Open Source Development as Public Good

When markets fail, the government needs to come in to create standards and competition.

By Lorenz Meier

Open standards and open source are the foundation of modern software development – including the Internet. However, the Internet did not happen by itself. There were proprietary efforts towards networks in the U.S. and Europe. In particular, early versions of networks came into existence in Europe: Minitel in France and BTX in Germany. Some of them, like Minitel, were commercially successful but in no means as transformative as the Internet – due to the  proprietary and fragmented nature of these services.

What is different about the development of the Internet is that it was essentially a government-funded invention: The ARPA, the Advanced Research Programs Agency of the U.S. Department of Defense, wanted to create a network that was resilient AND based on an open standard – to avoid being dependent on a single vendor. All previous efforts to create a digital network failed as commercial players wanted to establish the network as a proprietary product and monetize the services and content directly.

A ray of light is the wide adoption of Docker and Kubernetes, which greatly simplified moving from one cloud provider to another – although it is still not straightforward. However, this is not a one-way street. There is a growing concern that platforms like Facebook, Amazon, and Google are essentially undoing this – and platforms like Medium create an, also proprietary, counter-balance.

What stayed constant over the years is that a lot of defense spending went into fundamental technology that helped the commercial industry embrace and adopt open standards. While there has been a great level of success of open source and open standards in the drone industry, from a commercial volume perspective, the current market doesn’t offer a lot of diversity.  This is why it makes sense for the newly-founded sister organization of DARPA, DIU, to invest into the open source ecosystem in the drone industry.

Auterion is the largest company in the open source drone space and is a natural choice as DIU’s partner in the endeavor.  Consequently, it makes sense that a fairly large work package worth $2M is now being executed by Auterion over the next 12 months. It is easy to see how this is aligned with a vision of a world driven by open standards when you look at the activities DIU funds:

  • QGroundControl UX improvements
  • MAVLink standardization and testing efforts to improve interoperability
  • PX4 obstacle avoidance computer vision system improvements
  • Simplification of the configuration and the use of communication links between drone and ground station

None of the development is actually defense focused, but we had, of course, an intense discussion in Auterion around it, simply because DIU is part of the U.S. Department of Defense. With the funding, however, we are able to push the industry towards open standards and to do “the right thing.”  Together with DIU, we will lay the architectural foundations that will allow more vendors to collaborate and compete on technical merit (rather than platform access) and will allow small and medium enterprises to participate in an industry that is increasingly consolidating.