03. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Getting Control of the Flight Management Computer

Connecting the Pixhawk FMU to a Raspberry Pi 2


Project Recap:

My Masters project within the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is to design a system of UAVs that can be deployed in groups to co-operatively map the structure of their environment.  This is envisaged as an internal environment, however it is expected that the technologies developed may be additionally adapted for external mapping.  This series of posts documents key elements of the project.  So far we have set the objectives and built an airframe based on a standard 450 quadcopter configuration.

Post Objective:

An on-board Raspberry Pi will have overall control of the UAV.  This post shows how we can set up communications between the Raspberry Pi 2 and a Pixhawk flight management unit,  using the Mavlink messaging protocol, so that the Raspberry Pi can take control of navigation.

Continue reading “03. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Getting Control of the Flight Management Computer”


02. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Airframe Construction.

Two on-board computers and plenty of space for sensors. Oh yes, it flies rather well too!

Project Recap:

My Masters project within the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is to design a system of UAVs that can be deployed in groups to co-operatively map the structure of their environment.  This is envisaged as an internal environment, however it is expected that the technologies developed may be additionally adapted for external mapping.  This series of posts documents key elements of the project.

Post Objective:

This post shows the construction of the new airframe being used for development.

Continue reading “02. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Airframe Construction.”

01. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Objectives.

Initial research platform. Pixhawk and Raspberry Pi.
Initial research platform. Pixhawk and Raspberry Pi.

Research A major part of my Masters by Research at the Bristol Robotics Laboratory is the research project itself.  I am developing unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with the following capabilities:

  1. Able to fly autonomously in a confined space and to map that space.
  2. Able to join with others in a swarm to map the space about them.
  3. Able to identify and locate others in the swarm by:
    1. recognising broadcast ID signals;
    2. using other means to recognise and identify other vehicles (e.g. image recognition).
  4. The objective is that these should eventually be fixed wing, rather than multi-rotor.

Continue reading “01. MRes in UAV Co-operative Mapping. Objectives.”

Electric Vehicle/Robot Sound Synthesiser

EV Synthesiser arrangement in project box.
EV Synthesiser arrangement in project box.


A potential issue for electric vehicles and robotics in general is that they move relatively silently. This can pose safety issues when the vehicle/robot is in close proximity with people.

As an aside to my main UAV research project, the synthesiser explores how sounds can be created that relate to the movement of an electric vehicle or robot.

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Hang on to your values, the technology is changing (again)

As I talk with colleagues around the country, it seems we are experiencing something of a rush of ‘situations’ arising from the use of mobile phones and social networking sites.

A school bus breaks down and children are quick to text friends and family. This may lead to a flood of enquiries at the school, taking up the time of the very people trying to manage the situation according to the contingency plan. Sometimes the enquirers are in a panic, having been given inaccurate or incomplete information. The result? More confusion, poorer communication and a harder time for the school in responding to something that is normally quite a simple job to sort out.

A minor accident happens on a school trip, say someone getting a cut whilst out walking. A friend uses a mobile phone to post the news on Facebook, perhaps with suitable embellishment. By a process of chinese and electronic whispers, the news is received by the parents of the injured child, by this time third hand, before the school is able to make direct contact. Frantic calls ensue over something quite minor.

The difficulty with both these scenarios is not the speed of the communication, but the quality and accuracy of the communication. In both cases, processes put in place to make sure parents get timely and accurate information are undermined, potentially causing unnecessary stress and confusion.

Other examples of problems ’caused’ by new technologies include images of children and teachers being posted on the internet without permission and children and adults talking about other people by name, or about sensitive issues in public social networking sites.

Of course some people blame the technology and use this as an excuse to become further entrenched as non-adopters. This is counter-productive and misses the point. Take our beloved capacity to chat: First we gossiped over the back fence, then we gossiped over the phone and now we gossip on Facebook. The problem is actually the gossip, not the technology. Whatever kind of people we are, and whatever values we hold, technology gives us more power for good or ill – that is all.

And so we need to take an urgent look at the values underpinning these difficult behaviours and perhaps a self-critical look at our collective responsibility to embed positive values which relate to on-line and mobile phone activities. Often, problems like those mentioned occur through thoughtlessness rather than ill-will. Children may not realise that Twittering over an emergency situation is unhelpful to say the least and can cause real and unnecessary distress. But in a world when even public service broadcasters are perceived to encourage the submission of such material, who can blame them?

So whilst the technologies keep changing, our core values such as consideration and respect for others do not. The challenge for us is to reinterpret these values for young people and often their parents in the context of new technologies, and to do clearly, consistently and early on. It is therefore critical that we embrace these technologies in our schools and help children understand from the earliest age that it IS what you do AND the way that you do it that gets (the right or the wrong) results.

