Introducing a new kit to build
the fastest, most nimble
BY CHRIS ANDERSON
and left, and are mounted on a shaft that a servo
tilts up and down (vectoring) for altitude control.
For the mechanical assembly, we used a laser-cut
plastic platform and stayed with Lego Technic parts
for the shaft and gearing (thanks to a generous
donation of a huge box of parts from Lego!).
Now Blimpduino is a commercial kit (available at
makershed.com). It comes with most of what you
need, save helium, batteries, and (optional) R/C
equipment. All the tricky surface-mount soldering
has been done for you, so the kit can be assembled
by anyone with some simple tools in an afternoon.
Want to try aerial robotics but aren’t quite ready for a UAV? You might want to start
with an autonomous blimp instead — they’re a fun
project for all ages and a real crowd-pleaser as
they navigate slowly around a room detecting their
surroundings and tilting their props to steer and
Blimps have a lot of advantages over planes.
You use them indoors, so weather isn’t an issue.
When things go wrong, they don’t hurt themselves
or anything else, so they’re safe for kids. They’re
an interesting autonomy challenge, in many ways
harder than a plane, because GPS doesn’t work
indoors (so other navigation methods are required)
and the motion of the blimp is dominated by huge
inertial momentum, more like a submarine than an
airplane. And they’re simply lovely to watch, with
a uniquely graceful, even whale-like motion through
We got started with blimps with MAKE’s Blubber
Bot kit, an art piece created by Jed Berk that floats
around with a mind of its own, reacting to light and
noise. It was fun, but we wanted to take blimps
to the next level, with programmable autonomy,
navigation, and an option for manual radio control,
along with a more sophisticated propulsion system
that could control altitude.
As with our fixed-wing autopilot, we based our
blimp on the Arduino open source hardware platform
so people would be able to use its great cross-platform programming tools. We designed the blimp
controller board, propulsion system, and sensor
arrays from scratch, using our favorite prototyping
tools, from Lego pieces and thin plywood sheets to
small breadboards and micro Arduino modules.
Photograph by Sam Murphy
With lots of trial and error we settled on a few
core technologies. For altitude measurement, we
use ultrasonic sensors (the MaxBotix EZ4). For navigation, we use an array of 4 infrared detectors and
a ground-based infrared beacon. For propulsion, we
use “vectoring differential thrusters,” which is to say,
2 motors that can spin their propellers at different
speeds (differential thrust) to turn the blimp right
What’s next? We’re hoping people will fall in
love with these autonomous blimps as we have,
and that they’ll introduce a generation of future
engineers to aerial robotics. This year Blimpduino
was demonstrated at the FIRST Robotics annual
championship, and we hope next year it will be the
basis of a demonstration 3D robotics competition for
college students as part of the FIRST program. With
everything from blimp sumo wrestling in R/C mode
(push the opponent out of a marked-off column area)
to autonomous maze racing, this competition will be
a blast, adding a vertical dimension and the unique
challenges of motion through that most abundant of
fluids, air. Blimps are, simply, a robotic delight.
What It Can Do
» Fly incredibly well in R/C mode. This is the fastest,
most nimble blimp around, thanks to the awesome
vectoring thrusters (much better than using a third
motor for up/down motion, as most toy blimps do).
» In autonomous mode, it will fly patterns around
the ground-based beacon by default, or follow the
beacon if you carry it around, maintaining altitude
all the way. But it’s possible to do more than that:
you can use multiple beacons and program the
blimp to travel from one to the next, which will allow
it to do simple courses, and you can also program
it to change altitude in relation to a beacon
(descending as it approaches it, for example).
52 Make: Volume 19