An In-Depth Conversation with Leaders of the Drone Open Source Community
Monday, CNN reported that Ellen Lord, the U.S. Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment, told reporters that the department was seeking investors to develop U.S. manufactured drones so that the military would not be reliant upon Chinese-manufactured DJI products. That may be somewhat misleading – DJI certainly has never claimed to go after the military market, and accusations about “sending data back to China” remain vague and unproven. It is true, however, that drone manufacturers globally have struggled to compete with DJI’s rapid development cycles and manufacturing efficiencies: and there may be an argument that more competition in the commercial market could help to expand use cases and broaden the scope of drone innovation.
That’s where the issue of an open-source drone platform comes to the forefront of the conversation. DRONELIFE had the unique opportunity for an in-depth discussion with the founders of Auterion and leaders of the development of PX4, the first widely used open source flight control software for drones, Lorenz Meier and Kevin Sartori.
When Meier started the PixHawk project more than 10 years ago at ETH Zurich, Switzerland’s elite University for Science and Technology, he was a scientist working on a problem he found interesting. When the PX4 open source flight control system for drones and other unmanned vehicles was developed in 2011, most academic projects were already using the open source platform. There was no way to know, however, that by 2019 the platform would now have more than 300 developers working on the code, 8000 professional developers working with it; and that Meier and Sartori would be at the head of a successful commercial enterprise serving commercial and government customers.
“We made our source code available to everyone else, and that let us snowball,” Meier comments. “It took a whole decade to get there, in small baby steps, to develop all of the pieces.” Over that decade, Meier explains, the platform – and his company – evolved from a research project to a very real commercial product. “That’s the story of Auterion – you have enthusiasts driving it because they find it interesting; then the innovation units of larger businesses and the early movers start to get involved.”
“From the maker community of enthusiasts, now virtually all of the PX4 developers are commercially paid for a commercial purpose.”
Understanding the Concept of an Open Source Platform for Drones
While adoption of the open source platform is growing rapidly, it’s still a confusing concept to many consumers or commercial drone pilots. The common comparison is between Apple and Android, with DJI as the iOS of the drone world. Auterion co-founder Kevin Sartori clarifies that the comparison isn’t entirely accurate: the drone industry is still in the very early stages of development towards its real potential.
“Our high level assumption is that drones are still feature phones,” says Sartori. “We might not be at smart phone stage, we’re still talking about Nokia,” he explains. “Drones aren’t connected yet. There is no easy way to distribute apps. With Auterion, we are building the infrastructure that will allow the industry to get there.”
How Open Source is Being Used Now – and Auterion’s Place in the Market
PX4 and open source tools are now being used to make new and innovative hardware products fly: from offerings from Chinese manufacturer Yuneec to new U.S. drone manufacturer Impossible Aerospace, developing a long endurance battery powered aircraft. Open source is allowing new drone companies and customers to focus on specific problems, says Sartori, without having to reinvent a way to make the drone fly: “Companies don’t actually build the whole solution, they focus on their added value,” he says. “It’s a natural evolution of the industry, and it helps the industry accelerate.”
For some companies, however, open source platforms remain the private domain of software developers and scientists. That’s where Auterion has developed their leading position in the commercial drone market. As the open source code has evolved and become reliable and more sophisticated, it’s no longer the domain of makers and amateurs. “The code is becoming more complex. Amateurs are no longer contributing, but its much easier to use,” explains Sartori.
Auterion is taking tools developed on the open source platform and putting them together into full solutions sets, allowing enterprise customers to more easily develop innovative solutions. In addition to the PX4 autopilot software, they provide a ground station with flight control and mission planning, and a cloud-based dashboard and data hub, Auterion Insights. “The pure open source model no longer allowed people to build a successful product – they needed an integrated solution,” Sartori says. “That’s Auterion. We’re dealing with all of the nasty complexities and giving you a commercial product.”
“When we talk about our history with developing PX4 we are always threading a fine line between the ideas of ‘open source developers do everything for the greater good’ but ‘they are not real companies getting things done,’” adds Meier. “Auterion is the largest avionics player in the world by many metrics. We’re a very real business that is serving real customers.”
Why Governments and Industry Like Open Source Platforms
Open source as a concept is getting more traction in the drone industry. From a business standpoint, says Sartori, that makes a lot of sense – and it simply reflects most modern software development. “Microsoft is the largest contributor to open source and Linux,” Sartori points out. “The world cloud ecosystems all run on open source software. You don’t have the usual transaction costs, so development is much less expensive – and that’s a real reason open source has become so successful.”
“The real question is not ‘why open source?'” says Sartori, “but ‘why not open source?’ We just do modern software development brought into the avionics space.”
Meier points out that open source also addresses specific needs for both government and enterprise customers, solving some important problems. “On the one side, it’s transparency: you can see the code,” says Meier. “Also, there is no vendor lock-in: the customer always has options, which makes them more independent.” Government customers can find themselves stuck between two poor options, Meier and Sartori explain: vendor lock-in can lead to overly long development cycles, and a consumer product might actually be better and more innovative. Consumer products, however, may not meet government standards for cyber security.
As CNN’s recent article and other press has shown, the government has a “new model” when it comes to drones: they want to encourage consumer products with open source. But “the U.S. government is the largest Linux user,” says Meier. “It’s not a new model.” New or not, it’s a process that the U.S. government is now rapidly adopting for drones, however: Auterion’s ground station was recently successfully demonstrated.
Driving Industry Innovation to the Next Level
For the drone industry, Meier and Sartori agree that open source has the potential to signficantly boost the speed of innovation. “The code is made better by many companies in the market, so you get consolidation of improvements,” says Meier. “That allows users of the code to move far more quickly than any one company can.”
As the industry matures, says Meier, that’s an important point. “The biggest mistake that a company can make right now is to try to do everything themselves,” he says. “Those times are over.”
“There is huge transformation, as in every industry: and it’s important to focus on your differentiation. We’re taking on a lot of the workload of just keeping the drone in the air, safely and in compliance… that will help move the industry forward, from the ‘feature phone’ to the ‘smart phone’.”
“No single company can challenge DJI’s market dominance,” says Meier. “It will take a whole ecosystem.”
Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
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