Tech Talk: Snap’s Micro Gimbal

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Tech Talk: Snap’s Micro Gimbal

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When we decided to build Snap three years ago, our goal was to create a flying camera that wouldn’t just be lightweight and easy-to-use, but it would also capture professional-quality footage rivaling professional set ups. To accomplish this, we knew Snap would need gimbal stabilization.

A  gimbal-stabilized camera is mounted on actuators that move to keep the camera at a consistent orientation relative to the ground. Since Snap (and all other quadrotors) need to tilt quickly in order to move and maintain position, this stabilization of the camera is crucial for achieving smooth video.

The Problem: While gimbal stabilization is the standard for professional aerial video, most gimbals on the market weigh in at a 100 grams or more. Bigger gimbals are easier to hold steady—think about how it’s easier to balance a yardstick on your finger than a pencil. We needed one that was substantially lighter and smaller to comply with the lightweight and packable design we had imagined for Snap.

The Solution: After three years of intense R&D with a highly-talented team, our fair share of trial and error, and excessive amounts of coffee, we managed to engineer this impossible gimbal.  Check out the clip below—and keep your eye on the camera— to see Snap’s gimbal in action.

Even though this video was shot with one of Snap’s early prototypes, you can still get a sense for how the system works. Snap’s gimbal stabilization will also ensure that the vibrations from the propellers don’t distort the video, giving it that “jell-o” effect.

How’d we do it? Without giving away too much, here are some of our design secrets:

  • We integrated all of the gimbal components into the fewest possible parts. This enables us to create the stiffest possible assembly with minimal weight.
  • We designed our gimbal with materials and shapes that optimize strength-to-weight and stiffness-to-weight ratios. Strong and stiff equals precise, high-quality video.
  • We rotate the camera using custom-integrated low cogging torque motors to enable consistent, buttery-smooth rotation. The roll-stage motor is integrated into a one-piece cnc’d 6061 T6 aluminum yoke and holds the camera from both sides, making it both extremely stiff (remember, stiff = high video quality) and light, as well as extremely hard to break.
  • In the event that you do manage to destroy the gimbal, the entire assembly can be removed for repair by taking out two 2-mm allen-head screws.
  • In order to further reduce weight, we designed out the yaw axis on our gimbal. We did this by modifying the orientation of the blades on Snap to radically improve our level of yaw control and then adding custom Electronic Image Stabilization (EIS) to remove the sub-1 degree yaw movements to maintain pixel perfection.

As the gimbal gets smaller and lighter, little things like bearing drag and wire stiffness start to become big issues. Here’s how we tackled those:

  • We fabricated all the parts to absurdly high CNC machined tolerances, used the best quality bearings, created custom, ultra-flexible flex circuits, and used precise miniature hollow shafts for torque-free micro wire routing. In short, these additions will keep everything perfectly smooth in this new micro size.
  • To deal with isolating the propeller vibration from the gimbal, we coupled the mass of the gimbal with the fuselage and battery and then vibrationally isolated this assembly from the propellers, using custom-tuned isolators. Since the whole system is substantially lighter, we need smaller, less powerful propellers, which produce less vibration, giving us a leg-up on heavier systems.

Just getting the mechanicals right still isn’t enough, most of the essential innovation is in the control electronics and software:

  • Our proprietary control software makes over 1000 adjustments per second to the gimbal’s angle (nearly 10 times for each rotation of the 7000 rpm propellers!) and can maintain less than 0.05 degrees of pointing accuracy.
  • In order to maintain the fastest possible response, our gimbal’s control software actually anticipates Snap’s movement through integration with the flight controller, so the gimbal can respond in perfect synchronicity with Snap’s movements (this is called “feed-forward,” in control-theory speak).

All of these design and engineering changes translate to a gimbal that can hold its own against the big boys. We can’t wait for you to try it out.

Leave your questions in the comments.

Best,

Tobin, Joe and the Vantage Robotics team

  • Elvera

    Reply

    Awesome issues here. I am very glad to peer your article.
    Thanks so much and I’m looking ahead to contact you.
    Will you please drop me a mail?

  • Poncin

    Reply

    Quand pensez qu’il va être commercialisé en France ?

    Merci

    • Charlie - Vantage Robotics

      Reply

      Hello Poncin – You can place preorders on the site and we will ship to France. International shipping is a little more expensive as outlined on the website.

  • frank

    Reply

    Hi, This drone looks amazing i do have one question. Can the camera be directed during flight.

  • Kevin Wickens

    Reply

    Pre-ordered my snap yesterday so this update is perfectly timed! Thanks Joe and the Vantage Team!

