What is open source and why does it matter?

March 9, 2021

Imagine a world where each appliance you bought had a different outlet connector. It would be exhausting, expensive, and frustrating. That’s why your country, and possibly its neighbors, agreed on standardized power outlets. That’s what open standards are. 

If you don’t have to worry about being able to plug your kettle into the wall, why should you worry about whether or not your drone will connect to apps and hardware?

We believe in open standards designed and shared with everyone. This makes it easy for app creators and hardware providers. They can support a few open standards and do it well (which is great for you), instead of providing minimal support for thousands of proprietary standards.

This brings us to open source. 

What is open source?

Many products like your smartphone, your drone, and your car run on software. The software nestled inside them holds the language and logic necessary to make things happen, like opening an internet browser, snapping an aerial photo, or stopping the car when you slam the breaks. Software is important and it takes a lot of effort to make it excellent. 

Open source is a way to research and develop technologies like software. Some companies choose to do all the work by themselves and have exclusive access to it, but more and more companies, from different countries and industries, collaborate to solve problems in innovative ways and learn from one another through open source.

Is open source new?

Open source has been around for decades, the ‘80s to be more precise. In recent years, the tech giants have all been using and contributing to open source. According to the latest Red Hat Report – The State of Enterprise Open Source, “90% of IT leaders are using enterprise open source.” Even Microsoft, who vehemently opposed open source in the ‘90s, is now one of its biggest contributors.

The top three open-source contributors are currently Google, Microsoft, and Red Hat, followed by IBM, Intel, and Amazon. But don’t take our word for it. Here’s the Open Source Contributor Index that lists hundreds of commercial organizations contributing to open source.

Source: https://resources.whitesourcesoftware.com/blog-whitesource/the-top-10-companies-contributing-to-open-source 

Here are a few more resources if you’d like to learn more about the history of open source, who contributes to it, and who uses it to build their commercial products.

How does open source work? 

Through open source, companies collectively create software commodities that all of them need. For drones, an example of this is the flight controller or a camera driver. The organizations develop software together and publish the code online where anyone can view, access, test, suggest changes, and replicate it. 

This might seem like a foolish thing to do, to publish your work online, but it levels out the playing field for everyone. By doing so, companies can innovate on the top of the basic piece and build their business by offering specialized versions of the software or additional products and services. 

Auterion and other drone companies chose to work together on drone software, hardware, and standards to make something greater than they ever could alone. In the drone space that open-source software project is called PX4, created in 2011 by Auterion co-founder and CEO, Lorenz Meier. PX4 is now the leading flight control software for drones and other unmanned vehicles.

Why is open source the best approach?

The collaborative open-source R&D model has many advantages:

  • Standardization: Open-source is the modern approach to developing standards. It fosters constructive discussions within the drone ecosystem, allowing companies to create and implement standards collaboratively. Once agreed upon and created, these common standards make drone components and products easier to produce and maintain for everyone.
  • Innovation: Rather than reinvent the wheel, the best minds from all over the world are brought together and empowered to collaborate and innovate.
  • Tested: The open-source software is tested on two levels. 
    • The public code that’s available online is adopted, tested, and contributed to by many developers from different parts of the industry. 
    • This open-source code is then used by companies to create vetted, high-quality products that are thoroughly tested before making their way to the end-user.
  • Maintenance: The companies that build the software often use it in their products, so it’s in their interest to make it the best it can be and maintain it to keep it that way.
  • Future-proof: If one company fails or no longer wants to collaborate, the other organizations, as well as new ones, will continue to use, support, and update the software.
  • Security: The problem with private software is that the code is hidden and hackers usually find the security holes before everyone else. With open source, many developers can see the code and how it works. This helps to detect problems early on and to fix them before someone with malicious intent can, overall resulting in a safer product. 

What’s important to remember is open source is not a product, but a process to build software. Even if the software is publicly available and free to download, time and resources have to be invested to implement and test it as part of a product. You can do that yourself or work with enterprise vendors like Auterion that do this for you by productizing open-source technologies.

What does open source mean for me?

Open source benefits you in many ways. You get access to software created by the best minds in the industry that’s both innovative and long-lasting. On top of that, the industry-wide use of open standards creates flexibility and a wide range of drones, hardware, and apps to choose from. It also means you don’t end up with headaches and unforeseen interoperability costs and vendor lock-in; everything simply works together.