How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You Like

From this article, you will learn how to program a drone using basic programming knowledge and DIY drone kits for help
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Last updatedLast updated: July 02, 2022
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Drones have become more popular among hobbyists & enthusiasts and in the field of robotics – and are customized to behave the desired way.

As much as flying drones is exciting when it comes to aspects such as surveillance drones and drone delivery, human pilots just won’t cut it, which is where drone programming comes into play. We have compiled this complete guide on how to program a drone, including sections on the best drone programming languages and what you’ll need. If you’re really interested in drone coding, this information will be a great starting point. Keep reading for more!

How Drones are Programmed?

Up until now, one of the main challenges faced by people that are in drone programming was the lack of structured and comprehensive learning resources. While this guide will be considerably easier for people that are well versed with the basics of programming, with a little effort, even beginners can hack it.

The truth is that drone programming isn’t as difficult as people take it to be. With the right resources to guide you in the right direction, you’ll be in a better position to create code for your drone in no time! There are 3 main ways you can program your drone; from scratch, through one for all programs, and using a DIY drone kit.

From scratch

Yes, it’s possible to program a drone from scratch. You, however, need to note that only a few drone models are programmable. So, if you’re an expert at coding, you can create a program for your device. Even though drones are already equipped with basic programs to make it easy for you to control them via an app or remote device, programming gives you a more unique and effective way of controlling them.

One for all

This is where you create one program and pattern for a group of drones. This mode of programming is especially used in sky shows—eg. in China. In fact, in September 2020, China broke the Guinness World Record Trusted Source 3,051 drones create spectacular record-breaking light show in China | Guinness World Records At 3:45:39 am on September 20 2020, 3,051 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles took to the skies to break the record for the most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously. www.guinnessworldrecords.com for the biggest drone light show. There were a total of 3,051 drones at the show, captivating millions of people around the world.

Now, in this scenario, it’s difficult for 3,051 people to control each of the drones, which is where a one for all program comes into play. The program causes all the drones to synchronize their movements and move in unison.

DIY drone kit

Programmable drones are almost exclusively sold for educational purposes or to enthusiasts that are passionate about drone programming. DIY drone kits are then used to practice drone coding and allow you to program your drone from scratch. They also come in handy for people looking to develop their own drone app.

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You Like

Languages to Program Drones in

Programming languages help you communicate with drones. This is the only way you can tell your device what to do, based on the program that you create. There are two main programming layers; high-level programming and low-level programming.

Check out how they differ from one another and how you can use them on your drone below!

High-level programming

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeDrones contain both hardware and software. High-level programming deals with the drone’s applications or software.

Think of the drone as a complete unit, and the only thing missing is an app that you can use to help you control the device as you wish. For instance, you can use high-level programming to fly the drone to a particular altitude or to supply it with information such as GPS coordinates so that it can automatically fly to the set location. High-level programming also helps to decrease or increase the flying rate.

You should note that high-level programming collaborates with the drone’s firmware to interpret the commands and perform the intended action. For instance, if you use the flight controller to fly the drone at a particular altitude, the app communicates with the drone’s software. The firmware then communicates with the hardware and flies the drone at the set elevation. This is why high-level programmers don’t really focus on the firmware technicalities and how the software will implement the program.

Here’s another instance, assuming you’d like your drone to interpret GPS coordinates so that it can fly in the direction that you command it via the app. In this case, the main aim of high-level programming is to communicate this information with the firmware, which then instructs the hardware and moves the drone.

Compared to low-level programming, high-level programming is significantly easier to understand, which is why it’s more available. It also uses popular programming languages such as Python and Java, although Python is more user-friendly and highly preferred by beginners and basic programmers.

Most of the time, high-level programming focuses on APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) as opposed to natural language.

