellicopter. The final project was an opportunity to turn a Crazyflie quadcopter into a bio-inspired autonomous robot. Our three person team of UW robotics grad students included Nishant Elkunchwar, Krishna Balasubramanian, and Jessica Noe.

Light Seeking Run-and-Tumble Algorithm Inspired by Bacterial Chemotaxis

The goal for our team’s Crazyflie was to seek and identify a light source. We chose a run-and-tumble algorithm inspired by bacterial chemotaxis. For a quick explanation of bacterial chemotaxis, please see Andrea Schmidt’s explanation of chemotaxis on Dr. Mehran Kardar’s MIT teaching page. She provides a helpful animation here.

In both bacterial chemotaxis and our run-and-tumble algorithm, there is a body (the bacteria or the robot) that can:

  • move under its own power.
  • detect the magnitude of something in the environment (e.g. chemical put off by a food source or light intensity).
  • determine whether the magnitude is greater or less than it was a short time before.

This method works best if the environment contains a strong gradient from low concentration to high concentration that the bacteria or robot can follow towards a high concentration source.

The details of the run-and-tumble algorithm are shown in a finite state machine diagram below. The simple summary is that the Crazyflie takes off, begins moving forward, and if the light intensity is getting larger it continues to “Run” in the same direction. If the light intensity is getting smaller, it will “Tumble” to a random direction. Additional layers of decision making are included to determine if the Crazyflie must “Avoid Obstacle”, or if the source has been reached and the Crazyflie quadcopter should “Stop”.

Run & Tumble Algorithm
The run-and-tumble algorithm represented as a finite state machine.

Crazyflie Hardware

To implement the run-and-tumble algorithm autonomously on the Crazyflie, we needed a Crazyflie quadcopter and these additional sensors:

The Optic Flow deck was a key sensor in achieving autonomous flight. This sensor package determines the Crazyflie’s height above the surface and tracks its horizontal motion from the starting position along the x-direction and y-direction coordinates. With the Optic Flow installed, the Crazyflie is capable of autonomously maintaining a constant height above the surface. It can also move forward, back, left, and right a set distance or at a set speed. Several other pre-programmed movement behaviors can also be chosen. This Bitcraze blog post has more information on how the Flow deck works and this post by Chuan-en Lin on Nanonets.com provides more in-depth information if you would like to read more.

The Bitcraze Multi-ranger deck provided the sensor data for obstacle avoidance. The Multi-ranger detects the distance from the Crazyflie to the nearest object in five directions: forward, backward, right, left, and above. Our threshold to trigger the “Avoid Obstacle” behavior is detecting an obstacle within 0.5 meters of the Crazyflie quadcopter.

The Prototype deck was a quick, simple way to connect the BH-1750 light intensity sensor to the pins of the Crazyflie to physically integrate the sensor with the quadcopter hardware. This diagram shows how the header positions connect to the rows of pads in the center of the deck. We soldered a header into the center of the deck, then soldered connections between the pads to form continuous connections from our header pin to the correct Crazyflie header pin on the left or right edges of the Prototype deck. The Bitcraze Wiki provides a pin map for the Crazyflie quadcopter and information about the power supply pins. A nice overview of the BH-1750 sensor is found on Components101.com, this shows the pin map and the 4.7 kOhm pull-up resistor that needs to be placed on the I2C line.

It was easy to connect the decks to the Crazyflie because Bitcraze clearly marks “Front”, “Up” and “Down” to help you orient each deck relative to the Crazyflie. See the Bitcraze documentation on expansion decks for more details. Once the decks are properly attached, the Crazyflie can automatically detect that the Flow and Multi-Ranger decks are installed, and all of the built-in functions related to these decks are immediately available for use without reflashing the Crazyflie with updated firmware. (We appreciated this awesome feature!)

Crazyflie Firmware and ROS Control Software

Bitcraze provides a downloadable virtual machine (VM) to help users quickly start developing their own code for the Crazyflie. Our team used a VM that was modified by UW graduate students Melanie Anderson and Joseph Sullivan to make it easier to write ROS control code in the Python coding language to control one or more Crazyflie quadcopters. This was helpful to our team because we were all familiar with Python from previous work. The standard Bitcraze VM is available on Bitcraze’s Github page. The Modified VM constructed by Joseph and Melanie is available through Melanie’s Github page. Available on Joseph’s Github page is the “rospy_crazyflie” code that can be combined with existing installs of ROS and Bitcraze’s Python API if users do not want to use the VM options.

