Mission Control for Personal Drones

Fighting Walrus uses thixomolding at Proto Labs for magnesium components that attach the drone controller to mobile devices.

“Final magnesium parts, like the ones thixomolded for Fighting Walrus, are strong, lightweight and can maintain detailed features.”

Surf a perfect wave or speed down a powdery ski trail and get it all on bird's-eye video. Engage in a spirited aerial dogfight. Capture that seemingly impossible Hollywood-style panning shot for your would-be feature film.

These are just a few of the ways enthusiasts and DIY tinkerers are using personal drones, in addition to flying simply for the fun of it. Other applications for drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), include search-and-rescue efforts, agricultural monitoring, weather monitoring, coverage of news and sporting events, and oil and gas exploration.

The Fighting Walrus Radio adds a 900 MHz telemetry radio to an Apple mobile device and uses open-source software to communicate with popular small drones. Photo by Bryan Galusha.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is expected to allow restricted commercial drone use starting in December 2014; the agency has already granted some exceptions to filmmakers. For now, officially, drones can fly for hobby or recreation and must stay below 400 feet away from airports and air traffic, and within sight of the operator.

Once commercial use does get the green light from the feds, drones will add an estimated $82 billion to the economy and create more than 100,000 jobs between 2015 and 2025, according to research by the Association for Unmanned Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI). More than 500,000 drones have been sold in the United States since the flying robots began lifting off a decade or so ago, according to one manufacturer’s recent estimate.

Hoping to make waves in that growing market is Fighting Walrus, a Brisbane, Calif., start-up. The company's Fighting Walrus Radio adds a 900 MHz telemetry radio to an iPad or iPhone and uses open-source software to communicate with popular small drones such as 3DRobotics' IRIS multicopters and others that use the popular MAVLink telemetry protocol. When attached, the radio enclosure looks kinds of like “a walrus peering over the edge of (an) iPad,” providing inspiration for the company’s whimsical name.

“With this product as well as the app that goes along with it, you can command and control the drone,” company president Bryan Galusha says. “You can give it a set of waypoints, give it a mission of things you want it to go do. It will then execute that task and return back to you. So it’s kind of a high-level command interface.”

Fighting Walrus also is working to add full manual control “in the not too distant future,” Galusha says. “You can completely control [the drone] with the iPad or iPhone, both the high-level as well as the right-left, up-down” through tilting the mobile device.

The key differentiator for the Fighting Walrus is that the company is taking aim at drone enthusiasts who also favor Apple’s iOS devices. “There are solutions for Android, but nobody has a solution for iPhone or iPad, so we took the opportunity and developed the product. ... I'm a bit of an Apple fanboy. But at the highest level, I really wanted to be able to connect the usability, the real ease of use that you get with your typical Apple product, with a drone.”

The company launched about two years ago, Galusha explains, financing the project through an online Indiegogo crowdfunding campaign. Fighting Walrus is now taking preorders through its website.

Getting the Apple’s “made for iPad” stamp of approval has been a major challenge that has delayed shipment, Galusha says. “That's definitely been a holdup and a learning experience working with them, but luckily we’re almost finished with that,” he says. “I think we have all the little issues figured out.”

In the meantime, Fighting Walrus has begun taking preorders on a new product, a smaller antenna it calls the iDroneLink. It is “quickly moving towards an MFi approved shippable product,” and is expected to ship in January, according to the company's website. The acronym refers to Apple's MFi (“Made for iPad” and “Made for iPhone”) licensing program for electronic accessories that connect to such devices.

The iDroneLink will support crowdfunded drones such as the Pocket Drone and Hexo+ that cater to the “follow-me” segment of drone users, who would attach it to an iPhone, stow it in a pocket and get ready for their close-up, Galusha says. “The premise is that the drone will follow you and film wherever you go, like having a third-person GoPro camera at your side.”

Magnesium thixomolding at Proto Labs was used to produce the sleek, lightweight parts that clamp the Fighting Walrus Radio to an iPad or iPhone. Photo by Bryan Galusha.

The look and feel of Apple products inspired Galusha to choose Proto Labs’ magnesium thixomolding process to produce the two magnesium parts that clamp the Fighting Walrus Radio onto an iPad or iPhone and house the radio antenna, Galusha says.

“Their iPhones, iPads and MacBook Pros all have this beautiful metal finish and style," describes Galusha. "We wanted to use the metal as a material to emulate and work in that ecosystem. That's how we settled on thixomolding.”

Magnesium thixomolding uses chipped magnesium feedstock that is heated in the barrel of an injection molding press. A reciprocating screw works the material into a thixotropic (gel-like) state and the material is forced into a steel mold at high speed and pressure, creating fully dense, net-shape magnesium parts. Final parts, like the ones molded for Fighting Walrus, are strong, lightweight and can maintain detailed features.

Proto Labs’ customer service engineers suggested magnesium thixomolding as a solution. “The biggest plus to thixomolding was the cost. You get metal parts, but it’s at a fraction of what it would cost for a typical machined part, at least at our volume,” Galusha explains. “You can get a lower price quote on machined parts that are square or have a simpler design, but with thixomolding, you can get these beautiful, complex curves at basically no additional cost.”

Two pieces of liquid silicone rubber that help the magnesium clamp hold onto the iPad or iPhone were also injection molded at Proto Labs, Galusha says, as well as two machined plastic parts that hold the connector that plugs into the iOS device.

“We 3D printed some parts, but the ones we did ourselves don't have the same precision and the same finish of the additive parts from Proto Labs," Galusha says. “We're really excited to try some of the new 3D printing technologies at Proto Labs.”

Fighting Walrus more recently ordered tooling from Proto Labs for plastic parts for its iDroneLink product.