Modification of a Toy Helicopter into a Highly

Cost Effective, Semi-Autonomous,
Reconnaissance Unmanned Aerial Vehicle
Muhammad Ahsan, Kashif Abbas, Adnan Zahid, Adil Farooq, S.Mashhood Murtaza
Department of Electronics Engineering
International Islamic University Islamabad
Islamabad, Pakistan

Abstract— In this paper we discuss the design and development
of highly cost effective, semi-autonomous reconnaissance
Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) for safe flights in close
environments, with real time video feedback. The design and
development is based on the modifications/up gradations,
(predicated on the results of several small experiments), of a very
low cost, small sized – toy helicopter, and a simple non-linear
control system designed for the intelligent UAV features. The
developed UAV helicopter has been successfully test-flown at
higher altitudes, with heavier payload, for longer period as
compared to similar helicopters developed at much higher costs.

Keywords—Helicopter, Pay load, Cost effective UAV, BLDC, WCR
I. INTRODUCTION
In the world of today Unmanned Aerial Vehicles have become
a necessary part of a country’s strategic technology. It can
serve as a platform for many applications and for pure
academic research [1], [2]. “A huge market is currently
emerging from the potential applications and services offered
by unmanned aircrafts. If we pay attention to civil
applications, a wide range of scenarios appear, for instance
remote environmental research, fire-fighting management,
security; e.g. border monitoring, agricultural applications,
oceanography, communication relays for wide-band
applications. In general, all of these applications can be
divided into four large groups: environmental applications,
emergency-security applications, communication applications,
and monitoring applications” [3].
“Diverse methods such as approximated linearization [4],
neural network [5], [6] and learning control [7], have been
used to design flight control laws for the Unmanned Aerial
Vehicle (UAV) helicopters to improve performances of
automatic landing, hovering and automatic flights [8].
A typical UAV vehicle should consist of the following
essential components:
1) A physical aircraft with engines or motors to perform
some basic flight functions;
2) A simple avionic system to implement flight control
systems [5]. Such a system should include:
a) An airborne computer system to collect data, to
execute flight control laws, to drive actuators and to
communicate with a ground supporting system b) Necessary
sensors to measure signals and actuators used to drive the
control surfaces c) A communications system to provide
wireless communication, which contains two duplex
transceivers, one is airborne and the other is on the ground
d) An airborne power supply system e) An automatic flight
control system;
3) A ground supporting system, which includes:
a) A full duplex transceiver to provide wireless
communication with the aircraft b) A computer system to pre-
schedule flight courses and collects in-flight data.” [1]
It is noted that the Military UAVs use specific control designs
specially tailored to the particular surveillance mission that
they will implement [3]. However, a civil UAV should be able
to implement a large variety of missions with little
reconfiguration time and overhead, if it must be economically
viable [9].
II. DEVELOPMENT OF THE DESIGN
We have used a 2KD design (horizontal Tail Rotor) in the
project because it is inherently stable during flight and
provides a good basis for research. The design has Double
Rotor Blade configuration that ensures small size and good
thrust as shown in Fig.1. More importantly, it is a very cheap
design (see table III), which makes it easier for us to upgrade
the Radio Controlled (RC) helicopter into a UAV helicopter
system. It is ideal for serving as the basic aircraft in a UAV
helicopter. The size of the helicopter is listed in Table I.
TABLE I. SIZE OF THE HELICOPTER
Full length 1980mm
Main Rotor Diameter 617mm
Total Height 556mm
Tail Rotor Diameter 210mm
A. Design Experimentation
A number of experiments based on effects like Pendulum
effect, Fulcrum effect, Centre of Gravity (C.G) and Tail Rotor
Positioning were designed and performed on the above
described initial design, in order to find the best possible
modifications for optimum results.
1) Tail Rotor Positioning:
In this experiment we tried to reduce the size of
helicopter. We removed the tail rotor along with tail boom and
placed the tail rotor under the main rotors. In this way the size
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was reduced but forward and backward motion was drastically
reduced. We then replaced the tail motor with a BLDC motor,
due to its very large rpm and small size, and the results were
very encouraging. It was a very small size helicopter without a
tail rotor but still moving just like an ordinary helicopter.
2) Pendulum Effect:
In this experiment we removed the tail rotor assembly
completely, so that the helicopter could move only upwards or
downwards. We then designed a special battery compartment
to replace the Lithium-Polymer (Li-po) battery without having
to open the front hood all the time. Now placing the battery
more to the front or back of the compartment and flying the
helicopter; it performed a pendulum like to and fro motion
while moving in the direction where battery had been placed.
In this way another small size design was created.
3) Centre of Gravity and Fulcrum Effect:
This modification was made while balancing the
weight of added modules on the helicopter. The centre of
gravity of a helicopter is right under the main rotors. We used
fulcrum effect while placing the camera and control module
on the helicopter i.e. camera being light weight was placed at
the front end and its battery being a bit heavy was placed near
the main rotors. A light weight far from Centre of Gravity
(C.G) with a little heavy weight near the C.G balanced the
load.
B. Design Modifications
Based on the findings of the above experiments we
decided to introduce the following modifications in the toy
helicopter to achieve the desired functionalities.
1) Modified Assembly
Following are the components and systems we added in our
design. A carbon fibre rod and specially designed small
mechanical parts to incorporate several modules on the
helicopter’s body, Special heat sinks for motors of the main
rotors, IR Range Finders that serve as the basic sensing units,
Brush-Less DC (BLDC) Motors to implement the Wrong
Command Rejection and Optimization (WCRO) Algorithm,
An AVR based Isolated modular System that serves as the
main controlling unit, Payload capability enhancing module,
Wireless video camera.
One important problem we encountered was that the
motors started to get heated up after sometime during the
flight. We incorporated our specially designed heat sinks
inside the body to overcome this problem. We identified the
empty spaces inside the helicopter’s body near the main
motors and placed the heat sinks there, so that they connect
with the body and whole body becomes a heat sink;
effectively increasing the heat dissipation.
The desired final result was to ensure safe flights and crash
avoidance. To achieve this purpose we decided to use Infra
Red (IR) Range Finders and BLDC motors. The challenge was
to place them on the helicopter’s body so that they monitor a
good effective area around the helicopter. For this purpose a
Carbon Fibre rod was passed through the centre of the body on
which two IR Range Finders and BLDC Motors were mounted
using specially designed fittings. The rod is firmly held at the
centre using some specially designed mechanical parts placed
on the body.











