I got interested in Drones while living through a very cold winter while living in London in early 2002. I was sitting in my apartment in Croydon wondering what I was going to have for dinner. I didn’t have anything to cook and seeing as it was freezing outside, I wasn’t too keen to go out. I must have been watching footage of the war in Afghanistan and the buildup to the war in Iraq because I had the bright idea to have my pizza delivered by drone. In 2002, drones outside the military did not exist.
I must have really wanted that pizza because for the next few years, I spent my nights designing UAV aircraft and planning the things that might be needed for a drone to deliver pizza until I could find a group of people interested in working on autopilots or drones.
Sometime in 2003⁄2004 I discovered the Paparazzi project and got to work on getting my head around autopilots. Paparazzi was a feat of brilliance - this group of people created a working autopilot with stone age (in comparison to today) sensors and microcontroller technology. Accelerometers and Gyroscopes (the cornerstones of modern autopilots) were either unavailable or restricted for sale by ITAR. The very smart people involved with Paparazzi used thermopiles to detect the horizon, by looking for the difference between the warm earth and cold space to keep the aircraft level - it worked surprisingly well.
It wasn’t just a lack of sensors that made creating an autopilot difficult, small drones need to be light so finding a microproccesor with enough processing power that was small and used very little power wasn’t easy. Paparazzi was quite literally on the bleeding edge of technology.
In 2008 I purchased a TWOG (which I still have) and practiced with it for years using their autopilot simulator. I was lucky to buy one, I had to convince a Paparazzi member to sell me a TWOG he had built. Sadly I never achieved autonomous flight with the TWOG though it was a privilege to be involved with the first group of people making drones possible.
I wanted drones to be available for everyone, I knew the technology was a game changer and I wanted to be part of making that technology available to everyone. I knew that technology would catch up eventually - eventually came sooner rather than later. An invention that changed our lives, also bought drones into our living rooms and backyards much quicker than expected - smart phones. Smart phones need small, powerful processors, accelerometers and gyroscopes. With so many smart phones being built and sold, gyroscopes and accelerometers became available and cheap almost over night.
I left the the Paparazzi project after I sent an email to the Paparazzi User Group asking if we could work towards making drones more accessible. My email didn’t get the reception I was hoping but it did catch David Anker’s attention. He called me and invited to join a number of other people to form the OpenPilot project. Openpilot was founded with the goal of making autopilots easy to use - this really appealed to me. Making drones mainstream was a big goal, 32bit arm microprocessors, good gyroscopes and accelerometers had only just become available and very few people were skilled in building out the boards and writing code for them.
David Ankers was very good at attracting very skilled and passionate people to Openpilot which resulted in many groundbreaking achievements from the Openpilot team. The awesome group of people at Openpilot achieved their goal and created a board using a 32bit microcontroller, gyroscopes and accelerometers. I spent a number of years working on documentation for new users, testing software and hardware, giving feedback, building drones, contributing funds and answering questions on the Openpilot forum. It was an exciting time to be involved with drones.
In late 2012 many of the original OpenPilot developers left and founded Tau Labs. In mid 2015 more core developers left Openpilot and founded LibrePilot. Sadly the OpenPilot project shutdown completely in late 2015. I left Openpilot to contribute to Tau Labs in 2012 - which continues to break new ground till this day. I contributed for as long as I could but work and life got in the way of this decade old passion and I took a break that has lasted a number of years. One day I hope to participate in furthering drone technology again.