is an open source flight control software for drones and other uncrewed vehicles, hosted by Dronecode, a Linux Foundation non-profit. The project provides a flexible set of tools for drone developers to share technologies to create tailored solutions for drone applications. Annually, the Dronecode Foundation hosts the PX4 Developer Summit, a flagship conference for the drone development community. DroneLife contributor Dawn Zoldi attended the event and provided coverage of a few takeaways about the latest technologies in the PX4 ecosystem.
PX4 Drone Code – Top 4 Benefits and Needs
By: Dawn Zoldi
, a non-profit organization administered by Linux Foundation, leads the development efforts for PX4, the leading open source autopilot software for uncrewed vehicles.
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PX4 provides a standard to deliver a scalable hardware support and a software stack. It evolves through a collaborative ecosystem of over 10,000 developers and commercial adopters that both build and maintain the software.
The drone community uses PX4 for a wide variety of use-cases ranging from recreational flight, research and development to commercial and industrial applications. PX4 has changed the game for drone operators globally. As the drone game itself continues to change, so too do end user needs. This article provides perspectives from two industry leaders on how the drone industry benefits from open source software and what it needs from the developer community, going forward.
Open Source Drone Code Benefits Today
Ryan Johnston, CEO and Co-Founder of Austin, Texas-based , manufacturers of long-range fixed wing uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAV) such as the flagship Albatross, uses PX4 for its commercial enterprises, service providers and military customers. He believes this open source autopilot software has propelled the industry in terms of accessibility, flexibility, transparency and cyber security.
PX4 removes barriers to entry for entrepreneurs, small businesses and researchers by providing widespread accessibility. Open source coding provides a foundation for everyone, lowering barriers to entry and evolving with industry needs.
It specifically removes financial barriers to entry and affords everyone, including new entrants, with ready access. This levels the playing field and propels the innovation, refinement and adoption that, in turn, propels the drone industry.
Applied Aeronautics first engaged with PX4 in 2014, when the company needed to find a way to slow down its large aircraft, which had a 30:1 glide ratio like a sailplane. At that time, no autopilot software could do this. Johnston flew to Zurich to spend time with PX4 developers, who got the autonomous takeoff and landing to work successfully on the first try. “The iteration from challenge identification, to communication with the community, experimentation and resolution took just a matter of days,” he said. “I immediately became a believer in open source coding.”
Johnston opined that open standards and software will be key to ensuring OEMs can deliver solutions that meet the ever-changing needs of the user base and regulators. It’s an adaptable ecosystem,” he explained. “It’s a great foundation and starting point, which can be modified and adapted to suit one’s own objectives.” Customers can add new software modules, external sensors or a companion computer to achieve their goals.
That adaptability applies, not just just during the planning stage of a project, but throughout a project’s life cycle. PX4 allows customers to ask questions and gain invaluable insights from experts in various fields, who troubleshoot in real time with tech support. Johnston said. “Without the foundation PX4 provided, many of our customer projects, both military and commercial, would literally and figuratively not have been able to get off the ground.”
The PX4 community also creates a living record of these shared challenges and holistic expert community feedback. This results in vetted foundational standards that enable innovation and interoperability.
“No one company or piece of hardware will be able to solve all existing industry or customer challenges,” Johnston noted. “This is why interoperability among subsystems is so important to moving the industry forward. PX4 opens up these pathways because it can work with almost anything, including a wide variety of hardware, sensors, and user interfaces with varying levels of risk tolerance.”
As an added bonus, open source software also helps to mitigate cyber threats. The fact that multiple parties access and edit the code base on an ongoing basis leads to increased accountability. This level of code auditing is impossible in closed systems, according to Johnston
What The Industry Needs From Developers Next
According to Michael Blades, Senior Director of Platforms for , a leading contract drone services provider network and last-mile delivery system, PX4’s ability to continue to evolve will be key to operating at scale in the future. Like so many companies, DroneUp also uses PX4. Blades believes high operational tempos will require upgraded software to keep pace. To do this, he said, developers must keep the following four key goals in mind.