Figure 1. Final Design
One of our main objectives was to increase the payload
carrying capability of our design. To achieve this functionality
a ‘payload carrying capability enhancing’ module was
specially designed that incorporated power (Metal Oxide
Semiconductor Field effect Transistors) MOSFETs and Opto-
isolators. To avoid overheating of these MOSFETs we decided
to attach them to the helicopter’s body using mica sheet. This
allows better heat dissipation but ensures electrical insulation
from the body.
A wireless camera has also been placed at the front end as
shown in Fig.1 to provide video surveillance. Finally we
needed a main controlling unit that would help implement the
novel designed WCRO algorithm. For this purpose an AVR
ATMEGA 88 based isolated embedded system was designed
to serve as the main controlling unit and was placed under the
front hood near the helicopter’s own receiver module.
After incorporating all the changes; the final design gives a
very stable flight and because the BLDC motors are placed out
of the wing span of the main rotors a very small time
operation of these motors provides sufficient counter torque to
bend the helicopter in a direction away from the obstacle. The
weight of all the extra parts is properly propagated throughout
the system to ensure proper manoeuvring during flight.
2) Functions and Results
a) Payload Carrying Capability Enhancement
This is one of our main achievements. Normally these toy
helicopters are designed to carry only their own weight. To
make the helicopter capable of carrying the extra load of
added modules; we increased the operating battery voltages
from 7.8V to 11.1V, 1.8A. The motors have a maximum rating
of 14V and we are operating in a safe range. To achieve this
task we had to go through a series of experiments with various
Power MOSFETs incorporated in place of original Field effect
Transistors (FETs) i.e. D150 used in the starting model.
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The problem we encountered in achieving this feature was
that there was not enough voltage for the gate drive available
at the receiver circuit’s original FETs. To overcome this
problem we conducted a complete study of the receiver circuit,
did reverse engineering on it and extracted signals at different
points as shown in Fig. 2. A total of 200mW power is being
consumed by the transmitter module and is working on the
principle of PPM (Pulse Position Modulation). There are two
power ports for the two motors of the main rotors being
powered through the FETs as numbered. Then there is a small
port for the tail rotor. The receiver-transmitter radio set
operates at a frequency of 40 MHz. A Piezoelectric Gyroscope
is used on the tail rotor (pitch) control to counter wind-and
torque-reaction-induced tail movement. The gyroscope
electronically adjusts the control signal to the tail rotor.









