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Villanova Computer Science Students Take Control

March 13, 2023 — 2 minutes

Building a remote controller for the Tello Drone

The last time we spoke with Jim Solderitsch, DroneBlocks had donated 10 Tello Drones to support his Computer Science curriculum in his role as an adjunct professor at Villanova University. Jim’s course was titled Special Topics in the Internet of things and Security which cast a broad net to explore Computer Science from every angle.  What better tool than the Tello Drone to use as a jumping-off point? 

Jim welcomed a dozen students and led them in successfully building their own remote controllers for the Tello Drones. At the end of the course, students were flying the Tellos free of smartphones or the manufactured controller – instead using their devices built from scratch. They each began by building out the controller on a breadboard – which is a plastic block of sockets for building prototype circuit designs. They were given a bag of parts containing switches, signal wires, LED’s, accelerometers, and a battery. Once the controllers were assembled, Jim then lead an exercise that he calls “Gesture Testing.” This evaluates each command’s signal and accuracy to its corresponding action by sending signals to different LED lights that indicate various gestures of the drone’s controls. This would ensure that when the Drones went up – the correct instructions were being transmitted, received and executed by the Drone. Since this was a college-level course, Jim also left a few holes in the software for the students to find, and fill.

By harnessing the power of the Tello’s ESP32 chip, Jim sought to connect the tactile building of hardware with the software and coding side. “It’s a gateway to hardware-based programming of the Tello, and also a learning course for Arduino IDE and ESP32 as a microcontroller.” Jim explained, “It’s an easy entry point. And it still has the flair of flying Drones at the end of the day.” The custom remote controllers eliminate the need for a smartphone, it can download new firmware over the air from a computer via a Captive Portal. Next semester, Jim intends to incorporate more software into the course as he contemplates the possibilities to utilize the controller as a conduit for advanced communication. “This controller, if you connect it to a computer you can use Python to send serial messages to the controller using the wi-fi signal…Now say if we had speech-to-text, or raspberry pi and speech recognition – you can utilize the computer to control the drone by saying Land, Take off, Fly forward 10 centimeters.” 

Though Jim had his college students building the controllers, he sees Junior High Schoolers perfectly capable of building the controllers provided they have the right kit in front of them. And once built – Jim had his four-year-old granddaughter flying the drone successfully with his prototype controller. It all depends on how in-depth your students want to go, says Jim, “…it’s a gateway for the kids to go crazy!”

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