  • “crazyflie-firmware” – a set of files written in C that can be uploaded to the Crazyflie quadcopter to overwrite the default firmware
    • In the Bitcraze VM, this folder is located at “/home/bitcraze/projects/crazyflie-firmware”
    • In the Modified VM, this folder is located at “Home/crazyflie-firmware”
  • “crazyflie-lib-python” (in the Bitcraze VM) or “rospy_crazyflie” (in the Modified VM) – a set of ROS files that allows high-level control of the quadcopter’s actions
    • In the Bitcraze VM, “crazyflie-lib-python” is located at “/home/bitcraze/projects/crazyflie-lib-python”
    • In the Modified VM, navigate to “Home/catkin_ws/src” which contains two main sets of files:
      • “Home/catkin_ws/src/crazyflie-lib-python” – a copy of the Bitcraze “crazyflie-lib-python”
      • “Home/catkin_ws/src/rospy_crazyflie” – the modified version of “crazyflie-lib-python” that includes additional ROS and Python functionality, and example scripts created by Joseph and Melanie

In the Modified VM, we edited the “crazyflie-firmware” files to include code for our light intensity sensor, and we edited “rospy-crazyflie” to add functions to the ROS software that runs on the Crazyflie. Having the VM environment saved our team a huge amount of time and frustration – we did not have to download a basic virtual machine, then update software versions, find libraries, and track down fixes for incompatible software. We could just start writing new code for the Crazyflie.

The Modified VM for the Crazyflie takes advantage of the Robot Operating System (ROS) architecture. The example script provided within the Modified VM helped us quickly become familiar with basic ROS concepts like nodes, topics, message types, publishing, and subscribing. We were able to understand and write our own nodes that published information to different topics and write nodes that subscribed to the topics to receive and use the information to control the Crazyflie.

For more information, see the Bitcraze Development overview.

Updating the crazyflie-firmware

A major challenge of our project was writing a new driver that could be added to the Crazyflie firmware to tell the Crazyflie system that we had connected an additional sensor to the Crazyflie’s I2C bus. Our team referenced open-source Arduino drivers to understand how the BH-1750 connects to an Arduino I2C bus. We also looked at the open-source drivers written by Bitcraze for the Multi-ranger deck to see how it connects to the Crazyflie I2C bus. By looking at all of these open-source examples and studying how to use I2C communication protocols, our team member Nishant Elkunchwar was able to write a driver that allowed the Crazyflie to recognize the BH-1750 signal and convert it to a sensor value to be used within the Crazyflie’s ROS-based operating system. That driver is available on Nishant’s Github. The driver needed to be placed into the appropriate folder: “…\crazyflie-firmware\src\deck\drivers\src”.

The second change to the crazyflie-firmware is to add a “config.mk” file in the folder “…\crazyflie-firmware\tools\make”. Information about the “config.mk” file is available in the Bitcraze documentation on configuring the build.

The final change to the crazyflie-firmware is to update the make file “MakeFile” in the location “…\crazyflie-firmware”. The “MakeFile” changes include adding one line to the section “# Deck API” and two lines to the section “# Decks”. Information about compiling the MakeFile is available in the Bitcraze documentation about flashing the quadcopter.

Making additions to the ROS control architecture

The ROS control architecture includes messages. We needed to define 3 new types of messages for our new ROS control files. In the folder “…\catkin_ws\src\rospy_crazyflie\msg\msg” we added one file for each new message type. We also updated “CMakeLists.txt” to add the name of our message files in the section “add_message_files( )”.

The second part of our ROS control was a set of scripts written in Python. These included our run-and-tumble algorithm control code, publisher scripts, and a plotter script. These are all available in the project’s Github.

Characterizing the Light Sensor

At this point, the light intensity sensor was successfully integrated into the Crazyflie quadcopter. The new code was written and the Crazyflie quadcopter was reflashed with new firmware. We had completed our initial trouble shooting and the next step was to characterize the light intensity in our experimental setup.

Experimental setup for light intensity characterization.

This characterization was done by flying the Crazyflie at a fixed distance above the floor in tightly spaced rows along the x and y horizontal directions. The resulting plot (below) shows that the light intensity increases exponentially as the Crazyflie moves towards the light source.

The light characterization allowed us to determine an intensity threshold that will only happen near the light source. If this threshold is met, the algorithm’s “Stop” action is triggered, and the Crazyflie lands.

Light intensity (units of lux) was experimentally characterized by piloting the Crazyflie in a linear pattern at a constant height above the ground. The resulting plot shows that light intensity is characterized by an exponential roll off in both the x and y directions.

Testing the Run-and-Tumble Algorithm

With the light intensity characterization complete, we were able to test and revise our run-and-tumble algorithm. At each loop of the algorithm, one of the four actions is chosen: “Run”, “Tumble”, “Avoid Obstacle”, or “Stop”. The plot below shows a typical path with the action that was taken at each loop iteration.

Flight Tests of the Run-and-Tumble Algorithm

In final testing, we performed 4 trial runs with 100% success locating the light source. Our test area was approximately 100 square feet, included 1 light source, and 2 obstacles. The average search time was 1:41 seconds.

The “Avoid Obstacle” and “Run” behavior are demonstrated in the above video clip (1.5x actual speed).


