The story of PX4 and Pixhawk
Created by our co-founder Lorenz Meier in 2008, Pixhawk is where Auterion’s open source journey began.
In search of autonomous flight
The story begins with a quest for autonomous flight. Lorenz wanted to make drones fly autonomously using computer vision, so he started a research project alongside his master’s degree at ETH Zurich. His plan was very ambitious. The drone computing power and technology we take for granted today didn’t exist in 2008, so Lorenz had to make the drone and flight control software and hardware himself. Realizing the scale of his task, he recruited a team of 14 fellow students, many more experienced than him, to make it happen.
“I recruited smarter people than myself, so they could tell me what to do.”
The birth of Pixhawk and the open source plan
After working day and night for nine months, the new team won the European Micro Air Vehicle competition in the indoor autonomy category in 2009, with a custom-designed flight controller and flight control code written from scratch, but using open source drivers and frameworks for the infrastructure. The team’s name was Pixhawk, and because they wanted to develop autonomy and computer vision for everybody, they released their software as open source.
Pixhawk software soon began to be adopted. Communication protocol MAVLink was picked up by the open source community and used in other autopilot projects such as AutoQuad and Ardupilot. User interface software QGroundControl came next, but it would take years and two new developers to lead on system architecture before it reached its position in the industry today.
PX4 is born
The flight control software and the autopilot electronics took longer to perfect. Struggling with architecture that wasn’t right and wouldn’t scale, Lorenz and his team came up with a radical solution. In 2011, they scrapped the software and hardware built in the previous three years and made a complete rebuild from scratch, which solved the issues.
The fourth rewrite of the PX flight control software (shorthand for Pixhawk) finally delivered the quality Lorenz wanted, and PX4 was born. Two years later, the first stable release was unveiled. In parallel, the team developed the first and second generation hardware (Flight Management Unit version 2: FMUv2), called Pixhawk in honor of the student team who began the journey.
Collaboration helped create a full drone stack
The team partnered with manufacturer 3D Robotics to build and distribute the hardware, and collaborated with ArduPilot to help them run their flight stack on Pixhawk’s PX4 middleware, so users had more choice. The hardware design remained open source and is still hosted on Github.
With these components, the team created a full drone technology stack: computer vision, flight control software, autopilot hardware, communication protocol and ground control station software. Everything needed to build and operate a drone.
I’m grateful to be part of this unbelievable journey and still curious about how much more we can develop and create together in an open source community.
An open source ecosystem was the key to success
By building an open source community, Lorenz enabled talented people worldwide to collaborate and create a full-scale solution that was reusable and standardized. Together, this community had more development power and skill than any well-resourced company in the field. With a diverse membership focused on different outcomes, the community worked best with an ‘ecosystem’ model, and this would only work with standardization. The choice of a permissive open source license meant anyone could improve or reuse the technology, which helps both academic and commercial projects to innovate with freedom.
Lorenz and his fellow maintainers were spending a lot of time keeping the software’s core clean and healthy, so they established a clearly defined process to debug, test and approve changes. Any code change is evaluated by at least two people and validated in automated flight testing before going into the code. The whole flight stack goes through an average of 1,000 test flights per month, which few companies developing closed source flight software can match.
The drone market is growing fast, and drone companies face the challenge of keeping up with demand for new features like visual odometry while also developing the flight software. This is a huge task, but open source makes it fast and simple. Instead of building everything themselves, drone companies can employ the open source platform around PX4 and build customer-relevant features on top.
2014: Dronecode ensures an open source future
Dronecode was founded to make sure that all drone software created in an open source environment will stay that way and remain non-discriminative, while building a sustainable ecosystem for critical drone components and fostering a collaborative community of top developers, end-users and vendors. Today, Dronecode is a non-profit organization that belongs to the Linux Foundation. It is a vendor-neutral foundation that provides open source governance infrastructure and services to PX4 and other collaborative open source drone projects, by actively driving open standards to help participating companies in the ecosystem to create new opportunities and reduce costs.
The PX4 community has evolved
The PX4 open source community has now grown to over 9,600 users and more than 600 contributors, who together added over 1.5 million lines of code in 2019. But it is not easy to sustain at industrial scale. PX4 users increasingly expect product-level user experience and reliability, and the community has changed from being academic and enthusiast-driven towards contributors who use PX4 in some type of product. Most contributors work full-time in the field and focus on their specific areas of interest, leaving a gap in evolving the overall platform.
2017: Auterion founded to drive the platform forward
Lorenz co-founded Auterion with Kevin Sartori to make his vision sustainable and scalable in the long term, by creating a company committed to maintaining the open source ecosystem and distribution model; and which supports other companies to use it in their products and services.
2020: The next big thing after Pixhawk
Skynode is our biggest step forward in drone technology since Pixhawk reshaped the industry. The fastest way to power any drone with the Auterion platform, it supports all different types of airframes. Versatile payloads can be controlled via an SDK and more advanced onboard computation and apps are enabled with Skynode. LTE cloud connectivity allows real-time video streaming and software updated over the air. Combining flight controller, mission computer, and connectivity, the US-made product makes drones ready to integrate into enterprise workflows and fast-tracks product development. Built on open industry standards, it cuts the time and cost of designing, integrating and maintaining hardware and software, so manufacturers can focus on developing excellent products.