Figure 2. The receiver Circuit Separated
To overcome the problem of handling extra current from the
higher voltage battery, we needed a high current handling
Power MOSFET to replace the original FETs i.e. D150. A
Power MOSFET P75N75 appeared as the best choice to
handle extra current at increased battery voltage and had
sufficient switching speed to handle the incoming signal, but it
required more gate drive voltage than available on the receiver
board. To overcome this pitfall we decided to use the original
FETs of the receiver module to drive an Opto-isolator, which
in turn switches and provides the required gate drive voltage
for the Power MOSFETs and enhance isolation. In this way
the problem of driving motors at increased voltages was
solved in the most cost effective manner by the reutilization of
the redundant D150 FETs.
The helicopter’s own weight is 550g and there is an extra
added weight of 410g of different modules making the final
design’s weight being 960g. The helicopter was first tested
successfully with all this weight for 9 minutes at a height of
8m above the ground. The helicopter was later also
successfully tested with an additional payload of up to 2kg.
b) The Sensing System
The sensing system comprises Sharp GP2Y0A710YK0F
Package Infra Red (IR) RANGERS [15], [16]. This sensor
takes a continuous distance reading using the principle of
Triangulation and a small linear CCD array to compute the
distance and/or presence of objects in the field of view, and
returns a corresponding analogue voltage with a range of
100cm (40") to 550cm (~216"). The output range-to-voltage
relationship of these sensors is non-linear and to use it
properly we Linearized [17] it, in MATLAB using a
Linearizing Function that gives a straight line approximation
of the voltage from 0.8m-5.5m as shown in Fig.3. We took
voltage readings for every 1’’ distance variation from the
sensor in the specified range. In this way we were able to
better visualize the voltage varies in accordance with the range
and it was easier to take decisions based on range. These
sensors have been chosen because of their long range data
acquisition, optimized shape, no mechanical contacts, high
level of accuracy, and encapsulated systems ensures
independence from environment and optical interference.
They have very low range-to-voltage deviation and allow easy
attack and planning of the tactical situation as they can be
easily interfaced with any modern system using analogue-to-
digital (A/D) conversion and as the range is user configurable,
they can be used for both long and short range sensing
applications. Here we have only described the working of
these sensors; the inter-linkage of these sensors with other
modules is explained in Section III.









