Interview: Martin Müller and the Paparazzi Project (now less DIY!)

We've been following the Paparazzi autopilot project with interest for several years. It's a European open source technology initiative that has created both thermopile (infrared sensor) and gyro-based autopilot hardware, along with quite sophisticated software to run it. But the problem to date is that the only way to use it was to fab your own PCB boards and otherwise built the hardware from scratch. We're all about DIY here, but that's a bit much for most people!

So I was delighted to learn last week that you can now buy the Paparazzi hardware pre-made, either as fully-populated PCB or a bare board to solder yourself. That will significantly expand the potential audience for Paparazzi, which is a great thing.

To mark this moment, I asked Martin Müller, who was part of the team that gave this awesome demo of global coordination of Paparazzi flights, to explain more about the project.

Q: First, can you tell us a little about yourself?

As a day job I work as an electrical engineer for a big automotive supplier here in Germany. We do car navigation systems. I have been building RC aircrafts since being a kid. It is amazing what is possible today - much more than what I always dreamed of!

Q) Who are the core team now developing Paparazzi?

The Paparazzi project started at ENAC in Toulouse, France in 2003 with Antoine Drouin and Pascal Brisset. Later in 2004 people in Germany and Arizona built Paparazzi systems and contributed. Since then more people joined. Some names and pictures can be found at the end of the 24C3 presentation. We try to meet about twice a year, usually at the location of a competition.

Q) In broad strokes, what makes Paparazzi special? What was the motivation for developing it?

The idea was to build an autonomous aircraft to be able to take part in competitions. Over the years the various competitions pushed the technology forward. The special thing about Paparazzi is that people from diverse fields come together to work on making very small autonomous aircrafts. There are aerodynamics people good in building airframes, flight control, software, electronics and not to forget RC control.

Q) Where is Paparazzi going next?

The next competition will be in Braunschweig, Germany this summer. Work is in progress to get the quadcopter fully autonomous. Also scientific meteo applications will be important this year.

Q) Paparazzi is based on a thermopile sensor (as is the commercial AttoPilot). What are the pros and cons of that, as opposed to gyros and accelerometers?

Thermopiles give you an excellent way of flying autonomous aircrafts. They give you an absolute reading which keeps the whole control simple. We have flown in mild Europe, the deserts of south-west US, tropical rainstorms in Florida, near a glacier on Iceland, hot northern India and last week a Paparazzi equipped team collected meteo data by flying from the helicopter deck of a Norwegian coast guard icebreaker.

There are limits for thermopiles but they usually do not hurt you. As a hobbyist you do not want to fly in bad weather anyway. For commercial usage - if there is thick fog the on board video camera can not see anything anyway. It will not work in fog or inside clouds and there needs to be some temperature difference. Generally the limit where thermopiles do not work any more is far more towards bad weather than what you would think.

Q) Finally, can you describe the set-up and organizational challenges that were required to pull off your amazing CCC demo?

The two way telemetry stream was transferred through TCP/IP. Off-the-shelf video software was used for the on board pictures. Some special efforts had to be done to be able to get a connection to the German airfield as we only had a cellphone which was very well shielded by the network firewall. One team each was waiting at the fields in France and Germany, ready to take off and fly the mission!

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