If you want an autopilot for less than $1,000 today you only have two choices: Do it Yourself or buy a PicoPilot (Dean Goedde's AttoPilot isn't out yet). The PicoPilot, which has been out since 2003, is small, light, and simple, and comes in varieties that range from simple one-axis rudder control to barometrically controlled elevator and/or throttle (prices ranges from $500 to $800). We have a couple of them, and we've found that once you've gotten over the slightly tricky setup, they're reliable and easy to use.
I thought I'd continue this interview series by talking with Dave Perry, the owner and President of UNAV.
Q: First, a little about you. What's your own background and how did you get into this?
A: I'm the owner and president of UNAV, LLC. My background has been in aerospace, working as an electrical engineer in the Seattle area . Positions held include, hardware engineer, software engineer and engineering manager. My credentials include a BSEE and a Commercial pilots license. My almost 40 years of experience in electronics includes both hardware and software design, specializing in embedded projects. I've also flown Cessna's and other light planes in Alaska and have been active in the RC hobby since 1973.
Q: What's the history of UNAV?
A: I got started in the UAV business back in 1990 when a RC buddy asked me to help him with the electronics on a government contract for some large RC helicopters ( UAVs ). It didn't take long before the customer was asking for custom electronics. In those early days, I was doing business as "PDC", but the company name was changed to UNAV, LLC in 2000. Today we operate as a virtual company with six people on the team. Richard and Mark are my old RC buddies and Mark is our technician and tech. support guy. Jodi and Charles handle manufacturing and Brad is our business consultant.
Q: Although we know your professional-quality 3500 product line is excellent and the recent price reduction make it very attractive, we're focused on the sub-$1,000 space, and that means the PicoPilot line. It was first released in 2003, and although it was revolutionary in the price/performance at the time, it's now starting to show its age, especially on the software side. What's next for this line?
A: PICOPILOT was specifically designed to be simple and easy to use with a low price-- not all UAV customers have the skills necessary to deal with a more sophisticated system.
One of the most common complaints we hear from former CloudCap and Micropilot customers ($5K to $10K autopilots) is that they are are just too complicated ! We've sold many PICOPILOTs to former "high-end" users.
UNAV does offer a much more sophisticated autopilot, the 3500FW with a feature set comparable to the ($5K to $10K) autopilots out there. Some notable exceptions: a lot of time was spent making the 3500 system user-friendly and it's priced at $2500.
The first PICOPILOT was sold in October 2003. PICOPILOT has become the benchmark for low cost autopilots because it's been around a long time and developed a good reputation.
Like most software based products, the design has evolved over time, in-fact my software notes show that we are currently shipping firmware revision 23 for the NAV2. The history of the PICOPILOT firmware can be traced back even farther to the PDC10 which was first released in March 2000.
We've sold about 250 PICOPILOTs to date.
Even the $500 PICOPILOT-N provides a lot of capability. Last fall we demonstrated our EasyLander electric motor-glider (24oz gross) flying a 17 mile route over Baker Lake in the North Cascade mountains. Our chase boat could barely keep up with the little plane.
I don't think PICOPILOT is starting showing its age, we've successfully tested installation on VISTA and a RS232 port can be added to any computer that doesn't have one. UNAV has an on-going R&D program and we are currently developing new products, including in the sub-$1,000 space. Watch for announcements on our website.
Q: What do you think of Dean Goedde's thermopile approach, as opposed to your own IMU technology?
A: PICOPILOT does not use an IMU or IR sensors, it uses our proprietary rate control system . I know most low cost autopilots use the FMA Co-Pilot for attitude control but anyone that's used it knows it has limitations. Unlike the CO-PILOT, the PICOPILOT attitude control is not affected by terrain, weather or surface water. A couple times now we've unintentionally demonstrated PICOPILOT's ability to control the plane and navigate when it flew into a cloud !
Q: Recent export control regs have made it impossible for you to sell outside the US. What are the prospects for export approval for your autopilots, and in the meantime, what do you suggest that non-US customers buy instead? (Obviously, our suggestion is that they DIY, but that's not right for everyone ;-)
A: I'll leave the interpretation of US export regulations to the lawyers but you can read them for yourself by looking up 9A012 on the EAR or go to our website and click the"US Export regulations" link . I can tell you that we have successfully obtained export licenses for several of our customers in Europe and have shipped PICOPILOTs to them. Your readers should be aware that the export regulations make no distinction between hobby ( DIY ) or commercial UAV components and any air-vehicle with an autopilot is defined as a UAV.