The ugliest drone on the planet: Storm Chaser

Since I was having so much trouble keeping my fixed wing aircraft in the air, I decided it was time to REALLY go back to basics and get a very simple trainer. Looking around online for aircraft suitable for idiots I came across Crash Test Hobbies and their Storm Chaser model.

As I related briefly at the end of my grim Skywalker 2013 saga, this is one easy to fly airplane. My first outing with four battery packs resulted in a total flight time of almost two hours. And while I’d like to say there weren’t any crashes, by the last landing of the last flight I was pretty tired and there may have been a cartwheel involved. I’m not gonna say. But I will say that ….whatever happened….., the Storm Chaser just laughed at it and was fine. Or maybe it was laughing at me. Not sure.

So something that flies this well I take as a personal challenge to mess up. And I decided it would be an excellent platform to test things on. Apparently I couldn’t damage this beast, so why not use it as a learning platform and get more familiar with the features of my autopilot of choice, the APM?

Now I’ve used APMs on most all of my assorted multirotor aircraft and it is an excellent flight controller. It makes it possible to hold a fixed position in space via GPS or fly fully autonomous preprogrammed missions. In short, I can stand on the ground and offer it suggestions, and it flies the actual aircraft much better than I do. But I had yet to utilize these features in a fixed wing aircraft (excepting the brief and painful Skywalker tests on its way to the ground)

Since the Storm Chaser is essentially flying blocks of foam carved roughly to the shape of an airplane there aren’t any neat compartments into which to stick the electronics. No problem! There’s tape to fix that. So between some 3M Extreme tape here and there and a little Velcro, I had my electronics firmly, if not elegantly attached to the aircraft.

The world's ugliest drone. It's flight abilities are inversely proportional to its looks. Fortunately.

The world’s ugliest drone. It’s flight abilities are inversely proportional to its looks. Fortunately.

The closer you look, the uglier it gets! On the nose is the FPV camera on a pan/tilt mechanism. Behind it is the APM flight controller. Just barely under the prop is the GPS receiver. The blue things are the dual 3,300 mAh 4S batteries lodged in a carved recess in the fuselage. Behind the motor, on the mast, is the video transmitter and its antenna.

The closer you look, the uglier it gets! On the nose is the FPV camera on a pan/tilt mechanism. Behind it is the APM flight controller. Just barely under the prop is the GPS receiver. The blue things are the dual 3,300 mAh 4S batteries lodged in a carved recess in the fuselage. Behind the motor, on the mast, is the video transmitter and its antenna.

A view just behind the wing showing the EzUHF receiver and monstrous sized servos. That receiver easily allows control of the aircraft out to 10 or 15 miles.

A view just behind the wing showing the EzUHF receiver and monstrous sized servos. That receiver easily allows control of the aircraft out to 10 or 15 miles.

Almost all of the Storm Chaser assembly is done with lowly hot glue.. The control surface hinges are all made with 3M Extreme tape. Those control rods are held in place with little U shaped staples, hot glued into position. This is stupidly simple construction and well suited to me!

Almost all of the Storm Chaser assembly is done with lowly hot glue.. The control surface hinges are all made with 3M Extreme tape. Those control rods are held in place with little U shaped staples, hot glued into position. This is stupidly simple construction and well suited to me!

What it lacks in beauty it more than makes up for in flight ability. Use of the autopilot modes result in the thing flying straight and level wherever I point it. If I put it in a loitering mode it does very precise circles around the same position at the same altitude until I tell it otherwise. In short, I can put my RC controller down and go eat lunch. Yep, this is the setup for me!

I’ve been able to test and learn several new things. One of them was the installation of a pan and tilt servo mechanism for the FPV camera. This allows me to put on goggles and look left and right, as well as up and down, from the nose of the aircraft while it’s flying. Despite the high geek factor, it is somewhat amusing and may even be useful, so we’ll see.

But it is one ugly bastard.

But wait, there’s more!

And now…..The ugliest cameraship on the planet: Storm Chaser!

After a few more incidents with the Skywalker, it started to occur to me I would never be able to trust it (well, trust me, actually) with my rather nice Canon SX230 camera. And that is a big deal, as I really wanted to use it for aerial imaging and mapping.

So while returning from the latest Skywalker crash and pondering the wisdom of giving up fixed wing aircraft completely, I thought, “Why don’t I just try taping the camera on to the wing of the Storm Chaser and see how that works?” That damn wing is huge, the camera shouldn’t upset it much.

Oooohh, wait….In addition to being big, that wing is also almost an inch and a half thick. I could just cut a hole into the wing and fit the camera inside it! Sometimes my genius scares not only those around me, it scares me.

So that’s exactly what I did. I dug out a rectangular hole on the top surface of the wing fairly close to the fuselage. I wanted the camera as close to the fuselage as possible for balance, but didn’t want to see the fuselage in the pictures. I cut the recess deep enough so that when the camera sits in place its LCD screen is flush with the top surface of the wing. I then cut a smaller square hole all the way through the wing bottom so the lens can extend down when the camera is activated.

The White Trash Cameraship! The camera is visible in the top of the wing. That is one huge wing. I got bored with the pan/tilt mechanism and just fixed the FPV cam into place.

The White Trash Cameraship! The camera is visible in the top of the wing. That is one huge wing. I got bored with the pan/tilt mechanism and just fixed the FPV cam into place.

Here's the Canon SX230 mounted into the wing, facing down. It's actually cradled quite well. Tape will fix most anything!

Here’s the Canon SX230 mounted into the wing, facing down. It’s actually cradled quite well. Tape will fix most anything!

This is the underside of the wing with the lens retracted. Note the sophisticated and precise fabrication of the opening via X-acto knife.

This is the underside of the wing with the lens retracted. Note the sophisticated and precise fabrication of the opening via X-acto knife.

It feels like the camera’s foam bed does a lot to prevent vibrations from getting to the camera. The Canon is running the usual KAP_UAV CHDK program, taking pics at three second intervals.

For testing I just taped the camera into place in its recess. The first flight test showed I needn’t have been concerned about the camera unbalancing that beast. The friggin’ Storm Chaser don’t care, it just flies and flies. It now has me thinking about getting a second SX230 (around $100 on eBay) and mount the second camera on the other wing to get double the shots. The test pictures I’ve taken have been excellent, with very few affected with any vibration blur. Flight times with dual, parallel 3,300 mAh 4S batteries run from 35 to 45 minutes. The flight characteristics are slow, gentle and generally unexciting. This is a pleasant change for me.

A sample shot taken from 600 feet above the ground. Pretty decent.

A sample shot taken from 600 feet above the ground. Pretty decent.

The only negative I’ve come across is the aircraft lands with the camera bellows still extended . I have some concern about dust getting into the bellows mechanism. But the Storm Chaser is a very high wing design with a tall fuselage, so there’s a lot of protective separation between the camera and the ground. But I’ll probably bring some canned air along to blow off the bellows before I shut it off and the lens retracts.

Yep, my white trash cameraship…..