The “Run” and “Tumble” actions are demonstrated in the above video clip (2x actual speed). At the end, the “Stop” action is demonstrated when the light intensity reaches the threshold value of 800 lux, indicating that the Crazyflie has found the light source and should land.

Lessons Learned

This was one of the best courses I’ve taken at the University of Washington. It was one of the first classes where a robot could be incorporated, and playing with the Crazyflie was pure fun. Another positive aspect was that the course had the feel of a boot camp for learning how to build, control, test, and improve autonomous robots. This was only possible because Bitcraze’s small, indoor quadcopter with optic flow capability made it possible to safely operate several quadcopters simultaneously in our small classroom as we learned.

This development project was really interesting (aka difficult…) and we went down a few rabbit holes as we tried to level up our knowledge and skills. Our prior experience with Python helped us read the custom example scripts provided in our course for the ROS control program, but we had quite a bit to learn about the ROS architecture before we could write our own control scripts.

Nishant made an extensive study of I2C protocols as he wrote the new driver for the BH-1750 sensor. One of the biggest lessons I learned in this project was that writing drivers to integrate a sensor to a microcontroller is hard. By contrast, using the Bitcraze decks was so easy it almost felt like cheating. (In the nicest way!)

On the hardware side, the one big problem we encountered during development was accidentally breaking the 0.5 mm headers on the Crazyflie quadcopter and the decks. The male headers were not long enough to extend from the Flow deck all the way up through the Prototype deck at the top, so we tried to solder extensions onto the pins. Unfortunately, I did not check the Bitcraze pin width and I just soldered on the pins we all had in our tool kits: the 0.1 inch (2.54 mm) wide pins that we use with our Arduinos and BeagleBones. These too-large-pins damaged the female headers on the decks, and we lost connectivity on those pins. Fortunately, we were able to repair our decks by soldering on replacement female headers from the Bitcraze store. I wish now that the long pin headers were available back then.

In summary, this course was an inspiring experience and helped our team learn a lot in a very short time. After ten weeks working with the Crazyflie, I can strongly recommend the Crazyflie for robotics classes and boot camps.

Links to Project Files

Team’s Research Poster: https://github.com/thecountoftuscany/crazyflie-run-and-tumble/blob/master/documents/Project-Final_Poster.pdf

Github Link courtesy of Nishant Elkunchwar: Crazyflie-Run-and-Tumble

YouTube Links courtesy of Nishant Elkunchwar: Crazyflie locates Light, Simulation of Run and Tumble Algorithm in PyGame

We have a guest blog post this week from Christopher Banks at Georgia Tech, where he tells us about their work with the Robotarium. Enjoy!

Multi-Agent Aerial Robotics

In the GRITS Lab  we focus on autonomous control and coordination of multi-robot systems with applications in – but not limited to – optimal control, constraint-based control, and hardware development. We are home to the Robotarium [1], a remotely accessible swarm robotics testbed that is free for anyone around the world to use for academic and educational purposes. We have integrated Crazyflies into the Robotarium as the main vehicle for aerial robot swarms due to their small size, quiet operation, and high maneuverability . Also, due to their low inertia, they pose minimal harm to their surroundings if system failures occur. Their small size and robust nature are well suited for flying in an indoor testbed like the Robotarium. As we work towards extending the operation of the Crazyflies in the Robotarium to external users, we encountered some important research questions: How do we guarantee the quadcopters remain “safe” (undamaged) while minimizing modifications to user inputs? How do we develop an easy to use interface for external users, with experience ranging from novice to expert? What commands can be used by external users to control a swarm of robots?  This post will briefly describe the ongoing research aimed at solving these questions.

Safety Guarantees

To ensure hardware safety while flying experimental algorithms we have developed Control Barrier Functions (CBFs) for quadcopters, allowing users to give nominal control inputs while obeying some safety constraints for the system (e.g. collision-free trajectory following). In the video below, we give four Crazyflies the commands to fly in a circle. A fifth Crazyflie is then told to fly to waypoints that will intersect the circle and attempt to collide with the circling quadcopters. Using CBFs a central controller can modify the inputs given to Crazyflies near collision to ensure safe velocity commands that are close as possible to the user intended control [2] . These CBFs can also be designed to ensure safety by bounding the quadcopters to a designated region of the testbed, giving additional safety constraints by protecting areas outside of the motion capture system during flights.

Quadcopters execute pre-planned flight trajectories designed to collide and use CBFs to avoid collisions.

User Interfaces

We have also used the Crazyflies to understand how remote users can best interact with the Robotarium both at the interface level and in planning. One project involved studying the effectiveness of graphical user interfaces (GUIs) on swarm robotic control. Two GUIs were developed with different interaction modalities. The GUIs were designed to map user inputs to a set of hoops placed in the Robotarium. One GUI (shown in Fig. 1) provided users the ability to draw paths through a touchscreen interface on a two-dimensional map and then map those inputs to trajectories for a team of robots. The other GUI (illustrated in Fig. 2) allowed users to input a sequence of desired hoops for a team of robots and execute trajectories based on the input.

