Drona Aviation takes tinkering to the next level with the Pluto X aerial robotics kit. Build it, customize it, fly it
As my nine-year-old advanced through elementary school into intermediate school, they moved from a math/literature/reading/writing only system into the sciences. It seems that STEM is the new catchy buzz phrase, making everything hands-on, and technologically involved. Learning about muscles and tendons, they made a functional finger with cardboard and string. They sent home instructions to make an entire functional hand with pulleys and functional flexing/extending fingers. He asked me if I wanted to build the hand and without question, I wanted to see that thing. Let me just tell you, it was really neat. Attending school in the 80’s-90’s, I never expected that my children would be learning about robotics, programming and advanced science in the fourth grade. They have learned some basic coding through school, and we have tech/toys that work on coding at home as well. It is funny that by the age of 10, my son will have learned more about coding than I have over the last 30 years. Simple toys no longer hold our children’s attention. They want iPads, Drones, Hover Boards, smartphones, VR experiences, and interactive robots. It seems that we need to get a third job to afford some of the newer technology. Imagine showing our grandchildren a hula hoop or a yo-yo. I supposed that they would look at us weirdly and ask “what does that thing do?” I can also imagine them walking up to the objects and talking to them like an Amazon Echo or modern Smart Phone! The devices of the future will likely need to be gyroscopically stabilized and have next generation friction reduced internal workings; else, they may go the way of the Dodo. I wonder how long it will take before we have something like a Star Fleet Academy for our children?
The Pluto X Aerial Robotics Kit arrived in an 8 inches wide by 8 inches tall by 2 inches thick navy box. Except for the vivid, attractive red X with inset white “pluto” centered on the cover, the “Aerial Robotics Kit” listed just beneath the X and the WWW.FLYPLUTOX.COM email along the bottom, the dark-blue canvas was pristine. It truly takes courage and brand confidence to leave blank retail space on your packaging. I was thus impressed when I found the top, bottom, left, right, and back panels to be completely unadorned. Lifting the box from the cover, I found an 8.5″ x 11″ piece of paper from the company with a brief letter wishing me a “Happy Tinkering” experience. The letter asked some fun questions about the drone. “How often have you used a drone to make a lifeguard drone? Or a Table tennis drone? Or even a rover? With Pluto, you can build it all.” At the bottom of the letter, the Drona Aviation company provided a very useful onboarding link: https://www.dronaaviation.com/onboarding, which walked me through the setup process. When you look into the packaging, you will find five compartments. The assembled 1.9 oz PlutoX nano drone rested atop a black foam cutout within the 6 1/4 inches square compartment. The upper compartment measured 6 1/4 inches wide by 1 1/2 inches tall and contained accessory “A” (M1 & M4) and “B” (M2 & M3) propellers, a 2 5/16 inches long by 3/4 inches wide Rookie Pilot Drona Aviation Badge, propeller tool, two spare motors, and a breakout board add-on. Along the left side of the box, you will find three small compartments. The upper compartment measured 1 1/4 inches wide by 2 7/8 inches tall, the middle compartment measured 1 1/4 inches wide by 2 1/4 inches tall and the bottom compartment measured 1 1/4 inches wide by 2 inches tall. The upper compartment contained a well protected, bubble-wrapped 1 1/2 inches wide by 1 3/4 inches long FPV camera. The middle compartment contained a well padded, bubble-wrapped treaded wheels. Finally, the lower box contained another board add-on.
No matter how simple or advanced a drone may be, it is still a blast to fly the thing. In fact, I find that the aerial acrobatics of the mini-drones is often more entertaining than the larger drones. Despite the promise of programming the drone and the developer mode, I wanted to fly the Pluto X. If you read the above paragraph, you may notice a very glaring omission. The device did not ship with a power cable or battery charger. Luckily, I had noticed that this was essentially a flying Arduino and there was a built-in USB-micro input charging port on the back of the drone. I liked that I did not have to unhook the battery, but disliked the lack of a USB cable. I suspect that they assumed we had hundreds of them lying around. However, there may be times that we would grab the box and go. For this reason, I would recommend that you place one of your cables into the box. I can forgive the lack of a charging brick but the lack of the power cable was rather odd. To get the drone set up to fly, simply navigate to the App Store and download the Pluto Controller App. Obtain a USB A to USB micro cable, plug the USB micro end into the USB micro port and then the USB A end into a power brick. It took roughly 45 minutes to fully charge the battery. With a fully charged drone, I pinned the Pluto X badge to my son’s shirt, and then we went outside to pilot the drone. If you place the Micro USB port towards you, you can rotate the drone 90 degrees clockwise to find the power toggle. Slide the toggle to your right, navigate to settings, WiFi and select Pluto_(your name) from the list. The LED located on the top of the board (just next to the USB micro port) will flash blue if you hold it in any position other than parallel to the ground. When the drone was placed on level ground, the LED flashed blue/green/red.
