Drone Programming

Drone Programming: Learn to Program with Drones

In this detailed guide, you will learn all you need to know about drone programming and programmable drone kits, as well as our top recommendations for the best drone kit available in the market today.

So without further adieu, let’s begin.

Can you Program Drones from Scratch?

Yes, there are specific drone models that are programmable, but it’s important to understand that not all drones are programmable.

Most programmable drones are designed for educational purposes to help students and hobbyists learn, but there are also DIY drone kits where you can build the drone and program the drone from scratch to make it totally your own.

What Programming Languages are used to program drones?

To answer this question, we have to understand that there are two different layers of drone programming: low-level and high-level. In low-level programming, we are dealing with the drone’s firmware, while in high-level drone programming, we are talking about applications or software level.

Low-level (firmware) programming

In low-level programming, our concentration is on the drone’s firmware, which basically coordinates the hardware aspects of the drone such as the motor(s), propellers, ESC, battery, etc. Basically, the drone’s firmware allows the drone to have its basic functionalities and operations.

The drone’s firmware, for example, handles things like determining the exact amount of power that should be delivered to the motors by analyzing the information coming from the drone’s IMU (Inertial Measurement Unit). This will allow the drone to perform a stable and level flight, the most basic and yet most important function of any drone.

In low-level programming, C and C++ are the primary programming language you’d need to learn, although lower-level machine language like Assembly can also help.

Obviously, these lower-level languages aren’t the easiest to learn, but once you get the hang of them, they can be a lot of fun as you learn to program the different aspects of the drone’s hardware and firmware.

In cases of DIY/modular drone, the hardware kit used would also determine what kinds of language is needed to build the code.

For example, Arduino and Raspberry Pi are popular in modular drone kits, and in such cases, we should use the respective language that is compatible with these modular hardware kits. Most of these languages, however, are based on C/C++.

Arduino, for example, is actually a group of C/C++ commands that we can call through an interface that is Arduino sketch.

So, basically, if you know enough C and C++, you are good to go.

High-level programming 

In this type of programming, we are dealing with the applications of the drone. A drone is already a complete unit, and we can treat it as an API that would respond to our command.

Functions like controlling the drone to a certain altitude via the Flight Controller (FC) or interpreting information from GPS so the drone can move to a GPS waypoint, and even increasing/decreasing speed are handled by high-level programming.

High-level programming will work together with the firmware to perform the intended response and a high-level programmer doesn’t need to consider the technicalities of how the program is executed at the firmware level.

For example, in high-level programming, we only need to consider how the drone can read the information from GPS correctly and ensure it will move to the desired location. How the motors and ESC must work are handled in low-level programming, and is not the concern here.

As you can see, high-level programming is much more accessible and user-friendly. Python is a very popular high-level language that is also popular in drone programming, and Java is another popular choice.

Typically in high-level programming, however, we are most likely to deal with APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) rather than an actual language.

For example, the drone in question might provide a Java-based API so we can code the AR in Java with the help of an interface. There are, however, APIs that are based on C/C++, so again knowing your C/C++ can be a valuable asset.

What is the Best Way to Learn Drone Programming?

The best approach is to get a programmable drone and use an SDK and API to program the drone at its application level.

There are programmable drones that include their SDK/API in their packages, but if you already happen to own a compatible drone, you might be able to hack into the drone to use an SDK, depending on the drone model.

Basically what you need to do here is to get a drone that supports the SDK and/or programming language of your choosing.

The basic approach here is to build your own mobile drone app using the SDK, the app is where our high-level programming will go, and in turn, the app will control the drone’s application.

There are many SDK/API options available for building drone apps at the moment, but here are some of the common options that are supported by popular drone products:

DroneKit SDK/API

DroneKit is an SDK/API produced by 3D Robotics, and you can easily access DroneKit’s Android SDK documentation to create an Android control app. The DroneKit APIs and SDKs are free and open-source and supports all major drone platforms.

DroneKit DK supports autonomous flight features, intelligent path planning, and live telemetry, but we can use its API libraries to integrate additional actuators, sensors, and unlock more features.

It is an open-source SDK, so although it is totally free, you won’t get dedicated customer support. However, there are various example projects that can help you learn to program in their GitHub repositories.

FlytBase SDK/API

FlytBase is another popular platform offering SDKs and APIs to build a drone control app. Unlike DroneKit, however, it is not an open-source platform, so you’d need to register with FlytBase before you can use the solution. Meaning, it’s not free.

FlytBase supports all popular drone models, sensors, and cloud services, and also offer several unique features like unified APIs and a drone simulator feature. You can use its Android SDK (called FlytSDK) to create your Android control app, and FlytBase also offers various APIs.