Low-level programming

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeLow-level programming focuses on the drone’s firmware, which are the components that coordinate and communicate with the hardware that the drone runs on. This hardware includes ESC, propellers, engines, batteries, & motors and allows the drone to use all the components to conduct basic and fundamental functions. For instance, if the drone is commanded to execute a level but safe flight, its firmware will assess the  IMUs (Inertial Measurement Unit) data to identify the amount of electricity that should be delivered to the propellers and motors. This then allows the drone to stabilize itself while the firmware coordinates with the hardware mid-flight.

For low-level programming, you need to be well versed with C and C++ as they’re the principal programming languages used. While low-level programming languages are often difficult to understand, if you already know the basic programming languages, this shouldn’t be a problem. The best part is that once you also get the hang of it, you’ll have a ton of fun programming the individual aspects of the drone’s firmware and hardware.

What You’ll Need

Once you learn the basic UAV programming languages, you then need to get a programmable drone. These drones already have an SDK (software development kit) or API (application programming interface) in the package, and most of them already come installed with the low-level programming or the firmware required to control the drone’s hardware. This means that the only thing you’ll have to do is use high-level programming to develop an app that you can use to control the drone and command it to perform specialized functions.

Since not all drones are programmable, it’s important that you get one that’s compatible with your preferred programming language like Python. You could also get an SDK that’s accompanied by a drone. This way, you can create your own drone app without having to use a programming language, as long as the SDK is fully equipped with everything you need to create the application. You’ll, however, still use your programming knowledge to develop it.

Here’s everything you need to program your drone.

DJI SDKs and APIs

DJI drones are undoubtedly one of the most popular models in the market currently. If you already have one of their models, you can use their APIs and SDKs to develop your own iOS and android app, specifically designed for a DJI drone. If, on the other hand, you’re still looking for the perfect drone, the DJI Mini SE is one of the best based on multiple reviews. It’s highly affordable and is one of the top drones under $500. This model weighs less than 0.55 pounds and has the same weight as an average smartphone. You can use it in the US or Canada without having to register it, and it has a powerful capture on-the-go camera, making it perfect for people that primarily use their drones to capture moments. The DJI Mini SE will offer you up to half an hour of flight time which is longer than other similar models. It also has upgraded wind resistance, and with the DJI Fly app, you can access multiple creator templates to edit your photos and videos.

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeOne of the main reasons why DJI SDKs are highly preferred is because they’re flexible and offer great features such as remote access to the camera’s websites, barrier evasion, high and low-level flight controllers, and a live video feed that allows you to leverage the amazing camera capabilities of your drone.

The only major downside of the DJI SDKs is that you have to pay for the APIs. You can, however, contact DJI to get your hands on an API or SDK that’s specific to your drone, including models such as Mavic, Spark, Phantom series, etc. This will give you a great opportunity to sharpen your programming skills as DJI SDKs have rich features.

Drone kit

Drone kit is one of the best programmable drone kits available and is typically an SDK that you can download on your android smartphone. As long as you’re knowledgeable on high-level programming, you can easily use it to create an android application to control your drone. The best part about DroneKit is that it’s open-source and free. It also comes fully equipped with the basic features required to control a drone, including autonomous features such as intelligent flight path panning. You can use DroneKit to create a different code other than the one other programmers use since it’s open source. The only major downside is that you’ll not have any customer support and have to figure things out on your own.

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeYou can also use;

  • Parrot SDK/API: Parrot is known for its free SDKs and sample code repositories that you can easily use to develop your own drone application. With this tool, you can also incorporate features such as download/ save websites and use the programmable drone management application to ship autopilot flight programs. The functionality of Parrot’s SDK can support C/C++ programming languages and supports both iOS and Android.
  • FlytBase SDK/API: this platform is popular for APIs and SDKs used in the development of drone management programs. It supports almost all of the popular drone models and gives you access to exceptional features such as drone simulation. You can also make your own android control program using their Android SDK feature. Unlike DroneKit, however, this system isn’t open-source, which means it’s not free.