While DroneUp’s story is unique, it provides an example of what others in the drone industry will likely also require for wide scale repeatable operations.
DroneUp originated in 2016 using drones to assist emergency services during a natural disaster. In just four years it has grown to a network of more than 22,000 pilots and partnered with the nation’s #1 retailer, Walmart, for drone delivery.
Last November, DroneUp opened its first drone airport, called “The DroneUp Hub,” Farmington, Arkansas. So far in 2022, it has launched two more Hubs in the state. By this July, it will open additional Hubs in Florida, Texas, Arizona, Virginia and Utah, as part of its nationwide expansion with Walmart. The ultimate goal is to have enough operational Hubs to service more than four thousand Walmart stores across. This will require about 34 hubs with a total of 40,000 – 80,000 drones.
Tens of thousands of drones will ultimately require one-to-many remote pilot operations and beyond visual line of sight operations. Autopilot software will need to account for this.
This same software must support dissimilar fleets, across multiple domains. Flight distances and cargo loads will vary, as will the environments in which drones will operate. This will necessitate the use of a wide variety of drones. At some point, drones may deliver to autonomous ground fleets for last mile deliveries. Software will need to plug-and-play across all of these vehicles.
As discussed above, PX4 development accounts for cyber security by virtue of its own processes. Even so, according to Blades, additional hardening against cyber attacks remains a critical software requirement. This becomes even more crucial when operating at scale.
Finally, the need to rapidly test and field foundational source code updates becomes even more amplified when a company utilizes large fleets in wide ranging operations.
What Lies Ahead
Ramón Roche, the General Manager of the Dronecode Foundation, 2021 Airwards Industry Impactor Award recipient, and active contributor, advocate and leader in open-source code for drones for more than a decade, noted, “At the Dronecode Foundation, during the past seven years, when the drone industry faced multiple challenges, our community pitched in to help solve even the most complex aspects of managing aerial vehicles. We plan to continue to support the industry by keeping open technologies aligned with current industry needs, looking beyond what lies ahead, and providing new opportunities and solutions.”
To do this, The Dronecode Foundation plans to expand its efforts on open standards. Roche said, “We are doubling down on the work we have been carrying out over the last two years. We strongly believe standards are the way forward for our industry, and we want to open the doors to any organization to collaborate with us.”
The Foundation just concluded a successful PX4 Developer Summit at the end of June. There, Roche alluded to upcoming announcements on additional face-to-face meetings this year to share in-depth plans and progress in the ecosystem. So, stay tuned for what’s next.
In the meantime, to learn more about The Dronecode Foundation visit: https://www.dronecode.org/
Read more about open source software for drones, and the Dronecode Foundation:
- Dronecode Foundation Hosts the PX4 Autopilot Developer Summit Next Month: Open Source Drone Projects
- Open Source Drone Operating Systems Continue to Gain Ground: The Year in Review for PX4
- An Open Source Drone Platform is More Relevant than Ever: Auterions Romeo Durscher
- DroneAnalyst: The Rise of Open Source Drones
Dawn M.K. Zoldi (Colonel, USAF, Retired) is a licensed attorney with 28 years of combined active duty military and federal civil service to the U.S. Air Force. She is the CEO & Founder of P3 Tech Consulting and an internationally recognized expert on uncrewed aircraft system law and policy. Zoldi contributes to several magazines and hosts popular tech podcasts. Zoldi is also an Adjunct Professor for two universities, at the undergraduate and graduate levels. In 2022, she received the Airwards People’s Choice Industry Impactor Award, was recognized as one of the Top Women to Follow on LinkedIn and listed in the eVTOL Insights 2022 PowerBook. For more information, follow her on social media and visit her website at: https://www.
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 penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry. Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.
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