Figure 1: A GUI that maps hand-drawn paths to inputs for a group of Crazyflies
Figure 2: A GUI that maps the string of indexed hoops as inputs for a group of Crazyflies.

Multi-Agent Planning

In planning, we looked at how multi-agent planning can be approached using high-level specifications. These high-level specifications allow users to develop plans requiring groups of robots to visit regions of interest (see Fig. 3) and trajectories are generated automatically. To represent these specifications, we use a logic formalism known as temporal logic to encode a preferred sequence of plan execution. As an additional step, users could include constraints on the trajectory by minimizing a cost using stochastic sampling. For more details, see the attached video demonstrating task allocation in a fire-fighting scenario.

Figure 3: Using the multi-agent planning framework, users give high-level specifications that plan trajectories for quadcopters to visit regions of interest (hoops) in the Robotarium.
A optimizing task allocation framework that assigns quadcopters a set of tasks based on user specifications.

Future Directions

As we continue to expand the capabilities of the Robotarium we are looking into how to develop long term autonomy for the Crazyflies. This includes autonomous charging as well as remote access for the lab and other users. We hope to use the Lighthouse system as a method for long term tracking since the Crazyflie will know its position instead of relying on passive tracking from a Vicon system. Our plans also include a lab-based simulator for in house projects related to the Crazyflies as well as updating our system to incorporate Crazyswarm to make control of the Crazyflies easier in implementation. In addition to this, in order to accommodate unknown users, we will have to figure out a control scheme that encourages use from a wide variety of users ranging from novices in quadcopter control to experts. We’ll keep Bitcraze updated on the Robotarium’s progression towards fully autonomous aerial swarms!

Links

  1. Robotarium Article: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/8960572
  2. CBFs for Quadcopters: https://ieeexplore.ieee.org/document/7989375

Accurate indoor localization is a crucial enabling technology for many robotic applications, from warehouse management to monitoring tasks. Ultra-wideband (UWB) localization technology, in particular, has been shown to provide robust, high-resolution, and obstacle-penetrating ranging measurements. Nonetheless, UWB measurements are still corrupted by non-line-of-sight (NLOS) communication and spatially-varying biases due to doughnut-shaped antenna radiation pattern. In our recent work, we present a lightweight, two-step measurement correction method to improve the performance of both TWR and TDoA-based UWB localization.  We integrate our method into the Extended Kalman Filter (EKF) onboard a Crazyflie and demonstrate a closed-loop position estimation performance with ~20cm root-mean-square (RMS) error.

A stylized depiction of our UWB indoor localization system and the schematics of the proposed estimation framework.

Methodology

UWB measurement errors can be separated into two groups: (1) systematic bias caused by limitations in the UWB antenna pattern and (2) spurious measurements due to NLOS and multi-path propagation. We propose a two-step UWB bias correction approach exploiting machine learning (to address(1)) and statistical testing (to address (2)). The data-driven nature of our approach makes it agnostic to the origin of the measurement errors it corrects. 

(1) Neural Network Bias Correction

The doughnut-shaped antenna radiation pattern causes the relative poses of anchors and tags to have a noticeable impact on the received signal power, which leads to systematic, predictable biases.  To empirically demonstrate the systematic measurement errors resulting from varying the relative pose between anchors and tags, we placed two DWM1000 UWB anchors at a distance of 4m and collected both TWR and TDoA UWB range measurements for the UWB tag mounted on top of a Crazyflie spinning around its own z-axis.

Left: schematics of the ranges (∆p’s), azimuth (α’s) and elevation angles (β’s) defining the relative poses of tag T and anchors A0, A1 when collecting the systematic bias measurements. Right: the neural network’s inferred bias (in red) with respect to the tag’s varying azimuth angle towards anchor T0, αT0, plotted against the UWB raw measurements.

We choose to leverage the nonlinear representation power of neural networks to learn the systematic bias which only depends on anchor-tag relative poses. Considering the limited onboard computation power, we select a fully connected neural network with 50 neurons in each of two layers with ReLU activation. To represent the relative pose between the UWB tag and anchors, we select the relative distance ∆p and roll, pitch, and yaw angles of the quadcopter as the input features x for the network. As we used fixed anchors, we do not include their poses as inputs (this level of generalization is left for future work). Given sufficient training data, the spatially-varying measurement bias can be described by a nonlinear function b=f(x) captured by the trained neural network.

(2) Outlier (Spurious Measurements) Rejection

Besides our learning-based bias correction, we use a quadcopter’s dynamic model to filter inconsistent UWB range measurements. Given the estimated velocity v and maximum acceleration amax, we can compute the maximum distance dmax a quadcopter can cover during time ∆t. Based on this information, we can reject unattainable measurements before fusing them into the EKF by comparing the measurement innovation with dmax

Moreover, we use a statistical hypothesis test to further classify potential outlier measurements. Since the measurement innovation vector is assumed to be distributed according to a multivariate Gaussian distribution, the normalized sum of squares of its values should follow a Chi-square distribution. We use the Chi-square hypothesis test to determine whether a measurement innovation is likely coming from this distribution.