We have compiled a list of the best programmable drone kits in the market below. By programming your UAV, you get to enjoy flying a device that you have coded from scratch and also learn various programming languages. Here are our top 5 picks.

CoDrone Pro

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeProgramming Capabilities: The CoDrone Pro uses text-based Arduino programming since it’s an Arduino-based device, but you can also use C++.

Main features

  • 160 ft flight range and a flight time of approximately 8 minutes.
  • Highly lightweight and compact (37 g)
  • Bluetooth 4.0 connectivity
  • Elevation control thanks to the barometer sensor.
  • Infrared Sensor that helps with instructional games.
  • Optical flow detector for hovering capabilities.

The CoDrone Pro also has a 3-axis accelerometer and a 3-axis gyroscope that help with elevation control.

Pros

  • It’s lightweight, making it easily compatible.
  • High performance and impressive speed for its price.
  • Tutorials are available for Robolink.

Cons

  • Relatively costly.
  • The camera is sold separately.

The Robolink CoDrone Pro is a great option if you’re looking to customize your flight capabilities or want to know basic drone coding, including conditionals, variables, and loops to fly your drone.

Ryze Tech Tello

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeProgramming language: Ryze Tech Tellos programming capabilities include Tello EDU, which is a cell program that uses a visual programming language that’s block-based. This programming language allows you to code the Ryze Tech Tello so that it can carry out the desired action. This kit also affirms an intuitive programming language known as Scratch that allows you to use a drag and drop feature on your smartphone to program your drone.

Main features

  • A high-capacity battery that allows you up to 13 minutes of flight time on a full battery.
  • Reliable video transmission as it comes with 2 antennas.
  • Incredible photo and movie quality thanks to a high-quality processor. Has a 5MP camera that can shoot HD 720p videos.
  • Ability to conduct various flight trips due to the DJI-powered flight control feature.
  • It’s powered by DJI and comes with a set of Propeller Guards, Micro USB, 4x Propellers, Propeller Removal Tool, and a battery.

Pros

  • It’s compact and lightweight, making it easy to transport and store.
  • Relatively fair price.
  • A control program that’s easy to use and highly intuitive.
  • DJI controller with amazing flight modes.
  • Secure flight.

Cons

  • Not compatible with most of the popular programming languages.
  • Challenges with video transmission at times.
  • Low wind-resistance capabilities.

The Ryze Tech Tello is a great and affordable programmable drone for both adults and kids. Its camera capabilities are decent, and you can easily program it using Scratch, which is a pretty easy programming language. This makes this device a great option for beginners that are just getting started with drone programming. The Ryze Tech Tello is also easily portable as it only weighs 80g. This, however, makes it less resistant to wind, and you’ll have a hard time flying it in winds over 5mph. You should also note that this drone doesn’t have a modular design, so you can’t use it for DIY. It’s mostly designed for beginners that barely know the fundamentals of programming, so it doesn’t support the hard programming languages.

Parrot ANAFI

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeProgramming language: the Parrot Anafi – FPV Drone Set is highly flexible and accommodates the needs of most programmers. It’s got its own SDKs and APIs, in addition to Parrot Instruction which is aimed at people that are just getting started with programming. This drone kit supports popular languages, including Python and JavaScript programming, as well as Blockly and Tynker, which are based programming languages.

Main features

  • Can unfold in less than 3 minutes
  • Lightweight and compact.
  • 21MP photos and complete HD 2.7k movies.
  • -10°C into the 40°C operating temperature range.
  • Li-Po battery that guarantees optimized battery life and up to to 25 minutes of filmed flight time.
  • 35 mph max flying rate.
  • Great location capabilities. For instance, the Locate My Drone, Geofence, and SmartRTH let you know where your drone is.
  • ANAFI functionality with software updates.
  • Amazing camera features.

Pros

  • A great option for beginners.
  • Easy and intuitive UI.
  • Versatile APIs and SDKs for people looking to learn drone coding.
  • Great value for your money. Come with everything needed for drone programming.
  • High-quality video and photo transmission.

