How Open source Is Changing the Drone Industry

November 10, 2021

Open Source Keyhole Graphic

They say “software is eating the world” but open source eats software, even companies like Microsoft, a long-time leading proprietary vendor, now realize that. And today, Microsoft is the largest contributor to open source software.

In 2011 our CEO Lorenz Meier created PX4, the world’s most widely used open-source flight controller for drones and other unmanned vehicles. Today, it is the core of what we do at Auterion and a large portion of the drone industry is now built around open source and is being transformed by it. 

“Open source provides a level playing field to new and small companies, rather than monopolized by a few large proprietary ones.”

Open source benefits the end users as well as the hardware and software companies. It’s secure, transparent, speeds up problem-solving and time to market, but also levels the playing field so that more players can participate. This means more innovation and a greater array of specialized products for drone users and operators. But open source is only the foundation, it needs work to make open software ready for end users and that’s where companies like Auterion come in.

Open Source Doesn’t Mean Final Product

Open source is the modern way to build software, but “open source” shouldn’t be confused with “free.” Yes, the source code of open source software is publicly available, which is important for transparency and security. And yes, the source code can be downloaded, but what you’re getting is not a final product, you’re getting the technology—the building blocks. In the end, you still need to take that source code and put it into a product and maintain that code. 

Maintaining Open Source Software

Software maintenance isn’t something that many people talk about outside of the open source industry, but we’re currently seeing massive cyber-security threats across the globe at an unprecedented level, and these threats are the result of software maintenance gone wrong. 

Windows or any other software isn’t inherently unsafe; it becomes unsafe once it’s outdated or not properly configured. It’s the same for open source software too; you can’t just download source code, install it on your system, and expect it to work. It needs to be regularly updated and potentially adapted to your local environment. 

Open source software is both readily available but it’s also inherently hard to use, especially if you try to use technology and you confuse “technology” with a final product. That’s the problem that Red Hat identified in the ‘90s for operating systems and that is the problem that we have identified at Auterion for drone software.

What Auterion does is bring the fantastic work of a global open source developer community around PX4, MAVLink, and other projects and it puts it into a productized form that is maintained, regularly updated, and tested for flight safety. We as a company make open source software as easy to adopt as you expect from a commercial product.

Collaboration and Innovation

When there’s a problem or a feature that needs to be addressed immediately, the person or organization that understands the problem is in the best position to solve it. When the software you use is open sourced, then you can go straight into the technology and understand why the problem occurs or why a feature is missing and you can experiment with changing it.

That’s also possible in Auterion’s product; PX4 is open source available. Often, we notice that the contributors don’t find the optimal path to solving a problem, but by choosing a path and demonstrating their chosen solution, we gain insight. With this information, we can help them take an approach that is perhaps more robust or easier to maintain. 

“That’s one key benefit of open source: it makes you a ton faster both in going to market and in solving problems.” 

Product Management

You might have noticed when you use open source software that the user interface might not be easy to use or the documentation is a mess. That’s because people are building technology together; they’re not building a product. It still needs that productization step to be ready for common end users.

When you product-manage a solution centrally, you will always focus on your current customers and on your current needs. This means you have a narrow scope, which is necessary to fund that development. In an open source project, however, you have multiple organizations and academics, maybe a few hobbyists, that come together and they explore new directions. 

Currently, Auterion is very focused on drones because that’s the largest market, but we have developers in our open source community who are experimenting with submarines, rovers, boats, blimps and all sorts of things. What they are doing in the open source project might not be as productized and ready for prime time, but it’s a great start. And that means that whenever Auterion customers or PX4 users face a new problem, it’s likely that some initial solution is already available. But it’s important to remember that it’s initial work—and that comes to close the loop. Open source is not necessarily a finished polished readily available product (unless you’re consuming it through a vendor). 

Auterion’s Role

Auterion puts all the pieces together for the end users. We see it as a two-way street: Auterion doesn’t simply “take” the work of a global developer community, we’re also its largest contributor. A lot of our work flows back into the open source community and enables those developers and technologists to make the next move: to build a rover, a VTOL or a more interesting drone configuration. 

Naturally, it means that Auterion as a company focuses more on stability and safety and security than on the latest new features but for that, some great innovators are pushing the envelope.

Open Ecosystem

The Open Ecosystem, including the developer community, is a key component for success and agility. We believe open source is the winning approach to building software, including drone software. 

The development in the enterprise space and web technology is all driven by open source today. It creates a movement and an ecosystem that’s a lot bigger than any singular project or any single company like Auterion. In a way, the agreement is to leave a lot of value on the table, to not try to monetize everything and to enable more people with the same technology. 

You can say we’re creating a bigger cake so that everybody can participate. It also means it’s very enabling for smaller businesses, who by themselves aren’t in a position to build a complete software stack for a drone; it’s too much work and they can’t compete. 

How does the future look? There are two options: either small players get priced out of the market and we continue to have a drone industry monopolized by a few companies or we enable a pattern where small and midsize businesses can go to market with a full product because they have that design flexibility and the ability to put building blocks together. 

In the end, an Open Ecosystem makes the end customer win because they can get more specialized solutions for the individual problem rather than if they can only pick from two vendors and for each vendor that particular use case might not have enough volume to really address the core need.

Live Chat

Watch the live chat on the topic between Romeo Durscher and Lorenz Meier.