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Open source drone controller has an FPGA-enhanced brain

Aug 24, 2016 — by Eric Brown — 2,418 views

Aerotenna has launched an open source, $499 “OcPoc” drone flight controller that runs Linux on an Altera Cyclone V ARM/FPGA SoC.

Lawrence, Kansas based Aerotenna, which bills itself as “the leading provider of innovative microwave sensors and flight control systems,” describes OcPoC (Octagonal Pilot on Chip) as a ready-to-fly, open source flight control platform. The system integrates an IMU, barometer, GPS, and a CSI-camera interface.

Aerotenna announced the OcPoC at the Intel Developer Conference last week to showcase the device’s Cyclone V SoC from newly Intel-acquired Altera. The Cyclone V combines a dual-core, Cortex-A9 subsystem with a Stratix V equivalent FPGA fabric with 25 to 110K logic elements.

OcPoc mounted on drones
(click images to enlarge)

The OcPoc developer version is open source for both software and hardware, although there will eventually be a commercial version that will still offer customization options for both hardware and flight stack. The octagonally-shaped OcPoc controller board runs Xilinx Petalinux, Ubuntu 14.04, or Ubuntu with Robot Operating System (ROS).

The software is said to be compatible with APM/Dronecode. The flight stack related files will be synchronized with the APM project release, and will be on Github before the hardware shipment, says the company.

According to Aerotenna, using an FPGA in a drone platform offers superior performance, sensor fusion performance, and sensor capacity compared to other microcontroller-based controllers in this class.

Inside the OcPoc

The OcPoc controller board’s Intel/Altera Cyclone V is supported with 512MB DDR3 RAM, 512MB flash, and an SD slot with a 16GB storage card. WiFi, Bluetooth, and Ethernet are also onboard.

OcPoc controller with cover removed to show the internal PCB
(click image to enlarge)

Sensors include a U-blox M8N Glonass/GPS/Beidou navigation module, a TE MS5611 barometer, and a pair of InvenSense MPU9250 IMUs with 9 degrees of freedom (DOF). Analog monitoring is enabled via an 8-channel module with built-in PGAs, says Aerotenna.

OcPoc controller board and its block diagram
(click images to enlarge)

The OcPoc is further equipped with 24x PWM I/Os, as well as additional, presumably FPGA-linked “OcPoc Versatile I/Os,” enabling a total of over 100 inputs and outputs. The OcPoc is further equipped with a 4-lane CSI interface, USB-OTG and USB-UART ports, and CAN, I2C, SPI, and JTAG interfaces.

The octagonal, 70-gram (without enclosure) board-set is 42mm wide and 20mm thick. The device has a 4.5Vto 5.5V input range, with 4W typical consumption. It can be powered via USB, servo rail, or power jacket.

Brisky and TTAviation commercial drones using OcPoC
(click images to enlarge)

Aerotenna plans to release a second OcPoc version later this year, based on the Xilinx Xynq-7000, which similarly offers dual ARM Cortex-A9 cores combined with FPGA capabilities. According to an announcement in January, the Xilinx version of the OcPoC drone controller board will support ArduPilot on Petalinux.

Microwave radar devices

Aerotenna also recently announced a new line of miniaturized microwave radar devices said to be “compatible with smaller airframes with less power and payloads.” Aerotenna μLanding is “the first and most compact microwave altimeter for drones and small UAVs,” and Aerotenna μSharp is the first 360° sense-and-avoid radar for drones and small UAVs,” says the company.

Aerotenna μLanding altimeter (left) and μSharp sense-and-avoid microwave radar devices

Microwave radar has an advantage over optical, laser, and IR devices in that it’s unaffected by rain, blizzards, clouds, or darkness, says Aerotenna. The company appears to have been the first to have miniaturized these devices to the point where they could be used in smaller drones.

Further information

The OcPoc flight controller is available for pre-sale at $499, with shipments due in September. More information may be found in Aerotenna’s OcPoc announcement, as well as the OcPoc product page.

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5 responses to “Open source drone controller has an FPGA-enhanced brain”

  1. Patrick Poirier says:

    In less than one year they switched from Xilinx to Intel-Altera…Hopefully they will get a better exposure with this new partnership, but it seems a little conflicting with the Intel AERO platform

    • Hongshu Qian says:

      Hi Patrick, Aerotenna is still offering their OcPoC SoC flight controller with Xilinx Zynq in addition to the newer Altera Cyclone version. The OcPoC-Zynq version is currently being upgraded to version 2.

  2. Patrick Poirier says:

    Well , I cant wait to read from your experience, how you would compare Cyclone and Zynq SOC & Development environment into an autopilot project This is quite a challenge to integrate FPGA technology into a fully flying platform by extending the ArduPilot capabilities into programmable logic, it looks like you are doing great in this field.

    • Hongshu Qian says:

      Hi Patrick, thank you for the encouragement! With the Cyclone V SoC FPGA, a bit more modifications are needed to run Ardupilot, but it’s a great exercise for us. With more SoC flight controller options, we hope to speed up awareness and adoption of advanced flight control solutions for complex drone applications.

  3. Tom says:

    Why move towards the Altera Cyclone SoC? Why not just stay with the Xilinx Zynq SoC? From the earlier comments, it sounds like there’ll be 2 OcPoCs (Altera and Xilinx based). Why maintain the 2 of them?

    This platform switch is concerning.

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