Navigating the world of open source flight

Open source hardware takes flight

Flying with open source
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This past Friday, we celebrated our Open Hardware Week here at with a staff open hardware workshop. Among the many fun things ranging from 3D printing to tinkering with Arduino boards and related electronics, I brought in a tiny remote control quadcopter which got back in December. It isn’t open hardware per se, but I figured buying a cheaper version would be a good option for me before I made the commitment to invest in pricier hardware for a DIY approach. The verdict? Totally fun! We had some nice minorly-destructive crashes inside Red Hat Tower before calling it a day.

Learning to fly

After playing around a bit, I was sold. I want a bigger, badder, more-open drone, and I don’t mind doing a little soldering or coding to get the thing in the air. So how would someone like me take the next step? To be honest, I’m no expert, but fortunately there are tons of community resources out there.

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One of the best communities I've come across so far is DIY drones, which includes forums, videos, howtos, and more, along with an online store containing kits and components, to build your own flyer. DIY drones, among other things, is the host of the Ardupilot project, an Arduino-based system to help you get off the ground with a hardware, software, and firmware solution for flying nearly anything. Versions exist for everything from fixed-wing aircraft to copters with nearly any number of propellors, and even a version for rovers for land-lovers not quite ready to take flight.

In a not-too-distant past life, I went to graduate school for Geographic Information Services (GIS) and remote sensing, and while radio controlled devices are cool, devices that know where they are and pilot themselves using Global Positioning System (GPS) signals are even cooler, and they are critical to being able to collect data over a larger area.

Higher place

Quadcopters and related vehicles are great if you want to control a flight that you can measure in meters. But, what if you want to touch the edge of space? Not surprisingly, there's open hardware for that too. Two of your best options for flying a little bit higher on a consumer budget are balloons and hobbyist rockets.

We looked last week at using a weather balloon and a Raspberry Pi to nab photos from the edge of space. There are plenty of instructions out there for you to try re-creating this feat on your own. Some require advanced hardware skills, but what sensors and what tracking system you include are as much a matter of your own skills and interests as anything else—even a Lego minifig is an option.

Model rocketry might be another platform of choice with easy entry (and re-entry). Depending on the power of the rocket you choose, your payload can grow to accomodate any number of sensors. Popular (and obvious) options include altimeters and GPS telemetry for keeping track of your rocket and finding it again as it comes back down, but the rocket is just a vehicle for launching whatever components you can imagine, from video to temperature sensors.

Want to touch the edge of virtual space instead? Perhaps learn the mechanics behind rocketry in an environment where the explosions are all virtual? Open source rocketry simulators like OpenRocket are a great way to learn the concepts behind rocketry and test your ideas before you launch.

Into the great wide open

It’s an exciting time for open source flight. Even the US miliitary has recently made a decision to open source some of the work they are doing, in coordination with the Open Source Software Institute. Whether you're an open hardware pro, or someone like me who is just getting started, there are plenty of options for diving in.


View the complete collection of Open Hardware Week articles.


About the author

Jason Baker - Jason is passionate about using technology to make the world more open, from software development to bringing sunlight to local governments. Linux desktop enthusiast. Map/geospatial nerd. Raspberry Pi tinkerer. Data analysis and visualization geek. Occasional coder. Cloud nativist. Follow him on Twitter.