Figure 3. IR Range Finder’s original and Linearized range-voltage curve
c) Isolated Embedded System
The core component of a UAV model is a central control
system that manages the flood of data from the sensors and
generates specific actuator signals under a specific algorithm.
A special ATMEGA88 based generic board was designed to
serve as the main control unit for the system for
implementation of WCRO Algorithm. ATMEGA88 was
chosen because of its small size and distinct features like 7
ADC channels (10bit), 6 Pulse Width Modulation (PWM)
channels, Static Clock (20MIPS at 20MHz), 16 bit
Timers/counters, etc. The generic board acts as the brain of the
system that receives the signals from the receiver circuit and
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IR sensors, interprets them and generates the required signals
for BLDC motors, acting as actuators, when necessary. The
problem encountered by such system is the possible distortion,
at any time, in any of the above mentioned signals, due to their
interference with one another and with the noise introduced by
the back emf. We eliminated the signals’ interference problem
by introducing Opto-Isolators in their paths. The same Opto-
Isolators, being in the motors’ drive path, also block their back
emf noise. This module operates at a frequency of 12MHz.
The brushless motors’ inclusion is described in the next
section.

Figure 4. Block Diagram of Isolated Modular System
d) BLDC Motors for WCRO Algorithm Implementation
One of the main problems we faced was to implement
WCRO Algorithm by operating the BLDC motors. Acting as
actuators, they require very specific PWM pulses
combinations to first setup and then run. In order to find them
we designed a manual control electronic board that could
generate different duty cycles pulses [14]. We used it to
observe the timing pulses, frequency, delay time, duty cycle
and other parameters for motor speed control. In the final
design we used very small sized BLDC motors with an
Electronic Speed Controller (ESC) of 7.8V, 7A. PWM pulses
generated from ATMEGA 88 controller pass through ESC and
then operate the motors as shown in Fig. 4. BLDC motors
provided very accurate control in manoeuvring the helicopter
near obstacles and being light weight, do not create any weight
misbalancing issues.
III. MODULES INTERLINKAGE & CONTROL SYSETM
A complete Signal Flow Diagram has been shown in Fig.5.
This flow control has been implemented using IR Range
Finders of up to 5.5m range used for long range data
acquisition. These sensors have been placed at specific places
on the helicopter assembly to use them like a homing head
giving a conformal/panoramic view in order to get a wider
angle of view and larger search area without having to
perform special manoeuvres e.g. snaking. The specified safe
range of 1.5m has been preset in the programming which is
easily reconfigurable. Whenever an obstacle comes in this
range, the IR Range Finders detect its presence and report to
the generic Data Acquisition and Control board. To master the
flood of data from the sensors suite, the generic board circuit
receives the sensor readings and input commands signals from
the user radio. It monitors their individual and differential
values, and if one or both sensors have reported presence of an
obstacle, it means a wrong directional command, either
intentional or accidental, has been given by the user. Making
use of the differential signal it generates the respective
actuator(s) signal to move the helicopter in a safer direction by
powering the BLDC motors specially incorporated for this
purpose. To get a wide angle of view the sensors were placed
in a slightly tilted position on the carbon fibre rod so that each
sensor senses in the opposite direction as shown in Fig.6.

