The Story of What Powers Today’s Drone Industry: Pixhawk

Feb 1, 2022
pixhawk

Our two previous articles individually covered how open source and open standards impact the drone industry. This post will bring open source and open standards together with Pixhawk.

Today, Pixhawk is the number one hardware autopilot unit and standard powering the largest part of the drone industry, but it wasn’t the intention at the beginning.

Origin Story

Let’s travel back in time to 2008, when our CEO Lorenz Meier was a student. For his masters, he wanted to create a drone that would avoid obstacles indoors. This was visionary at the time; not even ground robots were at that point yet. 

He quickly realized that this is a hard problem to solve, but didn’t give up on his idea. Instead, he sought out the help of his professor, Marc Pollefeys (a fantastic enabler of the drone industry), and asked if he could organize a student team to work with him on this project.

Lorenz recruited fourteen students to help him and together they built their own hardware and software. After nine months of work, they competed in a drone competition and won! Their drone had onboard computer vision, which hadn’t been done before. This meant the drone was able to recognize certain patterns, like a picture on a wall, as well as recognize which picture was on the wall while flying through its indoor environment. 

Lorenz was encouraged by the results and pursued his endeavour into the following year. At that point, he was looking into the wider industry and felt there wasn’t a lot around that could be used. It occurred to him that some of the things the team created might be useful to others, so he decided to open source software and hardware. The team open sourced the ground station, QGroundControl; the communication protocol, MAVLink; the flight control software, PX4; and the hardware design, Pixhawk

At the beginning of 2013, that open hardware design started getting adopted by more and more companies, notably 3D Robotics. It became a product, people could buy it, and it ran software to make your drone fly autonomously, but that was all based on that initial work of that student team. In total, fifty to sixty students participated in the team’s various iterations. Lorenz is thankful to all of them and, of course, incredibly proud of their efforts.

What is Pixhawk?

Pixhawk is user innovation in hardware bringing the different components needed to run open source software in a drone into a box. You can think of Pixhawk as the Arduino of drones or the Raspberry Pi of drones. 

“Pixhawk is what powers the commercial drone industry today.”

Nearly all of the cargo drones out there run some of the hardware or software created by Lorenz’s team. As a result, it sets the standards on how drones are being put together from a hardware, microcontroller, and interfacing perspective. Even the connectors are being influenced. For example, back then the student team chose to use the JST GH connectors and then the whole industry followed suit. Today, in various drone accessories and hardware units available for purchase, you’ll find the connectors that Pixhawk started to use.

Nowadays, if you see a new cargo drone video or announcement, chances are that there is a Pixhawk in it. And of course, there’s a lot of innovation in all these systems–they’ve adopted Pixhawk and have modified it. But what companies rarely mention is that they’re standing on the shoulders of open source and open hardware and are using it to make the next commercial step. 

Today

Not one person can take credit for Pixhawk or for having started this particular open hardware project; Lorenz was a part of a larger movement of different open source projects. You can argue that the drone industry, in contrast to a lot of other industries, has started as open source first. Yes, there are proprietary solutions, but the innovation and the backbone of it are around open source and open hardware. 

Generally, there are fifty to sixty open source projects in the drone space. Most of them are supporting or using Pixhawk and some of them have even developed their own hardware over the years, particularly in the racing space. Lorenz believes it’s one big family, one big movement, where the developers have collectively (and sometimes competitively) created the foundations of an industry. The result is a healthy ecosystem and every effort brought the drone industry forward.

Live Chat

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

Up Next

We talked about Pixhawk this time around. Learn more by reading the two previous posts about open standards and open source

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