Towards better learning with VLEs

There is a fairly well-trodden path taken by most teachers as they grapple with learning environments.

In the first stage, a shared area is used to store resources and files that a teacher wants students to have access to.  Many of these will be existing files, presentations, spreadsheets and the like.  For those new to VLEs, this is a necessary step and in any event at least serves to introduce the concept of shared web-spaces.

A further stage relates to some sequencing of these resources, together with further descriptions and instructions.  This starts to create a learning path and often results in something akin to an electronic scheme of work.  Such sites can be made to look very inviting, illustrated with images and populated with web links, presentations, files and perhaps the odd video.  They succeed in making resources available flexibly over the internet and stringing them together to create a study path.  There are many examples of this on the internet.

But to my mind, a VLE could and should be doing much more than this.  A VLE has the potential to help us better address some of the most fundamental limitations we experience in the classroom to do with differentiation, learning styles and pedagogy.

A colleague in Monmouthshire, Nick Collins, has some powerful ideas around this theme.  Nick advocates the idea of using a VLE in a much more fluid way.  In addition to sequencing content delivery in a traditional way, the VLE could be used to provide a framework for whole activities, either for individuals or in groups.  These may be set up prior to a lesson, or even used ‘on the fly’, pointing learners to new activities as required.  Nick uses the term ‘Digital Assistants’ (not to be confused with PDAs) because the idea is that these activities become an extension of the teacher in the classroom.  They allow a teacher to respond with a wider repertoire of resources and activities than would normally be the case, or to quickly provide extension activities (say) to a group able to work under their own steam while providing closer support to others. 

Nick identifies two requirements for this to work.  Firstly, good access to the VLE in class which means notebooks or similar, space on the desk to put them and wireless access.  Secondly, suitable resources and activities that can quickly be deployed.

On the second issue, Nick believes as do I, that these resources need to be engaging and quality assured, but also easily modified by teachers to suit their needs.  The latter has been a problem in the past.  Often, highly expensive animated resources cannot be edited and so teachers have little ‘ownership’.  Nick is doing some very interesting work with Digital Workshops in Banbury, developing a version of Opus for VLEs.  This would allow for the easy development of interactive material by (non-programming) teachers, which could then beshared, altered and re-purposed as required.

I am very taken with the ‘Digital Assistant’ notion.  It begins to paint a tangible picture of how we could be using VLEs to do something much more than merely automate a scheme of work.  I can see how, with suitable preparation and resources, we could make a step change in the level of flexibility we have to truly support learners as individuals.

Flexibility through curriculum remodelling

A significant barrier to transforming learning in secondary schools is the lack of manoeuvering space.  The timetable is packed, so the knock-on effects of change are hard to accommodate.  Staff non-contact time is minimal and so re-organising delivery is constrained and time for re-training limited.  Indeed, so many aspects of school organisation, culture and even the physical space are a result of continued honing over many decades to prioritise a traditional agenda. 

It was therefore refreshing to discuss with Jim Wynn of Cisco some ideas he is working on for curriculum remodelling and how they can potentially create some space for manoeuvre.  In essence, we consider afresh all the varied ways we can now meet a curriculum need. Of course we include ‘traditional’ techniques, but we can also draw on so many new possibilities, including different media, different levels of interactivity, the use of independent study or peer group learning or investigative learning.  The list goes on.  What I really liked about Jim’s approach was his lucidity and the simplicity of how to actually go about this.  Make a table, put the objectives along the top and the possible activities down the side.  There will be many activities possible for each objective.  Now stand back, and consider new pathways and new ways of organising people, time and space to follow these pathways.

It’s not rocket science, says Jim.  So what is new?  It is that many of these new activities now be mediated in the virtual world.  Even activities involving collaboration may take place using tools such as email, chat, bulletin boards, blogs and the like.  Indeed, isn’t this often the way collaboration takes place in industry?  I am also reminded of Alan November’s notion of Authentic Audience, and the power technology has to include ‘real’ people in the educational process as well as us teachers!  This can be particularly motivating for learners.

And what of the benefits?  If just some of these activities can take place in the virtual, we create some flexibility for ourselves.  This allows use to look at those issues of timetabling, space and use of staff – and perhaps do something differently.

I am reminded of those picture puzzles with the sliding tiles (I’m sure they have a name).  One space is essential, but I’m not even sure we have this at present.  Maybe Jim’s ideas can create one or even more of the spaces needed to permit the more flexible approach required if we really are serious about transforming learning in and out of our schools.