UWB measurement bias f (x) prediction performance of the trained neural network (in red) compared to the actual measurement errors (blue dots) as well as the role of model-based filtering (purple dots) and statistical validation (orange dots) in rejecting outlier measurement innovations (teal dots) during a 60” flight experiment.

Data Collection and Training

We use a Crazyflie 2.0 quadcopter and the Loco Positioning System (LPS)’s UWB DW1000 modules as our research platforms. Our calibration approach runs on the Crazyflie STM32 microcontroller within the FreeRTOS real-time operating system. We equipped a cuboid flying arena with 8 UWB anchors, one for each vertex. The anchor positions were measured using a Leica total station theodolite.

Left: three-dimensional plot of our flight arena showing the positions and poses of the eight UWB DW1000 anchors (each facing towards its own x-axis, i.e., the red versor). Right: two of the training trajectories we flew to collect the samples that we used to train our neural network-based bias estimator

For all experiments, the ground truth position of the Crazyflie was provided by 10 Vicon cameras. The neural network was trained using PyTorch. To perform inference on the Crazyflie’s microcontroller, we re-use PyTorch’s trained weights in a plain C re-implementation. Since the DW1000 modules in the LPS provide UWB measurements every 5ms, the neural network inference runs at 200Hz during flight as well. Our outlier rejection method is also implemented in plain C and merged with the onboard EKF.

Close-loop Position Estimation Performance

We demonstrate the position estimation and close-loop performance of the proposed methods by flying a Crazyflie quadcopter along planar and non-planar circular trajectories (which were not among the trajectories used for training). A comparison between the estimation error of (A) the UWB localization estimate enhanced with outlier rejections and (B) the estimated enhanced with both outlier rejection and neural network bias compensation is conducted in our experiments for both TWR and TDoA2 modes. We repeated all of our experiments 10 times with a target velocity of 0.375m/s. The quadcopter trajectories during these flight tests are displayed in the following plots.  

Flight paths and the tracking performance of our approach with (in blue) and without (in orange) the neural network bias correction for two reference trajectories (planar and non-planar circular orbits) and both UWB modes (TWR and TDoA).

The distributions of the RMS estimation errors are summarized into a box plot. TWR-based ranging results in better localization performance than TDoA. However, we observe that, with our neural network bias compensation, the average RMS error of TDoA localization is around 0.21m, which is comparable to that of TWR-based localization (~0.19m). Thanks to the neural network bias compensation, the average reduction in the RMS error is ~18.5% and 48% for TWR and TDoA, respectively. Most notably, this result suggests that bias compensation might help closing the performance gap between TWR- and TDoA-based localization.

Root mean square error (RMSE) of the quadcopter position estimate before (in orange) and after (in blue) the neural network calibration step for both TWR and TDoA ranging modes. Each pair of box plots refers to a planar reference trajectory (left of each pair) and a reference trajectory with varying z (right of each pair), showing a greater performance enhancement for the latter.

Outlook

In this work, we presented a two-step methodology to improve UWB localization—for both TWR- and TDoA-based measurements. We used a lightweight neural network to model and compensate for pose-dependent and spatially-varying biases and an outlier rejection mechanism to filter spurious measurements. Through several real world flight experiments tracking different trajectories, we showed that we are able to improve localization accuracy for both TWR and TDoA, granting safer indoor flight. In our future work, we will include the anchors’ pose information to allow our method to further generalize to previously unobserved indoor environments, with different anchor configurations.

Links

The authors are with the Dynamic Systems Lab, Institute for Aerospace Studies, University of Toronto, Canada, and affiliated with the Vector Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Toronto.

Feel free to contact us if you have any questions or ideas: wenda.zhao@robotics.utias.utoronto.ca. Please cite this as:

<code>@article{wenda2020learning,
  title={Learning-based Bias Correction for Ultra-wideband Localization of Resource-constrained Mobile Robots},
  author={Wenda Zhao and Abhishek Goudar and Jacopo Panerati and Angela P. Schoellig},
  journal={arXiv preprint arXiv:2003.09371},
  year={2020}
}</code>

 

I started working with the Crazyflie 2.0 in 2015. I was interested in learning how to program a quadcopter, and the open-source nature of the Crazyflie’s hardware and software was the perfect starting point.

Shortly after, I discovered the world of FPV and the thrill of flying with a bird’s eye view. My journey progressed from rubber-banding an all-in-one camera/VTX to my Crazyflie, to building a 250mm racing quad (via the BigQuad deck), and into the world of Betaflight (including bringing Betaflight support to the Crazyflie hardware).

 

Naturally, the announcement of the Bolt (then known as the RZR) piqued my interest, and the folks at Bitcraze graciously allowed me early hands-on with the product.