Figure 5. Signal Flow Block Diagram

Figure 6. Sensors’ Placement and Area of View
In this way the right side sensor senses and reports the left
area of view for obstacles, when that happens the left sided
Actuator/BLDC is powered at a predefined pulse width/time
to produce just enough counter torque to turn the helicopter to
the right an move it away from the obstacle on this side.
Similarly the left side sensor scans the right side and upon its
signal the left sided Actuator is powered to take a left turn.
Now, as a special case, when both sensors report a head on
collision possibility is reported and both the Actuators are
fired up to stop the advancement of the helicopter, see Fig.7.
Tests showed that this concept of placing the sensors at a
skewed angle provides much better ranging and higher
accuracy.
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Figure 7. Actuators’ Powering with respect to Sensors
As both the Motors are powered from the separate external
battery, through Opto-isolators and Power MOSFETs included
specifically for them, no sudden changes in height occur and a
safe height level from the ground is maintained and isolation
of sensitive hardware and power section is ensured.
In this way even in a close environment user can always be
sure of safe flight and avoidance of crashes. With the inclusion
of two IR Range Finders at an off-centre angle, while flying in
a corridor, it can sense both left and right walls and keeps
itself safe from crashing into the side walls. So, when the side
walls are very close; it tends to bend left and right
continuously, trying to keep itself steady, while flying
forwards through the corridor. Also when an obstacle comes
in bound from the front; both the sensors report and both
motors are operated pulling the helicopter back despite the
command from the user to go straight. The distance from the
obstacle is also programmable from 1m-5.5m.
With the implementation of WCRO Algorithm, see Fig.5,
and incorporation of isolated modular system we have
designed an optimum system for safe flights in closed narrow
congested environments without having to bother for crashes
or obstacles. The user can operate the system in semi-
autonomous or fully manual mode. This is a new feature that
is lacking in the available UAVs. We have used a very simple
approach for the helicopter safety while keeping intact the
original mechanical design and stability which is an inherent
feature of these helicopters.
TABLE II. FUNCTIONS AND CAPABILITIES
Function Basic Capabilities
Flight - Safe flight in close environment
- Wireless video surveillance
- Inherently stable design
- Searching tunnels, caves and mines
- Sports and media broadcasting
- Wrong command rejection & optimization
Sensors - IR Range finders (up to 5.5m) that can detect any
obstacle in their path and provide Wrong Command
Rejection capability
Communication - Radio transmitter and Receiver operating at 40Mhz
Control Unit - An AVR based embedded system that receives the user
commands and the signals from IR Rangers and then
generates the appropriate signals for various modules to
ensure wrong command rejection and safe flight.
IV. DESIGN COMPARISONS
A comparison of our design with similar available designs
is presented in the table III. (1$ = 92.5 PKR)
TABLE III. COST AND PAYLOAD COMPARISON
Design Cost ($) Payload (kg)
HeLion helicopter [10] 5240 12
MikroKopter-hexacopter UAV [11] 1550 0.8
Knight Quad Arduino UAV [12] 750 0.5
BabyLion Helicopter [13] 600 0.5
Our Design 270 2.0

Almost all the UAV helicopter designs available are very
costly and do not have proper safety mechanisms to avoid
crashes. The designs that carry payloads are very expensive
and are used for very specific applications. Our design
presents an optimum solution providing the user a complete
picture of the tactical situations at all times along with cost
effectiveness, crash avoidance surety, a moderate payload
carrying capability as well as video feedback. The proposed
design has the capability of further payload enhancement,
implementation of advance flight control techniques and can
be used as a pre-requisite research platform for advance
designs or network centric warfare.
V. CONCLUSION
The design proposed and developed modifies a small size
toy helicopter into a very low cost complete UAV. The final
design is capable of avoiding crashes, carrying small payloads
and providing video surveillance. Our novel designed
algorithms using BLDC motors and IR Range Finders – as the
major sensing units, virtually eliminate the possibilities of a
crash. It also keeps intact the element of inherent stability of
the original design resulting in a highly safe and stable system.
We have also managed to introduce payload carrying
capability and have successfully tested the design prototype
with a maximum payload of up to 2.0kg.
VI. FUTURE WORK
In the future we are working on developing an Active Fault
Tolerant Control Algorithm and Hardware for our design
using Sliding Mode Control and Backstepping methods. Also
in the course of development of our model several possibilities
appeared, the use of which may lead to even better and
advanced flight control mechanisms in the future
enhancements of our design; especially the processing of
video can be utilized for target locking, tracking, smoke/fire
detection, fog navigation etc. The choice of 8 channel
microcontroller allows plenty of room for interfacing more
sensors like compass sensors, 2-3D Rate Gyros etc to
implement advance flight control algorithms in a ‘Sensor-to-
Supervisory Command Control’ functional chain – in the next
stage of enhancements in our design.
REFERENCES
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Assembling of a UAV Helicopter System”, 2005 International
Conference on Control and Automation
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[2] Borough, S.A., "The University of Toronto RC helicopter: a test bed for
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