Drone Programming for Beginners: Here’s How to Start


Drones are becoming quite popular today among hobbyists and enthusiasts all over the world. Knowing how to program drones has also become quite important in the field of robotics because of how drones are increasingly becoming popular, and the technology continues to become more advanced. Drone programming can be great for educational purposes and can even be used as a career. With that said, how do you get started with drone programming?

The first step of drone programming is knowing how to use the right programming languages, which could be low-level or high-level programming. Next, you can begin programming by using a programmable drone to access its programming and build your own app using a programming language.

Drone programming might sound difficult and tricky to do but, actually, it’s easier than you might think. A few simple instructions to get you started in the right direction and you’ll be on your way to creating your own program for your drone. Of course, for those who already know the basics of programming, it will be easier to learn how to do drone programming, but even for absolute beginners, you’ve got to start somewhere, right?

Can You Program Drones?

Knowing how to program has become vital in today’s digital world, especially when it comes to robotics and other similar fields. In that regard, drones are merely one more of the many applications of programming. And it can be really fun to know how to program drones so that you can tell them what to do in a simple and efficient manner.

Then again, is it really possible for you to actually program drones? After all, drones already come with basic programming that allows you to control them using the remote control or the app that comes with the drone. But can you still program drones in a way that will allow you to have a more unique way of controlling them and telling them what to do?

Yes, drones are actually programmable. In fact, if you have seen it live or on television, there have been plenty of different drone light shows that have captivated audiences around the world. In September of 2020, a total of 3,051 drones in Shenzhen, China broke the record for the biggest drone light show ever. 

It would be hard to imagine 3,051 people each controlling all of those drones. And that is where drone programming comes in to program all of those drones to move in unison and to synchronize their every movement so that you can create such a spectacular show without having one person taking control over one drone each.

Nevertheless, we are not here to break any records but only to learn more about how drone programming works and how you can start programming your own drones. So, for starters, what you need to know is that not all drones are programmable; in fact, there are only specific models that are actually programmable by the end user.

Most of the programmable drones are sold specifically for educational purposes so that young people or those who want to learn about drone programming can actually use them to practice how to program drones. However, there are also DIY drone kits that you can buy so that you can create a programmable drone from scratch. These DIY drone kits are better for those who may want to develop their own app or program for their drones.

What Programming Language Do Drones Use?

For starters, the first thing you need to do when you want to learn how to program drones is to make sure that you actually know the programming language that drones use. After all, everything starts from the programming language because this is basically the language you will be using to communicate with the drone so that you can tell it what to do based on your own unique program.

So, for you to understand the different programming languages, we need to differentiate low-level and high-level programming from one another in relation to how they are used on drones.

Low-level programming

When it comes to low-level programming, the focus is the firmware that the drone runs on. This firmware is what communicates or coordinates with the drone’s hardware such as the propellers and the motor so that it would be able to make use of its basic functions. In short, the firmware is what allows the drone to use all of its different components.

So, for example, the drone’s firmware is actually what is responsible for determining how much power it should deliver to the motors and its propellers depending on how it is controlled or how it analyzes the drone’s inertial measurement unit. In that way the drone is able to stabilize itself as the firmware communicates with the drone’s motors and propellers while in the middle of a flight.

When it comes to low-level programming C and C++ are programming languages that you need to learn how to use. Most programmers who already have a good grasp of basic programming should know how to use C and C++ already because these are the programming languages that most students learn first.

However, even though C and C++ are considered basic, it isn’t really easy to learn them because of how complicated they can get. But if you have already gotten the hang of it and you already know the ins and outs of these programming languages, it will be easier for you to use them when trying to learn how to program your drone’s hardware and firmware.

High-level programming

While low-level programming deals with the firmware and the hardware, high-level programming deals with the applications of the drone. In short, you are already looking at the drone as entirely complete and you only need to come in with an app that will allow you to control the drone on command.

So, the different functions that will allow you to program the drone to do a lot of different things such as flying to a certain altitude or knowing how to use information so that it can automatically fly to that location via GPS are functions that can be programmed using high-level programming.

What happens here is that high-level programming works hand in hand with the firmware so that the drone can interpret the response that it should perform. So, for example, if you use the drone to fly at a controlled altitude on command, the app will communicate with the firmware, which will then communicate with the drone’s hardware.

Another example is when you want the drone to read GPS so that it can move in the correct desired direction based on how you commanded it via an app. So, the goal of high-level programming in that regard is to know how to communicate this with the firmware. Meanwhile, it is low-level programming that handles how the motors and the different hardware work after high-level programming has given the instruction.

Because high-level programming is easier to understand compared to low-level programming, it tends to be user-friendly and readily available to a lot of people. This is where a programming language such as Python comes into play because this language tends to be the easiest programming language to learn. Java can also be a good choice but Python is simply easier to use and understand for basic programmers and beginners.

How Do I Start Drone Programming? 

So, aside from learning the basic programming languages that are often used for both low-level and high-level drone programming, what you need to do to start drone programming is to get yourself a programmable drone.

Some programmable drones are available for you to buy. And these drones already come with a software development kit (SDK) or application programming interface (API) in their packages. Most of the drones that are programmable already come with their own firmware in the sense that they already have the low-level programming necessary for them to control their hardware. 

So, what you can do with these programmable drones is to now use high-level programming to program and develop an application that will allow you to control it to perform specialized functions. As such, it is imperative that you get a drone that is capable of the programming language of your choices such as Python or the SDK that comes with the programmable drone.

Using the SDK, you can actually create your own mobile drone app even without using a programming language as long as the SDK comes with all of the basic necessities you need to develop your own app. Your knowledge of high-level programming will be important when it comes to developing your own app. This app will be responsible for controlling the drone.

DroneKit

A good programmable drone kit that you can buy is DroneKit, which is an SDK that you can easily download using your Android mobile device. You can use this SDK to create your own Android control application as long as you have yourself armed with the basic knowledge of high-level programming. And the best part is that DroneKit SDKs are absolutely free and open-source.

The good thing about DroneKit is that it comes with all of the basic features you need when it comes to the controls of your drone. This includes intelligent flight path planning and other autonomous features. And because it is open-source, you can basically use the different codes that other programmers have used for their own drones. But the problem is that there is no customer support when it comes to DroneKit.

DJI SDKs and APIs

But if you are using DJI drones, which are some of the most popular drones in the market today, you can make use of DJI’s SDKs and APIs so that you can develop your own iOS and Android apps designed specifically for DJI drones such as the Mavic. The DJI SDKs are actually great in the features that they offer because of how they come with different automated functions such as obstacle evasion and even live video feed, which will allow you to maximize the Mavic’s amazing camera capabilities.

The problem, however, is that DJI SDKs and APIs are not for free. But if you do insist on using a DJI drone, you should be able to get your hands on an SDK or API if you contact DJI yourself. This should be a great way for you to learn how to program your own DJI drone especially because DJI’s SDKs are rich in features.

Elizabeth Ciobanu

Editor-in-Chief. Elizabeth is a full-time (homeschooling!) mom of four, and serial entrepreneur in a variety of enterprises, one of which is producing content for Droneblog. If free time existed, she would love to spend more time on hobbies such as flying a drone.

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