Nathan Aherne

My Drone History

I was having a conversation with my neighbor the other day about drones and realised I have been involved with them for a very long time - I thought I should put it down on paper before things started to get forgotten.

I started working on Drones while living through a very cold winter in the UK and wishing for a pizza that didn't involve me freezing to death. That was in 2001, around the time of the first gulf war and I was 22 years old.

In 2001, remote control planes were extremely expensive and drones outside the military didn't exist. I spent the first few years of my interest in drones designing UAV aircraft and planning the things that might be needed for a drone until I could find a group of people interested in working on autopilots or drones.

Sometime in 2002/2003 I discovered the Paparazzi project. I am pretty sure joining Paparazzi put you on a list somewhere but in those days you didn't think about it all that much.

Paparazzi was a feat of brilliance - this group of people created a working autopilot with stone age (in comparison to today) drone technology. Accelerometers and gyroscopes (the cornerstones of modern autopilots) were either unavailable or restricted for sale by [ITAR]( 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, drones are small so finding a chip with enough processing power that was small and used very little power was not 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 that 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.

Back then I hoped that drones were going to be massive but I had no idea how quickly. A completely different piece of technology that changed our lives, bought drones into our living rooms and backyards much quicker than expected - smart phones. Smart phones need small powerful processors, accelerometers and gyroscopes.

I left the the Paparazzi project after I was 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, therefore taking drones mainstream - 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 coding for them. David Ankors was very good at attracting very skilled and passionate people to OpenPilot which resulted in many groundbreaking achievements from the OpenPilot team.

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 left 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.