Arkwright Engineering Scholarship Project

As I’m in Y11 in the UK, this year I’m applying for the Arkwright Engineering Scholarship which is an amazing opportunity to work on and submit a project, and see how I do. Whatever happens, I’ll learn a lot from it.

Which brings up the question of what project I’ll do. Here’s what Arkwright has to say:

All Scholarship candidates must show their flair and engineering knowledge through practical project work they have done, that demonstrates their own creativity and innovation and not just their ability to follow instructions to assemble a pre-designed product.

Well, although I have a couple other projects going at the moment (VEX Robotics, my GCSE coursework, etc.) I don’t quite think any of them are suitable – and, of course, it’s a great chance to start work on something new.

This got me thinking: what could I do that they’d like, is completely (or fairly) unique, and is enjoyable at the same time, fitting in with things I already know about? I have quite a bit of experience working with multi-rotor copters (aka drones) and with programming microcontrollers such as the arduino, so I thought; hey, why not bring them together?

So what I’m going to do is design and build a 3D-printed drone using a minimal number of existing components and redelegating all of the flight control to an arduino board: as well as being quite a programming challenge, this will be very impressive when done properly.

Here’s my rationale for the project. At the moment, if you want to own a drone – and there are countless uses for one, ranging from toys for children through to industrial tools for surveillance and asset management – you have two main options: buy a commercial one or build your own using components available on the internet.

Obviously it depends entirely on what usage it will get, but commercial drones tend to be very expensive for their worth: if you buy one under £800 or so, you can expect it to be cheaply built and limited in functionality, and anything better or more versatile tends to stray into the thousands.

The NAZA-M V2, a typical flight controller, sells at about £190

So the other option is to buy components from the web (or a hobby store) and make one yourself. The drawback with this is that, although you can, yes, customize it to be how you want and make sure you know it inside out, the prices actually tend to add up to a lot. Believe me, I have experience; my hexacopter cost far more than I originally expected.

The most expensive component by far when building your own drone is the flight controller board: something that surprised me when researching but is undeniably true. This is the processor that turns all of your remote control signals into motor outputs, going through quite complex algorithms to incorporate gyro/accelerometer sensors on-board that will make sure the drone remains stable. For a reliable, out-of-the-box flight controller, you’re looking at anywhere between £60 and £300, and most people who would be doing this might well have and old arduino (or something) lying around somewhere.

Therefore I’m going to make a system that allows people to assemble a working drone from only a 3D-printed frame, an arduino microprocessor, and some screws, as well as the normal motors/motor controllers and RC transmitter/receiver.

The deadline for submission is in early January, so I’ll have everything finished by then.

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