The ardupilot development team is proud to announce the release of version 3.0.0 of APM:Plane. This is a major release with a lot of new features.
For each release I try to highlight the two or 3 key new features that have gone in since the last release. That is a more difficult task this time around because there are just so many new things. Still, I think the most important ones are the new Extended Kalman Filter (EKF) for attitude/position estimation, the extensive dual sensors support and the new AP_Mission library.
We have also managed to still keep support for the APM1 and APM2, although quite a few of the new features are not available on those boards. We don't yet know for how long we'll be able to keep going on supporting these old boards, so if you are thinking of getting a new board then you should get a Pixhawk, and if you want the best performance from the APM:Plane code then you should swap to a Pixhawk now. It really is a big improvement.
New Extended Kalman Filter
The biggest change for the 3.0.0 release (and in fact the major reason why we are calling it 3.0.0) is the new Extended Kalman Filter from Paul Riseborough. Using an EKF for attitude and position estimation was never an option on the APM2 as it didn't have the CPU power or memory to handle it. The Pixhawk does have plenty of floating point performance, and Paul has done a fantastic job of taking full advantage of the faster board.
As this is the first stable release with the EKF code we have decided to not enable it by default. It does however run all the time in parallel with the existing DCM code, and both attitude/position solutions are logged both to the on-board SD card and over MAVLink. You can enable the EKF code using the parameter AHRS_EKF_USE=1, which can be set and unset while flying, allowing you to experiment with using the EKF either by examining your logs with the EKF disabled to see how it would have done or by enabling it while flying.
The main thing you will notice with the EKF enabled is more accurate attitude estimation and better handling of sensor glitches. A Kalman filter has an internal estimate of the reliability of each of its sensor inputs, and is able to weight them accordingly. This means that if your accelerometers start giving data that is inconsistent with your other sensors then it can cope in a much more graceful way than our old DCM code.
The result is more accurate flying, particularly in turns. It also makes it possible to use higher tuning gains, as the increased accuracy of the attitude estimation means that you can push the airframe harder without it becoming unstable. You may find you can use a smaller value for NAVL1_PERIOD, giving tighter turns, and higher gains on your roll and pitch attitude controllers.
Paul has written up a more technical description of the new EKF code here:
The second really big change for this release is support for dual-sensors. We now take full advantage of the dual accelerometers and dual gyros in the Pixhawk, and can use dual-GPS for GPS failover. We already had dual compass support, so the only main sensors we don't support two of now are the barometer and the airspeed sensor. I fully expect we will support dual baro and dual airspeed in a future release.
You might wonder why dual sensors is useful, so let me give you an example. I fly a lot of nitro and petrol planes, and one of my planes (a BigStik 60) had a strange problem where it would be flying perfectly in AUTO mode, then when the throttle reached a very specific level the pitch solution would go crazy (sometimes off by 90 degrees). I managed to recover in MANUAL each time, but it certainly was exciting!
A careful analysis of the logs showed that the culprit was accelerometer aliasing. At a very specific throttle level the Z
accelerometer got a DC offset of 11 m/s/s. So when the plane was flying along nice and level the Z accelerometer would change from -10 m/s/s to +1 m/s/s. That resulted in massive errors in the attitude solution.
This sort of error happens because of the way the accelerometer is sampled. In the APM code the MPU6000 (used on both the APM2 and Pixhawk) samples the acceleration at 1kHz. So if you have a strong vibrational mode that is right on 1kHz then you are sampling the "top of the sine wave", and get a DC offset.
The normal way to fix this issue is to improve the physical anti-vibration mounting in the aircraft, but I don't like to fix
problems like this by making changes to my aircraft, as if I fix my aircraft it does nothing for the thousands of other people running the same code. As the lead APM developer I instead like to fix things in software, so that everyone benefits.
The solution was to take advantage of the fact that the Pixhawk has two accelerometers, one is a MPU6000, and the 2nd is a LSM303D. The LSM303D is sampled at 800Hz, whereas the MPU6000 is sampled at 1kHz. It would be extremely unusual to have a vibration mode with aliasing at both frequencies at once, which means that all we needed
to do was work out which accelerometer is accurate at any point in time. For the DCM code that involved matching each accelerometer at each time step to the combination of the GPS velocity vector and current attitude, and for the EKF it was a matter of producing a weighting for the two accelerometers based on the covariance matrix.
The result is that the plane flew perfectly with the new dual accelerometer code, automatically switching between accelerometers as aliasing occurred.
Since adding that code I have been on the lookout for signs of aliasing in other logs that people send me, and it looks like it is more common than we expected. It is rarely so dramatic as seen on my BigStik, but often results in some pitch error in turns. I am hopeful that with a Pixhawk and the 3.0 release of APM:Plane that these types of problems will now be greatly reduced.
For the dual gyro support we went with a much simpler solution and just average the two gyros when both are healthy. That reduces noise, and works well, but doesn't produce the dramatic improvements that the dual accelerometer code resulted in.
Dual GPS was also quite a large development effort. We now support connecting a 2nd GPS to the serial4/5 port on the Pixhawk. This allows you to protect against GPS glitches, and has also allowed us to get a lot of logs showing that even with two identical GPS modules it is quite common for one of the GPS modules to get a significant error
during a flight. The new code currently switches between the two GPS modules based on the lock status and number of satellites, but we are working on a more sophisticated switching mechanism.
