Interview: Dean Goedde and the AttoPilot project

If you've been following the exploits of IceBear and a few others, you know that recently they've been beta testing a hot new autopilot that promises to be better and cheaper than anything else in the under $1,000 category. It's called the AttoPilot and I'm delighted that our third interview is Dean Goedde, its creator, who is here to tell us more.

Before we start, a little overview: To date, if you wanted to build an under-$1,000 UAV you only had two choices for the autopilot--make it yourself or pay $500-$800 for a UNAV PicoPilot (and the version of that with the features you want--the NAT--will push the total cost of the UAV to about $1,500).

I'm flying with PicoPilots and generally like them, but the relatively high cost and low feature set of that hardware (plus its total lack of customizability) is why Dean decided to make something cheaper and better. The picture above is him after one of his first successful test flights, which he says shows what he looks like "after 30+hours being awake hammering out new code, followed by generation of 6MB of log data from 20 minute flight!"

AttoPilot could revolutionize our hobby. Dean hasn't announced exact pricing yet, but he's targeting roughly half the price of the PicoPilot and the feature set matches those of autopilots costing thousands of dollars more. The early reports from the beta testers have been very positive.

This is still pre-release, so Dean doesn't have the website up yet (it will eventually be at and there is still much be done on manufacturing, documentation and fulfillment. But I'm thrilled by what we've seen so far, and I'm hoping that AttoPilot will be powerful, customizeable and affordable--which is really what DIY Drones is all about. And, as you'll see at the end of this post, two years ago he started just like us, learning basic embedded programming with Parallax kits.

The interview will be in three parts:

Here's Part 1:

Q: Can you tell us a little about yourself, day job, background, family, education, hobbies, etc?

I'm 36 years old, born in 1971 in the middle of the Apollo moon rocket days. At age 4 and 5, I would take construction paper, color it red with a crayon, chop it up (to increase surface area) and pack it in a tube with fins and a nosecone. I was suprised when it didn't "go", but can't remember if I tried to apply fire or not (I hope not!).

My mom's older brother is my godfather, and he is like a 2nd dad. He grew up in the 1940's building free flight planes, then did some of the earliest RC in the 50's and 60's (1 channel, "escapement" if you have ever heard of this it uses a rubber motor for torque that applies a bang-bang left/right/neutral choice) and a single pushbutton on the RC Tx. He was a maintenance guy in the US airforce in the early 1960's (heady times indeed) and is an electronics guru, that worked on missile silo maintenance.

In the 1970's he got into multi-channel Heathkit RC gear, and flies on that same equipment to this day. I have memory back to age 1 or so - so I clearly remember a warm summer afternoon in 1975 or so where I was playing in the front yard (rural area) and a 2m sailplane lands on the front yard but I was totally alone, then about 30 seconds later here comes my Uncle sitting on the open window jam of a car driven by his sister in law, coming down the dusty rock road at 50mph, he is hanging out of the car with Tx in hand. He had just flown the plane from his house about 2 miles away.

He was also the type of uncle that is very generous, bringing a plane to family get togethers, letting all of us kids flying it, being helpful, and showing us how to do stunts even. He is just such a super guy and a BIG reason I love this stuff, that I HAD to dedicate a paragraph to him. He is currently waiting for serial # 00001 of the production version of AttoPilot. I talk to him about 3 times a week.

I started building free-flight balsa planes of my own design at age 8. Age 9 I was fascinated with the Wright Brothers, reading a book about them in the 4th grade classroom literally 100 times in that year. This book was not dumbed down for kids, it described all of the background, trial and error, wind tunnel testing, extensive testing in the Carolinas over the sand dunes, about their homemade gasoline engine, etc.... I was enthralled. For 11th birthday my uncle and aunt bought me a 2m sailplane balsa kit from hobby-lobby called the Wanderer. It costs $14 as a kit back in 1982. My parents told me that if I finished it, they would buy the RC equipment.

I built it 100% myself, the covering job looked crappy, but it flew well. I added an 0.049 engine pod, then next year an astro 05 electric motor direct drive on a 7x4 prop. Electric fascinated me from the beginning. From age 12-15 I built many more RC planes, all of them self-designs. The first 5 or 6 just did not fly, but it just made me try harder. I then built a Goldberg Eaglet-50 (0.25 engine, full house control), and was even more hooked.

I studied music performance (trumpet) the first 3 years of undergraduate, but then switched to chemistry. After my bachelor chem degree, I got a PhD in chemistry at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. In 2001 I moved to Phoenix Arizona to work for Intel Corp (the chipmaker) at a high-volume fab as an engineer, and have worked for them until present.

At my day job, I do a lot of data mining, and looking for correlations between effects and their possible causes. I have 7 years experience sifting through literally terabytes of real-world data from $3 Billion chip making fabs. Looking at data is in my blood, as well as iterative methods of every sort. I am an Excel and SAS JMP guru, though up until recently had no programming experience.

Hobbies include flying RC, AutoCAD design of airplanes and laminate rifle stocks, gunsmithing and target shooting, aircraft construction, and now (the last 2 years) electronics and programming. I like to expose/develop/etch my own PCBs at home for rapid prototypes, and am able to do solder pasting of the smallest SMD components (0402, QFN, etc...).

I have almost no background in electronics or programming except self-taught starting in January 2006. I must recommend the Parallax company for EXCELLENT tutorials/kits/discussion forums to help utter beginners. That is where I was 24 months ago.

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Comment by Jack Crossfire on February 2, 2008 at 5:26pm
The fact that U can live in a place with enough open space for flying, a commute that doesn't consume 10 hours a week, and a real good job shows the difference that a PhD makes, despite all the naysayers.

So far been dissapointing not to have any source code for the Attopilot.

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on February 2, 2008 at 5:35pm
Given that's Dean is creating a commercial product and that most of his work is in his code, I think closed source is fair enough. And I'm sure he'll document enough hardware and software interfaces so that we can customize aspects of AttoPilot for our own needs.

And who knows, once he launches it and gets traction, he may feel more comfortable with open sourcing some of all of the code.
Comment by Dean on February 2, 2008 at 10:26pm
Jack: There are many open-sourced autopilots out there to choose from. As for mine, if I did publish the code, you would likely look at all of the objects and say "hmmm, well that is pretty normal". I'm still doing just a bunch of normal stuff like navigation algorithms that are based on atan(Y/X) or lookup tables, parsing GPS strings, and PID control of a real time system. Nothing too crazy if taken individually.

The real secret is that I broke tradition from others in the hardware I chose. I'm not "playing by the rules" using C or C++, or a PIC MCU, or anything like that. Being a truly naive beginner without pre-conceptions might actually be a good asset. I have barely begun to scratch the surface of what is possible in a sub 10 gram autopilot. I can imagine doing things like 30 gram ornithopters that are 100% autonomous... things along those lines.

I have shared my barometer code object with a guy on RCGroups. My motive was to help, because I came up with a pretty powerful way to use the SCP1000 that is not strictly possible using it in the stock format per spec sheet. I don't see doing this as harmful in any way. However, I have no plans at this time for sharing my entire source code.
Comment by John on February 12, 2008 at 2:24pm
Have you shared code for reading the RC?


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