I Taught Bristol Devs How to Build Drones

31st August 2020

When I get asked if I have a hobby I almost always think of the half a dozen side-projects I have going on. I think that’s true of most developers that are in love in coding, they just want to learn more in their own time. I love coding, but I’ve got another super-fun past-time - drone building and flying.

Back in 2012 I read a magazine print in Wired of a guide of how to build a semi-autonomous model plane written by a hobbiest. It captivated me. It a couple years later I found myself buying a bunch of motors, cameras, chips and wires and carefully soldering them together on my dining room table.

This was a drone a bit different to the kind you’ll find from the likes of DJI. I designed it to have a first-person view camera which streams video without delay to a special set of virtual reality-like goggles, GoPro mounted to the bottom, and 6 arms to give really good air stability.

Taking something like this out for its maiden flight was both incredible and terrifying. It took countless hours of reading and learning from the drone-builders community as well as the time and money spent building the hexacopter - but having spent time in virtual simulators, it flew way better than I had imagined. I cannot express enough the feeling of utter freedom having your eyes strapped into the drone, that freedom to fly, to climb, to dive, to explore. That kicked off my love for drones.

The problem with drones like this, however, is they can’t be flown in heavy winds and recent changes to laws in the UK make it ever more difficult to find safe and legal ways to fly. That’s when I stumbled across the Tiny Whoop community. Someone had discovered you could buy a tiny drone that fits in the palm of your hand, and soldier a tiny camera to it - you could take flight in your very arm home and become a tiny flying machine. So I got to work, and built just that.

It was around this time I had become more involved in the BristolJS meetups - a local community dedicated to all things Javascript. Once a year, to break away from Javascript and experience inspiring and different things with their “alternative August” meetup. Speaking after the awesome guys at MekaMonI was asked to give a talk on how to build such drones from scratch.

To make things more interesting I reached out to HillBilly HotQuads - a collective of drone racing pilots who regularly race in local and national level, to bring along their drones. That really took the interest of the audience. I took a step-by-step approach to talking through the components of a serious FPV outdoor drone, then went through a much simpler micro-drone build, and finally finished with a demo-flight of the drone with the video feed hooked up the the big screen. It literally could not get more fun than that.

Interested in building your own drone? Take a look at my slides from the day, or reach out to the famous Tiny Whoop micro-drone community on Facebook. You an watch the full talk from the day here on pusher.