Supporting dual GPS has also made it easier to test new GPS modules. This has enabled us to do more direct comparisons between the Lea6 and the Neo7 for example, and found the Neo7 performs very well. It also helps with developing completely new GPS drivers, such as the Piksi driver (see notes below).
New AP_Mission library
Many months ago Brandon Jones re-worked our mission handling code to be a library, making it much cleaner and fixing a number of long term annoyances with the behaviour. For this release Randy built upon the work that Brandon did and created the new AP_Mission library.
The main feature of this library from the point of view of the developers is that it has a much cleaner interface, but it also has some new user-visible features. The one that many users will be glad to hear is that it no longer needs a "dummy waypoint" after a jump. That was always an annoyance when creating complex missions.
The real advantage of AP_Mission will come in future releases though, as it has the ability to look ahead in the mission to see what is coming, allowing for more sophisticated navigation. The copter code already takes advantage of this with the new spline waypoint feature, and we expect to take similar advantage of this in APM:Plane in future releases.
New Piksi GPS driver
One of the most exciting things to happen in the world of GPS modules in the last couple of years is the announcement by SwiftNav that they would be producing a RTK capable GPS module called the Piksi at a price that (while certainly expensive!) is within reach of more dedicated hobbyists. It offers the possibility of decimeter and possibly even centimetre level relative positioning, which has a lot of potential for small aircraft, particularly for landing control and more precise aerial mapping.
This release of APM:Plane has the first driver for the Piksi. The new driver is written by Niels Joubert, and he has done a great job. It is only a start though, as this is a single point positioning driver. It will allow you to use your new Piksi if you were part of the kickstarter, but it doesn't yet let you use it in RTK mode. Niels and the SwiftNav team are working on a full RTK driver which we hope will be in the next release.
Support for more RC channels
This release is the first to allow use of more than 8 RC input channels. We now support up to 18 input channels on SBus on Pixhawk, with up to 14 of them able to be assigned to functions using the RCn_FUNCTION settings. For my own flying I now use a FrSky Taranis with X8R and X6R receivers and they work very nicely. Many thanks to the PX4 team, and especially to Holger and Lorenz for their great work on improving the SBus code.
This release is the first to have integrated flaperon support, and also includes much improved flaps support in general. You can now set a FLAP_IN_CHANNEL parameter to give an RC channel for manual flap control, and setup a FLAPERON_OUTPUT to allow you to setup your ailerons for both manual and automatic flaperon control.
We don't yet have a full wiki page on setting up flaperons, but you can read about the parameters here:
Michael Day has made an number of significant improvements to the geo-fencing support for this release. It is now possible to enable/disable the geofence via MAVLink, allowing ground stations to control the fence.
There are also three new fence control parameters. One is FENCE_RET_RALLY which when enabled tells APM to fly back to the closest rally point on a fence breach, instead of flying to the centre of the fence area. That can be very useful for more precise control of fence breach handling.
The second new parameter is FENCE_AUTOENABLE, which allows you to automatically enable a geofence on takeoff, and disable when doing an automatic landing. That is very useful for fully automated missions.
The third new geofence parameter is FENCE_RETALT, which allows you to specify a return altitude on fence breach. This can be used to override the default (half way between min and max fence altitude).
Automatic Landing improvements
Michael has also been busy on the automatic landing code, with improvements to the TECS speed/height control when landing and new TECS_LAND_ARSPD and TECS_LAND_THR parameters to control airspeed and throttle when landing. This is much simpler to setup than DO_CHANGE_SPEED commands in a mission.
Michael is also working on automatic path planning for landing, based on the rally points code. We hope that will get into a release soon.
Detailed Pixhawk Power Logging
One of the most common causes of issues with autopilots is power handling, with poor power supplies leading to brownouts or sensor malfunction. For this release we have enabled detailed logging of the information available from the on-board power management system of the Pixhawk, allowing us to log the status of 3 different power sources (brick input, servo rail and USB) and log the voltage level of the servo rail separately from the 5v peripheral rail on the FMU.
This new logging should make it much easier for us to diagnose power issues that users may run into.
New SERIAL_CONTROL protocol
This release adds a new SERIAL_CONTROL MAVLink message which makes it possible to remotely control a serial port on a Pixhawk from a ground station. This makes it possible to do things like upgrade the firmware on a 3DR radio without removing it from an aircraft, and will also make it possible to attach to and control a GPS without removing it from the plane.
There is still work to be done in the ground station code to take full advantage of this new feature and we hope to provide documentation soon on how to use u-Blox uCenter to talk to and configure a GPS in an aircraft and to offer an easy 3DR radio upgrade button via the Pixhawk USB port.
Lots of other changes!
There have been a lot of other improvements in the code, but to stop this turning into a book instead of a set of release notes I'll stop the detailed description there. Instead here is a list of the more important changes not mentioned above:
I hope that everyone enjoys flying this new APM:Plane release as much as we enjoyed producing it! It is a major milestone in the development of the fixed wing code for APM, and I think puts us in a great position for future development.