When you activate the app, two joysticks will appear on the screen. The left joystick will control the lift and clockwise/counterclockwise spin. The right joystick controls forward/reverse and side to side motion. Along the lower middle of the screen, you will find a connect button, which will connect your phone/drone and an arm slider. If you slide the arm slider towards the right, the connect button changes to “Take Off.” If you select menu along the top left, you can calibrate the accelerometer and the magnetometer. You can adjust the roll and pitch trim. You can test each of the motors by tapping the M1, M2, M3, and M4 or you can select “Spin All” along the bottom. At the very bottom of the screen, you can select Drone, Controls, Profile and three horizontal bars. If you select controls, you can choose between Althold Mode (my favorite) or Throttle Mode on the left and Joystick Mode (my favorite) or Tilt Mode. You can adjust the max altitude, and you can also adjust the sensitivity. With calibrations completed, I turned the drone on, connected to the WiFi, selected CONNECT, slid the ARM slider toward the right and readied myself for take-off. When I pressed the take-off button, one of the A propellers shot into the air, and the drone veered off to the side. I slid the arm slider back to the left and then reattached the propeller. I readied the system again for flight, and the same propeller shot off and came back down like a samara (helicopter seed). Out of the box, the propeller was stripped and did not function. Luckily the kit contained extra propellers, and I added another from the bag. With the new propeller installed, the drone lifted into the air without issue. With the included 600mAh 3.7V LiPo battery, I was able to hover for 13 minutes but any fancy flying and course corrections limited flight time to around 12 minutes. There was a battery indicator along the top right that would flash red when low, and the top of the screen alerted you to the low battery status as well. It did take some practice to safely fly the drone. Luckily the frame was very durable and survived a 30-foot sudden drop when I accidentally told it to land/disarmed the drone. After about 10 flights, I was able to get the hang of the drone and to start navigating obstacles. I was pleased with the stability and the ability for the drone to maintain its altitude even in soft winds. For a drone of this size, it flew well outdoors.
The magic of this kit is not in the drone itself but in the PrimusX board and the modular system. On the side of the PrimusX board directly across from of the USB charging port, you can find the WiFi Module. Just next to the charging port, the company included a 10-DOF Sensor suite, four MOSFET Motor Drivers, a UBI-BUS (20-Pin Header). On either side of the WiFi module, you will find two reversible motor drivers. To get started with the modular system, navigate to the onboarding guide and choose one of the add-on builds. I chose to use the camera link, and this opened a secondary page with additional links. Once I added the camera, the WiFi name changed from Pluto_(name), to WiFi-720P-(String of 5# and 1 Letter). With the ability to add components, I realized the benefit of owning a 3D printer and having a bit of imagination. I did have some issues connecting the drone/camera to the app as it continued to tell me to Connect to Pluto X WiFi. I tried the App/camera on 2 different iPads, my iPhone X and my wife’s iPhone 7. I unseated the cable and reseated the cable, I followed the instructions on the webpage, and none of them worked. I was also unable to update the firmware from my phone as I was unable to select the Magus file. I wanted to try the Project Pluto X: Phone Clone but soon realized that I needed to have an Android phone. I wonder if part of the headache of this test was because of the iOS system/App and not because of the drone. I reached out to the company via email and was informed that the camera does not yet have iOS support, but the Rover and the Phone Clone did have iOS support. I have recently downloaded iOS 12.1, deleted the app, reinstalled the app, and was still unable to update the drone via phone. Each of the listed projects required the Android-based phone and not an Apple based one.
I was able to download the .hex file to pages and then able to flash the drone using the app. I attached the rover wheels to the MOSFET Motor Drivers, the rover blinked, and then spun in circles. I unplugged and reseated the cables, turned the drone off and then back on, deleted the app, redownloaded the app, reset the drone settings, reupdated firmware and the drone spun in circles again. I made sure that the app was connected to the drone, the Wifi Was set to connect, the drone was disarmed, the app was in developer mode (bottom left of the screen). No matter what I attempted, I could not get the process to work with the iOS system. I wanted to test this like an average user and tried using my iPhone XS Max and my iPad Pro 10.5.” When I armed the drone, I was able to continue to fly it but was not able to use the included accessories. I reached out to the company again via email and am awaiting a response. I did not test the Cygnus IDE system and did not program any of my own features. I have watched a variety of youtube videos showing the features of the drone. All of these kits usedAndroid-based phones to control/flash/test their drone. Regardless, I had a blast flying the drone and I look forward to additional features. For this device to reach a broader group of people, it needs to have more instructions.
Learn more about Team Pluto at www.flyplutox.com.