Open Standards Unify the Drone Industry

November 29, 2021

open ecosystem

In our previous article, we talked about open source and the impact it has on the drone industry. Now, we’re tackling open standards; they’re closely related, yet very different.

Open standards, like USB, make things simple for everyone from manufacturers to the end user. The drone industry is still catching up but open standards like MAVLink already exist and play a big role in the drone industry and its future.

Open Standards for Drones

One of the first projects our CEO, Lorenz Meier, contributed to the open source & open standard space was the MAVLink protocol; a lightweight messaging protocol for communicating with drones (and between onboard drone components). From day one, the reference implementation for MAVLink has been QGroundControl; a user interface for drones that allows you to plan missions or drive cameras, and other usual things you’d expect from a drone ground station. 

MAVLink is an open standard because the protocol specifies very well how telemetry data from the drone is sent over the wire: in which order, in which format, in which units, etc. 

Open standards are quite interesting for large organizations—like the government—who want things done a certain way, but don’t want to (and in many cases legally can’t) prescribe how to do it. They aren’t able to say: “You have to use this software or this vendor,” but they can choose what communication standard they want to use so that different drones talk to different ground stations. That’s what the US Government did with MAVLink; they adopted it as the default language in which their different drones talk to each other. This includes drones that run open source software, but it also includes drones that have a proprietary flight stack.

The Difference Between Open Source and Open Standards

Open standards and open source are closely related but there’s a simple way to tell them apart. 

Open source software means you work on a specific thing with a developer community. In a way, it is standardization too because everyone contributes to it and uses it, which turns it into the standard. 

An open standard is that rather than prescribing exactly what you’re doing, you’re prescribing how to do it, which is relevant for things like communication protocols. 

Why does that matter? Because there are areas where open source is a very good design pattern and a very good way to collaborate, but you potentially want to interface things to that open source project, as well as enable vendors to participate in that open-source-driven market. This includes vendors that have a proprietary business model because, at the end of the day, open source software can only be successful if it has companies in its ecosystem that can sustain. 

The best example would be an application where you have an open source autopilot—which we have with PX4—and you want to interface an ADS-B transponder or a certain type of user interface component, like a controller. Now, if the vendors selling these hardware units would have to open up every part of their technology, then it’s likely that their designs would get adapted by other companies very quickly. Generally, this is great, but it just means it drives the price of those units to a point where nobody pays for research and development anymore. What you want is to enable those companies to participate in that open-source-driven market in a way that still allows them to run a normal business. And that can be done with open standards. 

Open Standards Benefit Manufacturers and End Users

Naturally, the multiple payload manufacturers want to integrate into various drone models. How do they do that? Traditionally, they had to create an interface for each manufacturer. 

One drone manufacturer might say, “here’s my payload standard,” which means the different payload manufacturers can now work with that one vendor but it also means they can’t work with other vendors because that payload standard most likely contains Intellectual Property (IP) or is patented right away. With an open standard, all of them manufacture and integrate their payload to that one standard instead. This makes it easier for the entire market to come up with solutions and gives the end users more choices and flexibility. 

In early 2021, Auterion created the Pixhawk Payload Bus Standard, which is the first standard in the drone industry that is independent of the particular payload vendor and drone manufacturer. It’s a bit like USB or Bluetooth for other standards like that, where both sides have the freedom to operate but the standard determines how (mechanically, electrically, and on the software level) they should behave to be compatible.  

“We’re doing things properly by creating a standard that is free from any IP or patents from day one and you can trust it.”

The creation of the Pixhawk Payload Bus Standard represents a key moment in the drone industry. In computing, the first standards emerged at the end of the ‘80s or early ‘90s. Before that, there was always one leading player, like IBM, who did things one way and then others adopted it (sometimes even got sued for it.) We’re doing things properly by creating a standard that is free from any IP or patents from day one and you can trust it. 

There’s now a lot of interest in the Pixhawk Payload Bus Standard from payload vendors and drone manufacturers. It essentially eliminates a lot of unnecessary overhead that was present in this industry before, which led to resources being spent on things that didn’t add value for the end user and held us all back from creating more value for the end operator.

Open Standards Make Things Simpler

Let’s take the commercial truck industry as an example. Imagine a truck for powerline inspection and a truck for groceries. They’re both usually built with very similar base vehicles produced by a handful of truck vendors in the US and Europe, whereas there are dozens to hundreds of local specialized companies that build special-purpose refrigeration units or power line inspection units for these trucks.

We need the same to happen for the commercial drone industry. Otherwise, everyone gets pushed towards one camera and one sensor setup. This can work for some use cases, but this consumerization doesn’t allow you to get the most efficiency or the last little bit of accuracy, and that’s what commercial or public safety or government customers care about. For them, the main operating cost isn’t the cost of the equipment—it’s their staff. That’s why professional equipment usually costs more because it’s built for a specific purpose and it makes your staff more efficient, and at the end of the day, it makes your operation cheaper. 

Now, the problem with that is you might not get high volumes for a specialized drone camera or drone sensor. But what we’re doing with the standard for the sensor is we’re allowing smaller players to now address a much larger market and that gives you as the end customer more choice and more purpose-built equipment. 

Live Chat

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