    You guys would laugh if you saw my “Drone comparison spreadsheet” Its 10 columns wide by 42 rows tall. You guys have been so great at allowing me to fill in all of snap’s specs into it. Two details that I’m still missing. Is 2.7K video supported and if it is, can you confirm that the frame-rate would be 60 fps if it is. This would be really nice as sometimes a 2.7K at higher frame rate would be preferred over the 4K at the slower 30 fps or the lower quality of the 1080p.

    2nd question: It seems to me that a huge and awesome extra bonus of snap would be that you could use snap as a hand-held camera as well as the insanely awesome aerial platform that it was designed for. So my question is. Could the camera record video and the gimbal be fully active and essentially snap “turned on” and filming without the propellers connected. The design of snap is so perfect to basically be doubled up as a hand-held stabilized 4K camera and this would sky-rocket snap’s value and allow your customers to avoid purchasing a 2nd UHD camera and gimbal for ground shots. If the answer comes back as no, it will not turn on without the propellers connected. Allow me to beg for this to somehow be built into the software at some point in time. I’d rather spend more money on additional snap modules than on a 2nd UHD camera and gimbal. 😉

  • Thor

    Reply

    I would like to piggy-back on what Kevin said. Framing and taking pictures using a phone as a viewfinder would be fantastic if it were stabilized as per some of your example videos – without the props attached. Great idea, Kevin!

  • Chris

    Reply

    Everything looks great just curious if you guys have looked at the Sony Exmor IMX 300 1 / 2.3”. Recent press reports that Sony Develops “Exmor RS,” the World’s First*1 Stacked CMOS Image Sensor” Its performance is impressive at 5984 x 4140 and 25 MP and actually is slightly smaller at 1.1 μm x 1.1 μm. Just as one would expect the markets servicing and supplying your endeavor continue to development at the pace that the consumer market demands. Unfortunately you could easily find snap entering production utilizing components already halfway to market obsolescence. This comes from one who is a believer in your vision, have carefully followed development, and very highly likely could be a future multiple item purchaser. I personally own multiple Inspire 1 PROs along with a myriad of lesser models purchased for both my use and use by my children. We currently all have high end VR goggles and my children have Runner 250Rs with GPS. I can envision Snap fitting right in and being used by everyone in the family though especially for my soon to be teen children. In closing I fear that the industry leading companies are releasing new products at a feverish and often unreasonable pace which unfortunately renders many unwitting beta testers. However these policies appear to be keeping most who would compete in the shadows and entering market obsolescence before release while rewarding certain companies for questionably corporate customer services and ethics. I truly hope Vantage is watching every trend and release and has equipment and features already in development to have Snap at least on a par with industry leaders but better in a position to become an undeniable industry leader not a market footnote or simply a supplier of a small niche.

  • Kevin Wickens

    Reply

    I’m already sold! My Pre-order for snap is already in. I’m just sayin’ 😉 Just to be a bit I dunno…. persuasive….. lol…. 2 very big drone companies currently allow for their gimbals to be removed and attached to a hand-held unit. Snap would have a 1 up on them as you wouldn’t need to remove the gimbal and use a separate unit with separate battery and pitch control and all that. The snap is already a perfectly as a handheld unit just as it is. You’d definitely be able to add this as a huge selling feature just as these other companies have done. And even sell additional accessories like a hand-held holder that allows you to snap on a smartphone somehow. 😉

  • Gary Kegel

    Reply

    Hi Again
    I already asked about going to a WPT and doing multiple orbits at Variable speeds and In Air tripod mode of doing multi 360 Pans at variable angles.
    How about out to a WPT a mile or more away at variable altitudes and do the Pans and return?

    I’M, sure this is all just a matter of software that when your team updates we will be able to download at some date.
    Is that correct?
    I don’t expect you to delay shipments adding these feature but it would be nice to have them when your team has the time. The more things Snap can do that others can’t the better.

    Can it follow me through a forest on twisting trails with limbs close to the trail or over the trail a few feet without hitting anything?

    Thanks Gary

  • Jason B

    Reply

    Thanks for the explanation. Appreciate your hard work! Do you lads have t-shirts for sale? I saw Tobin wear one at a conference. Might be a good way to drum up some business. All the best to the team, cheers!!

    • James Squires

      Reply

      Thanks Jason! We are making new shirts that reflect the latest design right now, and will be selling them soon. If you want to purchase a tee shirt before they go online, shoot us an email at contact@vantagerobotics.com, and we can work something out.

  • Scotf

    Reply

    Kevin, I’ve asked about using the drone as a solo camera without the props attached. They said it was let designed to be unfortunately, but hopefully they’ve changed their minds in the last few months.

