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This question is regarding a drone and its GPS/Barometer sensor and may not fit well in this community and if that's the case, please advise if I should move it elsewhere.

So. I have built a DJI F550 Hexacopter along with a:

  • Naza M V2 + GPS
  • H3-3D and GoPro
  • DJI mini iOSD
  • Boscam 600mw VTX
  • Skyzone goggles
  • Futaba 8FGH RX

I live in New Zealand and the ski season starts in the next few weeks. My plan is to take the drone to the ski slopes and do some FPV flying following my mates downslope and in the park with hopes to get some nice footage.

I have a few concerns about it, such as how elevation will play flying in GPS/Atti mode.

Atti mode uses a barometer to maintain altitude and GPS mode uses, well, GPS. In ATTI mode, does anyone know whether the barometer will be accurate enough to keep the quad at more or less the right altitude and aid me in my flight? If the sensor has inaccurate readings, the drone will likely jump up and down erratically.

Likewise, would GPS be reliable on a downward slope and constant changes in elevation? I have used a ski tracker on my iPhone before which used GPS and it seemed pretty accurate but I'm unsure what precisions these GPS units have on mountain slopes.

Anyone with experience or knowledge in this field that can help out would be greatly appreciated.

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Let us break up the problem into four parts: GPS, Barometer, the Naza, and terrain.

  1. GPS:

    The altitude error of GPS is known to be around 1.5x horizontal error, due to the simple fact of geometry: In order to obtain higher accuracy, the angular spread in altitude of the GPS satellites from point of observation (the sensor) needs to be high. The constraint on this desired spread is due to signal attenuation and signal path distortion when a satellite is close to the horizon.

    For civilian GPS (such as the Naza), the best case scenario for altitude accuracy turns out to be around +/- 25 meters, for 95% confidence. This holds true only when the GPS antenna has unobstructed view of the sky at all times, and a number of GPS satellites (at least 4, preferably 6 or more) are accessible throughout the flight duration. Also, this height is relative to the center of rotation of the respective satellites - for a reasonable approximation, take it to be relative to the center of the earth. There is no correspondence to height above the actual ground wherever you might be.

    This 50 meter spread is pretty much unusable for low-level flight. Even if this variance were acceptable, for up to 5% of sensor samples the variance would exceed this, ending up with the hexacopter trying to embed itself into the ground at some point.

    On the bright side, this will happen just once, since the copter would need to be replaced or rebuilt after that.

  2. Barometer:

    A typical low-cost MEMS barometer promises +/- 0.8 to 3.5 meter accuracy, with the Naza claiming +/- 0.8 meters. This sounds great in theory, but in practical use, air pressure variations due to weather activity, and even more so on mountainous terrain due to rapidly moving pressure vortexes, reduces the actual accuracy to perhaps +/- 10 meters. The barometric height reading is based on air pressure, and thus relative to an arbitrary "mean sea level", varying widely with air pressure conditions. Again, no direct correlation to the actual height of the ground wherever you might be.

    This is still significantly better than what GPS alone can deliver. For programmed flight, this would suffice if the copter were to be consistently flown 20 to 30 meters above the height of any ground-based obstructions, in level flight. By introducing ground contour variations, all bets are off.

  3. The Naza:

    This is where things get better. The combination of barometer and GPS in the Naza controller provides checks and measures to reject outlier samples and jitter from one or the other of those sensors. In addition, the integrated accelerometer provides a further set of inputs for the damping algorithm of the controller. In tandem, and with a fairly conservative damping setting in place, the hexacopter should behave tolerably well, with effective vertical accuracy of a couple of meters in stable weather.

    Gusty wind conditions, and especially low-pressure pockets during impending storms, would reduce the accuracy to perhaps +/- 10 meters in the real world. Further, calibration of the sensors would be needed each flying day, perhaps even once every few hours, to keep the altitude readings meaningful.

  4. Terrain:

    Unlike flying over flat terrain, flying over ski slopes can make things rather interesting. For one thing, the terrain contours will necessarily be sloping, so the flight path design needs to take that into account, that too with an accuracy of a few meters. Further, the tops of trees and jutting rocks need to be taken into account.

    In addition, signal distorting factors such as water bodies (reflection of GPS signal causing false readings) and metal cables of cable cars or ski lifts, will adversely impact the accuracy of the GPS.

    Finally, the obstruction of line-of-sight from GPS antenna to individual satellites, due to mountain tops, trees, or rocks, will cause wide variation in GPS accuracy over the duration of a flight.


The solution:

Fly by eye. Control the hexacopter manually, do not depend on GPS or barometric settings. Also keep in mind that if some form of sensor dump takes place during a flight, and the hexacopter drops out of the sky, one must ensure that it does not endanger any skiers.

Ideally, one would fit the hexacopter with a camera with a medium telephoto lens - not the ultra-wide of the GoPro cameras, for example - and fly it at well over 20 meters above local terrain contour at all times. Also, one would ensure that the flight path, and especially a fall trajectory in case of failure, would be far removed from the route taken by skiers.

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  • \$\begingroup\$ Thanks for taking the time to answer the question in great detail, it is very useful information. With regards to your solution, I do intend to fly it by eye and using FPV goggles, but flying it in GPS/Atti mode generally has protection from user error such as the tilt angles on the copter and being able to let go off the sticks without the copter flying into the snow somewhere. With regards to safety, my plan is to fly off-piste where there are no ski lifts or skiers other than my friends who will be aware of the copter. Trees won't be a problem and only going to fly on a fine day. \$\endgroup\$ – Marko Jun 25 '14 at 4:18
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You would likely be better off at somewhere like RCGroups forum for specifics on certain module/s performance, as it can vary depending on chips used and implementation.

In general though:

  • GPS accuracy will suffer between/next to mountains due to restricted sky view. If this affects you, where and how you will be flying is very situation dependant.

  • GPS altitude hold (assuming baro is not used) will keep you fixed height above sealevel, not ground/mountain level afaik.

  • Baro/Atti is relative to ground height though afaik.

Personally Ive found that maintaining height is not the hardest part of flying, and you may be better of getting good at flying it 'manually' whenever possible as then if you reduce the risk of it making an incorrect correction and crashing. (if there is a chance of the happennig)

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