This post details my progress towards building out a FPV-style drone on top of the Crazyflie Bolt.

Component List

The FPV community has come a long way since 2015. What once was a very complicated process is now well documented and similar to building a PC (well, with some soldering). For latest details on the specifics of building FPV drones, I recommend resources such as Joshua Bardwell or the r/Multicopter subreddit.

Turns out I had enough components lying around for a 4-inch (propeller diameter) build based on 3S (3 cell) LiPo batteries. Again, there’s nothing special about these parts (in fact they’re all out of date). Take this list as a guide, and do your own research.

  • PDB (Power Distribution Board): This is a circuit board that produces regulated voltages from an unregulated LiPo battery. The Bolt has built-in regulators but is only rated up to an 8A current draw per motor. My 4 inch propellers will certainly draw more than 8A, and so an external PDB is required (plus having dedicated 12V and 5V supplies is nice for peripherals).
  • 4x DYS 1806 Brushless Motors: Brushless motors use magnetic pulses to rotate a motor bell (distinct from brushed motors found on the regular Crazyflie).
  • 4x DYS 20A BLHeli_S ESCs (Electronic Speed Controller): This is a piece of circuitry that accepts a logic-level control signal and applies direct battery power to motor coils to make a brushless motor spin. They have to be rated for the current draw expected by the battery+propeller combination.
  • Tweaker (by Shendrones) Frame: I’ve been wanting to build a quad around this frame, and the large square hole is interesting for the Bolt (more on that later). One thing to keep in mind is this is an ‘H’ style frame. That is, it’s longer than it is wide, so flight will not be perfectly symmetrical. If you’re interested in building a larger Crazyflie and not so interested in FPV, you’ll definitely want a symmetrical ‘X’ style frame.
  • WS2812B addressable LEDs: LEDs are proven to make things better. It’s science.
  • Camera + VTX: For a full FPV setup, you’ll need a camera and a video transmitter. For the most part these run completely independently of the flight controller and so I’ll omit them from this article — what I’ve shown in the picture above is horribly out of date anyway.
  • RX: Radio receiver. For longer range flights and reduced latency it may be a good idea to use an external radio and UART-based receiver with diversity antennas. However, some specific work went in to the Bolt’s antenna design, so I’ll be sticking with the on-board NRF51 and external antenna.
  • Flight Controller: The Crazyflie Bolt!

The Build

Again, there are hundreds of fantastic guides on the web that detail how to build an FPV quadcopter. Instead of trying to create another, here are some notes specific to my Bolt build.

Expansion Decks

Since the Bolt is pin compatible with the Crazyflie, I thought it would be interesting to try and take advantage of a couple existing Crazyflie expansion decks in my build: The LED Ring Deck, the Flow Deck v2, and the Micro SD Card Deck.

The LED Ring Deck

The LEDs were the most hands-on feature to enable. Rather than simply attaching the LED ring inside the frame, I mounted a series of WS2812B lights to the underside of my frame’s arms. The LED Ring Deck consists of 12 LEDs connected in series — so I put three LEDs on each arm of the frame and wired them up in a daisy-chain.

Finally, I soldered the lead to IO_2 (the same that’s used by the LED Ring Deck) on a Breakout Deck.

Since this isn’t the official LED Ring Deck, there’s no OW memory ID. The deck must be force-enabled by specifying a compile flag in your tools/build/make/config.mk file:

CFLAGS += -DDECK_FORCE=bcLedRing

With the custom firmware, the under-arm LEDs work just like the LED Ring Deck (other than the lack of front-facing LEDs).

Micro SD Card Deck

Most popular flight controllers feature flash storage or SD card slots for data logging. The FPV community uses storage to log sensor data for PID tuning and debugging. Naturally, this deck is a good fit on my Bolt build, and requires no additional modification.

Flow Deck (v2)

Remember my interest in the square cutout on my frame of choice? That, and my unorthodox choice to mount the Bolt board below my PDB, means I can theoretically use the bottom-attached Flow Deck to achieve some lateral stabilization while close to the ground. In theory, the VL53L1x ranger should work outdoors thanks to its usage of 940nm light as opposed to 850nm.

Note: This photo also shows the daisy chain wire connecting banks of LEDs in series

Other Build Tips

  • It’s good practice to soft mount flight controllers to minimize transferring motor/prop vibrations into the IMU. I used these to isolate the flight controller from the frame — not perfect, but better than a rigid mount.
  • The receiver antenna must be mounted clear of the carbon fiber frame and electronics. I like to use a heavy duty zip tie and attach the antenna with heat shrink.
  • The Bolt can be powered from a 5v regulator on your PDB, but if you want to take advantage of the VBat sensor it should be powered from the raw battery leads instead. However, most ESCs support active breaking (ability to slow/stop the propellers on demand). Active breaking is known to produce a lot of back-voltage, which can damage some circuits. To be safe, since I’m using a 3S battery (12.6V when fully charged, 11.1V when depleted) I chose to power the Bolt off a regulated 12V supply from my PDB. This way, the PDB’s regulator will filter out voltage spikes and help protect the Bolt. Readings won’t be accurate at the higher range, but what really matters for a voltage sensor is to know when to land.

