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Linux-powered quadcopter acts like a smart shuttlecock

Feb 12, 2015 — by Eric Brown 2,605 views

[Updated Feb 13] — On Kickstarter, Zyro is pitching a “DroneBall” quadcopter that runs Linux on Gumstix COMs and acts like a smart aerial ball for multi-player games.

The Zyro DroneBall doesn’t look like a ball — nor does it act like any ball you’ve ever seen that isn’t made of Flubber. The quadcopter can hover, zig, and zag within a virtual aerial arena, mimicking a hockey puck, soccer ball, or an Ultimate Frisbee disc, says Zyro. A variety of games are available, activated via a mobile app, including multi-DroneBall contests in which a a DroneBall can take on the role of an extra player on the field rather than the ball itself.

Zyro was founded by engineers at Gumstix, and its DroneBall runs Linux on the company’s open source AeroCore 2 micro-aerial vehicle (MAV) controller board, equipped with a Gumstix computer-on-module and a WiFi module (see farther below). “Zyro was founded out of a love of drones, getting outside for a pickup game, and gaming,” stated Andrew Smith, Zyro developer, Gumstix hardware engineer, and Stanford University aerospace engineering PhD candidate. “Combining the best in control systems and sensor technology with the freedom and fun of sports has been an incredible undertaking.”

DroneBall quadcoptor and wand prototypes
(click images to enlarge)

The AeroCore-controlled quadcopter is physically controlled with a wireless-enabled wand device, which appears to incorporate the same AeroCore 2 board. The wand lets you swing at or pass the drone with wand movements, as if you’re playing a gesture-controlled video game.


As seen in the photos below, the prototype wands take several forms, including a stick-like device and a badminton racket with the wand controller strapped to its webbing. Zyro is asking Kickstarter backers to submit ideas for the final design of the wand and other components.

DroneBall wand prototypes in action
(click images to enlarge)

If you already have a drone, you can buy a “DroneBall Remote” autopilot, which in its current form appears to be a modified version of the AeroCore-based autopilot that runs on the Zyro DroneBall. You can then attach the remote to your own drone of a different make, and it will behave like a DroneBall. You can play games with up to eight players (four on four) per DroneBall, and various combinations of DroneBalls and other remote-enabled drones in multiplayer games.

DroneBall quadcopter (left) and AeroCore-based autopilot prototypes
(click images to enlarge)

The basic Kickstarter package gives you the Zyro DroneBall along with one Zyro Wand for $449 (for the first 100 “early bird” supporters). Additional Zyro Wands are available for $129, and if you want to add your own drone to a friend’s DroneBall system, there’s a $159 package with a Drone Remote autopilot for attaching to a third-party drone. An $899 package includes a DroneBall quadcopter along with four Drone Remotes, and a $2,499 developers package is also available. Assuming Zyro reaches its $50,000 goal — and they’ve only just begun — all units are set to ship in June.

GPS/inertial module atop a DroneBall prototype (left), and setting up a third-party drone to play with other DroneBalls
(click images to enlarge)

Depending on the ball and the field chosen, “Zyro chooses the right kind of swinging or passing moves to make against the players on the ground,” explains the Kickstarter page. “Bouncing off virtual walls adds a challenge and keeps Zyro in play, away from trees and telephone poles.” Elsewhere, Zyro says that “you can swoosh it into nets, bounce it through hoops, or push it around with other quadcopters.”

Currently available rules for games include a field that ranges from half-court size to a football field. The maximum height ranges from a few meters to 8 meters. After swinging at the DroneBall, which sends it away from you, you can point the wand down to keep the drone moving in the same direction. Other gestures are also available for group play.

Zyro plans to encourage a community for game developers by opening an Aerial Gaming API, but the API may take a while before it can be released, says the company.

Embedded hardware details

There are relatively few technical details on either Zyro’s Kickstarter page or website, both of which could benefit from some better explanations. Zyro has, however, confirmed to LinuxGizmos that the DroneBall prototypes currently run on AeroCore 2 boards, the second generation of Gumstix’s MAV controller board. The AeroCore 2 can be fitted with various WiFi options, which according to Zyro include the option of an access point that offers two independent wireless networks — one for communication among drones within a Zyro game, and the other for external (Internet) access.

AeroCore 2 baseboard (left) and Overo COM
(click images to enlarge)

Like the earlier AeroCore, the AeroCore 2 runs Nuttx RTOS for real-time control tasks, along with Linux for higher level functions. The AeroCore 2’s real-time-task-oriented microcontroller is an ST Microelectronics STM32F427 MCU, based on a 180MHz Cortex-M4 core. The microcontroller unit supports low-level machine controls and sensors.

High-level Linux programs that manage mission intelligence, including visuals, run on a piggybacked Gumstix Overo COM. The Overo COMs run on Texas Instruments Sitara or OMAP3x Cortex-A8 processors clocked to as much as 1GHz. Each Overo COM can accommodate a UBlox GPS module.

The 9.6 x 5.0-inch AeroCore 2 module provides multiple control options for up to eight motors, and integrates a 3-axis gyroscope and barometer, as well as a CAN network and USB host and console ports. Additionally, various expansion headers offer interfaces such as SPI, I2C, UART, and GPIO. The $149 AeroCore 2 was designed with the Gumstix web-based Geppetto design tool.

Gumstix says its AeroCore MAV controllers support integration with open-source projects like Robot Operating System (ROS), APM-based PX4, and PX4-compatible projects such as QGroundControl and MAVLink. This software ecosystem is said to enable the incorporation of firmware like optical-flow analysis program and target acquisition algorithms.

Zyro emphasized to us that the hardware currently shown on its Kickstarter page and website is currently prototype level, and will likely differ in the production devices. However, the electronics is expected to continue to use Gumstix COMs and controller boards, or controller variants created collaboratively by DroneBall community members using Geppetto.

Zyro DroneBall Kickstarter video

Further information

The DroneBall is available for Kickstarter funding through Mar. 14, with shipments due in June. Funding is available starting at $449 with one wand. More information may be found at the DroneBall Kickstarter page and the Zyro website.

— with additional reporting by Rick Lehrbaum

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One response to “Linux-powered quadcopter acts like a smart shuttlecock”

  1. Sarah L. says:

    This looks AWESOME!

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