    • James Squires

      Reply

      Just to clarify, while we are designing Snap to primarily be a flying camera, it will still work without the rotors.

  • Urs

    Reply

    Hello – I have ordered and paid for the snap quite some time ago. I the new camera an optional add-on to my order or already a part of it?

  • Jeff H.

    Reply

    Can you do a demo video in front of mirror rotating left/right (roll) and up/down (pitch) to see video stabilization performance of the Snap micro-gimbal?

  • Kevin Wickens

    Reply

    I was wondering if you guys were able to comment on the minimum force required for snap to break away. I was flying my cheap toy drone this weekend over water and had some birds come awfully close to it. Which got me thinking about the break-away design and how in that moment, I would definitely not want snap to break away should one of those birds decide to fly into it. lol. (Which I’m sure doesn’t happen often, if ever) I’m sure you guys tested 100’s of magnets at all sorts of different break away force requirements. Can you provide us any details that might give us a nice sense of security that our snap won’t break-away in mid air due to a minor bang or bump? Thanks so much. Oh also. I think the waterproof beacon will be a huge success. God I hope I haven’t asked this question already but…. will an operator be able to control the camera’s pitch and roll and snap’s yaw while snap is in an “auto-follow” mode following the waterproof beacon. If snap could do that. That would make the waterproof beacon a crazy wicked awesome must have add-on for me. A videographer could send snap off following his or her friend carrying the beacon and then manually frame some wicked wicked shots and then pan and or fly out or up or what have you. A+++ and thumbs up on the snap working without the rotors attached!

    🙂

  • Brian

    Reply

    Awesome! but the only thing I care, when can I get my plane?

    • James Squires

      Reply

      We will start shipping Snap in June, and will be sending units out sequentially through the summer, starting with the first orders.

  • Martin Bleazard

    Reply

    The only issue is that the focus is fixed at infinity, which is fine for most wide angle gimballed considerations anyway but it is a consideration, but it can be used without the rotors.

  • Jeff H.

    Reply

    So will you do this simple demo to show gimbal performance or not?

  • Joe

    Reply

    Looking good guys, can’t wait to get mine. Do you have any sample footage frome the 4k camera yet? Would love to see some, Thanks

  • Kevin Wickens

    Reply

    Question about the range extender ground module. I just realized a potential problem but I think you have it covered off. You’re claiming, 1500 meters distance with the range extender module. I’m assuming this range extender will also include FPV for up to that same distance or is the live display from the smart phone app. more limited than the 1500 meters. Also 2 Stick DSM controllers tend to NOT have FPV screens on them and obviously bluetooth controllers don’t at all. However some bind and fly transmitters have FPV screens on them. I’m thinking about the DEVO F7. Will snap work with a bind and fly transmitter such as the DEVO F7 and will the operator be able to get live FPV video streaming at whatever range the transmitter is capable of. i.e. 1000 – 1500 meters give and or take?

    Thanks! 😀

  • Darrin

    Reply

    What Phones, Tablets etc will be compatable with the Snap software? I have an older model Ipad, am I going to have to buy the latest tablet to run this?
    When will software be available for download?

    • James Squires

      Reply

      We are still building out the software, and don’t plan on releasing until we get close to shipping. We will have more details about when devices are going to be compatible coming soon.

  • Peter

    Reply

    Hi James and Team
    I have pre-ordered a Snap to try in a range of settings. I am wondering if it would be possible to fly the Snap upside down… to enable a *vertical* look angle (e.g. at an indoor roof). I expect the answer is no due to GPS locks etc, but it would be great if you could get that elusive Upward view. Thanks for your great work on developing this product.

  • Peter

    Reply

    Hi James
    Thanks for confirming – didn’t expect it would be possible. However, once you have perfected your gimbal and HC camera (and taken a well earned rest) you should seriously consider a MKII gimbal that has 180 degree tilt range. If that could be achieved, the industrial applications of SNAP would be significant.

  • Melanie Ware

    Reply

    That’s great news. Is there any way to find out where we are in that sequence?

    • James Squires

      Reply

      We will be coming out with more shipping details soon. Until we do, you can use a little deduction to get an idea of where you are. We started pre-sales in Sept., and have had steady orders since.

  • Melanie Ware

    Reply

    Well shucks. I thought we were some of the first. We ordered our is Feb. We are sure anxious to use it. Summer is what we bought it for.

  • Gary Kegel

    Reply

    When will you be shipping orders placed the end of January?

  • Martin

    Reply

    Hi Guys
    Is there a way of getting hold of just the gimbal and camera to use as a wearable gimbal?

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