Results

It works! There is work needed to improve flight, though:

  • Control tuning is required. The powerful brushless motors respond much quicker than brushed motors, and so many of the PID and/or Kalman parameters are too aggressive or just non-optimal.
  • Stabilization with the Flow deck does not work — I haven’t spent much time debugging but my guess is it’s either due to the Kalman tuning, or problems with the VL53L1x depth working outdoors (which also impacts the flow measurements)
  • Betaflight Support: Betaflight has no driver for the BMI088 IMU used on the Crazyflie Bolt or the Crazyflie 2.1.
  • Safety Features: Brushless quads are very dangerous and can cause serious injuries. It’d be good to implement a kill-switch and a more aggressive failsafe in the firmware to prevent flyaways.

All in all, this was an enjoyable project and I’m excited to see some autonomous brushed quads coming out of the Crazyflie community!

This week we have a guest blog post from Joseph La Delfa.

DroneChi is a Human Drone interaction experience that uses the Qualisys motion capture system that enables the Crazyflie to react to movements of your body. At the Exertion Games Lab in Melbourne Australia, we like to design new experiences with technology where the whole body can be the controller and is involved in the experience.

When we first put these two technologies together we realised two things. 

  1. It was super easy to keep your attention on a the drone as it flew around the room reacting to your movements. 
  2. As a result it was also really easy to reflect on and refine ones own movements. 

We thought this was like meditation meditated by a drone, and wanted to investigate how to further enhance this experience through design. We thought the smooth movements were especially mesmerising and so I decided to take beginner Tai Chi lessons; to get an appreciation of what it felt like to move like a Tai Chi student.

We undertook an 8 month design program where we simultaneously designed the form and the interaction of the Crazyflie. The initial design brief was pretty simple, make it look and feel light, graceful and from nature. In Tai Chi you are asked all the time to imagine a flower, the sea or a bird as you embody its movements, we wanted to emulate these experiences but without verbal instruction. Could a drone facilitate these sorts of experiences through it’s design?

We will present a summarised version of how the form and the interaction came about. Starting with a mood board, we collated radially symmetrical forms from nature to match a drone’s natural weight distribution.

We initially went with a jelly fish, hoping to emulate their “push gliiide” movement by articulating laser cut silhouettes (see fig c). This proved incredibly difficult, after searching high and low for a foam that was light enough for the Crazyflie to lift, we just could not get it to fly stable. 

However, we serendipitously fell into the flower shape by trying to improve how we joined the carbon rods together in a loop (fig b below).  By joining them to the main hull we realised it looked like a petal! This set us down the path of the flower, we even flipped the chassis so that the LED ring faced upwards (cheers to Tobias for that firmware hack). 

Whilst this was going on we were experimenting with how to actually interact with the drone. Considering the experience was to be demonstrated at a major conference we decided to keep the tracking only to the hands, this allowed quick change overs. We started with cardboard pads, experimented with gloves but settled on some floral inspired 3D printed pads. We were so tempted to include the articulation of the fingers but decided against it to avoid scope creep! Further to this, we curved the final hand pads (fig  d) to promote the idea of holding the drone, inspired by a move in Tai Chi called “holding the ball”.

As a beginner practicing Tai Chi I was sometimes overwhelmed by the number of aspects of my movement that constantly needed monitoring, palms out, heel out, elbow slightly bent, step forward etc. However in brief moments it all came together and I was able to appreciate the feelings of these movements as opposed to consciously monitoring them. We wanted this kind of experience when learning DroneChi so we devised a way of mapping the drone to the body to emulate this. After a few iterations we settled on the “mid point” method as seen below.

The drone only followed the midpoint (blue dot above) if it was within .2m of it. If it was outside of this range it would float away slowly from the participant. This may seem like a lot, but with little in the way of visual guidance (eg a laser pointer or an augmented display) a person can only rely on the proprioceptive feedback from their own body. We used the on board LED ring on the drone to let the person know at least when they are close, but that is all the help they got. As a result this takes a lot of concentration to get right!

In the end we were super happy with the final experience, in the study participants reported tuning into their bodies when using the drone, as well as experiencing a unique sort of relationship to the drone; not entirely like a pet and also like an extension of the body. We will be investigating both findings from the study through the design and testing of a new system on the Crazyflie. We see this work contributing to more intimate designs for human drone interactions as well as a being applicable to health contexts such as rehabilitation.

CrazyFlies are great for indoor applications, thanks to their maneuverability and ubiquitous character. Its small size, however, limits sensor quality and compute capability. In our recent work we present source seeking onboard a CrazyFlie by deep reinforcement learning. We show a general methodology for deploying deep neural networks on heavily constrained nano drones, using full 8-bit quantization and input scaling. 