DJI  SDK/API

DJI is obviously one of the most famous drone manufacturers today, and it offers its SDKs and APIs for creating both iOS and Android drone control apps. DJI’s SDKs and APIs are actually very versatile, offering various features like obstacle evasion, live video feed, remote access to camera’s media, high and low-level flight control, and more.

DJI’s SDK and API are not free, and you can contact DJI for more information. Depending on the drone device you use, DJI also offers brand-specific SDKs that support Spark, Mavic, Phantom series, and more.

Parrot SDK/API

Parrot offers free SDK with sample code repositories that you can use to build your drone control app. You can include some unique features like save/download media and send autopilot flight plans with the programmed drone control app.

Parrot’s SDK works with various popular drone platforms and is based on C/C++. Supports both Android and iOS. You can easily check their sample projects (for both Android and iOS) in their GitHub repository.

With that being said, below we will discuss some programmable drones you can buy that supports these SDKs and APIs.

Best Drone Kits for the Money

Below are the drone kits we think top the list right now. These kits may not be programmable, however, if you just want to fly these are great options that won’t break the bank!

#1. Drone X Pro Limitless 4S

Drone X Pro LIMITLESS 4S Camera Drone for Adults - GPS 4K UHD Drones with Obstacle Avoidance - 3-Axis Gimbal - Auto Return and Follow Mode - Long Flight Time & Control Range - Live Video Check Amazon Pricing

Key Features

  • Advanced obstacle avoidance and extended range
  • GPS precision and auto return home feature
  • Extended flight time and extremely powerful motors
  • Cinematic 4K UHD video and smooth 3-axis gimbal
  • Gesture control with dynamic follow-me technology

Pros and Cons

Pros: 

  • High-quality 4K UHD photos and video
  • 5,000 mAh battery providing 30 minutes of flight per charge
  • Powerful brushless motors for reduced noise and long battery life
  • Easy to set up even for beginners

Cons: 

  • More expensive than other drones listed

Our Verdict

The Drone X Pro is a fast and agile drone with a fairly compact design. Very versatile for programming needs, and also in the hardware department as you can add and combine various physical modules.

By itself, it is already a strong performer with a great battery/motor and various auto-pilot options, but it is the versatility that makes this drone one of the best available in the market today.

#2. Potensic ATOM 4K GPS Drone Kit

Potensic ATOM 3-Axis Gimbal 4K GPS Drone, Under 249g, 96 Mins Flight, Max 6KM Transmission, Visual Tracking, 4K/30FPS QuickShots, Lightweight for Adults and Beginners, Fly More Combo
Check Amazon Pricing

Key Features

  • Lightweight, less than 249 grams
  • Rock steady 4K 3-axis gimbal
  • Fast charge, 96 minute flight time
  • Up to 5-mile transmission
  • Beginner friendly with auto return

Pros and Cons

Pros: 

  • Affordable price
  • Long lasting battery with 96 minutes of flight time
  • Easy to control with stable flight
  • Compact and lightweight, easier storage and transport
  • Beginner flight modes
  • Simple and intuitive control app

Cons: 

  • Doesn’t fly too well against strong wind

Our Verdict

The Potensic ATOM 4K Drone is an affordable programmable drone if you want to learn drone programming. Great for both children and adults, and produces amazing 4K video.

It is also very light and compact with only 249 grams of weight. However, due to its lightweight, it struggles in windy conditions, so you might only want to only fly the during relatively windless conditions.

#3. Holy Stone 3 Axis Gimbal Drone

Holy Stone HS720R 3 Axis Gimbal GPS Drones with Camera for Adults 4K EIS; FPV RC Drone, Foldable Quadcopter with 10000 Feet Video Transmission Control Range, Brushless Motor, Follow Me, Auto Return

Check Amazon Pricing

Key Features

  • FAA-Compliant with built-in remote ID
  • 4K UHD camera with 3-axis gimbal
  • Built-in cutting edge GPS technology
  • One-click take-off and landing, emergency landing feature

Pros and Cons

Pros: 

  • Auto returns home when battery gets low
  • Easy to learn and master quickly
  • Very well priced for what you get
  • Brushless motors for low noise

Cons: 

  • Less than 25 minutes flying time

Our Verdict

The Holy Stone HS720R is great drone kit that is relatively affordable. It is portable and compact but includes a great camera that can handle 4K. Also, what’s really great about this drone is it support VR (Virtual Reality).

Put your cellphone into the VR Glasses (not included) and experience real-time transmission to enjoy 3D Virtual Reality live video!

Drone Kits Final Words

The drone kits we have shared above are our top picks that can suit electronics hobbyists, students, and even professionals. We hope you’ve gathered enough information from this guide, and we hope that you’ll consider a drone for your next programming project!

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