Cons

  • Very expensive.
  • You need to pay extra to access features such as Follow Me and Flight Plan
  • Needs a smartphone for dedicated flight control
  • UI has a steep learning curve,

The Parrot Anafi is versatile enough to meet the programming needs of both beginners and expert coders. It offers powerful performance, great battery life, and high flexibility, which is why it’s no surprise that it’s a favorite among many people.

Parrot Mambo Fly

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeProgramming language: similar to the Parrot ANAFI, this drone kit uses Tynker and Blockly ( block-based programming languages) and other popular programming languages such as JavaScript programming and Python. The Parrot Mambo Fly also comes with Parrot instructions to guide people that are just getting started with programming.

Main features

  • Controller range of 65ft
  • 9 minutes flight time on a full battery.
  • Free iOS and Android Mini App.
  • Complex detectors that allow for more stable flying.
  • Ability to program custom trajectories,

Pros

  • Versatile and flexible programming abilities
  • Can control the drone using Bluetooth on your smartphone.
  • Simple control panels that are also intuitive.
  • Compatibility with various accessories

Cons

  • Low battery life

The Parrot Mambo Fly has amazing detectors and a great autopilot system making it one of the most secure drones in the market. It’s one of the best drones to learn programming with and can be flown both indoors and outdoors.

EACHINE E520

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeProgramming language: for this drone, you can either use the GitHub repository or use C/C++ and python programming languages.

Main Features

  • Headless mode.
  • Instinctive hold/hover style that allows for simple flights.
  • 4K camera with an adjustable 120-degree wide-angle
  • Emergency landing feature (One-click take-off and landing)
  • one -key return and 3D reverse feature to ensure the drone returns safely.
  • Semi-automatic drone arm

Pros

  • Easy night-time use thanks to the headlights
  • Great design
  • HD camera
  • Easy flight with stable elevation.
  • Easy maintenance.

Cons

  • Relatively low flight time.

The Eachine E520 is one of the best affordable programmable drones. It’s easy to store & transport and has a camera with 4K capabilities. This drone also allows virtual reality, but you have to buy the 3D glasses separately.

Python Drone Programming

How to Program a Drone and Fly It the Way You LikeIf you’re thinking of learning how to program a quadcopter, BBC Trusted Source Learn To Code: Top Tips For Getting Into Coding - Own It - BBC From solving secret messages, to creating a computer that could save the world! Is there anything you can’t do once you’ve learnt to code? www.bbc.com recommends that you learn one programming language at a time to avoid getting confused. For python drone programming, you’ll need both the firmware and the software.

Ardupilot

Ardupilot is the firmware that allows you to control the drone’s hardware. It’s supported by most flight control boards, including cube-based drones, and can send up to 400 commands per second to the drone’s hardware.

Dronekit Python

This is the recommended software from an open-source python library that allows you to access high-level functionality from your drone, including checking its status and commanding drone movement.

Final Thoughts

Learning how to program a drone isn’t as difficult as people take it to be. Yes. If you’re just getting started with programming, it will be tricky at first, but once you get the hang of it, you’re good to go! If, on the other hand, you’re knowledgeable on basic coding, you’ll have a considerably easy time. In a nutshell, there are 2 programming languages that you can program your drone with; high-level programming for the software and low-level programming for the drone’s hardware. Keep in mind that only select drones are programmable, so use the above guide to identify the best drone kit for you based on your experience level.

References

1.
3,051 drones create spectacular record-breaking light show in China | Guinness World Records
At 3:45:39 am on September 20 2020, 3,051 Unmanned Aerial Vehicles took to the skies to break the record for the most Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) airborne simultaneously.
2.
Learn To Code: Top Tips For Getting Into Coding - Own It - BBC
From solving secret messages, to creating a computer that could save the world! Is there anything you can’t do once you’ve learnt to code?
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