Our fully autonomous light-seeking CrazyFlie

Problem definition

Source seeking can be interesting in a variety of contexts. We focus on light seeking, as seen in nature. Many insects rely on light, either for survival or navigation. Light seeking in aerial robotics has many applications, such as finding the exit out of a dark room. 

Our goal is to fully autonomously find a light source, using only the onboard Micro Controller Unit (MCU) and deep reinforcement learning. 

Crazyflie configuration

Our fully autonomous nano drone uses several standard and custom sensors. We use the multiranger and flowdeck for position control and obstacle avoidance.

The Multiranger deck with our custom light sensor

We add a custom light sensor, based on the Adafruit TSL2591 sensor. The custom light sensor nicely fits in the multiranger deck, adding little mass and inertia (total vehicle mass is 33 grams).

CrazyFlie 2.1 with multiranger, flowdeck and light sensor

Algorithm

We use a deep reinforcement learning algorithm with a discrete action space. The neural network policy has laser rangers and light readings (current and past values) as input. The neural network tells the drone to rotate left, right or fly forward. We train a neural network with 2 hidden layers of both 20 nodes, featuring bias add and relu activation functions. The input layer is a vector with a length of 20 (4 states), which, compared to images, greatly reduces computational effort. 

DQN policy architecture

Simulation and conversion

We train our agent in simulation using the Air Learning simulation platform, after which we fully quantize the neural network to 8-bit integers.

To maintain accuracy after quantization, we have come up with quantization innovations. Both input layer and all tensors in the network need to have a pre-defined [min,max] range in float32, to convert to 8-bit integers. 

Air Learning pipeline

In the input layer, not all inputs have the same range. That is, a laser ranger can have values from 0 to 5 meters while our light sensor may return a value between 0 and 300 lux. To avoid this issue, we scale all inputs to the same range.

Additionally, the tensors in the network need to have an assigned [min,max] range for quantization. To achieve this, we input a range of representative input into the unquantized model, and read out the values of intermediate layers. With this strategy, we arrive at a 2.9x speed-up compared to float32 inference.

Implementation

We use Tensorflow Lite to deploy our tensorflow models in C on the CrazyFlie. The TFMicro Stack, together with the actual model, almost completely fill up the available RAM. 

RAM utilization on the CrazyFlie 2.1

The total amount of RAM available on the CrazyFlie 2.1 is 196kB, of which only 131kB is available for static allocation at compile time. The Bitcraze software stack uses 98kB of RAM, leaving only 33kB available for our purposes. The TFMicro stack takes up 24kB, thus leaving 9kB for the actual model (e.g., weights, bias terms). 

We also analyzed CPU usage, and noticed a high amount of interrupts by the ‘stabilizer’ thread, i.e., the PID controllers. Because of these interrupts, inference of our model takes 46.4 times longer than it would have been without interruption. 

Our quantized model is 3kB. If it were an FP32 model, it would have taken 12kB, which would not have fitted in the available memory. We were able to run inference at 4Hz, compared to the estimated 1.4Hz of the same but unquantized model. 

In a practical sense, we noticed a decreased level of stability when increasing model size. Occasionally the drone would reboot randomly while flying. Possible causes for this behavior are RAM overflow and task scheduling problems in RTOS. Besides, we observed variation in performance loss after quantization. Some of our trained models would just keep rotating after quantization, while our final model demonstrates robust source seeking behavior. This degree of uncertainty can possibly be avoided using quantization aware training. 

Finally, flying in a dark room without a position estimate can be challenging. The PID controllers heavily rely on information provided by the Flow Deck. This information is limited when little light is present while flying over a floor containing little features. To fix this, we added mats with texture on the ground, adding features and enabling stable flight in a dark room.

Flight tests

To validate our results in simulation, we created a cluttered environment with a light source. We randomly initialized the drone in the room, and hereby observed a success rate of 80% in a total of 105 flight tests. By varying the environment and initial drone position, we learned more about the inner workings of our algorithm.

Experiment testing environment

We learned that the algorithm performs better with more obstacles, and that a closer initial position improves performance. Generally, source seeking far away from the source seems really hard. Almost no variation in source strength exists between different measurements, and the drone observes mostly noise. 

Outlook

With our methodology, we were able to perform fully autonomous source seeking using deep reinforcement learning on a Cortex-M4 MCU. We hope our methodology will be applicable to other TinyML applications where resources are heavily constrained. Developing custom accelerators for a specific workload is time-consuming and expensive, while general purpose MCU’s are cheap and widely available. With our methodology, we unlock new applications for learning algorithms on heavily constrained platforms.

Direct path to source in empty room, blue = take-off

Links

Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wmVKbX7MOnU

Paper: https://arxiv.org/abs/1909.11236

Github: https://github.com/harvard-edge/source-seeking

Feel free to contact us might you have any questions or ideas: bduisterhof@g.harvard.edu