Explore Drone Science with a Popsicle Stick Drone
New series of activities guides students in building and experimenting with a popsicle stick drone. From a beginner build to adding advanced Arduino controls, follow along to build and test your own mini drone!
Drones can be fun (and challenging!) to fly. A drone's hovering flight may look effortless, but whether you've experimented with a drone indoors or outside, you know that a lot goes into expertly navigating a drone to keep it in the air and out of the trees or away from the ceiling and walls. With a DIY popsicle stick drone, students can get hands-on exploring the science behind a drone's flight.
Building a drone is a great maker-inspired STEM activity and gives students a chance to practice and develop circuit-building and programming skills, too. The popsicle stick drone isn't a drone you will be able to let loose at the park and fly remotely. Real drones are much more complex than a popsicle-stick drone, but there is a lot of STEM students can explore with a DIY mini drone!
DIY Popsicle Stick Drone Activities Sequence
In the DIY Mini Drone activity, students build a mini drone using popsicle sticks, propellers, and motors. Once the drone is assembled, students will quickly discover they need a dowel or guide pole to help keep the drone from flying off. This introductory drone doesn't have a control circuit. When it's on, it flies at full speed. Questions to ask: Why don't the propellers all spin the same direction? How could you control the drone's altitude so it doesn't fly off the guide pole?
In the DIY Mini Drone: Altitude Control Circuit activity, students add a simple circuit to control the altitude of the popsicle stick drone. The faster a propeller spins, the more lift it generates. If you can control the speed of the propellers, you can control the altitude. This activity uses a transistor and a potentiometer to create a "valve" of sorts that controls the amount of electrical current that flows through the motors to the propellers. Questions to ask: How does weight affect the drone's altitude? How does friction affect how the drone moves up and down?
In the DIY Mini Drone: Arduino™ Altitude Control activity, students dig deeper into the science of hovering. What enables a drone to hover at a constant distance from the ground? In this activity, students build and code an altitude control circuit for the popsicle stick drone using an ultrasonic distance sensor and an Arduino™. This feedback (or closed-loop) control can automatically control the drone's altitude. Questions to ask: Can you program the drone to automatically fly up and down? What is the role of the controller's gain variable in the code?
In the Program Drone Steering with an Arduino® activity, students explore drone steering by adding an Arduino to the popsicle stick drone. The circuit has four buttons, each programmed to change the motors' speed to make the drone tilt in a different direction. Students can explore the relationship between propeller speed, lift, and how the drone tilts. Questions to ask: Can you change the code so you can push two buttons at once to make the drone tilt diagonally? What does it mean to steer in the yaw direction? What are the limitations of push-button navigation controls?
In the Drone Control with an Analog Joystick activity, students program an Arduino to interface with an analog joystick (like a video game controller) for increased control over the popsicle stick drone's steering. With the joystick controller, the drone can be more precisely guided to tilt side to side or move up and down. Questions to ask: What does it mean to say a drone has six degrees of freedom? What would happen if you added a second joystick controller? Why are some drone movements "coupled" when a drone is free-flying with no guides or supports?
In the DIY Mini Drone: Motion Control activity, students program an Arduino to use an accelerometer to control the steering of the popsicle stick drone. The Arduino calculates the angles of side-to-side tilt (roll) and front-to-back tilt (pitch) and uses that information to adjust the speed of the motors and tilt of the drone.
In the Automatic Drone Balancing activity, students build and program an experimental setup to make the popsicle stick drone automatically control its tilt angle about a single axis. This allows the drone to auto-correct itself if, for example, you bump it with your finger.
In the DIY Mini Drone: Free Flight activity, build a dual-joystick controller so you can experiment with steering the popsicle stick drone and flying it manually. Manual steering may be much harder than you expect! Experiment with the design to see how adding a roll cage and fins can help.
Science Fair Projects for Drone Science
The activities above provide a progressive series of drone-building exploration based on a popsicle stick drone. The activities can be used at home, in the classroom, or in a variety of out-of-school settings but do not provide a guided framework for independent science fair projects.
Students interested in doing school or science fair projects about drones can explore these related projects:
- Does Weight Affect a Drone's Battery Life?
- Build a Simple Drone and Test How Much It Can Lift
- PID Controller Tuning for a Drone
- How to Control a DIY Mini Drone with an Arduino™
- Build Your Own RC Drone
- Racing Drones: Does Practice Make You Faster?
Educators: For related lessons and activities to explore robotics and robotics engineering and circuit building with students, see the Teach About Robotics with Free STEM Lessons & Activities and 18 Science Lessons to Teach Circuits collections.
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