I think for the hobbyist, the only real choice is an open source autopilot. Unfortunately with a closed source solution, you are stuck with the feature set that the developer wants you to have. Another major advantage of open source autopilots is that reading the source code is a valuable learning, and troubleshooting tool. Even if you never intend to modify the code, just being able to look at it can be enough to resolve a problem.
In my personal opinion, the Paparazzi project is the best hobby autopilot. At the hobby level, no closed source(or open source) project can match the coding resources the Paparazzi project has. The Paparazzi project has a long list of features which are only matched by expensive proprietary autopilots. Want a camera, multiple UAVs, video, full featured ground station(with integrated real time video if you want), telemetry, powerful flight plans, to control a quadcopter? You can do all of this and more with Paparazzi.
What are the technical requirements?
I added a technical requirements post for UAVs in general here
. The only thing you need to add to that list is some decent Ubuntu Linux ability. If you are halfway competent with windows you will be just fine. My father has been using Ubuntu exclusively for months now, and he is doing fine. He can barely even delete folders, and his first successful download in the short time he had Vista was spyware pretending to be antivirus.
How long does it typically take to get it working?
It took me a few months working off and on. It takes a while to fully get a handle on all the parts. You ARE going to bang your head on the wall a bit. I also spent about two days building the wiring harness. The molex picoblade connectors are a pain. Tip from me: buy the precrimped wires.
What are the real costs, all included?
Expect to spend around $600 for autopilot with telemetry. excluding RC Plane and laptop
You will need:
The autopilot: Tiny V2.11
Comes with integratedGPS(Get the LEA-4P model, since the GPS is easier to deal with)
Vertical IR Sensor
Horizontal IR Sensor
See the Get Hardware
page on the wiki for parts sources. Do not buy any parts from Halfbase.com, or you will most likely lose your money.
I recommend using the Xbee Pro modems, it is pretty easy to get them working.
For airborne, part number: XBP24-AWI-001
← OEM module with whip antenna
For ground, part number: XBP24-PKC-001-UA
← This one has a nice aluminum enclosure for your ground station which will keep your modem alive longer.
These are the 2.4ghz modems, if you have 2.4ghz video on your plane you can get xbee in 900mhz.
Start with a slow and stable plane, and you will have an easier time and will not need to add a rate gyro on the roll axis.
Where's the best place to get started?
The best place to get started is on the Paparazzi wiki
. The wiki can be hard to understand at times, but bear with it. If you find a problem, make some edits please.
Go to the site map link on the wiki, and read EVERY page on the site map. It is a pain to read the whole thing, but it will help you a lot.
Next download and install the paparazzi software, and simulate some flights, and play with the flight plans.
Once you have done that, then I would purchase the hardware.
What's the best place to turn to for help?
2.The mailing list
(don't forget to search the list archives)
3.This big nasty thread on rcgroups
(don't forget the thread search tool)
The normal rules for getting help online apply: Show what you have tried to solve your problem, and use a descriptive title.
Whew! You still with me? Paparazzi is not easy, but it is rewarding. Anyhow if you wanted easy, you would not be wanting to build your own UAV. It is a lot of hard work no matter what autopilot you choose, but it is extremely rewarding when you are standing in a field watching your plane fly around with no input from you.